Thursday, 31 December 2009

The red and the green

The Mountain Hawk Eagle, monarch of the Aizu skies, had hit a bird above the village and landed to eat it on a hillside path. It's talons had slashed the snow in hand-sized rakes as it tore it to pieces, a graphic image of the struggle to eat or be eaten in the long, hard winter. The small birds have it hard, and come right up to your feet, pecking through anything you disturb while shovelling snow: mud, leaves, anything. I tried to give one bread, but it didn't recognise it as food, and ignored it.

The kamoshikas (Japanese mountain serows) and hares in their winter coats scrabble at the steep banks, where it is easier to make a patch of snow slide down rather than having to dig it all up, to find plants underneath. They make good use of the woodland paths above the village, and their prints are everywhere around small exposed sections of greenery, the moss and small-leaved specialist plants thriving in surprising lushness beneath the snow.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Snow anger

"Don't get angry with the snow: it will come anyway." That is probably the best piece of advice I will receive this, or any winter. It came from my 72 year-old next door neighbour, he who memorably swore last spring that there were definitely no bears on the mountain he was taking me to. The first thing we saw was bear crap. He's a character all right.

Dealing with the snow from the roof. The cat hasn't been seen for a while.

I reckon he knows a thing or two about living with snow by now. It was good of him to come over and show me how to make use of the water from the road sprinklers. They had seemed perplexing until this, their glory hour, arrived. River water is used to keep sections of road through villages clear. Whilst a prodigious amount of snow falls, the temperature is not cold enough to freeze them. If you are fortunate enough to live by these sprinklers, they make your work much easier. Chuck the snow in the roadside drain, and ten minutes later, no snow. Or, in our case, new snow to take its place in the heaviest December snowfall for thirty eight years.

The drain covers up to receive their load of snow

I was somewhat chastened when he bent down and swiftly hoisted up one of the heavy metal grills. I had been completely unable to shift it when trying to rescue my foolish mobile phone, which was taking an ill-advised  dip in the cooling waters during the hot weather. It hasn't been itself since: decidedly off-peaky. I had weakly assumed they were welded down. They are very heavy and wouldn't find bone an obstacle to their downward progress, should they fall in imitation of Madame Guillotine.

The proper icing of a car cake

Shigemura-san then screamed up in his K-van, leaping out brandishing various snow-related implements. "Like this Geoff-san, like this!" he cried, leaping balletically around the pavement, elegant sweeps of his revelatory snow-plough-on-a-stick sending impressive heaps of slushy snow sliding across tarmac into the drain and onto the road, to it's watery doom. He loves a good mission - in an earthquake he would achieve greatness.

With a flourish he produced a big telescopic brush-and-scraper-thingy. "Please buy! Please buy!" It seems that if you leave your car for a short time outside, it can quickly reveal it's ambition to be part of a mogul skiing course, taking the hump and freezing you out in no uncertain terms. It will merely snigger at an old store card or hand scraper - they are not going to cut it.

Its under there somewhere. Someone is not going to the shops for a while.

Wonderful though the snow-plough-on-a-stick and the big telescopic brush-and-scraper-thingy are, they are small beer in the snow equipment stakes. As dusk seeped in the snow was still falling in frightening quantities, and I had shovelled a foot of snow into the drain for the third time that day. I was tired but manly, daunted but upbeat, an undercurrent of terror ridden by a tiny blue boat called 'Coping,' it's captain laughing hysterically at the shark thrashing around on deck. Keep it together man, keep it together. Remember the advice, Luke remember the advice. What was it I was supposed to remember? Touch a policeman - feel the force? No, no, that wasn't it. "Don't get angry with the snow." Ah, wise words. Then growling into the dusk came the mother and father of all personal snow devices, a beast with whirling teeth spitting spume into the night, a mechanical fury. I want one.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

A spot of weather

Numazawako, the volcanic lake whose balmy waters we swam in all summer, has finally shown its teeth. Waves like little steel blades rushing straight at you, with the kind of snow cloud bearing down from the mountains and advancing across the water that looked designed to bear a ghost ship. You can't beat a spot of weather, though it can often beat you.

Running through the woods I stopped to hear the quiet.... and noticed that the first days of snow had formed dappled patches, in the same way that midday sun would, as if it had become an inverted substance and was dropping down in powder form. Light against dark is a beautiful thing in itself, and pine woods a distillation of it.


