PEAKS & PILGRIMAGE TOUR
JAPAN, AUGUST 2013
I remember when my friend Andrew and I climbed Mt Fuji just over a decade ago, she was mighty elusive considering she was easily the biggest lump of rock and cinder on the entire archipelago.
We had camped near Lake Motosu, and started walking to the mountain base at midday. It took us five hours, down vague tracks and forestry roads, to get to the starting point. Much of the time we were treed in, but even when we found ourselves in the open, with 3,776m of mountain somewhere in front, we often couldn’t see her. Haze, cloud, dense misty air is drawn to her, clinging to her flank like a camouflaging cloak. Then the cloak would shift, you’d be granted a glimpse and — Jesus.
Right there in front of you all along, hiding in plain sight.
Sixteen hours of misery began there…
So now I was going back for another peek. And another peak? Nope. I just wanted a good view, a few decent photos. And after all that memory-pilgrimage, I decided for this last adventure to head somewhere new.
My out-of-print guidebook gave me the idea of Mitsutōge-yama, in Yamanashi Prefecture. The name means Three Passes Mountain, and, says the guide:
The draw card for this hike is the view of Fuji-san, with a panorama of the north side from its summit to its forested foothills and the town of Kawaguchi-ko. These forests used to be known as the Dark Forest as people often became lost in them, never to be seen again.
This would be far from the first Tolkienesque flavour I’d experienced walking in Japan.
I’d just had that far-from-restful night on Kawanori-yama, but felt otherwise great — at least beginning the railway marathon to Mitsu-tōge (the tōge part, meaning “mountain pass”, is pronounced toe-geh) station. The last leg, however, was crowded with sightseers en route to the Five Lakes and my mountaineering bravado evaporated as I found myself jammed onto a Thomas the Tank Engine-themed choo-choo train chugging merrily into the countryside.
After that, it was good times again. My plan was to go over the mountain and down to famed Lake Kawaguchi, seven stops along the Fujikukyo Line. But my plans are usually malleable — and I had only a vague plan for accommodation that night.
That one glimpse of Fuji’s summit and then she was gone for now. It was sunny and clear as I left the paddies and most of the people behind. I love road-walking in Japan:
This would suffice for a map. I’d have to watch out for galloping horses, it seemed:
That was my goal, through the trees:
But then: this. How could I bypass some fresh running water? I spread my bedding out to dry while I had a cold bath and rinsed out my sweaty rags, then feasted on some of my import-store delicacies. It was glorious. Lots of flashbacks to sweet road adventures in Japan, the beautiful, carefree life of the pilgrim-tramp:
Freedom in its most elemental form is the option of saying, “I’m stopping here to eat/sleep/bathe, and I’ll move on when I feel like it.” That mountain could wait another hour.
More flashbacks, this time to central Shikoku and the bear warning signs on my 30-day walk there:
Nearing the trailhead:
Leaving the road, the path proper began:
I was lugging some weight, and needed to move fast; decided to stash my pack down here. I found a place, grabbing only my cameras and a tiny water bottle, and flew, unburdened, up the trail. Almost immediately I thought of that bear sign and hoped I didn’t return to a shredded pack.
A couple of guys came running down the trail, struggling beneath hellishly huge packs. They were sweating buckets, exhausted; one was sobbing in utter misery. They stumbled past and a couple of officers or leaders followed, perhaps running some kind of training program or punishment. It was very Japanese.
This was a beautiful path and a nice work-out even without the pack.
If you look back at that ancient map-board, above, you’ll notice these guys, the Hachijuhachi Daiishi:
I can’t find much about them online except that the name is translated as 88 Buddhas or 88 Great Teachers. The red bibs/aprons are very common in Japan — Shinto and Buddhism and points between. This page gives an interesting summary.
I reached a renowned rock-climbing face. Pitons studded the rock and one team was hard at work above:
I was pretty beat and there wouldn’t be much more daylight. I asked an old climber about the Fuji views; he led me up the trail a little way to the viewpoint — and exclaimed in Japanese that she’d been there just a minute ago.
Nothing. Gone. The curtain had been drawn.
I was still a half-hour from the summit, but I couldn’t see the vistas improving, and I was a long way from downtown Tokyo and a bed. Without regret I spun round and loped back down the trail…
I made my pack and dug out a family-sized block of Hershey’s. It was melted, gooey, messily glorious. I washed off in a stream and bounded down the road.
Sometime there I realised something was missing: the silver-turquoise ring I’d bought from a roadside Navajo Indian stall in Arizona in 1993. Maybe it had come loose during the chocolate wash-up, or perhaps earlier, during my waterfall interlude. With dusk falling, I stopped in there again…
..but the ring was gone.
How’s that for Tolkienesque? Someday some Japanese goblin might see that ring glimmering from the bottom of a mountain stream — no telling what kind of saga that might spark…
I was sad — still am — but not much. Despite the loss, and turning back, despite the star performer’s no-show, I considered the day well worth it. I was given one last peek of Fuji’s head and shoulders through the glowing streaks of sunset as I neared the station, then she bid me goodnight.
I grabbed some Chu-Hi and some tasty inari-zushi and feasted in the station waiting room. Fuji-san had recently been awarded World Heritage status, and two huge posters of the landmark adorned the walls, next to the usual gallery of creepy wanted-man mugshots. Best view of her all day by far.
Now I just had to make the slog into the city and find somewhere to crash…
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote