Friday, June 30, 2006

a golden week (IV)


The book I had brought along for the trip was Kappa by Ryonusuke Akutagawa, one of the most gifted and most depressed writers modern Japan has produced. Akutagawa finished his short writing career in 1927 at the age of thirty-five by swallowing a handful of pills and jumping straight out of his skin into the land beyond. He left behind reams of short stories, several novels, a colossal literary reputation, and a wife and three sons, aged seven, five and two years old. Kappa was published three months before he died.

I didn’t know about the final novel, the suicide, and the three abandoned sons when I threw Kappa into my backback. I only knew that Kappa were froggy little water spirits that I’ve always gotten a real kick out of. And that somewhere up in these mountains there is a bridge called Kappa-bashi where Akutagawa started his novel.

The little bus wound up through the mountain passes, the driver occasionally stopping to point out natural features of note. “These are the Oya-ko waterfalls. As you can see, the name Oya-ko (parent-child) really fits, as they branch apart into a larger and smaller stream.” We all nodded and looked appropriately awed. I went back to my novel, where the human protagonist had just stumbled out of the abrupt mountain fog and bumped straight into an amphibian kappa-man. Our own bus was rolling through alternating patches of deep fog and clear blue skies that alternated at weird and irregular intervals. When I failed to spot a kappa I went back to the book, just as the narrator begins to chase the fleeing frog-man. Right there, just as it was starting to get interesting, the dorky American two seats in front of me decided he wanted to chat.

“So you going hikin’?”

“Un. Yeah.”

“Umm, do you have any crampons in there?”

He eyed the cheapy white backpack I’d bought on sale. I tried to remember what a crampon was. Oh yeah. Those spiky things for your boots. I looked at my boots. They were closer to sneaker-boots.

“Well, how far in you planning to go? You remember all the news about the snow this year.”

It had even been written up in the New York Times: Nagano’s record snowfall, rural villages buried in snow drifts that nipped at second story windows, old men and women clambering onto roofs to clear off heavy white piles that threatened to crack house frames. The region on earth with the highest annual snowfall buried and humbled. This dude was definitely ruining my fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants travel philosophy. I didn’t like the look of that expensive looking ice-pick sticking out of his backpack.

“Yeah, you know, not too far,” I told him, trying to look as confident as possible.

I found out what he was talking about when the bus stopped to let out the hikers and the day trippers. We were in a highland valley, twenty five hundred meters above sea level. The sun was shining, the air was crisp sweater weather, and there was four feet of snow on the ground. The American and his two Japanese friends strapped on their crampons and waved good-bye, crunching down a trail and into the woods.

Luckily I had company. I had thought I would be heading for an obscure valley known only to experienced hikers and to the owners of the 2001 edition of Lonely Planet: Japan, but the place was absolutely teeming with people more clueless than I was. A string of behemoth resort hotels lined the river, and a visitors center dispensed trail information that pretty much boiled down to one thing: amateurs stay off the trails.

Kappa-bashi was just a few minutes walk up the river, which was still lined with hotels and tchochky shops. What I found was a bridge. A rather nice looking bridge for pedestrians, with nicely polished planks and suspension wires. A steady swarm of tourists buzzed around it, snapping pictures and flashing peace signs. There wasn’t a frog-man in sight. Didn’t even feel like the place to meet a frog man. Not unless you counted the millions of kappa keychains and figurines that were being hawked along the river.

Feeling vaguely cheated and a desperate need to make myself feel cooler than all these people I marched back to the visitors center, striding past two young woman who were stumbling across rocks and ice patches in high heels, past a feeble elderly couple who mounted a two-inch rise of snow like an arctic expedition. “Hah!” I thought, “When I get that old I’m not going to look that stupid and helpless.” Once I arrived I scoured the maps for a hike that was feasible in sneaker boots. Hell, I didn’t need crampons, I didn’t even need a proper pair of boots. I wasn’t some lily-livered tourist balancing in high heels or a city-slicker outdoor weenie draped in sparkling new gear: I was a young and resourceful traveler, living by his wits. Unfortunately my wits had decided against packing a tent or snow gear, so I would have to actually pay for a room up here. The map showed a lodge for hikers about an hours hike, and the trail up to it only had a few mild snow warnings posted, none of the skull-and-crossbones post-it notes that dotted the higher passes.

