Friday, December 06, 2013
The mustachioed man puffs out cigarette smoke like a steam locomotive, the stripes of the crosswalk serving as railroad ties. I sit before him, on the other side of the glass, in a hip little place I found as I walked through Jingu-mae. I had three hours to kill, so it had been a day spent moving slow, quite a luxury in a city of Tokyo's size, on this, a weekday.
From this window of San Francisco Peaks, I spy berets and beards, Van Dykes and VW Beetles. A T-shirt bearing the words, "United Arrows" reminds me for a moment of the PM, and I remind myself that sloganeering generally indicates a lack of ideas. There's more depth in the pop song coming through the speakers. Despite that, there's definitely an increase in men in uniforms these days. And I do hope that some of these hipsters I see passing by notice it too.
I sip IPA from a plastic glass, which rests soundly on a denim coaster perfectly squared. There are no other customers in here, so the waitress throws a glance every so often as she moves a cloth over metal utensils. Waitstaff in Japan certainly polish a lot of silverware. Every sip of my beer adds another ring to the smooth inner curve of the glass, and before long it begins to look like the banded atmosphere of Venus.
Before ordering another pint, I climb the stairs to the toilet. Along the wall are posters of San Francisco in its hippie heyday, one in particular of a crowd taken from the stage of some outdoor concert. Psychedelic lettering above their shaggy heads reads, "All Together...Now." And I'm together with them, the owners downstairs, with the whole chilled out vibe here. They certainly have created a nice space. But what they may not realize is that San Francisco Peaks is the name of a mountain range outside Flagstaff. Unless of course it's an acid reference. San Francisco peaking. All together. Now.
Out on the street, a guy in a beanie bobs his head deferently as he speaks with a tall man in a leather jacket and black pork pie hat. I imagine them to be a struggling musician talking to a famous record producer, in a casual meeting here on the street. In Japan, even the hipsters bow...
On the turntable: Beck, "Mellow Gold"
On the nighttable:............... "The Izu
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
I leave the comfort of my inn only to be lashed in the face by the cold. I'm wearing every piece of clothing I've been carrying, yet the cold still find a way through. The sun isn't yet up, but every step through the dark brings warmth into my body.
When walking roads, I tend to leave early, so as to get a good two or three hours under my feet before the traffic builds. But already, the accompaniment of headlights sweeps my front and back, escorting me out of town like a lynch mob. The road, Rte 469, eventually winds up a hill past a golf club, then becomes a long straightaway which bisects a section of military base. Olive trucks continue to make up the bulk of the traffic, and here and again a lone soldier stands by the roadside. They look like actors playing GI's in some WWII film, lean and lanky in a uniform two sizes too big.
Both sides of the road are low grass, mowed and kept trim by one of these low ranking soldiers probably. The tips of the grass are white with frost, and as I move along the sun finds me, popping up behind the Hakone range to the south and stretching my shadow toward the great volcano.
It had been a bitterly cold night, yet despite this Fuji seems to have lost some of her snowy cap. Nevertheless, it extends well down her shapely shoulders. I sit awhile on a concrete berm watching her. She watches me drink coffee. To my left, Mt. Ashitaka who tries to tempt me away from the road. I long for another day like yesterday, moving along the peace of mountain trails, and nearly talk myself into temporarily leaving the highway and meeting it again on the other side. But to do so means adding additional kilometers and I'm facing 37 already. I'd never make it Shiraito today. Which means returning to complete the journey sometime in the future. I stay with the bitumen.
I leave 469 for another road that looks smaller on my map, yet I find it more heavily trafficked. Worse, it leads straight uphill. There are no shoulders here, so I hug the sides, tightrope walking above the gutter beneath high concrete walls. The exertion brings on sweat beneath all the layers, tempting me to shed one or two, but each passing truck splashes me in its cold wake. Morning rush hour is the worst time of day to walk, drivers speeding late to work, little expecting the walker coming out of the sun. More than half are certain to be further distracted by mobile phones. I dread most the blind curves, anticipating the moment when my body gets its final lesson in physics. As if a reminder, a surprisingly large deer lies newly dead on the side of the road, light still in its eyes and foam bubbling from slightly parted lips.