Sunday, 13 December 2009

We are all primates here

What could be finer than sharing the world with the most northern population of non-human primates in the world? Sheep and squirrels are all well and good, but for an Englishman, it is sheer delight to come across monkeys on your home patch. Not in a zoo or a book, or with a voice-over by Johnny Morris, but living as they always have, in the woods, gazing back  with their ancient stare. St Simian, un-appointed Primate of the land.

A pair of Japanese Macaques were perched nonchalantly in a tree overhanging the road today. They seemed to be breaking off twigs, stripping their bark and chewing them, though it was hard to see if this was the tree itself or the creeper growing up it - or even insects under the bark. They moved further into the tree when we approached slowly, one a little bigger and shyer with darker fur with a reddish tinge, the other more confident, a ball of thick grey fur ready for the snow due any day now.

I don't envy them the winter outside, and it struck me forcibly how extraordinary and fortuitous it is that we happen to know how to make houses for shelter, while they, with their opposable thumbs and the materials everywhere around them, don't. They are said to huddle together in the snow in big groups on the ground like penguins. You can imagine waking up freezing cold, thinking, 'Shit, the buggers have pushed me to the outside again,' before working your way back for your turn in the cozy middle.

The local ten year-old with us didn't share our enthusiasm. She only likes the babies, finding the adults pug ugly. After all, they are as normal for her as squirrels are for the English. And for Aizu people whose vegetables and fruit are targeted, the monkeys can be a pest. It is a tribute to people's forbearance, to the traditional idea that monkeys protect against demons, and to anti-hunting laws, that monkeys are so relaxed about encountering other primates like us. Especially as our ancient stares gleam with the potential for a much greater degree of inventive malevolence.

If it was England, we'd have wiped them out long ago, along with our wolves, bears, beavers and otters, if they dared to steal a single apple. Then we'd be back to the bloody sheep.

For some fascinating detail about the lives of Japanese Macaques Mucaca Fuscata, click here
If you'd like to read about the mythology and legend attached to monkeys in Japan click here

Children of the sword

Little Dick Whittington’s, their brown canvas bags slung over sticks on their shoulders, are converging in the dark, heading for the Mikagurakan. My son was happy for me to carry his bag until he saw the other children. Then, with grumpy embarrassment he took it from me, so that dressed the same, he was now carrying the same as the others, fitting in, belonging. The bamboo sticks become swords when the threshold to the dojo is crossed, and are treated with a seriousness that smells of blood.

Bow to the senseis
Bow to the flag
Bow to the senseis again
Bow to each other

Then a jumping, stretching, striking circle, led by the oldest child shouting out the numbers, answered by the rest.

Taking up their shineis, they began the ritual stepping forwards and backwards, rhythmically presenting their shineis at the correct angle, and swinging them over their heads to whack their behinds, shouting ‘Meh! Meh! Meh!’ in time with the imagined front strike. Then the speed doubles, then again. ‘Meh! Meh! Meh!’ Then sideways.
The teachers hover, correcting details, angles, steps. The older children finish with a fast leaping backwards and forwards, finishing with a releasing rush forwards. Everyone grins and the tension breaks.

Then fingers fumble with the complex bows and ties to secure the padded aprons and breast plates that begin the transformation into proto-warriors. All the first year children need help, but the results, for a generation reared on Power Rangers, are undoubtedly cool.

While the older ones begin their attacking in full helmeted garb, striking and defending patterns, the same every week, over and over again, the younger ones are drilled in the details of how to bow, the angle from hip to head, the tucked in chin, how many steps to take when presenting and squatting with the shinei. Any child whose attention wanders is fiercely shouted at. This is because discipline, control and mental strength are central to Kendo. Some teachers balance this with smiles, with playfulness and affection in the short breaks, and with praise for something well done. Others don’t, relentlessly bellowing and pushing around young teenagers whose technique and attitude they don’t like. Sometimes this looks like bullying, but the kids seem happy to keep coming back each week.

Darth Vader is running the kindergarten. Steiner would have kittens – and the ickle pickle kittens would cry. I am led by my son’s feeling about it, and for now he is happy – apparently he hasn’t reached the age for being shoved around yet. When he does, I hope he shoves back, or leaves.

