This Mountain Sickness

Some call it a sickness. To swap warm beds for nights on cold granite, high above the clouds where the air is thin. A willing choice, a desire even, to leave comfort behind and instead carry your home on your back through the high places of this world. What else could account for all this, if not some tragic disease of the mind?

Mt Kita-dake shines brightly in the autumn sun, defiant against a cobalt sky. Our packs are heavy with the eight days worth of provisions for the long climb ahead, an unsupported voyage through the Minami-Alps. With each footfall we grind a little more of the mountain away. Four thousand and six hundred feet later we sit in the early afternoon sun on the Kotaro ridge, watching the clouds race up the valley. I point out the surrounding mountains to Yuka: Kai-koma, Senjo, Houou-sanzan. The cloud rises higher, blotting the peaks one by one, and finally obscuring Kita-dake too by the time we reach the hut on its northern shoulder. As we pitch the tent, we look out into the gathering darkness and resolve to make the summit before dawn the next day, hopeful of a sunrise to make up for the lost sunset of this first day. We’re halfway through dinner when suddenly the tent lights up, as though on fire.

We race out and confront the conflagration that has consumed the western skies. The cloud-wracked valley seems to seethe, an unearthly scene of orange and red, pierced through by the orb of the sun. Within minutes it transforms again, the mists around us boiling away to leave a sea of clouds below, and within that sea a dozen dark islands where the peaks of the Alps gash through. Yuka bursts into tears. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.” she says, and we stand, arms around each other in the cold wind, watching the sun sink into the milky ocean below.

The next morning, Japan is laid out before us from the summit of Kita-dake. Fuji sits darkly to the east, and to the west we can make out the peaks of Kiso-koma where we’d spent New Year. Far to the north, Yari-ga-take’s sharp peak stands out, no doubt heavy with climbers this long holiday weekend. Reluctantly we leave the summit and climb down the ridge and along towards Mt Aino-ga-take, still making good time despite the burden on our backs. The sun creeps a little higher in the sky, cooking the left side of our bodies while the right side shivers in the wind. By the time we reach Aino, a thin haze has pulled itself across the sky, and the wind blows fiercely. We hurry off, and on the far side of the summit break for lunch, admiring the chain of peaks that march away to the south. Suddenly our journey doesn’t seem so far. Then Yuka pulls off her boot, and mutters darkly under her breath.

The small blister on her heel which we’d treated the day before has become much worse. We re-apply bandages and duct tape the inside of her boot. “I’ll be fine. It’s all downhill for the rest of today, it’ll be fine by tomorrow.” she says, but this is not a good sign.

It’s still only midday when we arrive at the Kuma-no-daira camp, but we decide to pitch the tent anyway and give Yuka’s blisters some time to heal. In the warm afternoon sun we chat to the hut owner. He recounts his days of climbing in the Himalayas, and about how he brought his American wife and 3-month old son to this hut when he started it twenty years ago. The only routes in or out are over the 10,000 foot peaks on either side; so when his son became ill, the hut owner would carry him on his back over those vertiginous summits and down to the villages below, like something from Japanese folklore. He sent them back to the States when his son became too big to do this, but will travel back to see them when the hut closes for the season in three days time.

The inky canopy of the sky is still studded with stars as we pack up the tent the next morning. Yuka’s patched her feet with whatever she can find, but still moves a little slower despite her protests that she is fine. Climbing up is noticeably painful for her, but thankfully the day starts with a long, gently undulating ridge towards Mt Shiomi to the south. The sky is cloudless and perfect, but each slope is taking its toll on Yuka and I’m starting to eye the climb up Shiomi with increasing dread. She barely slackens her pace though, and incredibly we are still running well ahead of the map time.

I know she must be in agony as we hit the steep northern flank of the mountain, yet she laughs and jokes with the climbers descending towards us. She’s properly taking a mouthful of carb-gel every twenty minutes, and knocks her feet forward in her boots every few paces to relieve her heels. Finally at the summit, she excitedly traces the path we’ve taken all the way from Aino with her finger. “We came all that way!” But then it hits her.

“I can’t go on, can I? This is so frustrating. My legs are fine, I could keep doing this for days… but these blisters…. such a small thing. But this isn’t failure. I’ve done three huge mountains, and it’s been fantastic. Just walk me down to the trailhead tomorrow and I’ll go home – you should carry on.” she says. I tell her I’ll think about it. The thought of abandoning the journey tears at me, but so does the thought of going on without Yuka. We don’t talk much as we climb down Shiomi’s sharp western edge and to the busy camp at Sanpuku-mine, with its explosion of multi-coloured tents gleaming under the bright sun.

