At Shin-Shimashima station in the predawn alpine cold, I haul my heavy pack, grief and despair off the panting, narrow-gauge train and board a waiting bus loaded with more curious stares for the final hour’s ascension into Kamikochi.
Give me a life-or-death emergency anytime. Heartsick from too manysayonaras, single-parent to a backyard boat stranded on the far side of this planet’s biggest ocean,fatigued from a 20-hour journey across incomprehensibly-labeled Honshu – I cling to myfallback adage:
When in danger, when in doubt… go up.
Only transcendence can cure me. Disconcertingly unmoving despite the speed of our approach, Japan’s highest peaks emerge above the driver like a black-and-white print in a tray of Dektol. As the light strengthens,along with thatfamiliar excitement of entering elevated realms, the abiding towering immensity of the Japan Alps beckons as balm and benediction.
I am making for Yarigatake. Resembling a flint-knapped spearpoint 10,433 feet above a distant sea, the slab-sided pyramid of “Asia’s Matterhorn” is second only to Mount Fuji as the most iconic peak in all Japan.
Round-trip distance from trailhead: 28.4 km
Stopping beside the busy trail, I untie the bulging canvas sack looselysuspended from my trustyFjällräven packframe to extract water bottle, powdered milk, honey andEarl Grey.
Nippon’s sons and daughters crowd close to viewthisexotic ritual. Recalling the traditional, chipped-cupJapanese Tea CeremonyI was honored to attend with Thea, I look up from the putt-putting Svea stove to explain: “English Tea Ceremony.”
Smiles, grins and laughter need no translation.
But the joke’s on me:thefirst two kilometers gain 3,000 feet! Halting to recover, I gazeacrossunbrokencloudsfar below and knowI’ve entered the abode of the gods.Sporting bright synthetic plumage, Japanese tourists passin chattering packs, their bass-boostedboomboxes scattering the special silence I seek.
Following a comfortable night at Mount Hodaka hut – one of dozens of spartancedaroases stretching across the “Roof of Japan” for unencumbered touring – I lash my sleeping bag to the packframe and push on for Yari in the wake of the “boomers” who departed before daybreak.
They aren’t far. The downward-seepingsunrise overrange-on-range of pink-capped peaks has hushedeveryone.
After an exhilarating otherworldly clamber, I arrive alone at the trail junction in the early afternoon. Looking up from my kanji-cluttered map, the choice is clear. Stretching away to my right, Hotaka ridge promises the ultimate in my favorite terrestrial activity –cruising the high countryamong beckoning snowcapped peaks.
As I veer toward the favoredroute, I nearly bump into someonearrivingfrom that direction. A Japanese woman travelling alone through this remoteness is remarkable. Given my unobstructed view, her abrupt appearanceis even more intriguing.
“Doko ikimasuka?”she inquires after we trade konichiwas.Attempting to communicate with the foreigner.
“Yarigatake ikimasu,” I reply, noting sensible mountain attire and no backpack.
“Dame!” (dom-eh)my providential guide insists, pointing to a fainter track winding out of sight around a spur to my left. “Shorto-cutto.”
Bowing to hertimelyintercession, I go left. But therecommended “shortcut” isnot flat.Ladenunder canned food and cooking gear grabbed from Celerity’s galley,I’mcompletely wiped when the welcome sight of a weathered, high-roofed cabin hoves into view. Coming out for a look at my jerry-riggedpacksack, its single occupant frowns.
Follow me, he gestures, turning to bound up a steep scree slope. Without breath to argue, I eventually arrive, nauseous and gasping,beside my impatienttormentor.Run down, he commands.Unable to control my loose pack, punishing my knees with each slamming jolt, I slidewildly onloose rock. At the bottom, I’m given an emphatic, no way headshake.
The good news: I can stay the night.
Over asimple yet hard-to-obtain vegetarianmeal, despite barely-bridgeablelinguistic crevasses, I learn that my university-age host is a devout Buddhist whose isolated summit eyrie seems ideal for practicing presence.
The downside, this gatekeeper explains, is that theroute he guards isthemost perilous in the Japan Alps!
Every season, he must repeatedly climb down to the remains of knowledgeable, well-equipped hikers whoplummeted to their deaths from the same knife-edge ridge I am about to attempt.
Every night, he tells me, their crushed, blankly-staring faces visit his dreams.
He does not want mine among them.
Much later, enveloped inblackness up in thegust-slammed loft creaking like thatHong Kong brigantine, my fitful sleep is assaulted by a frenzied flapping in my face.
Immediately snaredby the beam of my flashlight, a monstrous mothflutters around my head. With a chill of unshakeable dread, I realizeit’s my own death circling.
Breakfast is taken in an uneasy silence. Once again, I am asked to abandon my suicidal quest. Again, I refuse. For my beleaguered spirit, shirking thistest would be as fatal as a fall.
I will meet my fate now, today.
Outside, surrounded by unutterable magnificence, I shoulder my treacherous pack. Let the universe decide. It’s a good day to die!
Walking to the end of the ridge, Iraise the heavy, motordrivenCanon to frame purple-hazed peaks receding into infinity. The last exposure I’m ever likely to make… isperfect.
To be continued
Yarigatake (yar-ee-ga-tok-ee) “Spearpoint Mountain”
doko ikimasuka? (do-ko iki-mas’ka) Where do you go?
10,000 feet – altitude at which occupants of non-pressurized aircraft switch to supplemental oxygen to assure normal brain function.
Photos by Will Thomas Scans by King Anderson