The younger ones then struggle to wrap their headscarves into a complex turban. I have seen this sleight of hand a hundred times and still can’t see how it works. They have to put their head guard on over this without pushing the scarf off, and to cope with another complex of cords which have to be tied at the back of the head in a huge bow with loops and ends of equal length. Hard enough when you can see what you are doing, and the children’s patience at repeated failures is extraordinary.

My boy’s transformation is complete, and the DS obsessed, laughing lad disappears behind the chrome grill and the padded gloves, into the unbroken stream of Japanese history, submersion in the group, the subjugation of self. This something that I am glad he can experience as a half Japanese boy. On the other hand, it can send a chill of fear down your spine. Does it play to conformism and to conflict with an opponent as a model, rather than co-operation; to rigid routine rather than creativity; and to unquestioning obedience rather than assertive questioning? In the eyes of a liberal westerner, undoubtedly yes.

But then it also increases self–control, formalising aggression into a harmless ritual, two things that English young people struggle with at the moment. It would be hard to survive in the very demanding Japanese work environment without some steel in your spine, tolerance for the long working hours and self abnegation. And I’m not aware of Kendo hooliganism. Millions are not paid to its bratishly skilled adepts, so that millions more people can passively watch, ceding their own striving to symbolic heroes and occasionally breaking out into acts of mindless violence. Sport as cultural hyper-inflation, anyone? Give me and F! Give me an O! Give me an O….

The evening finishes with the teachers facing the long row of children ordered by age, kneeling in silence. The silence extends and thickens, punctured with an explosive reprimand for any child that looses concentration, caught inside a few minutes for what seems an age and extending to the few parents who have stayed.

Then they burst into life, fizzing and whirling like fireworks into the night. They are children again, and the swords are just sticks.


Thursday, 3 December 2009


Asakusa-dake -1584m/5197ft- is a mountain in the west of Aizu, Fukishima-ken, just west of Tadami on the border with Niigata-ken. This wonderful mountain affords stupendous views and has a variety of routes up it, from the spectacular switchbacks of the sharp Onigatsura ridge to the south, to the more benign and gradual route which approaches from the north-east.

The south ridge and southern flank paths
The south ridge from Asakusa-dake summit. Onigatsura Yama on the left, Kitadake on the right.
The south ridge can be accessed from either end of the tunnel at the top of the pass. This route involves steep paths on a serrated, often sharp ridge with big cliffs to the side. There is a small area to park below the west end of the tunnel, or you can use the train that stops at a small station on the Tadami line, at the foot of the southern path. A circuit can be made by combining the southern ridge, which is joined 600m west of the summit, with the southern flank path which heads steeply south from the top of Asakusak-dake, and linking their bottoms with the road. Be careful on the road too, as traffic is nervous and concentrating on the road not you, and the tunnel is unlit: carry a light. The southern flank path is a steep slog, with some roped sections on small crags on the way up and small sections of narrow ridge.

The north east approach  
The gentler route from the north east  climbs 1,136m (3,727ft) in steady stages and has good views even in summer, but no exposure to drops or sharp ridges. This makes for a more relaxing, scenic day. An alternative loop near the bottom takes you through a group of small lakes to vary the up and down routes. You join the main summit slope by an unmanned mountain hut, but this is only erected from the spring to late October. These final slopes are famous for their array of unusual flowers and plants.

S-san at 1,000m at the top of the first stage of the climb, looking back.
The view from NE ridge looking east back into Aizu
Approaching the last slope to Asakusa-dake on the north east route
View south from near the top of the north east flank route

Please note: this is not a guide or a recommendation. Always use your on judgement and take responsibility for your own safety - as with mountains anywhere, Japanese mountains can be dangerous: be prepared and equipped, and  don't underestimate them.


Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Monkey prints in the snow

Adult and juvenile monkey prints at 5,000ft, heading for Asaksa-Dake, Tadami.

As the path gradually climbed into snow it became clear that we weren't alone. This clean white paper had taken impressions, prints entering from the left and right, following the path and eventually turning back into the woods. It gave the sense that all year, though it had felt as if the woods were largely unpopulated, there had been invisible creatures on the leaf litter and on the moss, alert and seeing, even if unseen, pausing until the danger had moved on. Now their footprints betrayed them, but also showed that this path was theirs as much as ours.

Rear monkey paws on the left, front on the right. The dark two are a Japanese hare's.

