Comfortably stuck

April 13, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

“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..


30 Responses to “Comfortably stuck”

  1. Our Man in Abiko on April 13th, 2009 3:34 pm

    Beautiful. And the pics are good too. Man, I gotta get out more often.

  2. Armchairasia on April 13th, 2009 8:06 pm

    This is all very nice.
    You get a lot out of all this. You have so much.
    But what do you give back?
    Do you help those less fortunate than you, do you support a cause, do you raise children?

  3. Tom on April 13th, 2009 9:43 pm

    Not quite sure what the above post is about, but it’s good to see you’re back! I know I get a lot out of this so thanks. You should head to the mountains, forget the banks! Interesting to see a fair bit of gas coming out of Asama as well.

  4. Tom on April 13th, 2009 10:16 pm

    Ps. I meant “the above comment”, sorry. I understood the post. Well, maybe not the end! Still excellent either way!

  5. Jason on April 14th, 2009 6:11 am

    Love the lead photo and the closeup of Yuka with nice DoF.

    Maybe the fear of falling is far greater than the fear one feels while falling?

  6. Jason on April 14th, 2009 6:13 am


    What he gives back are these blog posts that inspire people.

    I would most definitely not put raising children in the same category as helping the less fortunate or supporting a cause.

  7. Peter Skov on April 14th, 2009 7:07 am

    You make it sound more romantic and modern at the same time. London? Meetings? Myogi? I never thought to put them all in the same train of thought. An enjoyable read for sure as usual. I have always liked Myogi because before I took to the mountains I took to unusual rock formations, and Myogi is certainly a capital spot for those.
    I read once about the geologic history of Myogi, though I think I have forgotten most of it. The rocks are largely igneous breccias, attesting to the fact that Myogi is not only an old volcano but one that has been beaten and battered by the forces of erosion and tectonic uplift.
    You now have me thinking to pay Myogi a visit soon. I think I’ll miss the cherry blossoms though. I might just get there in time for the misty, hazy spring weather.

    Thanks for the wonderful post.

  8. Peter Skov on April 14th, 2009 7:09 am

    Oh, by the way, have you seen the mushroom rock? It’s visible from many points along the highway and sits atop a spire somewhere in the Ura Myogi area. I once saw a photo from close up that someone who climbed up to it had taken.

  9. julian on April 14th, 2009 12:51 pm

    A wonderful mix of softer colours on this set of photos, making quite a contrast with those of your brutal winter trips.

    I second Jason’s view. It was your blog that inspired me to start writing my own and then to buy a DSLR (even though I still struggle to cope with both). Thanks.

  10. Mikael on April 15th, 2009 4:51 am

    Especially that first picture is a winner. Do I remember correctly from some earlier post you use a Nikon D80? What lenses do you usually carry?

    And better to be comfortably stuck for a while compared to being forever stuck in your comfort zone.

  11. I-CJW on April 15th, 2009 8:41 am

    Our Man – there’s a decent forecast this weekend, no excuse for staying home! :-)

    Armchairasia – I try to give back some beauty and inspiration.

    Tom – I thought you’d like the shot of Asama! It was quite a bit more active than it was a couple of weekends ago. Guess that’s one of the Hyakumeizan that’s going to remain on the pending list for some time to come…

    Jason – good to hear from you! You’re right – falling (whether it’s off a mountain, or more metaphorically) is a far more dispassionate experience than the fear which precedes it. It can even be quite a relief (until you hit the deck, that is!)

    Peter – apparently the full bloom for the blossom is this coming weekend, so you still have some time. But misty conditions would be great up there, quite stunning I imagine. I made it to the mushroom rock last time I went up in mid March, but didn’t climb it. There’s a fixed chain up one side, but I couldn’t see the anchor and didn’t have any other protection with me. Maybe next time.

    Julian – conditions were fantastic, almost too warm! But I feel another brutal winter trip coming on, maybe Goryu this weekend… Hope the leg is recovering!

    Mikael – glad you like it -the first shot is an HDR, taken right at the end of the day, en route to the hot spring. I use a D80 with a Nikkor 18-200 VR lens (and a polarising filter), both much battered and much loved, and constantly reminding me that a few nicks and bashes are a small price to pay for a life well lived.

  12. Peter Skov on April 15th, 2009 11:17 am

    I’d love to see some photos of that rock. I am glad to know it’s accessable.

    Well, a friend has proposed another outing for this weekend so if the wife doesn’t mind I might just tag along with him. Maybe next year for the cherry blossoms but definitely this year for a hike and a climb.

  13. I-CJW on April 15th, 2009 1:01 pm

    It’s accessible!

    Easy climb from Yokogawa station, about 3 hours to that point. Then down the other side, camp somewhere in the valley above the reservoir, and up Omote Myogi the next day to finish at the Fureai Plaza Onsen – then taxi or walk down to Matsuida station.

    A couple of karabiners & slings are not a bad idea to have with you, just in case..

  14. Peter Skov on April 16th, 2009 4:13 am

    I saw the photo. It looks more like a hammer than a mushroom. I’ll look into the route you recommended. I don’t have any climbing gear though. If I can’t get up (and back down!) using only my hands and feet then I probably won’t try it. But I will go and check it out. Thanks!

