In the Hall of the Spider King

The Philippine tectonic plate crashes into Japan like a beaching battleship, it’s prow rising from the surf; this is the Izu Penninsula. Still it judders from time to time, showering earthquakes up and across the Kanto plain, while its many hot springs are a reminder that Vulcan’s forges hammer away not far from the surface. Yet the folds of its hills and valleys lie within an hour of Tokyo, and so it is that we dash headlong to it at the first sign of a break in the monsoon rains.

We camp not far from the base of Mt Amagi, the jagged half-moon remnants of a long dead volcano, and our goal for the next day. In a quiet valley by a river choked with boulders we pitch the tent, before making our way to the local hot spring where we poach ourselves lightly in the gathering dusk. Small wisps of high cloud move fast across the moonless sky with the westerly breeze, a suggestion that the fine weather will be short-lived; our little window grows smaller, and we resolve to get up at first light to beat the rain. It’s dark by the time we reach the tent, but the air is filled with the chorus of frogs in the rice fields and the glow of fireflies, who dart in and out of the wasabi leaves which line the banks of the river.

The next day breaks with grey clouds cruising the peaks, heavy with the threat of rain. Even in our haste, though, we cannot resist stopping the car at the Joren waterfall on the way; 5a.m. on a Sunday is probably the only time you’ll ever see it devoid of its usual coach parties and tourists. We make our way down along the path towards the roaring waters below, where we startle a white crane which has been drinking in the pools. It takes elegantly to the skies, crossing in front of the waterfall once, then again, then off into the early morning sky.

At the old Amagi tunnel we start out along a deserted road which winds slowly up next to a gushing river. Spider webs lie thick across the path, heavy with dew, and we duck below them or with silent apology cut through them with a stick. Two deer, drinking from the river below, run crashing up the opposite slope as we approach, pausing on the opposite bank to watch us pass with doleful black eyes. A baby mamushi, one of the few mildly poisonous snakes in Japan, slithers across a nearby rock. It’s hard to imagine you are only 100km from the heart of Tokyo.

As we climb, the forest changes from farmed cedars to primeval buna beech woods. These islands were once covered with these beautiful trees, but now they are so rare that the maps actually make a special note of areas where the buna still grow.  Where the ground below the cedars is a dead carpet of fallen brown needles, the buna forests are filled with grasses and bushes, with airy canopies that spill the early sun in pools of light below. Where usually I would climb quickly through forest, the better to get to the open skies of high ground, today I linger and we run from tree to tree delighting in their crooked shapes and strange branches.

The path narrows, and presently the trees too close in, so close at times that their branches mesh across the track like a leafy tunnel. We reach Haccho-ike pond at around 4000 feet, where we eat fresh corn on the cob and watch the mist swirl across the water, while unseen frogs chirp from the banks.

As we climb further along the ridge, towards the summit and towards the coast, the weather starts to close in. The fog lies across the primeval buna, like a scene in an ancient Japanese folktale. It’s the kind of place you might lie down to sleep for five minutes, only to wake and find a hundred years gone by. The fog brings down with it the scent of blossoms from some shrub we cannot find, but it perfumes the forest sweetly like earl grey tea. Through the mist and this scent we pass, just we two. We haven’t met another soul all day.

The summit of the Amagi range, and the highest point in Izu, is Mt Banzaburo. As we approach, we hear voices, and then we make out a score of climbers who have made their way from the quick loop up the eastern side of the mountain. The summit is small and crowded, too cloudy to make out a view, so we tag the peak and quickly disappear back into the forest from which we’d come.

“How far did we walk?” Yuka asks as we arrive back at the car.
“About 25 something kilometers.” I reply.
“That was great. We should come to Izu again.” she says, and I grin, aiming the car squarely for the nearest hot spring.

The legend of Joren waterfall goes like this:
A woodcutter rested by the waterfall one day, and as he dozed in the hot sun he noticed that a wasp-spider (jomo-gumo) was winding a web around his leg. “She must have mistaken my leg for a branch”, he thought to himself, and with a stick carefully twisted the silk from his leg and laid it on the ground. With that, there was a mighty shaking of the earth, and a great hole opened up, swallowing the stick and the web. The woodcutter ran to his village, telling the villagers “The master of the Joren waterfall is a beautiful wasp-spider. But if he catches you, he will wind his web around you, drag you to his lair and you’ll never leave!”. The villagers never approached the waterfall again.

Yuka was right, Izu has a way of getting under your skin. That old spider still has some powerful magic.

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