Last Hike Down from Akaishi

Rainy season ended Friday and Japanese summer officially arrived so I celebrated. I had a bowl of soba then drank through 3 different bars each more boring than the previous one. I blew 5,000 yen out of my pocket and had nothing to show for it. The rest of the weekend I packed. On Saturday nothing. On Sunday I aired the sleeping bag and laid everything out on the floor. Monday was very long and nothing went as planned. All the better. I debated whether to give up the whole thing all because I didn’t have a rain poncho and had visions of dying on the trail. I called Kazumi as last resort. “I have an extra one,” she said. “We’ll be on the same bus. I can give it to you there.”

I was not going to die alone on the trail. Kazumi would be along and it was something to look forward to. Tuesday broke early and clear. I missed the bus and took a taxi downtown instead. There were not too many hikers waiting at the platform for the southern alps. Kazumi came and we talked the whole ride up to Hatanagi. She was to be married this October and I was pondering my fate, going on to Tokyo or Brazil or back to America. 

“I haven’t given it much thought,” she confessed, about raising a family and all. “And I don’t know. He’s… my mom said after she met him for the first time, ‘Isn’t he a little lacking?’ I guess he thinks marriage is some sort of package deal.” She smiled. Kazumi is older than he is and being a woman knows marriage is something you create as you go along. We talked about old adventures and there in the bus in the morning sun I was happy to have a good friend by my side. “I guess I’ll go all the way up to Sawarajima.” I told her. She turned and smiled.

At Hatanagi dam we waited then paid the shuttle bus fee to Sawarajima, a fare I had never paid before. 2 older country women who worked the lodge kitchen there had ridden down to park their cars in a safer place. “A typhoon is coming,” one told me dramatically. Everyone gets excited when a typhoon comes and anything can happen in the mountains. The weather could not have been any better.

We rode to Sawarajima and I thought of all the times I had ridden it. This wasn’t the worst, it wasn’t the best either, just a lot more people. We took our time getting off then lined up to pay the lodging fee just like everybody else. I bought 2 draft beers and we sat in the sun and fresh air talking about how Sawarajima was bigger, busier and more impersonal than ever. It was never a friendly place but the sound of the cash register was everywhere now.

A new white pajero drove by, stopped for a moment, a silhouette waving from the inside. “It’s Ogino,” Kazumi gasped. He parked and disappeared into the business office. “What do you want to do?” I asked Kazumi. We had not parted on good terms last season. Kazumi didn’t say anything but looked at me with ‘there’s no choice’ written all over. I gulped the last of the beer and stood up. “Well, let’s do it.” 

Despite all the controversy of last year we were kind to each other and willfully blank about the bad stuff. Ogino seemed subdued, the strongest thing he drank was green tea. When no other staff was around he leaned towards Kazumi and said, “After last year nobody has any confidence in me.” So no drinking in front of the others, having his wife around this year probably made the difference.

Ogino asked what we were up to. “If you have nothing better to do come up with me but we have to wait for the food delivery.” I sat outside of the business office drinking another beer when Tanizaki came up and knew he was going to ask a favor without asking. “What are Kazumi’s plans, does she have free time?” “I don’t think so. Why?” I asked though already knew the answer. “All the help quit at Hyaken lodge.” he rolled his eyes then grinned his I-know-you-know look. “I can’t speak for her but if you’re hard up I could pitch in until the 2nd.” He didn’t register any acknowledgement and walked into the office. I went back to the lodge to cancel our stay got the fee back and kept the lodge discount ticket as a souvenir.

The food truck arrived and we loaded up the Pajero, a real load plus 5 people, Ogino, Kazumi, me, Kageyama driving and some handsome young guy who’d be helping out Senmai lodge this season, Furui, who rode the same bus with us from Shizuoka. Not much had changed from last season. How could it? The ride on the awful road to Senmai was bad as always. The hike from the parking lot was just long and steep enough to be a bitch especially as we had to haul food supplies in addition to our own packs. We took what we could and left most of the supplies for tomorrow.

