The sound of sizzling vegetables reverberated through the thin walls of Fumito’s family home, as the smells of a pre-dawn morning wafted towards my blocked nose. Slowly I rose, folding up the futon while stuffing my pack full of essentials for the long day ahead. Once in the kitchen, we feasted on grilled rice balls and strong cups of coffee before hitting the road to Tsuchigoya, the starting point for western Japan’s highest peak.
I know what you’re thinking. Haven’t you been here twice already? When a trusty hiking companion opens his home to you, you have little choice but to willfully oblige. Even if it weren’t for the companionship, the chance of finally scaling Ishizuchi on a cloudless day would be too much to pass up. Climbing, however, was not the only task at hand, for Fumito’s father Kiyofumi had a very important task to attend to: spreading the ashes of a close friend and fellow climber who’d perished the year before. How could I refuse?
After a 3-hour drive to the starting point, we unloaded the gear and set off a little past 8 in the morning. This was definitely the earliest start I’d had in quite some time, and I’d simply have to put my fatigue aside. Fumito and I kept a leisurely pace, but we were soon overtaken by Kiyofumi, who must surely have been powered by the spirit of his dear friend whose bones rested beneath his bright blue pack. We only caught up with him at the main junction just below the final push to the peak. Despite the deep blue sky, the horizon was tinged with haze, obstructing the views out to the Inland Sea. Apparently on a clear day you can see Mt. Aso in Kyushu, but we had visibility of less than 20km. Beggars can’t be choosers now, can they?
Kiyofumi set off up the metal stairs towards Misen, while Fumito and I battled the huge crowds for space on the thick metal chains that make Ishizuchi so famous. It was literally elbow-to-elbow traffic up the near vertical rock faces, and both of us prayed no one above would lose their grip, which would surely set off a domino effect that would be the mother of all mountain disasters. At one point we snuck over to a neighboring crevice that did not have any chains, and thankfully there were no other people to maneuver around. Japanese people are renowned for their polite style of queuing, but it literally became a free-for-all in the narrow space around the cliffs. Once reaching the top of the first set of chains, Fumito and I both collapsed from exhaustion, opting to forgo the final set of chains in favor of the metal stairs.
Once on the summit, we literally had to fight for space among the hundred or so people on top, who somehow had all converged at the 11am hour. The wait to climb Mt. Tengu was nearly 30 minutes for all I could tell, though there was no one keeping track and no one in charge of letting people through. Overuse is becoming a monumental problem in Japan’s mountains, especially with the recent hiking boom among the 20 and 30-something crowd. Perhaps the locals could initiate a climbing permit system to give the ecosystem a breather. Somehow I don’t think the mountain huts would allow it though, for they would surely lose money selling their 500 yen bottles of water and overpriced meals.
The wind blew in strong but inconsistent gusts as we struggled to light the fire. The temperature was at least 10 degrees cooler up here, but Fumito knew just what we needed: a dish called zosui that Fumito referred to as Japanese-style risotto. Out of his pack, the budding chef produced 2 ziplock bags of cooked rice, 3 medium strips of kelp, a bag of cut vegetables, a half a kilo of cut chicken, and 4 raw eggs! Before my eyes I witnessed the magic of Japanese cuisine, which easily put any mountain meal I’ve ever cooked to shame. Kiyofumi grabbed a beer from the adjacent mountain hut while I struggled to breathe in the crisp, thin mountain air. My lungs were starting to feel the change from sea level to nearly 2000 meters in less than 6 hours. The zosui was devoured in a third of the time it took to cook, and slowly my stamina returned to my ailing body.
After lunch, Fumito and his father had originally planned to spread the ashes on the summit of Tengu, but because of the intense crowds, they changed tack and headed for a secluded spot on the northern face of Misen. Respecting their privacy, I stayed behind while they paid their respects at the shrine before performing a short ceremony to release the ashes back to nature. Sitting on the summit, I felt deeply moved by the actions of the Hirao family, and I could only hope that someone would do the same thing for me when I cease to become a functioning carbon-based lifeform.
On the way back down the mountain, we were all in good spirits, for the weather had held out and the peaks lay spread out before us. Passing by heaps of other late starters, we offered encouraging greetings and a few high-fives to the kids making their first mountain summit. Fatigued our bodies were, but rejuvenated our spirits became, on a truly successful mission. Perhaps I need to take the old adage ‘Third time’s the charm’ to heart a little more often, though if I truly climbed all of the Hyakumeizan 3 times then someone should surely have me checked out for mental insanity.