I told myself that I would never return to Oze Marsh after my 1994 let down. It is a beautiful place, but the hordes of people and the train track-like wooden walkways make it impossible to enjoy the place as it ought to be experienced. Japanese park authorities seem never to have heard of eco-tourism. There were times as I walked, that the package tour hiking groups that passed would make a steady line of bodies that stretched the entire length of the marsh, as far as the eye could see. The sense of tranquility and self-reliance that draw me to the mountains gave way to teeth-gritting impatience as hundreds of people hobbled by, each requiring a bright smile and a hearty “Good day!” that didn’t reflect my real mood.
Yet here I was again, tromping the wooden slats and again seeking communion with a grace that never quite made it through the invisible barrier between boardwalk and broad marsh expanse.
I went to the marsh because of months of inactivity and problems with diabetic neuropathy that left my toes and fingers twinging with pain. I needed a flat walk, easy on the climbing and backpack laden treads. Oze Marsh was about as easy as a mountain walk could get. I was hoping to get my summer start here, try out my new lightweight tipi, and work up to the higher mountains over the summer. By autumn I hoped to be scaling the peaks of the rocky roof of Japan, perhaps Yari-ga-take or Hotaka.
The weather broke through the monsoon grey with the first real summer heat, sunlight bathing the marsh in ultraviolet generosity that just barely managed to retain the alpine coolness of the elevation. I was in a t-shirt, my walking pants rolled up to the knees, but others clad themselves in woolens and umbrellas against the sun, vests, and clomping leather boots. Many people grimaced under their sweat and I wondered why they didn’t just remove their excess. Out over the marsh grasses a stillness hung, as if all the creatures waited with bated breath for the caravans to pass.
I did get a number of moments of reprieve and insight into the place; and to find these interludes I needed to stop and look hard. I waited until a lull in the traffic jam presented itself and then I would kneel down at the edge of the boardwalk and peer into the tea water of the marsh bogs. Cold water with water lillies just beginning to reach for the surface, stands of azalea, mountain cherry trees, and mugwarts. If the lull was long enough the hidden frogs would venture tentative croaks that blossumed into a full-scale chorus. Suspended in the clarity of the water, wriggling brown bodies of salamanders, gulping bubbles of air, shuttled between mud and atmosphere. On the water surface flotillas of whirligigs danced caffeine-laden polkas and waltzes while beneath them jerked the rowboat forms of water boatmen and waterbugs. Everything moved with deliberation, in slow motion, as if conscious of the spending of precious calories. Only the mad calling of cuckoo birds in the scattered islands of birch trees indicated any squandering of resources; but perhaps for the cuckoos, who leave the rearing of their young to others, there is leeway for their extravagance.
With the evening appeared one of Oze’s designated lodging areas. My tipi went up at the back of a bulldozed clearing, just shy of a village of bigger, rounder tents. Campers moved about in a hush, the smoldering evening light snuffing out loud voices, even the army of teenagers staked out in tents big enough that they could stand up in them. As the darkness descended blackflies rose from the grass and clouds of midges attacked my exposed arms, face, and legs. I had forgotten the misery of these biters, and all evening I squatted swatting absently at them. Under the enclosure of the tipi the blackflies receded, but the midges continued their rampage.
Dinner was Thai green curry, dried tom yam kun soup, some sliced celery and cucumbers, and a package of parboiled mixed rice. Dessert was a cup of steaming cappucino coffee.
Sleep took over as the darkness fell. Like a bird under the shell of the sky, I drifted away into dreams.
And at 2:30 in the morning woke with the need to pay a visit to the toilet. Out in the crisp air, the rising moon threw blue shadows onto the ground and got tangled in the fingers of bare-branched trees. It was cold enough for wisps of breath to waft from my lips and drift up towards the stars. The constellations awaited them, until the Milky Way and my breath merged, indistinguishable. I stood craning my neck, reaching with my eyes, yearning.
The tipi walls weeped condensation and the foot of my sleeping bag soaked it up. I fitted a garbage bag over the end, and went back to sleep… until the teenagers came alive and woke the camp with their teenage urgencies and indifferent boots stomping by the tipi walls. Long moments slogged by until the tipi walls grew bright with dawn and the hysterical laughter of the nightjars gave way to distant ring-necked pheasants bugling, to cuckoos and bush warblers competing for choral dominance.
I scrambled out of the sleeping bag and tiptoed along a neglected path behind the campsite, listening and watching for birds. The great hoary grey birch tree trunks and glowing new leaves grabbed the spaces of light and left a tangled profusion of vegetation from amidst which the cuckoos sang and the secret creatures hid. Nothing moved.
The rest of the day brought the sun again, and skies laced with tree swallows and lazy, drifting clouds. The hordes tromped diligently according to the signs, stopping at the designated rest areas, buying Hello Kitty trinkets and drinking cans of 600 yen beer at 9:30 in the morning. Cameras blinked and hovered everywhere, quick glimpses of the scenery, the moments captured on film before the eyes could register what they were looking at. Hiking in a daze.
And back out of the valley, up to the pass, where buses waited. The suddenness of immobile concrete and asphalt. The glare of human structure, treeless and spent, individuals hurrying away in their cars. Heads nodding among the bus seats, silent blood pounding from the effort of two days.
And home, back to the frayed lights and rush. Back to the heart of remembering.