At first there were a single monkey's prints, heading up the mountain just as we were. Do they use these paths to move quickly between areas? I looked around at the unpromising bare trees and bedraggled bamboo, and wondered what they were living on.
Adult and young monkey prints

Japanese hare prints. Each set of four was a one metre leap apart.

Beautiful fur from a Japanese Hare in it's winter coat, probably eaten by a fox


Monday, 30 November 2009

An abandoned village

San-Jo, in a remote offshoot of the Tadami valley, was left to the woods thirty years ago.

That most private of places now open to the elements: someone's bath

It is the graves that tell you there was once a village of twelve houses in this beautiful, hard place. The valley entrance is guarded by tall crags, breached only by an unsurfaced road in need of constant attention to stop it falling into the river a hundred feet below. From the concrete bridge that now skirts the cliff you can still see the crumbling remains of the old track that was cut into the vertical rock face.  Originally the route over the hills would have been the quickest way to the next village in the main valley. Before cars this would have been at the least a four hour walk, and in winter much longer in snow shoes even after them. In the four months cut off by snow, the twelve houses would have been their all in all. Then each small village would arrange a temporary school for the local children - if there were any.

The literal meaning of San-Jo is 'the place of three', and whether by coincidence or not, there are three large standing stones by the road, now near a collapsing shed and an up-ended fridge.

Three stones by the track at San-jo

They have the look of placed monoliths, rounded and unusual in that they are without any markings. They and the gravestones will outlast everything else, and the long-gone people. Some of the gravestones are dated from two hundred years ago, in the Edo period, and many are much older, worn and crumbling into the ground. The ground around them is kept clear - respect for the dead is one of central pillars of Japan, but there are no offerings or flowers. Even an outsider can feel the pain of this evidence of bloodlines ended or scattered far into the cities, with no-one caring enough to return. I have been in cleared Scottish glens with the same atmosphere and a palpable sense of the lives of others in the land.

The fate of San-Jo foreshadows what may come to many villages in Aizu. In our own, half of the houses are already empty, and the average age is seventy. Some of the graves  go untended, signalling that the family has moved away to the cities. It may be that the current generation of older people working the land and gathering wild food in the woods are the last to live in this ancient way here.


Saturday, 28 November 2009

Bad day on Bandai-san

A farce, just on the right side of tragedy
Bandai-san (1819m/5,968ft) is a volcano in Aizu, Fukishima-ken, Japan, just north of Lake Inawashiro.
Bandai-san in November. Quick shimmy up there, nee bother
I'm not sure I should tell you. Really. This is a highly embarrassing story, more chastening for me than entertaining for you. I'll remember it long after the scratch in my palm has healed. Long after the burning of my raw shins, which feel as if they have visited Mistress Whackam's House of Correction, has eased. But I'll take a quiet moment to share it with you because I like you, and it might prevent you making a similar mistake. Don't tell anyone else though, eh? Sit down by that pile of damp gear, and I'll begin.

First mistake
It is always dangerous to simplify a mountain in your head. Try and make it match your idea of it, instead of remembering that it is a huge complex mass formed by inconceivably strong geological forces, against which you are less than nothing, and it will bite you hard and deep. If you escape with your technical fabrics on your back and sufficient life in you to feel mortified, you are lucky. I had Bandai-san down as a tourist's mountain, tamed by ski slopes, with obvious motorway paths and a structure simple enough to remember. It looks exactly like the triangle of brown sludge that I painted with my first ever set of oils - a child's idea of how a mountain should look.

Bandai-san earlier in the year, in April
And yet this is the mountain that claimed more than 450 lives in 1888. The eruption in July that followed a series of earthquakes blasting an estimated 158,700,000 cubic feet of rock from the top of what was once a much bigger mountain. Some slid to the north, obliterating villages and blocking rivers, and some was blasted into the air, causing boulders to rain down up to nine miles away. Ash fell from a towering plume of smoke sixty miles long, and lava flowed to the south east. The hurricane force down-draft of air that rushed down the mountainside flattened the surrounding forests. It has been likened  to the more recent catastrophic explosion of Mt. St Helens in America. There is a short story by a Japanese writer loaded with foreboding that follows a team of tax-collectors into the remote villages to the north in Urabandai, which were inundated.

Second mistake  
I never go up a mountain without a map. Never, except this day. Injury had kept me on the bike and off the hills most of the year, and I was keen for a run up Bandai-san before the snows came. Good Japanese walking maps are a closely guarded secret. I had searched bookshops for years - nada. Even the visitor's centre a few miles away from Bandai-san had no map of it. Never mind, it would be well signposted up clear paths. What could go wrong?