From the tent, we watch the peaks above us throw longer shadows across the valleys. I’m mentally reorganising the gear I’ll need and my itinerary, when Yuka rolls towards me and says “let’s go home together”. I can’t think of anything to say, so I lie there staring at the ceiling before climbing back up the ridge to take some half-hearted photographs of the sunset. We eat without speaking much, and the next morning I still can’t think of anything to say. Yuka breaks the silence,

“I don’t want to go home either. I keep thinking I might be able to go on, but we both know that’s a stupid idea. But these four days have been amazing, I’ll never forget them. I climbed three mountains, and I made it half way, I carried all my own gear, and if it wasn’t for these blisters I could easily have made it. I don’t want to go home without you. Let’s come back together next year. We’ll start here and we can climb the rest of the route. It’ll be easy!”. She punches me on the arm, and I can’t help laughing. Suddenly we have fun again as we climb down into the Iina valley below and head towards home.

The first thing I saw this morning when I woke up was a map of Japan spread across the end of the bed. Yuka’s sitting next to it, thumbing through my guidebook to the Hundred Famous Mountains of Japan. “Y’know, a lot of these are pretty easy. Day climbs. Huh! I was looking at the calendar, we’ve got a few long weekends coming up. We could go to Kyushu again and climb the south of the island. And Gunma as well. Yakushima, maybe? Come on, get up, let’s sort out the gear and decide what we should take next time!”, she gushes.

Some call it a sickness.

Personally, I think it might be the cure.

The Flow of the Fourth Island

Sachiko once hit an American soldier over the head with a flower pot.

Her nose scrunches up as she laughs at the memory, and her face dissolves into a myriad of deep laughter lines. It’s hard to believe that in four hours time, she will turn eighty years old.

We pitched the tent high in the mountains before negotiating the perilous road down into the valley, where the map pointed to an onsen hot spring. At the end of a narrow track, the remains of the onsen lay, its neat perimeter walls now overgrown; in the middle stands a modern cottage, and it was from here that Sachiko bustles forth at the sound of the car’s tyres crunching over the gravelled path.

“Yagase onsen? It was here… but it burnt down ten years ago. I was the owner. Where are you from? England? I love English people! Diana was my favorite. I don’t like Charles though. That woman. I suppose he’ll never be king. I like most Americans. But not Bush. He was just in it for himself. Won’t you come in and at least have something to eat? Have a beer? There’s nowhere else in the valley.” She skips lightly from foot to foot.

We protest mildly, but to no end.

“Two of the boys from the village have come over, too. They’ve probably never met a foreigner before, it will be good for them.”

The boys are sitting at the low table in the middle of the living room, giggling nervously. The older one confirms, indeed, he’s never talked to a foreigner before, and the younger one sits nodding his head vigorously. Sachiko skips in from the kitchen and makes the introductions.

“This is Ken-chan. He’s sixty this year. And this is Dai-chan. He’s fifty-eight.”

Dai-chan says something in the incomprehensible accent of the Tosa region, which makes them all laugh. Sachiko fishes through the small mountain of beer cans on the table until she finds an unopened one, and deftly cracks it open.

“The boys live up by the Todoroki waterfall. Even in this little valley, each hamlet is different. The men of the waterfall have the best hearts. Can’t say the same for their heads, though…” This is the cue for more laughter and impenetrable comments.

Another pack of beers disappears, the boys get to their feet and weave an uncertain path to the door, gently bouncing off each pillar on the way. I offer to drive them home, but they refuse and get into their small white trucks before making their slow way back up the side of the valley towards the waterfall. I wonder aloud if it’s safe for them to be driving in that condition.

“The other evening I found a police car lurking just up the road there,” Sachiko says, “I asked him what he thought he was doing, and he told me he was looking for drunk drivers. I told him to leave immediately! Go and catch the crooks in the city! The men around here need a drink or two in the evening, it’s the only chance to socialise that they get after a day in the fields. And besides, the only person you’ll hurt on these little roads is yourself. I haven’t seen that policeman since.” She sticks her nose defiantly in the air, pulling all four foot ten of her frame ramrod straight and marches briskly back into the house.

Sachiko holds court again.

