Comfortably stuck

“You OK?”. My voice echoes off the steep cliffs of Mt Myogi’s peak. The fixed chain leading down has stopped its clanging; there’s an ominous silence.

“Yes. I’m….”. The chain moves a little. “I’m… comfortably stuck.”

She appears over the lip of the wall, and inches slowly down. A warm spring breeze blows lazily up from the valley below. The only sounds are the calls of deer and the quiet snick-snick of karabiner gates as Yuka carefully clips down the chain. Myogi is the crumbling remains of a volcanic caldera, sheer drops and impossible towers, an aerie ruin of black, broken teeth punched through an ancient seabed. It pays to be careful up here.

Still ten feet off the deck, Yuka loses her footing on the sheer wall and drops, but the sling brings her up short. She eyes it nervously, then looks down at me and grins.

“Once I started to fall, it wasn’t so bad any more..”

I close my eyes, and when I wake up I’m in another city. More meetings, more people. London. I close my eyes again. Asia. Singapore, maybe? I’m so tired, I can’t remember what month it is. More hands are shook. Everyone’s excited. Everyone’s scared. Everyone’s stuck. I close my eyes again, and I’m home. I need to climb a mountain.

We find our muscles as we set out from the shrine at Myogi’s base, where the cherry blossom explodes against a liquid blue sky. Ten thousand cherry trees dot the landscape around the mountain, so the taxi driver tells us. Just a month ago there was still ice on the trail, and I’d waded through snow to the base of a roaring waterfall to fill my bottle. Now we kick up clouds of dust as we walk over the dry soil; the waterfall is barely a trickle down the rock face.

The tourist trail weaves around the edge of the mountain, but we are quick to branch off and make for the walls above. We climb up, and before long we have them to ourselves. Sandstone gives way to granite. The walls hang closer now, at once oppressive and protective. We race the morning sun as it climbs into the sky, up and up to the knife-edge ridges that run between Myogi’s crumbling towers, ridges no more than a few inches wide in parts. The valley opens out below us, and to the north Mt Asama sends up plumes of smoke, a constant reminder of the primeval forces that still conspire to shape these fragile islands.

Most Japanese mountains have a section marked “dangerous”, a tiny red kanji in a small circle, with maybe an admonition for the inexperienced to steer clear. On Myogi, the entire map is a mess of red. It’s this that has bought the yamabushi, those followers of ascetic Buddhism, to these crags for centuries. Pitting body and soul against granite and gravity, they cut away at the meaningless excesses of existence until they become the very stuff of the mountain itself. It’s not hard to imagine them striding through these peaks, fleeting shadows seen from the corner of an eye, set against a charcoal watercolour landscape.

Only 1100 meters at its highest point, Myogi has neither the physical stature of its Alpine cousins to the west and north, nor does it boast grand temple complexes like Kumano or Togakushi. Yet something in the way it juts defiantly straight out from the plane below, its fingers renting the sky apart, gives it a formidable majesty that the easy, grass-covered slopes of its peers lack. Even the Joetsu Highway dares not lay a tunnel beneath Myogi, settling to curl languidly around it instead, the better for travellers to gaze up at those spires and wonder what secrets they hold.

Like shipwrecked mariners we flop onto the top of the Higashi-dake tower, hot and grimy under the midday sun. The deer are still calling out their warnings from somewhere in the forest below.

I close my eyes.

I’m in another city, sitting on the ledge of a tall building. I look around.

Everyone’s scared. Everyone’s excited.

I’m…. comfortably stuck.

And then I’m falling, slipping through space, watching the rope snake out above me. It’s going to be OK.

Once I started to fall, it wasn’t so bad any more..

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