Aside from a few ice patches the trail was essentially clear and flat, with some deep muddy bits to skip around, and best of all, no people to make fun of my sneaker boots. The path wound along a valley, playing tag with an eager spring river. There were great drifts of heavy spring snow as high as my waist on either side of the trail. Towering over everything was a string of some of the highest mountains in Japan, jutting through a sky so blue it looked like a beer commercial with the hue and contrast tweaked just this side of real. It was like seeing movie stars in person. You kept waiting for the wonder to kick in. That is a beautiful craggy mountain. That is Martin Sheen.

Before I knew it the sky was a fuzzy gray, the trail swerved into the woods, and there I was, the Tokuzawa Lodge. They were already making dinner when I arrived, and the clerk checked three or six times that it was okay they didn’t have any dinner for me. While the rest of the lodgers ate hot meals of tempura and wild herbs in the mess hall, I was ushered into the lounge to eat the bread, cheese and apples I’d brought with me. I took a beer from the little refrigerator in the lobby and sat down to eat my dinner, trying to ignore the stuffed mountain goat on my left, his ears propped up in feigned alertness. Hark! Is that the baying of wild bears that assails my tender ears?

Luckily the lounge filled up after dinner, half a dozen hikers piling in for beers from the fridge and after dinner smokes. There was a couple in their forties with a kind of large fleshy exuberance and braying good nature that for some reason struck me as thoroughly Midwestern. There were two shy newlyweds who made faint inroads into the conversation, but spent more time with their noses buried in a large fluttery map that spread across both of their laps. There was a single furtive smoker whose innocent comments all seemed to dance atop a great well of frustration, like water drops skittering across a heated skillet. Then there was the grandfather monkey, a limber and muscley gray haired old gibbon that smoked and held court in a thick country accent from deep Kansai.

They talked trails, told tales of the mountains, made jokes about the stuffed goat. The stocky Midwesterners with their thick jolly honks of laughter wanted to with the American about the American, but thankfully the old baboon kept us on topic: we’d come for the mountains, we’d talk about the mountains. I heard about the old school of alpinists, wild eyed adventurers who roamed the mountains with rucksacks and buckets of fire in their bellies. Poets and hermits who would stick through the harsh and snow heavy winters, living in snow shelters. And they came back to this lodge, to this room, to tell stories and dry blankets by the fire. There were writers, mountain adventure novelists, whose soft and yellowed paperbacks sat on the shelves. They all mentioned this lodge, you know? The Tokuzawa lodge.The old man sat with his feet propped up on the corner of his chair, knees splayed out to either side, toes wiggling beneath the thick wool socks. Heard about the communal shared caches scattered throughout the mountains, different groups carefully marking their stashes of food and fuel, tucking them neatly into wooden boxes locked against bears. Sometimes a stash would stay there for years, untouched, and unmolested by other hikers, backcountry honor. But with all these newbies crawling all over the place now. Didn’t used to be like that, no sir, it’s all since the bullet train. No, you know, all since the Olympics! Yeah, used to just be the night bus from Tokyo. I took that bus out from Kyoto station, drove all night through the mountain passes, you woke up in Shinshu, in old Nagano, that’s for sure. Yeah, then the Olympics, and that train. You know no one knows the real way to say Azumi anymore? People come into town, look at the kanji on the sign and scratch their heads. I tell you, it’s losing the old Shinshu spirit, people don’t even talk like they’re from Nagano anymore, everyone talks all stiff and Tokyo, and hell even there they’re speaking English half the time.

The Midwesterners started to look nervous for me, but what can I say, I agreed with the guy. Cigarettes were stubbed out, last inches of beer guzzled, bodies were hauled up to bunkrooms and mattresses with clean sheets, all of us wondering what kind of hordes the next day would bring.

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