My planned starting point at Inawashiro ski centre was covered with cloud, so I made a last-minute change and went to Alts Ski Centre instead - the guidebook had said it was the most popular starting point as it was shorter and less steep. I hadn't paid as much attention to the thumbnail diagram of this route, but not to worry, hardly worth bothering with - I'd just knock it off in a couple of hours.

There were no obvious signs to the path from the centre, and no shop open to ask someone. I picked the grassy ski-slope that pointed most directly to the top, figuring there would be a path from it up to the the ridge that sloped from the left up to the sunlit top on the right. I'd be enjoying those views in an hour.

Third mistake 
There was no path at the top of the ski-lift, and the scrub trees and creepers made an impenetrable barrier. I cut back to the small road nearby, by this time getting a bit frustrated. There was a decrepit metal fire sign and red spray paint on a tree indicating an entrance to the woods. It looked a bit unused, but it hadn't looked far to the ridge, and there was a line of red marks following a stream in the right direction. I took it.

By now I was into the snow line. It was soft and shallow, but as the slope kicked up steeply it began to get more slippery. I considered turning back as the bamboo got thicker, but the search for another path meant going back and running up the road, and there might not be one. The ground looked clearer of bear bamboo above the gully the stream was in, so I climbed up to it, hanging on to roots and stems.

Fourth mistake 
I continued up, and became aware of more animal prints in the snow. They were circular, about 10cm accross,  with occasionally claw marks at the front. There were dark brown stains from scent marking with urine. In several large trees the remains of platforms of sticks and leaves were above me. I had wandered into a very active bear area. By now in the middle of it, I decided it would be as quick to continue up out of it as go down - I still planned to reach the ridge path which must be nearby. I took my bear spray in hand and climbed quickly on, looking around carefully and making a lot of noise.

I felt to be out of their home patch now, but now the ground was getting steeper, and the bamboo was much thicker. Weighed down with snow it pointed down the hill, making every other step a slide downwards. Only by kicking into the dense tangle and heaving myself up with my arms could I make any progress. This was going to be tough, but the path would appear any time now, so it would be worth it.

I reached a ridge, but there was no path. It was narrow and covered with dense scrub, with the occasional mocking red mark on a branch to show that someone had once, some time ago, thought this would make a good route and cleared it. The mountain had long since claimed it back, and the tracks of a Kamoshika (Japanese Serow) in the snow emphasised how much better adapted it was to this terrain than me.

The most frightening part now began. Instead of reaching the main ridge, there now opened out a flat area, where no flat area should be. It was a marshy plateau, filled with tangled vegetation so dense it was hard to see how it could be got through. It didn't make sense. The mist had come down, and the thick cloud prevented any views that would help to identify the structure of the land. Going back would mean at the least a struggle back down the slope and through the bear's front yard, and if I went wrong I could become crag-fast. Going sideways to find a path risked crossing dangerously steep ground. It seemed the only reliable option was to continue upwards to the north east until I reached the ridge or the top, where I knew there were definite major paths that would be quick to follow down.

I started across the marsh, floundering around tangled in the whipping stems, enmeshed with snow-covered trees. To my horror strange large holes filled with slush and icy water began to appear in the ground, some of them deep and ten feet across with a canopy of vegetation hiding them. Falling into one didn't bear thinking about, and getting out looked difficult or impossible. I didn't know it at the time, but the eruption of 1888 was in the running for another victim. I found out later that the holes were the created then, whether by falling rocks or by steam vents the contemporary scientists couldn't agree. Keeping to the thickest arches of bent over bamboo, holding onto dead branches and hoping for the best I forced away through and made the base of a steep slope. I was glad to get out of there.

By now I was tired from the exertion, and wet from the snow. I was still warm from the last hour of fighting scrub, but it was now one hour away from darkness, and though I had a sack of gear with me I knew it was imperative to find a path and get down quickly. If I stopped moving I was in trouble, glad to have the fitness to manage it. If anything this next section was harder than before - very steep, with the spiky branches of dwarf trees tearing at me and bamboo wrapping round my legs, sometimes as if someone had hold of my foot and was dragging me down. 

