My Patagonia

April 30, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

The three minute warning. In the dark days of the early 80’s, it was a key part of every schoolboy’s lexicon. When Mother Russia pressed the button, that was all the time you’d have until the mushroom clouds blossomed above the craters where every English city used to be. What would you do in those three minutes? Where would you go? It was unacceptable not to have a snappy answer. Boil an egg. Jump off the school roof. Punch a teacher. Try to feel up that girl in the next classroom.

We were force-fed “Z for Zachariah” and Greenham Common. In 1985, the BBC finally aired “The War Game”, a film depicting the aftermath of the seemingly inevitable nuclear strike. It had been embargoed for twenty years, judged “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting”. I don’t think I was allowed to watch it at home, but it didn’t matter; our slightly-to-the-left-of-Trotsky English teacher showed it to us in the classroom anyway. We all knew what was going to happen. Morrissey had said as much. The end of the world, and you weren’t sure whether it would be better to survive or be drunk and under the first bomb.

Do you know what you get when you Google “3 minute warning” now?

A professional wrestling tag team. And a Welsh ska band.

The wall came down, Gorbachev and Reagan had their love-in, and then Yeltsin sold off the war machine to his buddies from the bottom of a vodka bottle, just to be sure. All that worrying, it seems so quaint. I wonder what schoolboys worry about these days. If music is a reflection of the times, and The Smiths was our nuclear conflagration, then they don’t appear to have much on their minds, judging by Miley Cyrus and Kayne West. Maybe I’m just getting old. But damn, if our world was going to end in flames, then at least we had a decent soundtrack.

These are the thoughts that wander through my mind as I lie, watching the stars, from the floor of the Todai-gawa valley. The fire is dying, and the two-mouthful hip-flask of Lagavulin sits empty at my side. The mountains brood in the darkness on either side, and even though the night is cloudless, there is the occasional flash of light from the south as some distant electrical storm discharges itself. Yuka paces backwards and forwards. “I’m trying to feel my fear,” she says. I boil some water and pour it into a flask for her hot water bottle, and shortly we lie down to sleep with the sound of the river echoing around.

The morning chill reminds us that it is not yet May, and that the valley, so low against the mountains, is still at over three thousand feet. As Yuka pokes her nose out of the sleeping bag, I dash around picking up sticks for a fire. There’s plenty of wood here, trees and branches scraped from the mountainsides by landslide, lightning and flood. Blanched white by the sun it lies scattered, as if the riverbed were a mess of thighbones and ribs. I light the pyre, and it roars to life fueled by the chill wind which the river carries down from the peaks, and with it the smell of snow. We’d found a small restaurant in Chino the night before where they cure their own bacon, and we bought a slab the size of a forearm; now carved into thick slices and impaled on sticks, it spits and sends puffs of blue smoke into the milky pre-dawn air.

Todai-gawa valley is utterly deserted. Long ago, before they built the Minami-Alps Rindo, this was one of the main entrances to the Southern Alps. The broken down huts which lie along it are testament both to its history, and the fact that few travel this way any more, the Goretex-clad hoards preferring the buses which take you right to Kitazawa-toge and its well appointed lodges. And that’s why I like it here. It’s not a beautiful valley in any classic sense. Chocked with boulders and tree trunks, a pancake flat floor a hundred or so meters across, it winds up from Todai to the bottom of Kitazawa, an unstoppable highway of destruction. Quiet and solitary, there is no path, just a feeling and the occasional faded twist of red cloth tied to a tree or rock by some long-passed traveller. It’s also a deceptive climb; only an odd tightness in the quadriceps the following day betrays the 3000 foot rise in altitude along its course, a fact I don’t mention to Yuka. Still conscious that we smell deliciously of bacon, I double check the bear bell and capsicum spray, and we set out.

The lightshow starts around 6a.m. as the sun pulls level with the far peaks of Kai-koma and Nokko-giri, sending shards of gold through the sky. Within minutes the mountains are a tinged a pale blue, and then the sun peeps over the ridge and light spills into the the western side of the valley. It’s my third time to see this, and it never disappoints. Yuka squeezes my arm and tells me she can understand why I love this nondescript valley so much.

