Words by Cameron Zeyd Lange & Illustrations by Marina Marcolin
Mount Asahidake, the highest point of this wild island, rose up before me in a great mass of black ash and eternal snow. The volcano hasn’t erupted for 200 years but the smell of sulphur still stings the nose. I stood on the edge of Sugatami Pond, one of many lucid pools that mark this marshland, and watched as the fog thickened around the slopes. The water at my feet was like glass, without crease or wrinkle despite the rain, almost mythical, and I was struck by an urge to kneel and drink from it. I refrained, of course – it would have sooner made me sick than strong – but perhaps I should have, for in the end I would need the courage. A typhoon was coming in from the Pacific and I had five days to walk the crescent spine of the national park before it made landfall over Honshū and climbed the length of Japan towards Hokkaido. At last I tore myself away from the spectral water and set off eastward, my hood pulled low over my eyes.
I passed no one on the way up, moving through slanted plains of crumbling volcanic glass which turned to ash as I climbed higher. Before long everything I could see seemed to reflect back to me in negative, divided between the black earth and a white sky. Indeed the only colour in that monochrome world was the moss growing under the rocks, glowing like green jewels, almost fluorescent as if to compensate. Then, further up still, the mountain broke out into a flush of red and pink, the primordial evidence of vast lava fields and the molten wasteland it had once been.
When I squinted it was as if the earth itself was burning. The summit, when I finally reached it, was exposed to the wind and rain and I did not stop to rest. Instead I scrambled in wide strides down the other side of the treeless mountain, digging my heels into the loose ground. Only the occasional lick of yellow paint marked the onward trail, which soon disappeared beneath a vast snow plain that stretched out into the mist without apparent edge or end. Somebody had attached a rope to lead the way but it too vanished only a few steps ahead. The scene felt like a warning, a border I shouldn’t cross. But I held the rope with both hands and walked out, testing the strength of the ice with every step. Halfway across, with the whole world washed clean of form or feature, unable to see where I had started but with the end not yet in sight, I felt blind and afraid. The only evidence that I was on earth at all was the mud I left trailing across the ice. When I finally reached the other side, I looked back and knew I had crossed a frontier from which I could not return. From then on I would only leave these mountains by walking out of them on the other side.
Shortly before sunset the mountain hut I was looking for emerged from the fog and I lunged impatiently towards its sodden door. Making a space to sleep in the corner of the bare room, I boiled a pot of water for a quick meal, wrung out the sweat and rain from my dripping clothes, and draped them over the rafters. Then I scribbled
Where the hell am I?
into the margins of my damp journal and fell asleep as soon as it was too dark to see.
In the morning, as if in reply to my fevered note, the sun came out, revealing at last where I had spent the night. The shelter was built on the northern crest of a narrow plateau, easy terrain and brilliantly green. Revived by the light, I walked for a few precious hours flanked on one side by cliffs and clouds that masked the depths of the fall and on the other by the surviving snow. I settled into a metronomic stride up and over Mount Chūbetsu, my blood pumping in a paired rhythm. My clothes were finally drying and I was growing confident; it was even sunny enough to burn my ears. But by the afternoon the clouds I had looked down on rose to meet me, and this time, although I did not yet know it, the fog would not lift again.
I slept that night by the shore of a large crater lake. Its water, reflecting the sky and the snow on the slopes, rippled white as milk. During a break in the rain I ate my dinner barefooted on the beach and buried my toes in the sand, hoping to shock them back to life after the afternoon’s numbing tramp through the mud. It half worked, and I went to bed feeling determined and resolute, exhilarated by the wild weather and the presence of mind it demanded of me.
The next morning the fog was thicker than ever, laced once more with black rain. Beneath the shadow of Mount Tomuraushiyama, I heard the sound of a bell – used by walkers in these mountains to warn the bears of one’s approach – and quickened my step towards it. Eventually two silhouettes appeared from the mist. Surprised to find me alone, the two men treated me like a lost lamb and offered me, in true Japanese fashion, almost all the food and water in their pack and even a kit to repair my torn trousers. I knew to refuse – one should never take another hiker’s provisions – but their presence alone comforted me and I prolonged the encounter as much as the language barrier allowed. They were homebound men in a way that I was not, and they knew it too; as I walked away I could feel them watching me, wondering if it was wise to let me leave at all.
I spent the rest of the day following my feet through the valleys, my sense of distance and time distorted by my sightlessness. With nothing of the outside world to stir the mind, my thoughts increasingly turned inwards, and I repeated the three Bashō poems I knew like a prayer. The land, shorn of its detail, seemed to echo the very essence of his haikus: austere and exact, giving me no more and no less than I needed. In other ways it was the physical manifestation of a Zen kōan, designed to provoke doubt in the whole enterprise. In that it succeeded; it was getting harder and harder to tease out meaning from that shrinking world. “Walking”, Rebecca Solnit wrote,
“is how the body measures itself against the earth.”
But what am I to do when the earth itself is hidden? And what if my body, denied the anchor of the horizon line, begins to vanish too?
By the afternoon I had run out of water, the streams that my map promised having never materialised. I paced on through the thicket and gathering storm, shouting now and then to alert the bears, continuing long into the first hour of darkness. When I could walk no further I found a small patch of flat earth softened by the rain and set up my tent. I ate a couple of oat bars to placate my hunger and tried to fall asleep quickly to forget my thirst.
With the dawn came a pounding headache. I sipped all the dew I could from the morning leaves and set off gingerly into the dull light. After an hour I reached a swollen stream and drank several litres squatting on my heels in the orange mud. To the southwest loomed Mount Oputateshike and I had no choice but to climb it; the path offered no shortcuts and to forge one of my own would have been suicide.
As I left the valley’s protection the wind grew so strong that I had to turn my back to it simply to breathe and soon it took all of my waning strength to walk at all. Every gust threw me sideways, whipping flints of ice into my face. The steep hairpin trail, littered with flaking pumice rocks, disintegrated beneath my feet. As I climbed higher the wind grew angrier still and it suddenly caught the rain cover of my pack like a sail and flung me backwards, sweeping my legs from under me. I heard the sound of something snapping: my walking stick, hanging in half, had broken my fall. I watched my rain cover fly away down the mountain, like a kite I would never see again. I don’t know how much time passed before I reached the peak. But there, instead of coiling downhill as I had hoped, the trail followed the ridge of the mountain. Parts of it were no more than a yard across, sinking into nothingness on either side. One wrong step would be my end. I had no choice but to fall to the ground, breathing heavily with my cheek in the mud, and crawl like a soldier from cover to cover. My naked pack, acting now as a sponge for the rain, felt like a boot pressed against my spine and I had to use all my experience to fight my rising panic. Don’t stop, I thought.
The full version of this article appears in Lodestars Anthology Issue 7: Japan.