There were a few modifications to the lodge interior, more snug, less spartan, Ogino’s wife Maki had made her mark. This season’s lodge staff was a brash strong willed Kansai gal, the kind Ogino liked to have as his side kick, like Kumichan from last season only less incompetent. She smoked, they laughed at each other’s jokes over dinner and later when all the lodgers had gone to bed we piled into the pre-hap hutch we built last summer to drink and talk.

Having Maki there was a change. Ogino didn’t smoke or drink anywhere near what he did last summer on any given night. The other helper was a small quiet strong gal with a kinky permanent and calm manner well adjusted to dealing with eccentric summer helper types.

We drank and a guitar was passed around. The brash gal was good, Furui was better than me. Me, enough said. Furui was the quiet handsome type I always fall for, tall, strong build, longish hair, attentive eyes, quiet. He didn’t speak English but said, “I lived in Austin for a year,” so he could but was too polite to use it. Having eaten almost nothing all day I gave into the beer, shochu and fatigue and went to bed.

I woke up with a Shochu hangover reminding me I was back in the mountains or at least a mountain lodge. The weather was perfectly clear and we would have made an early start for Akaishi if it had not been for all the food supplies still waiting down in the parking lot. Kazumi, Furui and I took a wooden shoiko frame back each and completely wore ourselves out, 2 round trips us, 3 for Furui who was a first timer to all of this and having a rough time though he tried not to show it.

As soon as we arrived at Senmai yesterday afternoon Sugiyama radioed in from Hyaken lodge and asked me “When can you start?” Word gets around quickly so I was off to help at Hyaken lodge and Kazumi would go to Akaishi. Actually both of us would go to Akaishi to spend the night then split. We set off on the trail mid morning. The weather was good, the mountain wild flowers in full bloom but Kazumi was tired from the morning supply haul and our progress slow. I let her lead the whole way and stayed behind at her pace. I never thought of myself as a strong hiker but felt good and put all of her things in my pack.

 I knew by Maruyama that we would not make it to Akaishi. We passed through patches of mountain wild flowers and I thought of the friends and lovers I had brought here, Takayuki, Afonso, Junchan and now Kazumi. In my mind I always come back to this place with a smile but the memory was always me by myself. Up past the big rocks of Warusawa and on the peak we stopped for a rest. There was a young hippy kind of  couple with conspicuous overdone manners. The man sneaked a picture of Kazumi and sure enough 10 minutes later the truth came out, “We’re with Yamakei magazine, can we ask you…”

“Sure you can.”

“Are you married?”

Kazumi and I looked at each other and laughed hopelessly. “No, not really.”

That didn’t stop them. They took two pictures and our names. We went on our way.

Clouds bubbled up from the valley as we threaded down the steep Warusawa face then up Nakadake. We stopped for lunch at the tiny Nakadake lodge talking with Higashi san who served up sweet bean soup and complaints about the cold damp work. “You had better go. It will rain soon,” he said massaging sore ankles.

We hiked down to Arakawa lodge through large flower fields in pungent air and drizzle. In the huge foyer stood Tomoko who visited Senmai on the way home last year. She did a double take, “Oh, Oh,” then finally “How are you?” There was another mountain man type standing by the door I didn’t recognize and assumed he was the keeper of the new Akaishi emergency lodge. After many years I had learned to spot the signs of looking like you owned a place that was not yours. “I come down here to use the bath,” he said and soon took off with a pretty young girl who asked me a question.

“Do you remember me?”

“Ah, yes, Ah”

“I worked here last season.”

“Ah, yes your sister, she…”

“She is standing over there.”

Last year’s former high school sweetheart stood there, now with Yankii razored bladed eyebrows, dyed kinky rasta hair and black painted fingernails.

“She is studying to be a nurse,” the sister said and started up the trail.

Dinner was quiet and simple. Our peaceful interlude only broken by a rude radio call from Akaishi demanding to know where we were. As soon as we arrived I had asked the lodge keeper to radio them that we’d be staying here as Kazumi couldn’t make it. For some reason, drunkenness, deafness, pride or anything in-between he had radioed Hyaken lodge instead, one of those small little things that stick in your craw. The television said typhoon 9 was on it’s way. The dinner conversation died and we went to bed.