Light snowfall this year has deprived the river of its usual life. Where I’d waded across raging currents last year, today there is dry gravel, and it looks like the hank of rope in my pack will go unused. The intricate web of cris-crossing streams has been replaced by a single, wide thread of water, which crashes through the boulders and through the thick, grey silt. The sides of the valley continue to crumble, and at one point pebbles rain down and hit the water like sniper’s bullets, probably sent upon us by a deer or tanuki raccoon-dog scrambling on the upper slopes. I show Yuka how to pull her pack over her head for protection, and we hurry on.

Mount Kai-koma glistens in the distance as the sun glints off the last of the winter snows. It’s one of the things that draws me here, the long walk in to the foot of the mountain. Six or so miles along the valley floor with the mountain almost continually in sight, beckoning. With the conveniences of road and rail, it’s hard to find that elsewhere in Japan, as if having to walk many hours just to get to the foot of the mountain were something abhorrent. How much better to stand on that peak which has filled your eyes for so many hours, growing larger with each passing step. Today, though, we take our time, investigating the many waterfalls which spill from the mountains on either side, sometimes gazing up at the sheer walls and spying the distant line of the Minami-Alps Rindo which has been carved into the rock high above.

By late morning, we reach our destination, the fork where the Todai-gawa river meets its other major tributary and the path leads off and up Yacho-zaka towards Kitazawa. A large sign, new since I was last here, announces that the Roku-gome course is closed to climbers. It doesn’t suprise me. I tried it last year, and it was pure death. Blocks of snow came crashing down from above, and there was not so much a route as a place where it felt that the human body might squeeze between the boulders, the raging river and the trees felled across the way. But here, at the mountain’s foot, it’s peaceful and we lie in the sun listening to the sound of the water and the call of the deer, before making our way slowly back down again.

For Bruce Chatwin it was Patagonia, that place he felt would be safe in the years after the coming nuclear war. And if the end comes, you’ll find me in the Todai valley, far above the world, watching the stars pass overhead as the fire dies to ash and the river crashes on regardless.


26 Responses to “My Patagonia”

  1. Clint on April 30th, 2009 12:20 pm

    I think you are full of it.. That valley is drop dead amazing! At least judging by your excellent pictures.

    I am trying to find Todai-gawa in google and I am not finding anything other than links to your shots and your blog. Is this a top secret area? Care to divulge any more info on the whereabouts of this valley?

    I have got to see this place before I leave Japan.

  2. I-CJW on April 30th, 2009 12:43 pm

    Clint, I can tell you where it is, but I’d have to shoot you afterwards.. Aah, OK, it’s here:
    Either take the 152 south out of Chino, or the 361 from Inashi, then the first left after you pass the south end of Biwa lake – the turnoff is just before the red iron bridge. Shoot me an email if you ever decide to go, and I’ll give you more details, as the actual entrance is a little hard to find..

  3. George on April 30th, 2009 2:52 pm

    Thanks for another great piece. You’ve prompted me to read “Feeding the Rat”, and now “In Patagonia”.

    This past Tuesday, around 3:30 in the early morning, we hiked along Baba-daira along the route towards Yarigatake. We turned off our headlamps, waited a few minutes for our eyes to adjust to the darkness and continued slowly along the snow-covered valley floor under the stars…

    I’m not sure whether this is “My Patagonia”, but I’m looking forward to Bruce Chatwin’s book and finding out.

  4. I-CJW on May 1st, 2009 12:12 pm

    Heck, George, I just caught up on your latest shots – incredible. To think, we were just a few valleys down from you guys.. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of “In Patagonia” – Chatwin’s sparse style really hits home with me, I’d love to be able to write with that cleanness and precision.

  5. Tom on May 1st, 2009 11:03 pm

    “And if a devil deck of hearts,
    Crashes into Earth,
    To die by your side,
    It’s such a heavenly way to die…”
    Ah, Morrissey.