  15. billywest on April 16th, 2009 2:53 pm

    Good to see you back in action, both with the climbing and the blog. As always, amazing photos, brotha!

  16. vegetablej on April 16th, 2009 2:59 pm

    This is truly inspirational, and reflective, writing but what I’m struck with most is the photograph in black and grey of mountains that looks as is it could be a Japanese ink painting. Bravo for one of the most beautiful and arresting photos I’ve ever seen. Hope it is also on your wall, framed.


  17. Mike on April 16th, 2009 3:00 pm

    Great post as usual! Love the combination of photography with poetic musings ^^. We might like to feature this podcast in our upcoming podcast, if you’re okay with it!

  18. RedYeti on April 16th, 2009 10:41 pm

    You certainly give back beauty. And inspiration.

    (What a bizarre comment…)

    And once again you open with a simply stunning image. Gorgeous. Thanks Chris :)

  19. Honor on April 17th, 2009 4:10 am

    I’m glad to see you back too! Your pictures and writing always keep me hooked to the page and imaging I’m breathing that clear fresh air even when I’m stuck in the office. Thanks and keep it coming :)

  20. Matt on April 17th, 2009 4:23 am

    Hi Chris,
    Great writing and fantastic pictures as usual.
    Thank you for your giving ;-)
    Hope you can make it down to Shikoku some day.
    Keep up the good work mate!

  21. Clint on April 17th, 2009 9:38 am


    As always, your pictures and story make your blog an amazing visit. We had driven past this mountain a few times on the way to the Nagano area in the past year and that mountain really drew me in, reminds me of mini Tetons, so it was cool to see 2 postings about the area.

    I am curious about camping in this area. Are you required to get a permit to camp in wilderness area of Japan like this or can you just pitch a tent with only consideration being towards nature?

    I also hope you would at least consider giving back by raising at least 5 children before you enter your geriatric years. I think that would be a fair trade for the joy that you wrestle from the grip of Japan.

  22. I-CJW on April 20th, 2009 7:17 am

    Billywest – it’s great to be back! Thanks dude.

    Vegetablej – I know what you mean. So often we think of Japanese art as being stylised representations of reality, but that’s frequently not the case. I remember being in the hot spring on the beach in Yakushima a number of years ago, watching the spray hit the rocks at sunset – exactly like a Hokusai print.

    Mike – certainly, would be a pleasure to feature in your podcast!

    RedYeti – thank you, as always. I’m still musing on that comment too. I just can’t shake the feeling that it might have been spam, or some clever social experiment….

    Honor – plenty more to come, I assure you – thanks for reading!

    Matt – ah, Shikoku is definitely on our list for this year. I’ve never been, so we’re really looking forward to it. No itinery, we’ll just hire a car and go slow like we did in Tottori last year, tick off a couple of peaks..

    Clint – Myogi is pretty impressive from the highway, I’m not surprised it caught your eye. I think you’d enjoy it. Camping in Japan is a grey-area & it’s difficult to give hard advice without someone jumping in with an alternative view. For what it’s worth, my ethos is that you camp in designated areas where you can, and if you camp outside of those areas then you must a) set up camp no earlier than dusk and be gone by daybreak, and b) leave the scene immaculate. For bonus points, take a trash-bag with you and pick up the litter other people have left. With my five children in tow, there won’t be a scrap of litter left anywhere…

  23. George on April 20th, 2009 10:54 am

    Thanks for another great article and set of photos. Mt.Myogi sounds like a fun peak for some scrambling – it certainly looks steep!

    It looks like our snow-season is winding down to an end. I figure we have another few weeks before most of the do-able lines in Yuzawa and Tanigawa-dake area melt away. So, we have been going further out lately. We did a great 1-day trip to Yarigatake via Hidasawa from Shin-Hodaka Onsen – tremendous views but a very long day. If the weather is ok, we’ll also be back during GW, to bag more lines in the Yarigatake and Hotaka region.

  24. I-CJW on April 20th, 2009 12:36 pm

    Hey George – my wife & I just caught up on your latest photos, too – for half an hour nothing but “wow!” and “aaah!”. Absolutely fantastic. I was thinking about the Hotaka region for GW myself, might see you up there…!

  25. David H. on April 23rd, 2009 5:52 am

    Welcome back.

    I guess Yuka’s attitude is the one to have if you’re gonna fall.

    A year ago or so, I recall that you mentioned that one could buy proper maps (not the 1:50,000 scale things) in Tokyo. I cannot find that post now. I believe you said that they are available in Kinokuniya in Shinjuku, is that correct? If I remember, they are not corrected for magnetic declination.

  26. I-CJW on April 23rd, 2009 7:42 am

    Hi David – I think the post you refer to was this one:

    Kevin’s comment mentions the 1:25000 scale maps, as well as a link to the free online versions. There’s another similar service in my links below (Electronic Maps of Japan!), and also a rather useful declination site (Magnetic Declination).

    Hope that helps!

  27. David H. on May 6th, 2009 11:48 am

    Thanks for the link and info.

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