A quiet full moon lit the night yet I had nothing but fever dreams. I was associate producer in a movie production. I read actor bio’s and each picture seemed to come alive. The mother played by …. gunned down her daughters in an empty subway then aimed the machine gun at me. The indian played by a beautiful looking Sikh boy rowing a boat on the river of Death. A sweet bell tinkled as he glided by, the dead all flowing gracefully in the crystal water frozen in the perfect moment of peaceful death. A woman floated by her eyes wide open as if to say “so this is death”. I didn’t recognize her. I woke up and looked out the small window behind my head. There wasn’t a sound, the moonlit peak of Akaishi didn’t seem real. I could still hear the tinkling bell in my head.

* * *

We woke up early with Fuji san and Akaishi outside our window. There was no need to rush. Even though we took our time and had a simple breakfast, we were out the door by 5:45. Typhoon 9 was parked south of Shikoku yet the winds were already ripping up the slopes. The sky was clear but the sun did not shine warm. Kazumi’s pace had recovered from yesterday and we were on top of Akaishi by 8:30.

The new emergency lodge was just behind the peak and anything but emergency, all wood interior and flush toilets that cost ¥200 a flush. The lodge keeper who had used the bath at Arakawa yesterday had all the proper lodge keeper credentials: no permanent vocation, long thinning hair, sunburned face and bad teeth. His name was Yoneyama and had been introduced to the job by a famous mountain photographer.

We sat down in the foyer and he served us 2 empty paper cups, a jar of instant coffee and a thermos. “Help yourself to a cup of coffee.” We got a tour of the new lodge. “Isn’t it beautiful.” he kept saying. He also tried to explain the toilet charges. Something about the tanks being too small and having to helicopter it out twice a season thus 200 yen a dump to pay upkeep. “If you figure the cost it must be the most expensive toilet in Japan,” he said.

I didn’t care. Sheltered from the wind, the sun was warm and made everything beautiful. It was only the second day of my vacation but already knew this was the best day. After a while I told Kazumi to get going to beat the typhoon and we said goodbye. I took a picture as she walked back up to the peak. She had her hands on her hips and from the way she walked I knew she would be fine as she went down the other side, to the lodge, to her marriage, to her new life. 

I was only going to Hyaken lodge. When I went back down it would be for good. Kazumi gave me a reason for coming and now that she was gone nothing, not Onishi, not Ogino certainly not Tokai Forest KK could get me back up here again. All that was left was a hike to Hyaken to see Daichan in his very last season and work just enough to bring things full circle.

I told Yoneyama goodbye I’ll be back August 2nd and hiked down as thick cloud banks overflowed the valley and drifted across the peak. Halfway down Akaishi in a huge field of boulders I met Sugiyama who was in a hurry to get back to Sawarajima. He gave me the Hyaken lodge key and pleaded for me to stay on until Setsu showed up. I said I’d think about it, which I would not, and said goodbye.

For the most part mountain lodge work is boring especially in bad weather which  typhoon 9 promised to bring in buckets full of rain and wind. Fortunately we had distractions. The first day at Hyaken a group of college kids showed up late afternoon and said, “We’d like to stay the night but we don’t have any money.” They spent the night and one of them got very sick. “He thinks it’s his appendix,” the leader said, a problem he said he had had before.

In the morning Daichan called for a helicopter in the middle of a typhoon. Meanwhile the wind whipped rain found it’s way through the window sills and jams gradually invading every crevice on the whole windswept side of the lodge. Daichan the Keio graduate once almost a lawyer kept muttering to himself, “nothing to do, nothing to do, nothing to do.”  He stayed busy making meals for the patient who couldn’t keep anything down, writing every detail in a notebook like a doctor filling in a fever chart. Meanwhile he forgot everything else and left a bucket of puke in the dinning room while lodgers sat at the next table eating breakfast, completely oblivious.