    Alas, the early 80s are not on my radar, but everyone must have their own Patagonia. You made a nice choice. Wonderful.
    (Love the rays on the first image.)

  6. Mikael on May 2nd, 2009 9:10 am

    Not only do you show excellent taste in choosing your mountains and valleys, you also seem to have an excellent taste in choosing the whisky to accompany you there. Highly respectable!

  7. billywest on May 3rd, 2009 4:18 am

    I group up near a huge battery of missile silos in the 80s. All you heard about on TV from the experts was how a nuclear war before the turn of the century was inevitable. Traumatized a lot of kids. Experts? Fuckers, every one.

    Anyway, “Learn To Swim” by Tool better suits my feelings these days.

    Beautiful pics and hauntingly nostalgic writing. Love it, man!

  8. I-CJW on May 4th, 2009 10:36 am

    Tom – Morrissey sure knew how to pen a tune… Those rays are one of the things that keeps drawing me back to this valley. There’s about 2 minutes, just as the sun pulls level with the ridge, when they shoot across like that. Awesome moment!

    Mikael – nothing like a wee dram or two to beat back the cold night, and I’ve a very soft spot for Lagavulin. If ever a whisky was made to be drunk by the light of a fire beside a roaring river…

    BillyWest – I hear you on all points, dude. Funny you mention Tool – Aenima gets a lot of airplay on the iPod when the going gets tough up there. And one day, when I finally figure out how to shoot video properly, I want to film a winter ascent of Mt Tsurugi with “Parabola” from the Lateralus album as the soundtrack. I think it would be perfect.

  9. holdfast on May 14th, 2009 8:32 am

    Super good photos and commentary (again!) Chris. I guess we all find our own ‘Patagonias’ somewhere in the world. “Wow! If I died right here I would be happy…”

    Good to see you found space amongst the dehydrated meals and energy bars for marshmallows too. I wonder where they sit on the ‘calorific density’ chart…

    I too have been having Tool’s ‘Learn to Swim’ buzzing around my head these past couple of weeks. Caught between a broken modem and god-awful weather I found myself watching bad TV. Maybe it’s just me getting older but WTF is going on in the world!?!

    Keep up the good work.

  10. Our Man in Abiko on May 15th, 2009 4:26 pm

    How funny to think of the Smiths and the 80s as old times, but that they were. It was Threads that gave Our Man the heebie jeebies, but then as a spotty youth he was probably left of your English teacher. Glad most of us are still here though to see the world from another perspective.

  11. RedYeti on May 15th, 2009 11:05 pm

    I can almost smell that bacon. Magic.

    As for experts – I caught a snatch of an expert saying how we were seeing the start of a Pandemic a couple of weeks ago.

    Not that we might be – that we are. FUD – that’s what we like.

  12. I-CJW on May 17th, 2009 12:33 pm

    Holdfast – good to see you back online! Actually, we had something much better than marshmallows – you’re looking at a good hunk of fresh-cured (if that’s not an oxymoron) bacon. No matter what happens in the world, so long as there’s bacon, we will prevail.

    OMIA – Threads, yes! That was the other one I was trying to think of. Didn’t help that we lived a couple of miles from RAF Finningley, the site of the second missile strike in the film. Of course, Finningley base was decommissioned in the 90’s and is now… “Robin Hood International Airport”.

    Hey RedYeti – ridiculous, isn’t it? I wish I could start selling swine ‘flu insurance..

  13. Peter Skov on May 19th, 2009 11:26 am

    I just typed a lengthy comment but it doesn’t seem to have been posted. Oh, well.

    Thanks for sharing this place. I’ve never been and didn’t know about it.

    I wonder where my comment went?

  14. holdfast on May 19th, 2009 8:36 pm


    My eyes need testing…

  15. I-CJW on May 20th, 2009 12:58 pm

    Peter, once again, I feel awful that your comment disappeared.. Gremlins at work somewhere, and I *will* run some tests.

    Holdfast – could have been either way, pink marshmallows toasted on the outside….