I felt like a prince tackling the enchanted brambles round Sleeping Beauty's castle. Not the good looking one with golden hair and excellent teeth. One of the pathetic ones who didn't make it, whose sagging tights got ripped and whose silly head was ripped off by the evil fairy. I thought of the Japanese soldiers living for years in the jungle on their own after the Second World War had ended....I thought of my family. I swore at it all, and at my own stupidity, pulling and lunging, slipping on the slick stems and swearing again, forcing a way upwards for another interminable hour, slicing my palm on a leaf edge. I didn't understand what I was doing here, or how the ridge hadn't appeared, but if I kept going upwards the top had to appear eventually, surely. Either that or my bones would be found some years later, the evil fairy's laughter cackling round the raddled cranium as my ghost struggled up through the snowy web....eternally.

In the gloom of the darkening  interior of the cloud I could finally see the edge of the wind-shrunken scrub. It held on until the last second, when with a final curse I dragged myself  out of it's witchy clutches and onto the deeper snow beyond. Unbelievably, I had come out right at the summit itself. I had climbed the whole of Bandai-san through tangled vegetation. Remarkable in a way, but also monumentally dumb. It was cold up there by the emmergency shelter, so I threw some extra gear on, took a photo 'lest I forget,' and got the hell down.

Pillock at 1819m
Having made some serious mistakes, my decision for rectifying it had worked eventually, and the run down the path was quick and simple. Bandai-san had one more twist to add to this tale, though. In choosing the safe option of using a path on a bearing that would get me quickly off the right side of the mountain, I ended up at the wrong ski-station, as I had anticipated. That would mean a run along the roads across the base of the mountain in the dark. Never mind, I had a head torch and food. I'd get there. As I reached the lower edge of the cloud an orange glow of setting sunlight created an unearthly cataclysmic light straight out of a biblical painting by John Martin. OK, OK Bandai-san, I get your point. Very symbolic. Nice touch.

That's not the twist though. This is: after half an hour running on dark roads, full night put paid to understanding how the hell, amongst all these un-signposted turn-off's into woods and to pensions and onsens, I was going to find my car again. Bowing to the inevitable, I called at a house for directions. After the nervous old couple had understood that I hadn't come to rob them, a comically ineffective  attempt to explain my needs followed. This was not helped by my crap Japanese and their incredibly strong local accents. The essence of the Aizu accent is to throw lots of zeds and zuzzes in there, and slur a bit as if you are cheerfully drunk. Even with M-san on the phone helping, it took a while.

The upshot was that these delightful people were going to turn out on a cold night and drive this perplexing foreigner to Asts ski-jo ("Oh, you meant Zahhddzzzuu Dzzzki-Djzo? Now I underzzztand, so da beh, heh, heh!). This was especially kind for two reasons. Driving in the dark is something I know that older local people try and avoid. And the old gentleman had suffered a stroke, could only move slowly, and drove an adapted car. His sprightly wife, with touching deference, didn't interfere at any point, though he seemed unable to see the left hand side of  the road. Consequently he drove very carefully on the right side, just swerving back to the left side when something came the other way. The car began steaming up alarmingly, so I apologetically put the fan on. He stopped the car to turn if off.

I was so glad for this lift. As it turned out, it was a complicated half hour drive further down the lower slopes, then right back up again to the ski station, and, oh bless you, you polluting  lump of metal and rubber, my car. That would have been hard in my parlous moral and physical state. After forcing some petrol money on them, they drove off, their car misting up again nicely.

In summary
So let's see: I turn up to a major mountain too late in the day with a bad attitude but no map; go 'off piste' when I know that is a really bad idea in Japan; compound bad decisions with stubbornness and have to flee a bear infested wood. Then I narrowly avoid becoming victim to a volcanic explosion that happened a hundred and twenty one years ago; start pitying and aggrandising myself at the same time, and have the effrontery to spout some 'Wiki' history that somehow equates a terrible tragedy with my own self-inflicted flailing. When that is done with, I, a strapping chap skiving off on a working day, finish off for good measure by being glad of help from a stroke sufferer, who is then left to drive home in the dark with limited vision and a misting up car. Let me see....Yes, I think that is about it.

Just turn the light out as you leave will you? Thanks. I feel a little out of sorts. I'll just sit here on my own for a while, and, you know....think.


