Golden is the week

May 6, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized | 24 Comments 

I pulled the rope from the pack, and with it flooded the aroma of sunlight and the memories of the previous day’s climb on Mt Myogi. This morning, though, long unused belay muscles twinge, while somewhere under the mess of slings and karabiners in the corner sleep my boots, still dusty with the trail. On the way back from Myogi, the Other Englishman had phoned.
“I’m back in Japan. Fancy a walk tomorrow?”

Tanzawa is the easiest of the hyakumeizan, the hundred famous mountains, to reach from Tokyo. Easy to get to, easy to climb, I’d held it in reserve for just such an occasion. With the weather closing in, it looked like we’d have a perfect 36 hours to slot it in. Back from Myogi, I grab a few hours sleep, before again tipping out the pack and ransacking the cupboards for food. There’s no instant coffee to be found. Just half a dozen oddly shaped chinese herbal teabags that smell like feet. I throw them in the bag anyway and run for the station. The early train brims with the party people, wending their way home after a night in Roppongi, red-eyed and thick with the smell of cigarettes and alcohol and busted dreams of naughtiness. The Other Englishman gets on, and as the train moves from the tunnels and into the overground system, we note with approval the gathering sunlight that bodes a fine day.

Lao Tsu said that the five colours will blind the eye, and excessive company dulls the spirit. But it cuts both ways. Recent climbs have been splendid monochromes, white snow on cobalt skies, deserted, solitary, just a headful of thoughts and my own voice for companionship.  The steady stream of Golden Week climbers, making their way towards Tanzawa through the farms and fields at Okura, though, is a pleasant contrast. If the roots of Japanese mountaineering lie in the ancient pilgrimages, then this is the modern incarnation. Children and day-trippers in jeans and t-shirts vie with the hardcore, who lumber under their packs in expensive technical leggings and tough boots, but all are headed to the peaks to offer thanks to the twins gods of leisure goods and national holidays.

Our goal today is the peak of Hiru-ga-take, a short five or so hours from the foot of the mountain. The slope is steep, and I have slight pangs of envy as the OE recounts the story of his climb in February this year, when the snow lay thick on the ground. The wooden walkways and steps which protect the mountain from erosion, the inevitable penalty for the crime of existing so close to the world’s densest metropolis, are pitted and chipped by the crampons of those who climb during the colder seasons. Half the trail is sadly clad in these erosion protection devices, and each seems designed by a committee of sadists, who have carefully measured the gait and length of the human stride and then made steps that exactly don’t match it. We climb on, effortlessly switching the lead as one or other tires of seeking a line through the debris, until we sight the hut at the summit of Tou-no-take.

The Tanzawa range is less famous for what it is, and more for what you can see from it. Fuji rises out of the plain, unobstructed, to the west, while the Pacific glistens between the arms of the Ise and Chiba peninsulas. In autumn, the maples set its slopes on fire, and in a few weeks the white mizubasho will flower and draw the crowds. Tou-no-take is as far as many are content to come, but the cold wind suggests to us that it is time to move on and along the ridge to Tanzawa-san and beyond.

The ridge linking Tou to Tanzawa is crumbling and returning its material to the sea. Bridges and ropes, so bright that they can be scarcely more than a winter or two old, lie collapsed and fallen into the ravine. The crowds don’t follow, and we have the back of the mountain to ourselves. The managed forests of conifers give way to sparse deciduous woods, linked by pastures of wiry yellow grass; were it not for Fuji’s iconic frame floating on the near horizon, we could have been walking any of the moors or hilltops of home.

The summit of Tanzawa-san itself is nondescript, lower than both its neighbors, and we pass quickly over it. The landscape grows wilder, gashed only by the single track that makes its way along the ridge. Fuji hides. Like zen and ikebana, it knows that the most powerful transformations come when the unseen becomes the seen, and so it waits, hidden by the ridge before bursting from the sudden plain as we come over the crest. A boiling skirt of clouds spreads from its flanks, tumbling and seething, spilling over the Hinokibora ridge like milk. Our breath is momentarily taken from us, but with renewed energy in our souls we make for Hiru-ga-take, where the hut sits on the peak, heavy with the promise of views of Fuji unobstructed.

Yari-ga-take is named for its spear-like prominence, Shirouma for the outline of a horse which is said to appear as the snow melts from its flanks. Many Japanese mountains are named for their resemblance to some other thing. Hiru-ga-take, however, is named for its most famous fauna: the leech. Said to be so numerous in the warmer months that they drop from the trees onto unsuspecting climbers, they add an unexpected challenge to this otherwise straightforward mountain. Fortunately, spring has not yet reached the upper slopes of Hiru, and so we make the hut with our full compliment of corpuscles, and sit in the early evening light with a beer, each other, and Fuji for company.

We wake to a Scottish dawn of fog and chill; as expected the weather window is closing, and by 5 a.m. we’re sprinting towards Hinokibora-yama, the last climb of the trip. We can already taste the beer and feel the warm waters of the hot spring that wait for us down below, and pummel the course time to get us there all the faster. Up and over, and soon racing down the final ridge, we rejoin the world at the crowded campsite in the valley, where an army of giant Coleman tents have invaded and now cover every square inch. Our bodies quickly blend into the crowds, but our souls remain high.