Spirit of the Mountains

yamaBack in the summer last year, in preparation of my initial foray into Yamanashi ken, I treated myself to a new hiking T-shirt from the Beerhound hiking boutique of choice, Mont Bell; a high-performance breathable, diaphanous bit of hiking haute-couture, designed for tackling the stifling heat of a Japanese summer without looking like you’ve just fallen into a swimming pool. Its understated yet sophisticated darkish blue hue harmonised nicely with my pack, and its subtle colouring ensured that even with water jetting out of every pore like a hedgehog’s hot water bottle, I would retain some measure of dignity as I encountered other hikers on the trail.

But what really sold me on it was the fact that it had, emblazoned across the front, the kanji symbol for “Mountain” – (yama) 山. OK – I’ll concede it’s possibly a bit touristy-naff; but like most foreigners, I am subject to a strange fascination with kanji characters, which seem somehow to have an element of spirituality or mystery about them as if they have captured something of the essence of the object they represent. This resonates particularly strongly when one considers the deeper, spiritual significance of mountains in Japanese culture. Mountains have been the object of veneration and places of pilgrimage for the Japanese for thousands of years of recorded history, and probably much further than that. Japan is a mountainous country and its culture is inextricably linked with its mountains. Many mountain trails start behind ancient shinto shrines, and it is common to run across small shrines on peaks and isolated paths threading through deep woodland or over rocky ridges. Even today, despite being on the whole a proudly secular society, most Japanese hikers will pause to pay respects to the mountain spirits as they pass by, praying for good luck along the trail. Naturally, the more challenging the trail, the more sincere these invocations become. And this was certainly in my mind as I handed over the cash for my new lucky charm Yama T-Shirt and headed home to continue packing for my early departure the next morning to my first proper Yamanashi ken hiking adventure.

At 2057m, Daibosatsurei isn’t particularly high nor particularly challenging, sitting at a modest 20th place in Yamanashi’s tally of tallest peaks. But for me it was an important goal for the year. Daibosatsurei would be my first >2000m peak, and my second of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains (Hyakumeizan) – only 98 to go, Yay! I’d planned to do an overnight hike, climbing up from Misogisawa to the mountain hut at Marukawa toge 丸川峠, before continuing up the ridge to the true peak of Daibosatsurei, taking the high scenic trail down to the mountain hut at Daibosatsu toge sanso, before swinging southwards to overnight at the Fukuchan sanso mountain hut campsite. Retracing my steps slightly the next morning, I was going to head along the long ridge trail via Furokonba フルコンバ, Nomedawa ノーメダワ and Oiwake  追分to eventually end up in Tabeyama village and hopefully a bus back to Okutama station and my train home. All in all, the trail was 27km involving a total elevation gain of 2033m and elevation loss of 2291m. Being mid-August, I’d anticipated reasonable weather. Although hot and stuffy down in the valley, I’d hoped it would cool off once I’d gained a bit of altitude and, fingers crossed, some fine views of that most prominent of all Japan’s mountains – physically and culturally – Mt Fuji.

That was the “How” of it; Answering the “Why” is a bit more difficult. Hiking in Japan requires a little bit more commitment than strolling along the North Downs Way on an English summer’s day. Once you leave the well-trodden paths of Takao san and start venturing further into Japan’s rocky interior, the way becomes more difficult; the trails steeper and more rugged, the days longer. It’s hot in the summer, bitterly cold in the winter and the weather can change suddenly and dramatically for the worse with high winds, typhoons, hail storms and lightning. Then there’s the wildlife hazards and even geological ones such as landslides, earthquakes and – if you’re really unlucky – volcanic eruptions. Why would anyone willing choose to go out there in preference to, say, a good film or a night out?

It’s a question I have asked myself frequently – usually while being rained on, frozen, blasted by high winds, blundering around trying to pick up a lost trail or being pursued through wooded groves by the dreaded suzumibachi. Why the fuck am I doing this? The answer is that there is something intangible but powerfully compelling about the Japanese mountains; something that is difficult to define, and yet you know when it has touched you. It is a spirit whose delicate hand seems to lead you onwards, guiding you to some destination that is at once breath-taking,and yet somehow remains hidden from your view just over the horizon. All this, it seems to me, is summarised in that simple kanji 山. In my own clumsy way, I get a sense of the spiritual connection between flesh and tree and rock that is such a deep part of the Japanese psyche. Once that spirit has awakened in you, it is very hard to resist its call.

My 2-day hike commenced with an early train ride to the mountain town of Otsuki. After a certain amount of confusion about which the bus stop I should be waiting at – the other one, as it turned out – I eventually found myself heading for the remote hamlet of Misogisawa and the start of my hike. The day was already shaping up to be hot and sticky as I disembarked the bus and sorted my kit out, ready to begin my ascent. Peeling off my outer layers to reveal my Yama T-shirt, like Superman’s out-of-shape older cousin, I hoisted pack and set off uphill.

