Saturday, November 22, 2008

Climbing the Oku-Tama

Armed with four photocopied pages from a fifteen-year-old guidebook, I took the local train an hour west to Kori Station for a three-peak hike through the Oku-Tama. The front car was packed with Japanese walkers, metal poles and camera tripods poking out of their designer day-packs. A man dressed all in red pushed his palm against the driver's carriage window, half blocking my view. There were weeds along the track and small, two-storey houses with gardens the size of a parked car. Two women in white face masks sat either side of me, hiking hats pulled low so that only their eyes and ear lobes remained contagious. Above the doors, a murdered ex-cabinet minister was on the TV news, followed by pictures of a Dutch seaside town.

For the hour and a quarter to the top of Mount Otsuka we tramped ever upwards, from narrow paths that had conifer roots sticking up like bones, through deep, biscuit-brown piles of birch leaves with the texture of tracing paper, to railway-sleeper risers scattered like matchsticks. We hurried on to Fuji Peak Garden, finding only a few picnic tables in the woods and a path to the Mitake-san cable car, where we hit a slow-moving town of concrete pavement, metal drains, electricity cables strung above hiking trail signposts, beer vending machines, souvenir shops selling wooden Buddhas and buckwheat noodles, bags of lemons and turnips for 200 yen (you paid by leaving two coins in a moneybox), and a two-hundred-year-old shrine that doubles as a mountaintop.

Continuing on to Mount Hinode, we lost the crowds within a few hundred metres, dropping down through conifer forest until the final climb to the circular summit. In the distance, Shinjuku stood like a citadel in a dusty brown haze, far across the urban sprawl. There was the sound of a transistor radio, a couple putting orange peel into an empty tin of Pringles, an plastic box of sushi and the hiss of camping gas. In the corner was the sign pointing us down to Hinatawada.

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