Typhoon 9 swept the mountains clean of hikers and there were no lodgers to keep us busy. The evenings were all early, neither Daichan or his pretty new wife drank nor were they conversationalists. The first night was just ‘goodnight.” The second evening Daichan slept with his patient to nurse him through the night. It was only in the last evenings that we got to talk a little which is to say we complained about Tokai Forest and the way they ran the lodge business, always a favorite topic.

I explained all the circumstances of last season. “Well they really did you over didn’t they?” Daichan said without hesitation. “Tanizaki thinks we’re pieces on his private chessboard.” I agreed. Tanizaki is not bad, he’s just a slippery eel of a fellow trying to maximize the company bottom line.

The next day typhoon 9 staggered out to the Japan Sea and got stuck. It was touch and go the helicopter could fly in. At noon there was a break in the clouds and some blue sky but every operator dithered all down the line to Shizuoka. By mid afternoon rain and wind squalls closed in, opportunity gone. Fortunately the patient was getting better, eating and drinking, helped by some antibiotics Daichan had laying around. I suspected it wasn’t appendicitis but kept my mouth shut.

Rain squalls postponed any helicopter rescue for the next 2 days while the the remains of typhoon 9 backslid across Japan and out the Pacific. The patient got better and Daichan ran out of antibiotics. Sawarajima radioed news that 3 policemen on mountain patrol were on the way. They arrived before lunch and in the afternoon there was some radio nonsense as Daichan discussed a possible helicopter rescue with Sawarajima. Yonayama, this seasons radio comedian kept butting in the conversation with useless commentary, “I can see blue sky, I can see blue sky.” “Where you idiot, where” said Daichan avoiding the mic.

He gave up but tomorrow morning would be the real deal, everyone could sense it. Dinner was a lively affair, with no regular lodgers Daichan was kind enough to feed the whole college crew of 10 including the patient. After they had gone the 3 beefy policemen sat in turn. Daichan broke out all the booze he never drank, wine, beer, shochu. We had a time talking about the rescue situation, accidents past and people remembered. The conversation carried on long past the 7:30 lights out and included 3 leaders of the college group. Daichan gave them drinks and tried brainwashing them into lodge work for next season. “But things don’t always work out the way you expect them too,” he said thinking of his own experience and the dream seed died.

The policemen and college crew set out early for the helicopter rescue. Without drama or lodgers we had nothing to do. Even so Daichan asked me to stay on another day and it worked out fine. The sun was finally out for the first time in nearly a week. “Why don’t you go for a hike to Osawa.” he suggested and I did. “Time me.” I did a 4 hour course in less than half that included a beer break at the top and finding a nice quiet sunny patch to take off my clothes for a sunbath, my body all white and puffy from being inside so long. The evening diner was busy with lodgers for the first time since I got there.

The day of my departure arrived. I helped clean and Daichan was quiet at breakfast. He’s a good guy but gets down when folks don’t respond to his outgoing nature. I was glad he had such a pretty understanding wife, she trusts his deep down sweet nature and ignores the noise. One last visitor came up. I was standing out front looking up the narrow valley, so narrow the mountain stream and trail mingle leisurely right down to the lodge. The lone figure came loping down. I was almost on the edge of memory when he said ‘Remember me?” and it all came back. Fukugawa. A photography student who hiked with me from Arakawa to Senmai seasons ago. Daichan invited him in to eat which I knew he would. Then it was really time to go. Daichan and his wife saw me off. She was dressed in her husband’s pants and shirt with rope for a belt and looked very pretty. “Please come visit us in Nagano,” she said. Daichan had written their address in my notebook. I said I would try.

I took a long slow hike back up Akaishi enjoying the rest of the morning. There were a few hikers going the other way. Some grinned, some said hello. The best was 2 older fellows who each said hello in passing then the first turned to the second, “That was a foreigner wasn’t it?” “Yes, there are quite a few of them these days,” said the second.

