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.

1 comment:

  1. Hello
    I am one of the Liwa girls and I hsve just had Fa very quick look at your fascinating blog. Will definitely take time to read it more in depth as we are planning to visit Japan during the Easter holiday.
    Wishing you a Merry Christmas, we are looking forwards to learn more thanks to your work.