26 October: at 6.05 am, we step out of the lodge into gray half-light. Our ascent of Amakazari starts then and there. Without preliminaries, except to pay its respects to a small shrine, the path leaps straight into the vertiginous beech woods. Its boulders are greasy with dew and leafmould. Mercifully, fixed ropes draw the sting from aery traverses.
A cold wind finds us when we come up on a ridge. Autumn is all but over; the last leaves come fluttering by. The Sensei strides on ahead. Must be the natto we had for breakfast. Pausing to photograph a miniature garden nestling in a tree root, I look up to see her vanishing round the next zig-zag, bear-bell chiming prestissimo.
At this rate, we’ll be up before nine. The figures on my altimeter watch are spinning upwards like a fruit-machine’s. We skitter briskly across an exposed hogsback, the thunder of torrents rising from both sides.
Above, we scramble over little rock steps, A-zeroing from tree roots. A larger outcrop is scaled via an aluminium ladder, helpfully identified by a sign identifying it as the “aluminium ladder”. Nothing is being left to chance. Or perhaps it’s a subtle form of post-modernist irony.
Wayfinding was less straightforward when Fukada Kyūya came this way in mid-1941. At that time, he records in Nihon Hyakumeizan, there was no clearly marked path up the mountain and I soon tired of seeking out little tracks here and there. After getting utterly lost, I turned back. But the northern view of Amakazari-yama was memorable.
I’m impressed with the northern view myself. Overhead, glimpsed through the trees, a rat-coloured helm cloud scours across the summit. I can see us, if we get that far, bent double against the gusts, groping our way through the galloping mists across the mountaintop …
The Sensei is unfazed. On her side of Japan, I guess, you won’t do much mountaineering if you wait for balmy skies. I lose her again when I stop to inspect a small pond. While the gusts keep harrying the water surface, I give up on photography and set off in pursuit of the frenetically chiming bear-bell.
Throwing common sense to the winds, the path takes a direttissima line straight up the final slope (when Wes came this way, all of this lay under a vast snowfield). We gain height, boots skidding on muddy pebbles. Quite suddenly the sun is shining straight into our faces down a tunnel of bamboo grass. Emerging from the shadows into a bright morning, we find that all the clouds, rat-coloured or otherwise, have vanished.
At once, there is company. Having met just one other hiker on the northern path, we now see platoons of hikers filing up from Otari, the more popular route. All are then funnelled summitwards by a trench through the sasa, which hisses and flails in the blustering easterly. Placing our feet with extra care, we mince across the top of a steep gully and half-scramble through the rocks to the top.
Momentarily, the wind leaves us in peace. And, as we pull over onto to the summit platform, there are the statues meditating in a row, just as Fukada describes them: The old stone Buddhas all faced northwards towards Echigo, where across the intervening sea lay the long arm of the Noto peninsula. Mentally, I salute Monk Rakan, who is said to have carried them up here on his back.
Today, the Noto peninsula lurks somewhere beneath the haze. Yet the icy wind keeps the upper air clear, so that we see all the way across the mist-filled Fossa Magna, to distant Shirouma, whose tilting ramp soars above the dust horizon. Eastwards, Yakeyama heaves its volcanic tump over an intervening ridgeline while, to the north, we look down onto Koma-ga-take and, beyond, the ultramarine blur of the Japan Sea.
Hmm, interesting: primeval mountains to the west, rows of upstart volcanoes in the east. The landscape seems poised to narrate a geological epic, probably of Cecil B de Mille-like grandiosity. Too bad that I’m in no shape to listen. The wind slices through my pile jacket like a Gassan blade, though the Sensei seems not even to notice it. "Cold, is it cold?" she asks. Definitely, it's the natto.
“We need to go down,” I hear myself saying.