The day had started so well. The thick mist of the night drive to Echigokomadake had lifted by first light. The surrounding mountains of Niigata were streaked with snow-filled gullies that revealed the contours more clearly than the monotone white of winter and dappled greens of summer. With a 4 am start, I was accompanied only by the birds, and finally caught a clear view of the owner of the song that can be heard on almost any mountain in Japan at dawn, a type of warbler. And it was a plucky bird, determined to stand its ground and defend its territory with song.
From the refuge hut several hundred yards from the summit, I carefully traversed the snowfield to the clouded ridge, then ran back down to the car, for the longest peak awaited.
Within 30 minutes of the relentlessly steep start to Hiragadake, it was clear that the body was not cooperating; the knees were swollen and according to altimeter watch readings every 10 minutes, I was gaining altitude considerably slower than normal. Even Hana was struggling. The sun was out, her tongue was an alarmingly vivid devil red, and periodically she would stop to lie down in the cool shade amid the twisted roots of the pines.
From below, the flank of Hiragadake was rippled with raw brown landslides alternating with forested spurs, but the ridge was still snowbound, which slowed progress further. I felt no sense of elation upon reaching the summit, merely a desire to get down and get the day over with. Hana simply closed her eyes as if to sleep.
Slithering back down the banks, I paused to chat to an ascending group of three hikers who were now setting up camp on the snow, and commented on the fine, large animal pelt that flapped on the back of a tall, rugged old man. Was it deer, perhaps? He shook his head, raised both arms, and took aim with his imaginary rifle. “Bang!” he said, “It was a wild dog. I shot it in the mountains.”
No sooner than leaving them than the rain started. This was not what the sun god of Yahoo Weather had forecast. And it was irritating. I had taken my wet clothes from Echigo and draped them over the car to dry in the sunshine during the hike up Hiragadake, but they would be soaked by now. They were, and the running shoes, which I had left on top of the car, were now filled with pools of rainwater. Again.
I drove to the base of Hiuchi and headed for the onsen in the Kokuminshukusha to contemplate. I now had no dry hiking clothes, so short of a laundromat, needed a room. But the place was full. And the restaurant was serving guests only. Unless I wanted to eat a souvenir box of Mizubasho candy, I had no food either. Despondent, I set off down the valley in search of food, and was lucky to spot what looked to be a prefabricated Portakabin tucked away in the forest by the river. There were four numbered cubicles and a sign advertising vacancies in the “bungalows”. The room was spartan, but I needed nothing more than a roof to keep off the pounding rain. The door of the adjacent room was open and the occupant came out to greet me. It turned out that he had stopped doing the hyakumeizan at No. 85 because Kyushu and Shikoku were “too far”, but was still climbing mountains and had notched up almost 1,200 peaks. When I set off the next morning, he was already up and getting ready to go, wearing CWX running tights. He was 73 years old.