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