Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Magic on the mountain

With legs and thorax of uncannily human proportions something jumped, arcing an impossible parabola like a mini superhero leaping a forest. The grasshopper spread it's wings at the peak of it's trajectory and soared, leaving a myth in it's wake. It was huge, not just because of it's size, but because of the shock of it's instantaeneous transformation, from dull, owl-mottled hider in leaf mold, to stellar creature of the air.

Y-kun, 8, terror to all things insect, the diminutive Ghengis Khan of the village, was almost in tears that he hadn't seen it on account of it's camouflage, as the giant ones are quite unusual. It was his first mountain walk, and he needed some compensation for the effort involved, which must have come as something of a shock, poor wee blighter. That treat came a few minutes later, when my snake-wary eyes noticed a writhing motion as I tapped the ground ahead with the long stick I always carry for the purpose when walking with children in Japan. It was a beautiful four-foot long Shima-Hebi or Japanese four-lined rat snake (Elaphe quadrivirgata), I think.  See  for a list and photos to help identify Japanese snakes.

Our Japanese four-lined snake taking a serious view

They are not poisonous, and feed on frogs, lizards, insects, rodents, small birds and their eggs, and it did not seem much afraid, giving us time to admire it before finally moving off. No doubt such predators are the reason for the grasshopper's Olympic jump.Y-kun was satisfied. Surprisingly, for one who terrorises in intimate detail every square inch of his grandparent's allotment and garden, imprisoning and maiming at will, this was the first snake he had ever seen, and he had to be restrained from grabbing it.

It is often the unpromising mountains that give you the best surprises. I chose this walk because it was suitable for children (always a relative term in Aizu!), was near the road, and wouldn't take too long. It followed the line of pylons on the north side of the Tadami river from Nakagawa dam, so looked very unprepossessing. After parking on the far side of the dam we edged round the initial broad path which has a drop to the river, and crossed the metal suspension footbridge that leads to the climb.

And yet once we had climbed a short way up the path it was clear that there was magic there. 

With frequent stops we climbed the zig-zags, taking extra care in the places, inevitable in this terrain, where there was a drop masked by the vegetation. It's a good idea to have an adult for each child under ten, and it was great to have Y-kun's dad along. Every time we turned around the view opened more, and the cars on the valley road became tinier, ant cars and ant houses, and an ant train trundling through.

I was armed as always with a bear pepper spray and bells, and my boy enjoyed blowing his whistle, himself tooting along like a small train by the Reverand Audrey. We know people in their eighties who have lived here all their lives and have never seen a bear, but it is well to be careful, especially with children along. For the first time we came accross what may well have been an old bear platform, one of the beds they make to sleep through the heat of the day.

Note the broken branches hanging down and accumulation of leaves in the centre
We turned around at 600m after it became clear that the ridge path, although flatter, was full of ferns too high for short legs. But what need was there to go higher when the panoramas to the south, and the views into the complex offshoots from the main ridge which follows the north side of the Tadami river for miles were more than enough.

Three hours from start to finish, we arrived back at the footbridge, and went beneath it so the children could mess about by the side stream for an hour. I checked the map to make sure there were no dams upstream that might release water. 

The pleasure of this was sure to overwrite memories of hard work, in fact what could be better? Children + water + stones + sticks = happiness squared. Multiply by a lunch of soba at the Nakagawa visitor centre and ice cream and you have it all.

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