“I was eating okonomiyaki with my friend at a restaurant just after the war. There were four American soldiers in the next room getting drunk and talking loudly. I told you that I grew up in Hong Kong and Formosa, yes? So I knew a little English, and could tell that they were being so rude. ‘All Japanese girls are pan-pan‘ one of them was saying. That was the slang word for prostitute in those days. Well I stood up, and my friend begged me to calm down but it was too late. I walked into their room, and there they sat grinning at me; maybe they thought the pan-pan had come to them. The noisy one had his back to me, but he is still talking, and such rudeness. “Pan-pan this, pan-pan that”. So I pick up a big flower pot from the alcove and shout ‘No Hiroshima, no Nagasaki, Jesus Christ God dammit, Yankee go home!” and whack I bust it over his head!”

Yuka and I sit open-mouthed as she recounts this tale.

“My friend felt so bad about it all. As she said, we could have been shot; they all had pistols. So we tracked them down to the local hotel where they were staying, and waited in the lobby to apologize. We waited and waited, and after a few hours the clerk finally came to tell us that the soldiers had seen us waiting there and had crept in the back way; it seems that the noisy one was just married, and was afraid we’d report what they’d been saying to their commanding officer. He was in a bad way, too. Had a huge bump on the back of his head, and another on his forehead where he’d smacked into the okonomiyaki hot plate! Ha ha ha!”

Sachiko had clearly been quite a handful in her younger days, and kept her fire as she danced into her ninth decade. She insists we stay the night.

We’d driven from Kobe, over the bridge from the mainland to Shikoku. The least visited of Japan’s four islands, home to two hyakumeizan mountains and innumerable valleys and gorges. Yuka has marked the best waterfalls in red pen on the map; we thread our way along narrow mountain roads, single tracks at best, to stop at each one and hike up the valleys towards the waters that thunder down into aquamarine pools.

A little way from Mt Tsurugi, we set the tent at a deserted campsite. The early evening is perfectly still, and the smoke from our fire rises straight up as we grill fresh aubergines, potatoes and the famous onions of the region. One by one, the stars appear; later, as we swig from a bottle of cheap red wine, the milky way blooms across the sky. I tell Yuka about how the milky way is really the cross sectional view towards the center of our galaxy; she tells the tale of the weaving princess who can cross that milky river once a year to see her lover on the far side. Slowly the fire dies, and we crawl into the tent.

The roads of Shikoku are narrow, and subject to nature’s continual battery. The soil of the region is thin and the mountainsides steep. Every rainfall brings trees and boulders crashing down from above, and every road is scarred by these events. Indeed, driving around the island it would appear that the major industry is road repair; scarcely a few kilometers of open road appear before another set of roadworks is marked by a dozen workers furiously waving red and white flags to direct the traffic. In the hot August sun they wave on each car with a slight bow.

Further into the mountains the roads are narrower still, barely tarmacked tracks and full of blind corners. There is no space for two cars to pass, which has the perverse effect of making everyone speed through these constrictions as insanely high speed, before something comes the other way. We soon adapt. A quick glance in the mirror at the roadside confirms nothing is approaching, mash the accelerator and scream around the corner before jumping on the brakes again. We do this for miles on the way to Tsurugi, only to find that the southern approach road is closed due to landslides. We retrace, and start our climb from the eastern flank.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with the young men nowadays.” Sachiko declares. “They don’t seem interested in women at all. I asked my grandson, and he said he had a steady girlfriend. He’s 18! A steady girlfriend! I told him, you should be seeing as many girls as you can. Just don’t get any funny diseases; always use a condom. He called me pervy. Well is that my fault? I mean when I was his age, I was standing on the docks waving all the young men off to war, all to be killed in China. It just wasn’t possible to have a boyfriend, not even for five minutes.”

The summit of Tsurugi is served by a cable-car, but we take the long route instead, up and through theĀ  forests that cling to the mountainside towards the peak of Ichi-no-Mori. The whole of Shikoku stretches out below us, rumpled mountains and deep valleys. As we climb to the marker on Tsurugi, we mix with the day trippers who’ve taken the quick way up. Yes, the summit is overdeveloped, but it is clearly a mountain close to the heart of those Shikoku dwellers who climb it. Dapper old men compete with small children along the wooden boardwalks. “Ah! This is Shikoku!” and “Jirogyu looking wonderful today!”, their voices ring in the fine August air.