Detailed maps of the whole of Japan are available to print out here....I now realise.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Woman up a tree

Our neighbour, who is quite young for the village as she is possibly not yet seventy, was up a tree on the steep bank above the houses. No harness, and no-one on a rope to ensure the trunk didn't kick back as it fell. Did she need help? No, no, no, not at all, she was perfectly all right, thank you. Was she sure? It wouldn't be a problem, be glad to. No, no, no, anyway she couldn't allow it, it was too dangerous. Really? Her saw looked a little small for the job. Yes, it was a bit small, but she was fine. She was just cutting the Kaki tree to make it shorter - it was too big now. How long had she been at it? Oh, only about four hours. Please don't stay, it is dangerous for you. Lower down, the marks from where she had tried to fell the whole thing were apparent.

I returned with the two bigger hand saws that are in our house. Would she like to use one? Oh yes, that is much better. Oh-ho, it's sharp isn't it? Ho, ho! Amazing! She was clearly tired by now, resolute though she was, so after the requisite number of further refusals, and reassurance that it wasn't the first time I had been up a tree, she allowed me to take over. With a wrenching crack the heavy trunk eventually gave way. It fell onto the footpath, blocking it. It was going to be a big job for her to clear on her own, so I fetched my obliging mate Shigemura-san, and we set to. With much laughing and more thanks she began collecting the hundreds of  Kaki that, attached to the smaller twigs, glowed orange on the ground.

The following morning I could hear her talking and laughing in the entrance to our house. Sure enough, there were some of her Kaki spread out in the hall - she had so many, there were plenty to spare. They were the small kind, not as sweet. People don't eat them fresh so much these days. She was going to dry the others, we could have some when they were ready. No, she didn't need any help with that, ha ha, no, no! No, she couldn't ask for help with anything in the future, it was too dangerous for us, but as for her, it didn't matter, ha ha!


Sunday, 22 November 2009

Five males working alone

Electricity worker high above the Kaneyama landscape

The Sika stag stepped onto the road in front of me. We both stopped. It was a fine creature, with big antlers. A moment more and it leaped off the side, crashing down through thick scrub on the steep hillside. He had his shaggy grey winter coat already, and had probably finished rutting, unless his females were nearby, or he had lost them to another male. Sometimes fights between male deer can be fatal. 

Mushroom growing

I had stopped to photograph the logs, stacked in grids to grow mushrooms by a lonely mountain road. A white K-van drove past, a man at the wheel, turned round up the road and came back. I knew that I had made him uneasy. It isn't unheard of for thieves to come in and take valuable crops of fresh Shitake mushrooms. It is unheard of for strangers to be photographing your mushroom logs for any other reason. I bowed as he came past, but it didn't work. He got out and walked pointedly into the patch, returning my 'Konichiwa' with a grunt. It is a lot of work to be taken from you.

Kaneyama elder cutting bean supports for next year

An elder was cutting saplings half way up the mountain. His van was already full of them. He was from the valley below, and was preparing supports for his beans next year. He cut them into the shape he wanted with the heavy oblong chopper that many people carry here. He was going to be ready, there was no reason to sit at home doing nothing. When his beans needed supports next spring, he would have them.

Clicking and rasping noises fell out of the air. There was a distant voice right above, where no voice should be. And then I saw him, a tiny figure attached to the mighty cables that strew the mountains carrying  power from the hydro-electricity dams to the cities. His life hung by a thread. Whatever he was doing, it would need to be done very carefully. Every now and then he moved his harness up the cable a little further, occasionally talking to the man on the ground on whom he depended. It began to rain.

I stopped under the eves of an empty holiday house past the lake, put on my remaining cycling gear and covered up the camera. It was nearly dark and too wet to photograph what I had originally intended to, but those four meetings were enough. Pressing up a long incline between dripping firs I could see a gang of men in front of me, staring up at a telephone pole. There were fifteen of them, their safety gear flashing in the light of my LEDs. They parted to let me ride through.


Saturday, 21 November 2009

Takamori-yama, frosty dusk

Takamori-yama is a 1100m (3,609ft) top, 5km south of lake Numazawa in Kaneyama-machi, Aizu, Fukishima prefecture. In the little local mountain route booklet, available from the council offices in Kawaguchi, it is given a 'medium' difficulty rating. That equates to a rugged Scottish mountain, with some exposure to big drops and narrow ridge sections. As with most wooded mountains, the trees mask this , giving it a deceptively innocuous appearance from afar.