But I make it finally to the top of the low hill, to an open area that looked like pasture. The Suyama route to the summit is somewhere in the trees behind me. I warm myself in the sun awhile, then walked past the safari park to take a longer rest at the trail head to Ashitaka. As I remove a couple layers, a group of hikers stretches in the parking lot.
I've swung to the south of Fuji now. Restaurants, B&B's, and tourist shops have replaced the bases here. Plus the traffic is much, much lighter. I walk an actual sidewalk, along a sunny stretch of road. It's still Rte 469, yet in my mind, I am in the northern limits of New Mexico. The trees are different, but they frame a distant landscape filled with the snow-capped towering peaks of south Colorado. I feast on this view until the eyes are overruled by the cravings of the stomach. Climbing wearily up to a shrine to the yama no kami, I gaze out at Suruga Bay, just visible from this height. It reminds me of something I once read about the yamabushi, about how their sacred sites are in the mountains because that is where they found the best views of the water. The Japanese are a seafaring people, and so are their gods.
Body and mind thus sated, I press on. I'm quite pleased at my pace, 25 km before noon. I had many such days in Shikoku, but only after a three week build-up of daily walking. Today however is only day two. I take a final rest at an outdoor BBQ place, across the road from a half dozen railway cars converted into karaoke boxes, yet now rusting and sprouting weeds. The BBQ pits too look unused, if only since the end of summer. Yet I am still able to find a working outlet to charge my GPS. The whinnying of the ponies in the adjacent corral serves as lullaby as I take a quick catnap on a bench in the sun.
I move toward a grove of high ceders to find Murayamasengen Jinja. Shinto in name, the shrine is filled with Buddhist deities. Again, the roots of Fuj worship go far back in time.
But I move forward. Up Rte 72, a dull walk ever lined by monocultural forest on both sides. For the first time in two days, I can no longer see Fuji beyond my right shoulder. With so little here to attract the eyes, I allow my music to take me to other places. Before long, I'm coming into Shiraito town. A couple more kilometers to the falls. Just as I'm hoping that there is a craft beer on sale in one of the shops, I notice a small cafe that claims to sell German brew. In the parking lot is a European man loading crates into the bed of a pickup. He tells me that he'll be closed until 4 pm, but he can sell me a bottle to go. As he rings me up, I tell him that I'm planning to toast my walking 7 albeit nonconsecutive days around Mt. Fuji. Not only does he not seem at all interested, but he acts as if he hears this kind of thing from every customer. With a similar lack of chalance, I drift out the door and up the road.
Then I'm standing at the overlook to the falls. The water is indeed a white thread stretching effortlessly down the face of the rock wall. Just as they were the first time I'd stood here a year ago, workmen and machines tear into the floor of the river bed, making the future passage easier for high heels and pampered pedigrees pooches. I think that I'll probably never return, then turn and walk back past the old shops and their perpetual Showa era goods, out to the road in order to follow where my thumb will take me.
On the turntable: Wings, "Wings Greatest"
On the nighttable: Robert Macfarlane, "The Wild Places"
Monday, December 02, 2013
The bear prints in the mud betray what may be lurking in the kumazasa that lines both sides of the trail, grown as tall as I am this late in autumn. But I don't scan the bushes for any dark, black shadows, as the act of holding up my head takes too much effort. I'm tired.
This morning at 6:30, when I walked toward my bus, I was still a little drunk. I don't usually drink to the point of drunkenness, but it is no surprise that I love good beer, and my friend Patrick had introduced me to a brewhouse that served loads of it. As we downed our pints, I could feel them conspiring against me. I hadn't eaten much that day, and was quite fatigued from a week long tour. As fun as guiding can be, I usually don't sleep well. Going for one last pint had seemed like a good idea at the time, but it proved to be a beer too far. I found an empty seat in the reserved compartment of an express out of Tokyo, and later, rode as far as Fujiyama Station, my inebriated head bobbing along with those of the handful of men who seem to do this long journey every day.
A bit of bread and coffee had helped ground me by the time I got off the bus at Hirano. A year ago, I'd hitched a ride from this intersection, after a 6-day tour over the low peaks that frame Fuji's five lakes. In fact I'd started not far from a sixth, Tanuki-ko, which lies a short flight away from Shiraito Falls by crow, yet what had proven three tough vertical hours on foot for me. With Fuji serving the center of a clock's face, Shiraito would be at eight, and Hirano at two. Sixty-five clockwise kilometers lay between, a distance I'd try to cover in two long days.
