Hiking, Japan, Mountains
Comments 12

A Phantom in the Forest



Somewhere back home I’ve got two paper journals, handsome volumes in which I used to write my Japanese hike reports. There are an even 50 — this was when my mountain mania was raging, with no cure in sight short of an unplanned plummet over a precipice.

On the first page of one there’s a pencil rubbing (I believe that’s the word, unsavory as it sounds) of a kanji (Chinese character) from a well-weathered summit sign. The character is…

Yama - mountain

Yama – mountain

..and the mountain was 川苔山 — Kawanoriyama.

Interestingly, the name is written two ways. Sometimes it’s 川乗山:”River-Riding Mountain”. Others it’s 川苔山, in which the “nori” is seaweed, as in a sushi “nori roll”, perhaps referring to an edible water-weed found in the Tama River below. Thanks to Andrew for his help here!

Anyway, I was camping up there when I ran my pencil over the sign — this was, I think, 2002. I’d been reading Bryson’s Walk in the Woods, a book I don’t rate highly now, but which first revealed the possibility of turning my summit sickness into a (very poorly-paid) vocation. Four or five months of walking through the woods and mountains, sleeping on the ground, not working — NOT TEACHING ENGLISH? Sign me up.

I wrote something that night about keeping true to my ideals, staying as free as I was right then, never putting a career or conventionality first. Easy enough in theory, since a career was the least of my troubles, then as now. I resolved to do the Appalachian Trail once I got out of Japan. Two years later I got down to business…


Flight from the Pigeon’s Nest

Summer, 2013. I’d just descended Takao-San, and now I was heading back to that special little peak hidden in the rugged backcountry of Okutama, west of Tokyo. It just felt right that I should go back there where all this walking stuff really began for me, hike to the top, pay my respects, and spend the night near that crucial signpost.

This meant more trains, of course: inbound to Tachikawa, then onto the Ōme Line for another long haul west to Hato-no-Su — Pigeon’s Nest. The afternoon was getting on, I was mapless and steering via memory and my rudimentary kanji know-how. But I was having a ball.


Looking back to the Pigeon’s Nest

Okutama was my number-one playground in those days of year-round weekend escapades. Half or more of those 50 hikes happened out here. I’d jump off at one station, slog up into the hills, and loop back to another station for the weary commute back into the Neon Wilderness.

Thing about Okutama, though, there’s a lot of plantation forest as well. And that means the oppressive uniformity, the creepy silence of a towering monoculture:



Two hikers, descending, asked how far to the station — last humanoids of the day. Then I remembered coming down here — or somewhere round here — late one afternoon years ago. There’d been a hollowed stump that in the fading light had resembled a grinning cartoon spook. I’d taken a blurry photo and hurried on.

Just as I had that thought, there it was. An eerie moment in more ways than one:


The Hills Have Eyes

Gaining height, there was a last window of landscape views before I was again engulfed in forest and twilight:

mountain view okutama japan

This little decaying shrine was here back then. It sits at a trail junction where I lost some time trying to guess the path up:


There are a few vaguely signposted routes, and with night approaching I hoped to fluke the shortest.



Ah, that’s rather less ambiguous:


Although I was moving fast, climbing into dusk, I felt oddly calm. Night-hiking is absorbing work — you are increasingly pressed into your own mind, your own rhythm, the meditative focus of your breaths while you chase the hypnotic light beam along the path. The natural impulse is uneasiness — but surely there are a lot of more dangerous places you could be walking at night.

A couple of quivering footbridges…


..and a hurried snack, plus some icy water from a hillside spring, and all natural light was gone.

Headlamp on, a zig-zagging ascent into real forest, the sound of water below, the summit ridge where once a ramshackle hut had skulked. And a perfect moment when two sharply silhouetted deer, ears pricked, froze between the summit signposts…


Mt Kawanori summit

..only to leap into the woods, yelping, as I raised my camera.

Here’s that sign with that 山 I traced years ago:


It was a beautiful evening, but chilly. I added some warm layers, spread out groundsheet and bivy sack and bag, put on some Kurt Vile on the iPad and prepared my commemorative feast on a bench. I had a big can of grapefruit Chu-Hi, and soon I was trading messages with Kate, all the way over there in Upstate New York, from my lonesome, beautiful Japanese mountaintop, while the deer shrieked (believe me) in the woods below.

Those were the good parts. The bad part was that I was too lazy to set up my tarp, and a swollen, show-offy Moon spent the night rolling over the ridge, beaming merrily into my eyes, chasing sleep off into the woods. The other bad part was that without a tarp, my down bag was soon very damp with dew. The final bad part was that the Chu-Hi buzz wore off and the heroic journeyman of a few hours earlier was now just some loser lying in a wet sack on a cold mountaintop.

(A year earlier, exactly, I’d gone through the same thing, under the same Bastard Moon, on Daecheong-Bong, South Korea’s third-highest mountain.)

So again I was up around 3:30, stuffing damp gear into the pack, switching on the headlamp, and descending:


Forest Birdhouse


I felt great, and the Sun greeting me through the trees was a magical sight:



Dawn Sunbeams

A self-portrait at the shrine…


..and down, past the Stump Phantom, into still-snoozing Hato-no-Su…



What a cheerful little place!


..where I let myself miss the first train while I dried my gear near the station:


A beautiful little pilgrimage into the past, but today, after a lot more train travel, I had a nice, new mountain to climb…

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote


    • Yeah, they’re visually compelling at first, but unfortunately they’re a desert in terms of biodiversity. I’ve never experienced such silence in the outdoors as in those forests.

  1. Your cartoon tree reminded me of the trees in The Wizard of Oz. Fantastic photos. Too bad you missed the one of the deer. I’m not sure I would have been as calm as you were in a damp roll in the woods in the middle of the night. Safe journeys!

    • Those deer: I remember the first time I slept up there years ago getting a fright from the racket they made in the woods. I had no idea deer made noises like that.

      It was a sublime moment even without the photo. And euphoria has killed many a night’s sleep for me — I’m kinda used to it!

    • Wow, thanks! Might have to give that book a look.

      I hope to get around to your blog and others today between classes. I’ve been very slack — can’t find the motivation to do my own next post. So much on my mind, so I retreat into the absorbing world of photo editing, an eternal hassle/refuge…

  2. I love your spook of a tree. Reminds me of how often I look for faces in nature and then when I find one, proceed to scare myself with their image. I’m not sure why, maybe Freud can answer that?!

    It’s funny how the moon seems as bright as a headlamp in the eyes! Do you go for the beanie over the eyes trick? Sleep face down?! I always wonder what it’d be like if we had as many moons as Jupiter. Imagine trying to snooze with about five moons overhead!

    • Yeah, much as I love the Moon, she’s cost me more lost sleep than I deserve. Yeah, I’ve tried the beanie trick — nothing works. I am very fussy about sleeping positions too — even at home in a cozy bed. Nights on the ground have always been problematic for me, even without God’s Searchlight.

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