Takamori-yama hiding it's dodgy bits in the first frost of the winter

Having managed to get my Achilles tendon going just in time to nab a few hasty tops before the heavy snow arrives, I decided on a late-afternoon run up Takamori-yama. Not having time to explore a route from the valley I headed for the lower of two possible starting points on the small mountain road that snakes around two sides of it mid way up.

This was obliterated by a works site, however. What was a pleasant wild stream has just been concreted in, with weirs and 'landscaped' banks. It isn't near any houses, so why this was necessary wasn't immediately clear. Money for the contractor and work for someone, I suppose. I fully understand why a lot of effort has to go into making this region relatively safe from landslides, avalanches and flooding. And people need work. On the other hand it sometimes seems that hardly a stream remains free of concrete. These unassailable steps decrease the bio-diversity in the rivers considerably, as some species are not be able to cope. They are also ugly, and tourism is till this area's main industry. However, this area is less spoilt than most, and there is still an awful lot of unspoilt beauty here.

Mount I-ide (2105m) and it's range to the north in Yamagata-ken

Quickly riding my hobby-horse up to the other starting point on the south west, I headed up through the pines at the base and onto the steeper sections. It is only 3km from the road to the top, which the guide suggests takes 1hour 50. It was 3.10pm and the best of the light had gone. It would be dark before 5. I love this time of day, but it does require extra care, and I took any tricky bits very slowly. These are quiet hills at any season, but now there would be no chance of anyone coming by, and I didn't fancy spending a night up there, well equipped though I was.

Calling out 'Allo, allo, allo!' and jingling my way up to let the bears know a handy pre-hibernation snack was on it's way, I wondered if  this traditional English policeman's greeting had ever been heard among these cliffs and trees before. I had the feeling that if any arresting was going to be done, the mountain was going to be doing it.

Once on the ridge it became clear that, as always, this mountain had teeth. The path topped an impressive drop straight down to the valley below, and then became a sharp ridge less than a metre wide in places. Twice, trees that had grown bang in the centre had to be hugged like dear friends to get round them onto the path beyond. Several rock steps waited, slick with moss, and the path round a section of one consisted of vegetation which flexed underfoot. I considered turning back, but decided to concentrate more. A lot more.

It is always worth remembering that if you fall there is a good chance you won't be found, as mountain rescue is informal, they don't have search dogs, or use helicopters, which in any case can't spot you under trees. So as I was saying, I concentrated more. The sooner they get some concrete up here, the better. Oh...did I say that out loud?

Grow a pair: what the well dressed fell runner is wearing this season

As you can see in the picture, it was very cold, brass monkeys in fact, but those are bear bells on my chest, not simian testicles. Incidentally, that isn't necessarily a figure of speech, as I have seen  the wild monkeys that inhabit this area, all intact as far as I am aware. Maybe I spend too long alone in the woods, but whenever this subject comes up I call to mind the legend of Pope Joan, the female pope reputedly stoned to death while giving birth during a papal procession. This is supposed by some to have led to the tradition of checking any new pope's wedding tackle (probably not the best choice of words) by feeling them. An image to be treasured, I am sure you'll agree.

I also have a bear pepper spray in the green pouch, a sensible precaution that I would advise everyone to carry in the Japanese mountains.  Be staunch, be free, but don't be lunch is my motto. I got mine in Aizu-Wakamatsu at the small but well-stocked outdoor shop, as you can't import or fly with them. Expensive, but offering a little more peace of mind, having a young son to return home for. The chances of meeting a bear are pretty slim, as they tend to avoid you if they know you are around, but people have been attacked in all mountain areas of Japan, including Aizu this year. Think of them like Rotweilers wandering around in the woods on their own, only without an owner to call them off if they get testy. Despite deliberately making noise I have been surprised to surprise surprisingly hard of hearing dear, goats, monkeys, birds and snakes - so I guess it is only a matter of time.

The out and back 6 km took 1 hour 45, about half of the advertised walking time. That gives some idea of how much this ground can slow you down, with its combination of wet leaf mould, tripping roots, and exposure. In more runnable terrain one third of the walking time or less would be more typical for a mountain runner.

Before leaving the ridge for the now be-nighted woods below, I put my head torch on, just in case any stone-deaf bears had difficulty seeing me bungling along in their personal  night-time fiefdom, like a banished jester in a folk tale. In-authentically, it ended well.

Note: While I was writing this, the house shook with a small earthquake