The gift that keeps on giving

With hands buried deep in our pockets, we hurry off the deserted platform at Mitsutoge station and into the grey morning. Mt Fuji funnels a cold wind down onto the plain, icing the lakes at its foot. The station master scurried back into the warmth of his office as soon as he has taken our tickets. We try to ignore the clouds which cruise the peaks above us and make our way through the frozen fields to the base of the mountain. Yuka groans. Apparently the mountain looks a little higher than I might have lead her to expect.

Mitsutoge is a mountain, or rather three mountains, with a history. It’s considered to be a holy peak, second only to Fuji, which is buried in cloud to the south this cold morning. It’s been a site for pilgrimages for a millennium or more. Yuka and T-chan babble with excitement; the mountain has transformed itself from an icy pile of rock and into a spiritual journey in the footsteps of none other than En-no-gyoja, 7th century ascetic. There’s a noticeable spring in their step, and not a word of complaint.

The trail winds up the mountain and through the light snow, a fast climb up the 3000 feet to the towering cliffs that stand below the peak. The streams which pour from the summit are frozen solid, waterfalls turned to solid columns. I pull the ironmongery from my pack, three pairs of crampons, and we kick our way up the ice. Snow starts to fall, and in the silence we drink in the scene until it becomes too cold to stand still much longer. We can’t imagine anything more beautiful.

The cliffs, which in summer are bedecked with rock-climbers and multi-coloured ropes, are quiet. Our footsteps echo against them, the crunch of the ice and occasional squawk as a crampon point scrapes across a snow-hidden rock. And then it appears, at first the merest hint, just a faint outline of the western flank. With each passing second the clouds tear away, and Fuji roars up above the plain below. We race to Mitsutoge’s peak, casting nervous glances over our shoulder all the way, fearful that the clouds will retake their prisoner. They don’t. We boil hot chocolate, sink our teeth into cold rice balls, and few words are exchanged, so entranced are we by the majestic slopes of that iconic mountain. The Minami Alps and Okutama ranges poke their pale heads through the clouds to the north too, a view as beautiful as it is unexpected.

Fuji hovers between the trees as we make our way over the back of Mitsutoge and down towards Lake Kawaguchi. A battered sign points to the Haha-no-Shira falls, and somewhere in the valley below we can hear the crash of water against rock. We drop further, hop off the trail and slide down a snowbank to a frozen ten foot waterfall, great columns of ice the color of quail eggs, some as thick as a man and others as thin and delicate as swords. It’s impressive, but further down we can hear a greater rush of water, and we race towards it. A staircase of rock, so finely chiseled it looks almost man-made, funnels the river and ice drips like a chandelier on each side. A small shinto shrine and a tall lacquered tori stand beside it; is this the illusive Haha-no-Shira falls? Stepping back to take in the scene, I realise that this waterfall is merely the prelude; a short climb further down the river, and we are standing below a fifty foot wall of ice and cascading water.

Mitsutoge left us in no doubt; each gift better than the last, this holy mountain may stand in Fuji’s physical shadow but spiritually it towers as high as any in the land.


Yuka’s retreats have acquired a certain notoriety. Native American medicine men, Hawaiian Kahuna, Japanese witches, at some point all and more have been called upon and woven into the rich experience she runs. A counterweight to Japan’s mechanistic materialism, few are the participants who return home without a renewed sense of where they belong in the world. Or so I am told.

Her first retreat of the new year was going to be different. A connection to nature, and the wilder places of Japan. And so it is that I found myself guiding five snowshoe neophytes through the snow filled forests of Togakushi, Nagano.

Togakushi is the land of the yamabushi, the mountain monks, and long rumored to be the training ground of medieval ninja warriors. Shrines and temples dot the landscape, and the terrain lends itself to the impossibly steep stone stairs at the entrance to each one. Not for Togakushi the easy, paved entrances of the city shrines; those who would seek the patronage of the gods here must first  prove themselves.