It was still quiet this early, Lake Yamanaka visible between B&B's and tennis courts. I found my trailhead after 20 minutes or so, and began to ascend up a narrow ravine carved out by the feet of pilgrims and hikers. The trail was covered in leaves ankle deep, and in warmer seasons I'd be thinking of snakes. But the temps this morning had yet to pass zero, so I figured I was safe until March.
Before long, I came to a viewpoint, to find a film crew setting up. A couple of black vans parked nearby had "Patagonia" written on their sides. The day was incredibly clear. I considered this a reward for my head start. Fuji loomed majestically on the left, and the crisp blue of Lake Yamanaka offset the brilliance of the snow capped South Alps further out. The moon too lingered in the sky as if wanting a little more time with this million dollar view. Myself similarly sated, I pushed upward into the kumazasa.
The top of this mound, Mt. Myojin, is completely bald and a good place for a long rest. The sign pointing south tells me it is only 20 minutes to Mt. Mikuni, but nearly an hour passes before I arrive at the top, puffing and sweat drenched. As I attempt to catch my breath, I am beset upon by a handful of elderly hikers who ask their usual questions. We have a pleasant chat before they leave me to my chocolate and the quiet.
I pass them not long after, as I make good time along this flat part of the ridge. A bit too quick perhaps, as I surprise something large and grey which races through my eyeline and down the ridge. A deer, based on the way it moved, but the coloring and size suggest a frighteningly large boar. Yet the day is too nice to ruin with worry, and I move onward beneath the beautiful buna, shorn of all leaf.
The ridgeline rises and falls over four peaks. Each climb takes considerable effort, and I wish each time that I had slept more and had drank less. Atop the last of the peaks I find a sign pointing to an overlook, which I find to be covered by 30 hikers quietly eating their lunch. They are a friendly hiking club, one member seeming convinced I'm German. After they leave, I spend a long time here, Fuji sitting just before me. She tells me stories as I have my lunch.
Then downward, downward. Toward the bottom, the trail is well cared for, with woodchips lining the earth. I step from these onto the narrow streets bisecting holiday homes. Something, the color of the sky perhaps, makes me sing the lyrics to "Tangled Up in Blue" as I follow the hilly roads down to the trailhead for the Subashiri Route. Here, as at the start of all of Fuji's trailheads, stands an Asama Shrine. This one is pretty elaborate, with lots of little stones and stele nestled amidst the cobweb of little paths through the forested grounds. In one small afterthought of a building, there's even a video about Fuji's World Heritage status.
When I leave the shrine I find myself in Gotemba's outer suburbs. As such, the next stretch is not a particularly interesting walk, skirting as it does a military base. This entire eastern face of Fuji seems to be covered by a chain of bases, on land isolated enough on which to train, yet strategically close to Tokyo. For the rest of the day, the majority of vehicles that pass are of the same drab shade of green. As a kind of counterpoint, I find a racetrack, with men wheeling through figure eights and gunning along the straightaways in colorful vehicles not much larger than bumper cars. I watch them awhile, then leave the main road.
Gravel crunches beneath my steps as I move quietly through the trees. The only traffic through here are trucks, either the military variety, or else dump trucks toting earth somewhere. I could be in Alaska here. Midway along I pass a massive works project, which a guardman tells me will be a dam. But there is simply no water anywhere in sight.
I make an abrupt left and am back in suburbs, these a little nicer that the last set. It actually looks a pleasant place to live, with little veggie plots, rustic country architecture, and as always, the mountain looming above. I'm completely reliant on my GPS through here, zigzagging as I am. I'm pleased that the plotted course also takes me along dirt paths through sections of forest, rather than sticking simply to the roads. And I know I'm moving away from the bases when I see traces of the old ways again: Jizo and stone markers; bamboo groves and tea bushes. The stones help me imagine centuries of men being drawn toward Fuji like it's a beacon.
Yet I am different, a man of my own times, being led away from the mountain -- and from the sacred -- by the latest in handheld technology.
On the turntable: Rolling Stones, "Let It Bleed"
On the nighttable: Sarah Bird, "The Yokota Officer's Club"