Behind my old home in the town of Susono, at the foot of Mt. Fuji, huddles a small group of mountains known as the Ashitaka Mountains. It is a small group of rugged peaks, the interior of which is mostly inaccessible because of near vertical slopes and rotten rock, created thousands of years ago by the violence of Fuji’s blast from out of it’s southern flank. Every year a few visitors make their way to the northernmost and tallest of the peaks, known as Echizen Peak. At about 1500 meters, not very tall by neighboring Fuji’s towering standards, the view of Fuji from the top is breathtaking. It is one of the few places where you can see Fuji in its entirety, giving the full sense of the volcano’s long rise from the surrounding highland.
The Ashitakas were the first mountains that I began to seriously climb and after having pointed my boots up its narrow track through all seasons and all weather, it came to occupy a special place in my heart. I could walk the trail in the dark and anticipate the rocks in the path and the four places where one edge of the trail dropped off into a crumbling precipice. I watched the mountain alter with the years, as typhoons off Suruga Bay ate away at the old volcanic rock, causing landslides along the steepest portions of the trail. One year an entire ravine collapsed, and a new path had to be bushwhacked through to the old trail up along the ridge. And the trail itself, after decades of tromping boots, eroded along the forested portions, gradually washing away into head high gullies through which, on rainy days, you could barely make your way along the slippery, iron-red mud. Only a tiny company of volunteers, all in their sixties and seventies, cared for the trail.
These same volunteers, who had been climbing the mountains since the thirties, had also built a tiny cabin just below the first ridge, a third of the way up the slopes. The cabin stood next to a natural spring, from which ice cold water bubbled, and in summer, frogs croaked unseen from within the rock fissures. I weathered a heavy rain storm in the cabin one autumn day. The floor was covered with layers of old blankets and an old, blotched guestbook sat on the window sill. As the rain drummed on the corrugated metal roof, I sat reading entries from past visitors.
A wooden plaque was nailed to the cabin door, which read, in Japanese, “Please make sure to latch the cabin door closed when entering or leaving, to make sure the macaques don’t get in and cause a mess.” The troop that roamed these mountainsides once appeared on an outcropping above me as I made my way up the rocky trail. Some of the members balanced upon the quivering, ropy tendrils of an akebi vine, munching on passion fruit-like akebi fruit.
The last time I went to Ashitaka was to camp at my favorite secret spot under a stand of four, towering, ancient Japanese cedars. The old grassy area where I used to nap on weekend afternoons had overgrown with brush bamboo and there was little space left comfortable for a tent. As night descended I listened to the snuffling and grunts of raccoon dogs, red foxes, and sika deer, but never saw a soul of one. At dawn I emerged from my tent, naked, and stood gazing for a long, slow time at Mt. Fuji catching the first fiery glow of the rising sun.
It is rare to have such solitary space, free from the possibility of someone happening along, in Japan. It is good to know that somewhere in the world there is a tiny, but significant place, where I can retreat to if I want to sit in silence, being part of the old world.