Nowhere is this more so than the long trail to the Oku-sha, the shrine which huddles below the crags of Mt Happonirami. At the entrance to the trail the group grapple with their snowshoes for the first time, newborn foals with ungainly feet. Their laughter peals out into the forest and along the towering cedars which line the route through the fresh snow. Then, each wrapped in their own thoughts, I carve a trail and they follow. The weather closes in as we approach the Oku-sha, half-buried as it is in deep snowdrifts. The villagers will work hard through the winter to keep its roofs clear, but it is a herculean task and Happonirami continually threatens to avalanche the shrine from above.

The Jetboil works hard, hissily melting snow and boiling up a couple of litres of hot chocolate. It’s enough to get them back to the road, and from there we seek out Shinshu’s finest buckwheat soba noodles. It’s warm, and the girls have filled their exercise quota for the day, and are opting for the hot springs over another trek into the backcountry. All except T, who is adamant that she wants to get back out. As the snow lightly falls, we strap into the snowshoes and head out over the hills to Kagami-Ike, frozen now, but which in summer would reflect the Togakushi mountains in its limpid depths.

There’s not a sound as we travel through the deep powder. The landscape is a charcoal painting, no sound but the quiet sluff of the snowshoes. “This is better than any meditation”, T confides. At the lake, the only tracks in the snow belong to the rabbits; we’re the first ones to see it this winter. I step out a little way from the shore and tentatively dig down, only to hit slushy snow rather than solid ice. It’s still too early in the season to walk all the way to the middle, to the lone tree trunk that juts defiantly from its center.

Our lodging is one of the temples that sits further down the mountain on the old pilgrims’ trail, a family-run shukubo. You find them wherever you find the yamabushi monks. Part esoteric Buddhist, part animistic Taoist, and something else that I can never quite figure out. Mountain climbing, perhaps. I sit in the entrance way, cleaning and mending the groups’ snowshoes. The head priest comes out for a cigarette, and we talk about Togakushi until he invites me to come and see the hidden treasures of the temple. A dozen scrolls hang in a small room, 14th century representations of the Togakushi mandala and the local saints.

After dinner, the group goes off to meditate. The priest comes to find me again, and from the garden we watch the clouds race across the full moon that lights the snow-covered mountains, fortifying ourselves against the cold night with warm cups of Tateyama sake.

The following days dawns to a slate coloured sky, a promise of good powdery snow to come. Togakushi has captured each member of the group in a different way, and they’ll spend the day exploring what interest them. One goes to play her flute at each of the five main shrines, another to watch the snow fall from the comfort of the hot spring, another wants to walk from the shukubo to the main temple.

Yuka and T want to snowshoe in the backcountry again. I take them through the forest at the foot of Mt Togakushi for a few hours to the banks of a river, where the rocks that rise from its bed are covered in pillows of snow. The wind picks up as we start back and shortly we are in a blizzard, three quiet figures making our soft way across the icy landscape with heads bowed. Togakushi forces such reverence.

The long dream

Am I dead? Did I die in the night? Somewhere in the storm did the wind rip my little tent from its moorings, casting us down into the icy maw of the mountain? Everything is white. The blizzard shines in the pre-dawn light and the flickering beam of the headlamp. I can’t remember why I’m here any more. How long have I been climbing? A minute? A week? A hundred years? There doesn’t seem a time when I was not on this mountain. Right foot, left foot, kick, axe, rock, ice.

The day before, I’d pitched the tent in perfect weather at just under 9000 feet and watched the sun set fire to the snow covered mountains. The storm hit at midnight, unforecast. Is it local, one of the short-lived brutes that cruise the Chuo-Alps looking for climbers to beat up, or has the low pressure front rushed in from the mainland two days ahead of schedule? I leave the tent and make a run for the peak.

How long will it last? The snow is heavier now. Several centimeters an hour.

This is stupid.

I should go down.

But Mt Kisokoma’s summit is only 1000 feet higher, an hour if I really push hard. Left foot, right foot..

I traverse below the peak of Mt Kisokoma-Mae, across the gullies which streak its face. The snowpack settles with a “whump” and a refridgerator sized block cracks neatly off below my snowshow and casually disappears down the mountain.

Screw the summit.

