Saturday, January 24, 2015

Hang your Head no More...

On January 23, 1905,  three men entered an inn in what is now Higashi Yoshino-cho and sold the carcass of a male wolf to an American traveler.  It would prove to be the last animal of its kind.

I'd come across this tale in Brett L. Walker's The Lost Wolves of Japan.  I first read it two summers ago, as I led a group of Singaporeans through the snow covered high peaks of Hokkaido.  It was a fitting location for my reading, for it was there that a Ohio rancher offered his expertise on raising livestock, and one of his teachings was the importance of exterminating the local wolf population with extreme prejudice.   As I penetrated deeper into the Hokkaido hills I similarly penetrated into the heart of the book,  an exploration of how the Japanese went from a culture that saw the natural world as a sacred land of the gods (including most definitively the wolf), to a society who quickly and widely accepted the western view that this same natural world was a bountiful font ripe for exploitation.  Within a single generation the howls of the wolves were silenced forever.

I eventually passed the book on to my friend Wes, who readily agreed that we visit the site where the last wolf has been memorialized in a bronze statue alongside a narrow stretch of river.  But our mission wouldn't begin there.  In the vicinity were a pair of peaks that find themselves on the bucket list of many Japanese mountaineers, the Kinki 100 famous mountains.  There were a handful of other, more attractive mountains closer by, but as they were all over 1400 meters and covered in snow, we opted to approach two that were half that height.

So it was that we found ourselves walking up a steep pitch in a light rain.  The day was reasonably warm, the warmth increasing as we pressed back against the stubborn might of gravity.  The Dainichi Nyorai statue we passed midway betrayed no emotion as we went by; nor for that matter did the lone hiker we saw that day.  And that's about all we saw, as this Horizaka-san was socked in, and a metallic map on the top taunted us with its display of what we couldn't see, including Mt. Fuji far far to the east.  There were however a couple of corrugated tin lean-to's for those staying overnight.  Soft mats and bottles of water were provided either for those stuck on the mountain unintentionally, or for the yamabushi who saw this mount as a playground.   We descended along one of their trails, wild and slick as it shot us downward, now allied to that same gravity that had bullied us earlier. 

After a quick refuel at a roadside Chinese joint, we drove part way up the flank of Shirai-zan, bisecting rice paddies bordered in stone, until a gate prevented my car from going any further.   The mountain's name translates as 'White Boar,' which I'd love to believe refers to some mythological beast.  More likely it is simply the covering of snow during the winter months.  Not this day however, though it could have been a welcome method of covering up the evidence of man's abuse of the natural world which has spiraled out of control since that Ohioan stepped off a ship in Hokkaido over a century ago.   Whereas the peak earlier today had been for the holymen, this one was for the villagers.  And the condition in which they'd left it could only be described as blasphemous.  There had once been major forestry here, and though no recent cuts were to be seen, hundreds of trees spilled down the hillsides dead where they lay.  A concrete road had once brought the loggers in, passing a farm now similarly abandoned.  Ours wasn't the toughest of hikes, as the trail meandered in and out and above a few ravines.  Except for a trio of giants said to be a millennium old, all was new growth cedar, sodden pollen pouring from their trunks in the form of white foam, perhaps in biochemical confusion on a day far too warm for January.  We found the peak just beyond a junked scooter that had somehow made its way up to 800 meters.  The rain and the devastated landscape did little to inspire a long visit here.  It wasn't too long before we were back at my car.

Our drive to the wolf took longer than our two climbs had.  Along the way I kicked myself for not having prepared an appropriate soundtrack, which would have included the Dead's 'Dire Wolf,' Los Lobo's classic, "How will the Wolf Survive?,'  X's 'Hungry Wolf,' and of course the obligatory 'Hungry Like the Wolf.'   Plus copious amounts of that old bluesman.  But I was forced to settle for the criminally underrated Wolfgang Press, and a track or two by Herr Mozart. Along the way, Wes pointed out peaks he'd scaled, many climbing out of the smallest of hamlets.  These grew further and further apart until we found ourselves moving beside a valley quickly growing dark.

Then the wolf appeared.  It stood still and proud in the shadow of the hillside, its mouth eternally open in an expression of either defiance or surprise.  Wes looked around at the hills that these proud creatures had once proudly roamed.  Both he and I share in that spirit I suppose, having logged countless hours of our own moving along the same trails, though through what is now no longer the same landscape.  

If the nature of the wolf is perhaps within us, then so too is its curse.  And as if bewitched, we yet again took a series of wrong turns, though this time we were protected from the chill by the steel body of my car.   And now as the fog pressed in and the darkness thickened, the forest reminded us that, touched by the hand of man or no, it was still most definitely wild, and had teeth. 

On the turntable:  "Buddha Chillout Lounge"


wes said...

Wonderfully depicted account of a soggy day in the mountains. Kudos for getting this post up so quickly. I'll get around to soon as I finish all my paperwork from that lost wallet!

ted said...

Yeah, kinda left out that part of the tale.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Many thanks for this account - even without the wolf-themed soundtrack, this is a plangent memorial to the demise of Bre'er Wolf. I didn't realise that there is actually a statue in his memory too. A colleague of mine claims to have seen a live wolf running away over the snows of Kami-kochi, in the depths of winter. But more likely to have been a fox or feral dog, I suspect....