We plunge back into the treeline and are soon heading along a rarely used trail. In places the recent rains have brought down trees and landslides across the path, and we skid over the slick mud. This route’s name, the Gyoba or Pilgrims’ Path, attests to its original and long forgotten purpose. In a generation it will probably have returned completely to nature. Yuka charges ahead, loving the terrain. “It’s barely wide enough for one foot.” she cries.

We drive deeper into the heart of the island, furthering our waterfall odyssey. We have each one to ourselves; at the more secluded ones, we strip and run screaming into the icy waters before dragging ourselves out to dry in the blazing sun. Eventually we make it to the southern edge of the island and the waters of the Pacific, and cruise the coast road for a few miles through innumerable rundown towns. Many of the shops are boarded up or deserted; Shikoku is dying. The idea depresses us, so we turn again inland and along another valley to a campsite, where we surprise the elderly warden as she is about to leave for the evening.

“No, there’s nowhere to buy food around here. The man who ran the village store got old, and moved away to the city to join his son. But I can give you some rice to cook.” she offers. We start a small fire and grill what leftovers we have from the previous evening. Without warning, the warden appears again out of the darkness with a watermelon and some cucumbers. She informs us that she’d just picked them from her field, and leaves with the admonition to watch out for mamushi adders. We pull our sleeping bags around us and lie in the long grass as the planetarium wheels above us. Shooting stars gash the sky, and Yuka whoops with each one.

The next morning we duck through the faded entrance curtain of a hillside onsen and out of the seething sun. An old man, bent double with age and wearing just a pair of boxer shorts, shuffles into the lobby and wishes us good day. We buy big chunks of raw bonito and garlic at the local store; scrubbed and fed we make our slow way across the island and towards Mt Ishizuchi.

Tired of hammering at his masters degree, Adam kissed his wife and baby girl goodbye for a few days and came to the Omogo gorge to bike the roads and jump in the icy cold azure pools of the river. The fire is full of charcoal and the cooler full of beer. ” Come on over when you get set up. I’m having a Grateful Dead afternoon.” he offers, as Garcia and the crew drift cooly from the iPod speakers. We pool our resources and end up drinking and cooking deep into the night. He’s the only other camper in the valley, a regular visitor, and knows ever stretch of the river. At midnight we stagger down to the pools and jump into the cold waters. Our howls carry up through the inky gorge; after a minute I jump out and run back to the warmth of the fire on the bank.

It’s a dark and foreboding morning as we race to the shrine that stands at the foot of the mountain. We’re the only climbers today on this side; up the gorge and then the steep side of the valley to the ridge that curls around to below Ishizuchi’s peak. The path is indistinct and little used now, shunned in favour of the cable car which serves the other side of the mountain. Cloud drifts through the buna forests, deadening all sound and covering the waist-high sasa bamboo grass in dew, which soaks us as we push through it. It obscures the sheer drop to our right, and I shout back to Yuka to keep a close eye on where she is walking. Head down she follows, and I can hear her muttering under her breath, “Shuchu, shuchu“. Concentrate, concentrate.

Ishizuchi is a granite island in a sea of cloud. We make our way carefully over the slick rocks and towards the summit marker on the dramatic horn of Tengu-dake. We lie on our stomachs and shuffle our heads over the sheer drop of the summit wall, which falls away into space. I glance down and admire the line of pitons which lie rusting in the cracks below. The summit done, we run down the mountain to soak in the bath of the eerie hotel at the entrance to the gorge. “There’s no-one staying tonight, so I’ve only filled one of the baths. You can get in together if you wish.” the owner tells us. The August rain falls outside, and it’s time to think about heading home.

I ask Sachiko what accounts for her tremendous health and vigour.

“Several years ago we had such snow one night. My uncle, my father’s brother, was staying and he took a walk up the valley.”

I’m starting to wonder if she’d heard my question.

“He walked up the valley to my father’s grave by the roadside, and when he got there he found half a dozen school scarves wound around it. He took them down, and the next day went along to the local school to find the owners. The teacher called all the classes together and asked to whom they belonged. Six of the local children put their hands up, and explained that as they passed they’d felt sorry that the old doctor’s grave should be so cold on such a snowy night. So they put their scarves on it, and continued home. Poor things, they must have been cold without them.”

By now I’ve quite forgotten how we got onto this story.

“The children grew up to be teenagers, and then one night four of them died in a car accident. Their car went off the main road and tumbled down into the valley floor. In memory of their kindness to my father, I walk every day the six kilometers and back from here to the place where they departed this world.”

“That’s my secret. I walk.”