The village of Agematsu huddles in the valley at Mt Kisokoma’s foot, and at the ryokan inn a small girl with pigtails answers the door. Keiko is four years old, hates eggplant and mushrooms, and thinks I look like Brad Pitt. She tells me all this in one breathless stream of consciousness. I think we’re going to get on well. I’ve decided to cool my heels in the village and curse the blue sky that the storm surrendered so easily to. Her mother let’s me in, and as I untie my boots I ask Keiko what she wants to be when she grows up.

“A fish!”

In the room I lie down on the warm futon and run my fingers over the aging tatami. I’d gone from Agematsu station at 1900 feet on Friday night to the 9th stage of the A-route on Mt Kisokoma at 9400 feet, and back, breaking trail through fresh snow all the way. I start to hallucinate: I’m back in the storm, then suddenly I’m on my sofa at home, and then I’m tumbling down a snow-covered mountain, and then…

“Brad Pitt, can you play Othello?”, the thin sliding doors of the room shake as a tiny fist pounds on them.

Keiko sets the board down on the low, heavy table and kneels neatly on the other side. “I’ve lost some of the pieces, we might not have enough”. It doesn’t matter; she beats me five games to nil, long before the pieces run out. I thought you said you weren’t very good at Othello, I say.

“I was lying” she replies.

Beaten by a mountain, now beaten by a little girl.

You can’t cheat the gods by sneaking up the tourist route.

Yuka waits on the platform at Okaya station, hiking boots and rucksack, in a camo-patterned hippie skirt which swishes down to her ankles. She wanted something large scale at the year-end, raw high mountains, so I book a room at the Senjojiki Hotel which sits in the cirque below Mt Kisokoma on the opposite side to Agematsu at 8570 feet. Under liquid azure skies we soar up in the gondola.

At the top, I look at her and don’t need to say a word. “Yes, off you go. I’ll wait”, she says.

But they’d heard me coming, the gods of this mountain. Maybe the click as I stepped into the crampons or the staccato crash of the camera shutter. Within minutes the sky darkens and the wind roars, and I find myself setting out into a familiar white dream. This is the price you pay for trying the easy approach.

A wide ribbon of ice weaves gracefully up the walls of the cirque to the coll between Mt Hogen and Mt Naka, a 45 degree highway into the storm. I bash up it to the wasteland above at 9500 feet, pressing on until visibility drops so far that I am no longer confident I can return safely. Again, a few hundred yards from Mt Kisokoma’s summit, I turn my back on her and start to climb down and away. I think the mercury shows minus twenty centigrade. It’s hard to be sure. My eyelashes have frozen together behind my goggles.

It’s not often you get a grandstand seat at a suicide attempt, albeit an unwitting one. Yuka saw him first, the next morning. I was joining the snowpack stability testing with the brave men of the Nagano Police Mountain Rescue Team; thirty five centimeters of fresh on an icy base, perfect avalanche conditions in the cirque. And so the gods taunt once more. An icy clear blue sky for the last summit attempt of 2008, but with a spring loaded death-trap if I so much as try. And now a lone climber was dropping, oblivious, into the the top of the bowl. The police scramble for beacons and sondes, and we all wait powerless as the figure slowly wades into the loaded slope. “What can we do?” Yuka pleads, but there’s nothing to be done. He’s spun the chamber and clocked the hammer, and with the gun to his head he squeezes the trigger. Click. He gets lucky this time. The police race to meet him with a can of hot tea and a cold warning. “I wish we could arrest people who pull stunts like this”, one of them told me.

At the southern end of Agematsu village lies an area know as Nezame, the “Waking-Up”. Old wooden farmhouses crowd around a small canyon whose walls have been smoothed and carved by the waters of the millennia. It is the setting for the pivotal moment in one of Japan’s oldest tales.

In the legend of Urashima Taro, a fisherman travels (or dreams he travels) to a warm kingdom below the sea. He loses track of time, but shortly returns to his village only to find that a hundred years have passed while he was away. Going against the warning of the princess of the underwater kingdom, he opens the box that she gave him upon his departure. He wakes, at Nezame, only to find that he too has suddenly aged a hundred years.

As I climbed through the storms of that icy mountain kingdom I too lost track of time. Was the world below aging at a great pace? Or did it stay unchanged while I grew younger with every foot I climbed?

All I knew was that I was never going to open that box.