IMG_20160813_121925Misogisawa means “Misogi Valley”. Misogi is an ancient Zen Buddhist rite, whereby the disciple sits beneath an icy mountain waterfall reciting Buddhist mantra. It is simultaneously both a test and a cleansing of the spirit. My spirit too was being tested by the steepening trail and the heavy pack. After a short while, the relentless slog ensured I was as wet through as effectively as if I’d sat beneath a waterfall myself. But thanks to the remarkable T-shirt craftsmanship of messrs Mont and Bell, I remained both functional and sartorially presentable. While I seemed to be the only one trudging upwards, I met with a good number of spritely hikers, middle aged and older, heading down the way I’d so laboriously come. Catching sight of the famous T-shirt, one old guy exclaimed “Oi! Yama no kami desu yo!” (“It’s a mountain spirit!”) We laughed and went our separate ways. But in that moment, I understood another aspect of what makes the spirit of the Japanese mountains so powerfully attractive for me; it’s the echo of it you see in the people you meet on the trail. The spirit of the mountain lives not just in the rocks and forests, but also in the hearts of the people that choose to spend time there.

I have a friend, T, an acknowledged and respected expert of Japanese alpinism. A man so far above my level in terms of skill, experience and fitness, that there is no real comparison between us. We had the pleasure of an insanely boozy night out some time ago. In my drunken state I had tried to express how grateful I had been for his encouragement and guidance in developing my own modest aspirations. The exact words he used are lost in an alcoholic fog but the gist of his response was that the spirit of alpinism – of the mountain – is not just achieving your goals but helping others to achieve theirs too. The mountains help us all to find our way.

My goal, for now, was to get to the mountain hut at Marukawa and take on board some much needed energy and fluids. Nestled in a grassy knoll, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, the hut provides a convenient stopping place.  Its jazzy blue paint scheme represented a valiant attempt at shabby chic, but alas not backed-up by much in the way of amenities. Mindful that I still had some way to go, and having jammed down a battered tortilla and a good portion of my remaining water, I once again pulled on my now soggy backpack and forged on. From the hut, the trail continues uphill before contouring around the north side of the ridgeline in its ascent towards the peak of Daibosatsurei. The temperature and humidity hadn’t dropped as much as I’d hoped, so the climb proved hard work. The trail winds its way through broad leaf woodland and around some rocky re-entrants and is in generally really good shape. But picturesque as it was, it was with some relief that I finally popped out on the tree-clad summit of Daibosatsurei at 2057m.

IMG_20160813_140640There’s not much to see at the summit other than the obligatory summit marker, but just a few minutes later the trail opens out to some spectacular vistas. Apparently. It was hard to tell for sure because I found myself socked-in by clouds in all directions in a Snowdon-esque grey tunnel. But even so, it felt good to be out of the trees and heading along the ridge on my way to the Daibosatsu toge, a monument and popular vantage point. This section of the trail was considerably more popular with day hikers who had presumably hiked up the easier trail from Fukuchan sanso.  I threaded my way downhill to arrive eventually at the mountain lodge at Daibosatsu toge sanso. I had gone through a lot of fluids on the hot climb, so I took the opportunity to drop my pack and enjoy a cold Pocari from the cheerful proprietor. I also picked up a nice little commemorative badge of my victory over Hyakumeizan #2. Refreshed and in the knowledge that the rest of today’s trail was downhill, I set off for my destination, the campsite at Fukuchan sanso. On the way I passed a few more hikers and a couple of semi-domesticated shika (deer) grazing in the woods just off the trail.

Within 30 minutes or so, I’d arrived at the mountain lodge campsite. I was happy to see that I had more or less the entire campsite to myself, with only one other couple sharing a space that could accommodate at least 50 tents with ease. Japanese mountain lodges are another peculiar feature of the Japanese mountains, varying from little more than derelict sheds to elaborate log hotels. This one fell somewhere between the two. A large group of adults and children were enjoying the outdoor BBQ area when I arrived. Understandably, the arrival of a damp foreigner in their midst aroused some good natured curiosity. It turned out that the couple I was sharing the campsite with lived very close to us. I sensed I was about to be involved in a long conversation that I did not have the energy for, so I politely made my excuses and wandered off to set up camp, armed with a couple of bottles of beer from the sanso shop.

IMG_20160813_182635I love camping. But there is something particularly great about carrying everything you need on your back and doing it with some style. For this trip I’d decided to push the boat out a little with the catering, and rather than the usual depressing fare of cup noodles or palid rice, I’d knocked up one of my ingenious camp paellas. Basically, I mix up the rice, dried vegetables, herbs and seasonings dry. I carry a small plastic container with chopped onion and garlic, plus sausage and some surimi fish sticks and a tiny pot of olive oil. Cooking is just a matter of frying up the onion garlic mix, lobbing in the rice with some water and adding the sausage and fish sticks. The smell of frying onions and herbs wafting across the campsite has been known to raise envious glances, and certainly adds an edge to one’s appetite. 20 minutes later – voila! Fresh cooked and delicious.