At the peak Yonayama was there now with a middle aged woman I recognized from Niken lodge, home of the great chief Fukui. When I mentioned him she sneered, “Yeah, some great chef he is,” and served some tea. While taking a break a helicopter came roaring in between a rift in the clouds first dropping off some fuel then hovered while we ripped off the wire cables to hook and hoist the toilet tanks, one of the copter crew showing us what to do. It was a job I didn’t like, scurrying around under a giant shrieking machine.

Fun over I got back on the trail to Akaishi lodge, a place I had tried to get to for 3 seasons running. I passed the spot where the high school teacher slipped to his death in front of his class. It was just like it was then, a pretty slope of fresh grass and ferns with a cool breeze rippling up it. Too beautiful a place to die. I passed Fujimi plateau then the secret outlook, each full of devious little memories, sex, standing naked in the sun, running out of a thunderstorm hair on end. I come out of the woods and stopped in front of the outhouse. A door opened on the balcony of the lodge and Aya stuck her head out. “We don’t have any shochu.” “Ah, maybe I should hike down to Sawarajima.” She laughed and waved me up.

Shimizu and Yamada, 2 Shizuoka policemen on mountain patrol were sitting at one of the picnic tables in front of the lodge. They invited me to sit down and booze came out but not before I stuck my head in the foyer with discount ticket in one hand, bourbon bottle in the other. “Can I use this here?” I asked Nao the lodge keeper holding up my ticket. He laughed and said ‘Of course not.” I handed him the bourbon bottle, he swapped me for a beer.

Out front I drank while Yamada told me about his son’s exchange program in Canada. “How wonderfully free those kids are. When he came back his new home room teacher said, ‘You’re dying your hair?’ My son said no, it’s my natural color and the teacher scolded him, ‘Don’t start acting up boy.’ So the next day my son dyed his hair fire engine red and told the teacher, ‘This is me with my hair dyed.’”

The best part of the evening was washing dishes just like old times while talking with the Kyoto University drop out Inoue. The kitchen was tiny but everybody did their job effortlessly, feeding 40 people in 20 minutes like it was nothing. There were no rough spots after a season of working together. Nao was everywhere but after the lodgers were done and we sat down for dinner he looked tired and red eyed. I sat across from him waiting for the chance to bring up last season’s Senmai mess with his old friend Ogino but it never came and never would. It didn’t matter anyway.

After dinner Nao gave my bottle of bourbon to Inoue and retired. Yamada and Shimizu crawled into their sleeping bags, Inoue and I boozed it up in the little staff shack just the 2 of us. I laid out a little of last year’s disaster to him and he was a very sharp observer. “Nao has gotten very conservative.” he said. I asked him in what way. “I wanted to visit Arakawa lodge but he just said ‘after obon vacation’, which he wouldn’t have done 4 years ago.” “Or even 3.” I added.

Aya is sweet but Nao’s old wild ways were gone, such is married life I guess. I knew that because at dinner Aya has started every other sentence with “My Nao…”

If Nao had changed I must have changed too. In what way I couldn’t begin to even guess. The talk and booze petered out. I blew out the lamp and laid back to sleep. In the night Inoue talked in his sleep. In my dreams a golden man held out his chest for me then admonished, “I despise tired people.” Inoue stepped on me on his way out at 3:30 and I went back to sleep.

* * *

I woke up just as the sun crept up through a low bank of clouds bathing Akaishi in burning red. Everybody else was long since up, the lodgers half way through breakfast. Yamada and Shimizu crawled out of their own sleeping bags. Yamada fumbled around in his pack and pulled out 3 paper cups with instant coffee. “Want one?” he asked while Shimizu, the absurdly young baby faced policeman, dutifully went to fetch hot water.

When I mentioned that Nao didn’t drink as much as he used to and how mellow Daichan was Yamada said, “Well that’s what marriage does for you. It balances you.” He looked at me. “Aren’t you married yet?”

No, not yet. I didn’t bother saying it or explaining it. After the lodgers departed Aya laid out our breakfast. We ate quietly watching the morning colors fade. I packed up and took a good look around. There was the luggage rack long dead Ishii and I made, the outhouse I painted, paint fading away, the old seat cushion I brought seasons ago more threadbare than ever sitting on the reading bench. Yes I had worked here once.