  16. Peter Skov on May 21st, 2009 5:40 am

    I suspect it was just poor timing. The computer or Internet was having a quick pee pee break or something. I’ll come back to this post again when I have some time and re-read and re-type. As always, I loved what you wrote and how you wrote it.

  17. I-CJW on May 21st, 2009 6:00 am

    Hi Peter – in fact, there does seem to be some word limit.. I tried pasting in some long text last night, and you’re right; it vanishes. I tooled around with the back-end database, and changed the comments field to accept up to 4 million letter submissions (!!), and while the database is now fine there’s clearly something wrong with the blog software itself. I’ll keep digging…!!

  18. supreme nothing on May 25th, 2009 3:16 pm

    You writing is as compelling as your photographs. I love every single bit of this post.

    Here in the USA, we had a TV special called “The Day After” that was feared might cause a minor panic when it aired. I know more than once as a child I wondered if I’d see a mushroom cloud some day. Hopefully it will never come to pass. But yet I always thought that if the world came apart, at least I’d have a really good excuse to not go to work and simply live in the forest…

    Again, great post with lots to think about. Thanks for sharing!

  19. Peter Skov on May 27th, 2009 9:53 am

    “Here we are in the West
    Our cars are glistenin’
    The bear he roars in the East
    But we ain’t listening”

    Those are the opening lines to a 1980 song by Nazareth about how the Russians are preparing to kill us. The title is “Dressed to Kill”. “He’s gettin’ dressed/ He’s lookin’ for his thrills/ He’s gettin’ dressed to kill.”

    When I was growing up in the 80s there were many songs about nuclear war. I think Pink Floyd’s “Two Suns in the Sunset” was one of the most emotive ones in heard. These days we have climate change and global warming to fear. Is anybody writing songs about that?

    I know what you mean about climbing a mountain that has been in your vision all day. Once down again I look back often and think, “I was up there only a few hours ago.”

    Better stop here and hope my post gets saved this time.

  20. My Favorite Place in Japan - Different Perspectives | Japan | Japan Travel | Nihon Sun on June 25th, 2009 4:01 am

    [...] presents My Patagonia posted at i, cjw ~.::.~ hiking and climbing in [...]

  21. Morrissey Fan on July 16th, 2009 8:26 pm

    I “stumbled upon” your website and the photos and location certainly are beautiful, but my comment is to Tom. Tom, your lyrics are all wrong my friend. As a longtime Smiths and Morrissey fan, I simply could not allow this blasphemous post (mostly kidding) to stand. Here are the correct lyrics:

    And if a double-decker bus
    Crashes into us
    To die by your side
    Is such a heavenly way to die
    And if a ten-ton truck
    Kills the both of us
    To die by your side
    Well, the pleasure – the privilege is mine

  22. CJW on July 26th, 2009 4:10 am

    Supreme Nothing – glad you enjoyed the post!

    Peter – I know exactly what you mean. At the start of a climb, I’m always amazed to think that by the end of the day I’ll be all the way up there. And at the end of a climb, I look down at where I was, and still can’t figure out how I made it.. (P.S. upgraded my Wordpress installation, so hopefully those comment saving issues will go away!!)

    Morrissey Fan – funny you should mention mishead lyrics, I was actually going to write about that in this post. At school, when I was about 5 years old, we had to sing a song that went “Who built the ark? Noah! Noah!”. In my young brain, I heard and sang it as “Who built the arch? No-one! No-one!”. How confusing for a small boy! My first, and unintentional, taste of Zen, perhaps…

  23. Japanese words on August 2nd, 2009 1:45 am

    Absolutely beautiful. I have been to a few rivers in Japan, but it looks like you found a real jewel.

  24. CJW on August 2nd, 2009 1:48 pm

    It certainly is, Japanese Words. One of my favorites.

  25. Jenee Fiedtkou on July 19th, 2011 12:32 am

    found ur site on digg today and really liked it.. i ve bookmarked it and will be back to check it out some more later

  26. Muzyka on January 6th, 2012 11:54 pm

    how i can play

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