Suitably fed and watered I retired to my tent and was soon drifting off to sleep…to be woken at some indeterminate hour by what sounded like a choir singing “Michael Rowed The Boat Ashore”. I’m pretty sure I didn’t hallucinate that part. Normally, this sort of thing drives me crazy but for some reason it didn’t really bother me that much, and I remember remarking to myself that they were actually quite good. Could do with adding some more tunes to their repertoire though…

Aside from the heavenly choir and the rustling of deer in the undergrowth during the night, I had a restful sleep. I had made up a bag of granola and milk powder for breakfast but for some reason – maybe I’d stuffed myself a bit too much on paella – I didn’t fancy it. So after a couple of hot brews I broke camp and headed off, retracing my steps back to the Daibosatsu toge sanso I’d passed the day before. From here, my plan was to strike north east along the 15km ridge trail to Tabeyama. As I cleared the tree line, I was dismayed to see that the cloud cover had come back in and it looked like I would be hiking the rest of the day in cloud. IMG_20160814_094415

But no matter. Despite the disappointing lack of visibility, the trail was actually a real pleasure. Gently contouring for the most part, it winds through some beautiful unspoilt broadleaf forest. Bizarrely for a weekend in August, I was alone with my thoughts for the whole day, only passing one guy coming the other way during the afternoon. He said I was the only person he’d seen all day too. It seems that most hikers are only interested in bagging Daibosatsurei and ignore the possibilities that the other trails have to offer. But for today, I was not complaining. Today, the trail belonged to me and compared to the day before, I was smashing it.

The contrast from the day before provided yet another aspect of mountain spirit on which to ponder. Yesterday had been physically hard; I’d had cause to question again why I had put myself in this position. Today was easier, and I knew the answer. It felt good. My efforts to overcome a physical obstacle had given me a sense of achievement. My reward was here in front me; easy trails, beautiful surroundings and the satisfaction of a goal accomplished. What is life but a series of decisions, obstacles to overcome and goals to achieve? The difference between a happy, fulfilling life and an empty one is really determined by the goals you set yourself and your determination to achieve them. I remember a time in my life when all I could see stretched out in front of me were years of grey monotony. Endless workdays as a factory automaton; empty experiences, empty relationships and nothing but more of the same tomorrow. Now, I am striding alone through ancient Japanese woodland with the sun on my back and Mt Fuji in front of me. Both temporarily obscured by cloud, true. But there nonetheless. How did I get here? Determination. The same spirit that carried me up that slope, carried me here; will carry me further still to I know not where. While the world loves to tell you you’re wrong; the mountain teaches you to believe in yourself.

After about 10km, the trail drops off the ridge and starts to weave its way downward through some beautiful valleys. One of the tributaries of the mighty Tama river rises in these valleys, and the trail criss-crosses mountain streams as it follows the flow downhill. IMG_20160814_104523Seemingly in no time, I’d arrived at Oiwake, where my original plan had been to stop for lunch. In his invaluable blog Ridgeline Images, David Lowe relates how he stopped for lunch in this very spot, only to be chased away by the presence of two suzumibachi – Japanese giant hornets; or to give them their latin name, Stripeybastardus Japonica. As the story had been written 3 years before, I hadn’t been unduly alarmed by this, reasoning the little bastards would have long since been killed off by succeeding winters. But it appeared not, as no sooner had I settled down to eat lunch when two of the yellow-jacket fiends appeared. These are not guys to mess around with. Suzumibachi kill more people in Japan each year than snakes, wild boars and bears combined. Their sting is apparently like someone pushing a red hot nail into you, and the venom is known to produce severe allergic reactions even in people not normally prone to anaphylaxis. They have an unpleasant habit of squirting venom into the eyes, which is also highly corrosive and can lead to blindness. When agitated, they release a hormone that brings the rest of the nest to join in the collective ass-kicking of whoever has incurred their displeasure. The only way to deal with suzumibachi is, therefore, to foxtrot oscar. Rapidly.

Trailing half-eaten cookies as a distraction, I beat a hasty retreat to a less contentious location. I was now on tarmac, heading downhill into Tabeyama and my bus back to Okutama and home. Now back down in the Tama valley, the sun beat down as I wearily paced out the last couple of km. Looking back, I could see the clouds snagged on the ridgeline from which I’d come. Disappointing not to have had better visibility, but I felt good knowing that I’d knocked-off an important personal goal for the year. And, I’d learned just a little bit more. About the mountains. About me.