The sky was covered in thin overcast, Akaishi in muted daytime color. I walked up to the lookout above the lodge alone and took in the panorama, Senmai, Warusawa, Akaishi, Hijiri, and said goodbye to them. Thank you for letting me see you one more time. All the characters come and go season after season but what we got of the mountains was private and impossible to share unless, maybe, we remember the strength, your own strength, you can discover, here.

We said a quick goodbye, Yamada and Shimizu were going on to Daichan’s, me down to Sawarajima. Nao waved his hand once and turned away, in a minute I had the whole forest to myself. I remembered a line from last night’s conversation with Inoue. “The difference between asian and western cultures is that in Christianity there is only one way. In Asian culture there are many ways. The tea way, the bushido way, the Buddha way.” Many paths up the mountain but the view from the top the same.

I went down, saying the Buddha’s name, remembering my teachers, asking for guidance. My mood quickened and hardened into a resolve to get out of these mountains in a way that I had never done before. Soon I was passing older cautious hikers and all the familiar markers, little Akaishi, the upper logging road, the old Sawarajima this way sign posted to a tree on the last curve of the old lower logging road. Waiting there for Ishii to arrive and help haul a replacement generator seemed long ago.

Further down I passed an older man going at a good pace. He tried following but I knew the trail too well, didn’t have much of a pack and was going full speed down the last hellish hot decent. I made it to Sawarajima in less than 2 hours. That was the easy part, everything decided by my own legs. From here to Shizuoka I was at the mercy of the bus.

I didn’t expect to run into folks who had left Hyaken lodge 3 days ago but did. “Weren’t you the help at…?” Yes, I were the help, I answered. The young girl behind the desk didn’t recognize me again. I gave her the key from Hyaken, took it back and gave it to Tanizaki myself. I asked him for a shower and got one. The big new surroundings felt more impersonal than ever.

After the shower we talked about Yoneyama’s erratic stupid radio messages and the appendix rescue. I mentioned Nao settling down. “He’s just an old man now,” said Tanizaki with a sneer. The phone was ringing the whole time. He ignored it. I asked about the young debonair smoker Furui, at Senmai. “He’s hiking down today. I don’t know why.”

I dithered. Would he show up for the bus? Should I wait for the next one? At the last minute I slide on the 10:30 shuttle bus and would get into Shizuoka at 4. It took a long time to get out of these hills. Sometimes your whole life.

The weather turned incredibly bright and hot as we wound down to Hatanagi dam. Endless forever summer. The bus had air conditioning and a group of middle aged ladies could not keep quiet. We passed by Hatanagi lake. “Oh look at the water, it’s so pretty. It looks just like a jewel..a….a….a. What does it look like?” “An emerald.” said another. They all agreed, yes it looks like an emerald.

At Hatanagi dam the sun was ferocious and shade hard to come by perched on top of the dam as we were. Most people crowded around the little refreshment stand. I’d had enough people and stood in the sun a little way off where there was a patch of cosmos flowers catching a cool wind blowing up the dam face. The man who tried following me down the last trail leg came up looking like a Japanese George Smiley, tubby with large spectacles. “You are magnificent. I tried your pace but gave up. You must do a lot of hiking. Yes?” “Not really.” I told him. It’s just that I know the path very well. “When I come to the mountains, every cell in my body is reborn” he said expansively. For him a rebirth, I would spend the next week trying to recover.

The bus finally came. It was a long hot quiet ride down to Shizuoka and I dozed off on the slow endless curves. At the last stop I got off, went for a haircut and a shave and had a cheese pasta dinner alone in a restaurant surrounded by young people talking about their summer vacations. Just for kicks I went back to the bus platform and watched the last bus from Hatanagi unload. There was no Furui. I walked to the next platform and took the bus home. Next morning I went to work. Summer had a few weeks to go on the calendar but for me it was over.