From a picnic table in the shade in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo, the conclusion of my Daisetsuzan saga…
I went to sleep, or what passes for sleep at Club Mountaingoat, with the peace of mind that follows a few nips of Nikka whisky and a rare attack of good sense.
Ahead lurked two more days of deeper penetration into the back-est of the Daisetsuzan backcountry; again I’d scanned the guidebook, looking for some hint of reward — terrific views, for example — to justify all those “hard”s, “long”s and “tough”s.
I found nothing. Again.
Outside, the mountain gods hurled volleys of horizontal rain against our pitiful shelters on crazed bursts of wind. I praised the stolid German craftsmen and women who’d manufactured such a sturdy little tent, and not for the first time saluted my own genius in leaving the syl-nylon tarp back in Australia.
That merits another nip, my good man.
Anyway, the decision was made, and I followed the final nip with the final Snickers in my food bag. The two Sapporo-ites (Sapporoids?) were exiting in the morning, down to Tomuraushi Onsen (hot spring) where Sayaka had left her car. It was the last escape chute before the final commitment…
At last in a lull I’d heard them emerge to secure their tents. I approached looking my meekest and most bedraggled.
“Hai!” she responded cheerfully.
“You’re going back to Sapporo tomorrow, right?
“I’ve decided to go down to Tomuraushi Onsen. The next section is very hard and this weather is terrible.”
“Do you think you could drive me to Sapporo?”
Her face creased with uncertainty; all hope was lost.
“So, ne. My car is very…tight.”
“Yes. We are two people and two big packs. Hmmm…”
Her face lit up. “It’s okay?”
“Yeah, there are buses. I’m not sure when, ’cause my book’s about 10 years old. But I’ll work it out.”
I loped in studied nonchalance back to my tent. Let them talk it over. They’ll come around by morning. They can’t leave me, a teacher, a sensei from her old English school, an elder gentleman from a far-off land, to risk a horrible death or at the very least a very long wait for a bus.
It was against the Mountain Code.
By 4:30am I was walking. All nonchalance had been washed away down the mountain. Breaking camp, I’d sneaked glances at the others as they packed; nobody bounded over bearing good news.
Well, I still had my dignity. I’d waved farewell and started down the trail hoping for a poignant holler from the Sapporotics. No holler was hollered. I slumped further into the holler and left them behind.
That was one of the worst descents I’ve ever endured. Sadly I can’t reinforce my tale of bleakness with photographic evidence as the weather was too foul, I was trying to keep my gear relatively dry, and I was pissed off. The frequent smears of wild beauty when the cloud and rain thinned were impressive, but I was beyond caring.
Anyway, there was all this mud, all these damned boulders to surmount, and hours of it all to come. Though slightly comforted by the imagining of increasing distance from the worst of it, the trail was unrelentingly awful.
I glimpsed the Sapporovians once from a high point on yet another great pile of boulders, but was alone with my dark musings, focused always on the next step. Passing the treeline brought little relief: the path got steeper and sloppier and more treacherous. It was the kind of trail that gives goat tracks a bad name.
When the cloud cleared the humidity kicked in. I packed away my befouled rain-gear and trudged onward between walls of sasa — bamboo grass; I slipped three or four times, twice with one leg pinned painfully underneath me from the knee.
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Japanese, mostly middle-aged, passed me going up, uniformly clad in garish head-to-toe rain protection. “Very mud road!” exclaimed one youngster cheerfully; an old man passed with an Ohayo as his wife, behind him, fell onto her side, smiling lackadasically at my Daijoubu? (“Are you okay?”).
I took the wrong turn but kept going. Only one meagre hamlet down there. The path improved, the humidity worsened, cicadas shimmered on the filmy air, and I entered a Dragonfly Zone, forgot my woes with half an hour of dragonfly stalking. I felt much better when the trudge resumed.
As I cleared the woods at last and stepped into unfiltered sunshine, I careened sideways and tumbled like a downed turtle into the sasa, pinned beneath my stoopid pack. But I was out, when I managed to get up.
The air stank of sulphur. Little pools and puddles of steaming subterranean bathwater were there for the footbathing, but a fingertip ventured into one, in which a scalded dragonfly corpse floated, was immediately retracted. Yikes. Nope, have to cough up at the onsen.
Dumping my pack at the door, I deciphered the opening time — midday — and determined that the next and only bus that day would be at 2:40. Extracting my last 1,000-yen note, dangerously sodden, I fed it meticulously into a vending machine.
The beast consumed it after much protest, but nothing happened. It was jammed in the thing’s gleaming gullet. Attempting gingerly to extract it, 500-yen’s worth of useless paper tore off in my hand…
I scrounged enough change for a Coke. I never drink the stuff, but right them it was like sweet mountain water infused with Ecstasy. Reinvigorated, I retired to the bank of a feisty river, claimed a picnic table, and spent a few happy hours washing everything in the rapids and hanging it in the sun.
One of my favourite things to do on long walks is nothing. Just housekeeping, slow and steady. Everything you need is right there, and all you have to do is clean it and dry it and pack it, keeping inventory, organising it into groups, planning replacements and top-ups…
Meanwhile, though, those insects. Bees and hoverflies buzzed and hovered around and on me; abu — horseflies — with a devotion to blood-sucking that precludes strategies for escape worked in shifts, drawing blood, getting easily smacked into the afterlife, and falling to the ground where teams of ants would almost instantly heave the still-twitching corpse onto their backs and start for home.
The dragonflies were everywhere, many resting on my hanging laundry. Jumping spiders bounced up my legs and arms. Big bloodsucking flies spiked rivulets of red on my poor suffering shins. It was nervewracking.
I cooked pasta, made a coffee, enriched it with a good shot of Nikka — and the Sapporodians drove up in a very tight little car, smiled through the glass, and continued to the onsen without even slowing.
Guess they really wanted that bath.
At last they emerged, clean and sparkling, and after some uncomfortably small talk, confirmed that my bus would be there in an hour or so, and headed off, waving chirpily, leaving me a packet of uneaten seafood snacks, and a polystyrene cup of instant curry rice.
Oh well, they were young. They’d learn the Mountain Code one day. If they lived that long.
My lunch and coffee were most restorative; the sulphurously soothing bath and an overpriced micro-tub of Häagen-Dazs worked wonders. I was the only passenger on the hour-long mini-bus that rattled down unsealed mountain roads to a town whose name I don’t remember, and a train ride with a fine can of Japanese beer I always will.
In Sapporo I retreated to another capsule hotel, enjoyed a meal in a rowdy, smoky izakaya called Bishi Bashi. Roamed the streets getting lost, finding an outdoor store at last, spending more yen, drinking coffee, and sitting on a shady bench in a peaceful park.
Well, it was peaceful till the Chinese tourists arrived. The crows I’d been enjoying — Japanese crows are terrifying-looking beasts, with massive noggins and beaks like hammers and anvils — fascinated the tourists, who would repeatedly approach them, young and old alike, and imitate their cries with great excitement. And volume.
“WAHHHHH! WAHHHHHHHHHH! WAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”
I met a Chinese-speaking western teacher who was on his first trip to Japan, and complained about his “countrymen” and their thing for shattering the peace and quiet with shouting, squabbles in the street and that curious imitation of the local fauna.
“Well, they’re not used to crows or birds in general, because they’ve eaten them all. Seriously, there aren’t many birds left in the countryside. And they don’t understand personal space because they don’t have any. It’s nothing personal. They just have no concept of it.”
Which was very sad, I reflected that night, drawing the blinds on my coffin-sized plastic pod.
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote