End of the trail on Mount Takao just outside Tokyo proper. First snowfall of the winter on New Year’s Eve. A delightful good bye to a heavy year.
I hadn’t expected to walk in the snow, but already the first flurries batted at the nylon face of my jacket when I stepped out of the train station. I had left my house in a rush, deciding on the spur of the moment to just get out and try to clear my head. I had had an argument with someone close the night before and hadn’t slept, still clenched tight with conflicting thoughts, and still resentful for all the days of arguing having eaten away the bulk of my ten-day winter vacation. Now the last few days of the vacation left me with few alternatives but jaunts into neighboring, uninspiring molehills. I didn’t expect Takao to offer much more than an exercise routine.
Few other people headed up the road toward the base of the mountain, where Takao Temple and the cable car awaited thousands of weekend daytrippers from the city. It being December 31st the whole country was in hometown migration mode, everyone getting ready for the solemn New Year’s celebration with family and friends. An old man in black tights and cross-country running shoes jogged past, just down from the mountain. Several other hikers in traditional heavy leather boots, spats, and Gore-tex rain jackets came lumbering past, looking beat. I strode past lightly in my own black tights, approach shoes, and daypack, still groggy, though, and a bit woozy in the head from lack of sleep. My digital camera was out, ready for shots, but images didn’t form in my eyes as I scanned the trail ahead. Voices continued to whisper at the verges of awareness, like birds flicking out of sight in the bushes.
And birds there were, mostly just heard, but occasionally giving themselves away when they tossed forest duff aside in their search for insects. They were hardy little fists of gray and russet feathers called Gray Buntings that forayed in hunting parties through the underbrush and dashed through old leaves like adzes. Here and there their fluting calls echoed through the ravine and the fluting mingled with the chuckle and gurgling of the creek running through the growing blanket of snow. Besides the water and bird calls the only sounds I could hear were the creaking of my shoe soles on the dry snow and the brush of snow falling against my jacket.
My eyes only held fleeting moments of potential contemplation before the thoughts slipped away again and the acuity of vision blurred into dark thoughts inside. Part of it was the hurried breakfast this morning, with too much sugar railroading through my arteries up into my eyes, the diabetic poison dulling perception of the world around me. It was like pushing through cotton and no amount of waving my hands could clear the cobwebs that stretched across my face with each step I took. Trapped in ambiguity I struggled for breath, to feel in focus with the trees and biting air and blue scent of snow. The anger nearly ripped out of me again when I tripped over a a root.
I put my hand out to stop my fall and felt dry bark. I looked up and saw the tree, a huge, heavy-footed, giant of a cedar, descending from the white sky down to the black earth in one, leathery, ponderous boot of trunk, like a pole of heaven. Without a sound it boomed down at me, a lord to a paean, admonishing without spelling out a single word of disapproval. It just simply stood there, not even swaying up there in the air. And for some reason I woke, right then and there. All the anxiety of the past few days washed away, my heartbeat slipped into the background, and it was just me and my breath, spilling unclothed into the air.
I took a deep breath and started walking again. Photographs rearranged themselves in my head and soon I couldn’t get enough out of each step, picture after picture crowding the rooms until soon I was barely crawling up the mountainside, camera in hand, and light and shadows reforming into ever more enticing compositions.
I was deep into trying to find the right angle and exposure for one picture of snow balanced on some branches when a soft, male voice greeted me from behind.
â€œGood afternoon! It really feels good, doesn’t it?â€
I turned and faced a suntanned man about my age, smiling as if he had just conversed with the face of the sublime. I smiled back. His voice was just the timbre for this silent place and moment.
â€œYes, it certainly does. It’s so quiet.â€ I responded.
He laughed. â€œAh, yes, a rare moment on Takao. I’m so happy I came today.â€
â€œAre you going to the top?â€
â€œYes.â€ He paused to contemplate the scene of which I was taking the photograph. â€œPlease enjoy your walk. And please take care in the snow.â€
And he was off, crunching up the trail, snow enveloping him in its veils.
Though I was out of shape the walking felt more like a distant decision between two lovers, an effortless sliding between covers. I took the stairs that I usually hated climbing so much as a simple spell of slides in a visual display. The white of the snow obscured all the familiar landmarks and muffled the usual hard edges between remnants of wilderness and human superabundance. For these few hours the edge of Tokyo was untamed and remote, a familiar world made lost and irrelevant.
As mountains go, Takao is but a pimple among rashes, and so reaching the top as I have so many times would normally elicit no fanfare, but today it was different. The trail left off on an asphalt road which came to a stop in the open stillness of the summit. The snow had discourage the crowds and now the open top lay white and pristine. A natural history museum, several restaurants, and some temporary booths set up for tomorrow’s New Year sunrise celebration all sat in silence today, waiting. I kicked through the shin deep snow cover to one of the covered sitting areas, donned one more jacket to keep in the warmth as I sat down, and prepared to eat lunch. Three other people huddled on the other benches, a Chinese couple heating up instant ramen over a cartridge stove and a lone man eating his lunch out of a thermos. I ripped open the curry rice package and, with bared fingers, shoveled the near-frozen food into my mouth. I took sips of hot milk tea from my thermos, but it was hard to hold the stainless steel cup in the frigid air. Most of the meal consisted of a series of stops and goes as I took bites of the curry then slipped my hands into my gloves to warm them up again.
In spite of this a light had gone on inside me and I kept turning around in my seat eager to look at the new things the snow was trying to show me. A bench on the windward side of the shelter had upheld a bank of snow that almost blocked the view north. The oak trees surrounding the clearing kept dumping sprays of powder snow that drifted across the open space, like smoke. The cold seemed to hold everything in a breathless trance, as if all the plants and wood and rocks were somehow surprised by this unusual display.
Eager to be off I packed away the garbage, drank a last sip of the tea, and set off through the untouched snow going south. A rope had been suspended between the trees at the head of the south trail going back to the bottom of the mountain, in an effort to control the hordes of people preparing to come tomorrow.”Danger! Be careful of the steep slope!” the sign read. I had to laugh. For someone who had walked the Takao trail twice at night because it was so easy to follow, the warning was a joke. Most people who came to Takao for New Years had never climbed alpine mountains or gone snowshoeing among the snowdrifts so the precaution made sense, but I had followed this trail more than twenty times and it certainly posed no risk, even with the low cut shoes I wore. Another set of tracks passed through the rope barrier and I followed them down the slope.
From here it was like dancing. My camera was out at every step, it seemed. Bamboograss bending under loads of snow. Cypress needles variegated with textures of snow trim. Slivers of grass slicing through the whiteness like green knives. Small icicles dripping from the biceps of beech trees. Intricate webs of snow-crusted twigs interlacing all around the trail, diverting the light like a single-hued kaleidoscope, all the while tinkling and sprinkling with a myriad of dry snowflakes. I pranced through this like a five year old boy, singing as I went along and not caring that I almost couldn’t feel my fingers as I snapped shot after shot after shot.
Halfway down the trail, after having been showered by a whole load of snow suddenly released from above, I came across a single, bright, lime green speck amidst all the white of the branches. Almost at eye level I discovered a moth’s crysalis, in which a relative of the giant American Cecropia moth slept. It’s green was like the promise of new leaves in spring and completely out of place amidst the snow. Without eyes, it seemed more like an aberrant leaf than a silk sleeping bag, but the pupa lay within, mixing primordial ingredients. I snapped pictures of this, too, holding my breath as long as I could to keep from disturbing the fragile life within.
I danced further down the mountain. What normally would take only about two hours to walk, took me over six hours as I skipped back and forth, kneeling in the snow, peering under dried out ferns, nosing into the crooks of tree trunks. And I came to the viewing point which looked out over Tokyo which, on moonlit nights, lets you gaze out over the entire vast brooch of Tokyo, its lights glistening as far as you can see. Today there was a white curtain in place, no horizon in evidence, not even the base of the mountain visible. The snow fell here as a single, slowly descending waterfall of white noise, blocking all recognition of earlier passages. I stood a long time at the lip of the cliff, brooding. The head of a foothill across the ravine kept slipping in and out of view, like woman behind a fan. I could almost hear the Snow Queen tittering.
Darkness bled the scenery of white and blue seeped into everything. Trees turned aquamarine, then indigo, holding very still as the night undressed them. It was like wandering through a backstage dressing room, frills and petticoats and white dresses falling away to reveal the black tights beneath. I passed a tiny shine protected by two stone fox deities, behind which a blonde-haired North American woman (North American because she was wearing L.L. Bean duck boots) laughed to herself as she built a life-sized snowman with long, lithe limbs. I passed another little old woman, puffing up the final steps, probably preparing for a New Year’s Eve night hike, taking a step ahead of the coming crowds.
I reached the bottom of the mountain and found a different town from the one I had ascended from earlier in the day. It was like something out of the north, old tiled roofs laden with snow, lanterns glowing under the ancient cedars, smoke from the restaurants billowing above the streets. Not like a tourist town at all. The air seemed to taste blue with evening. And the warm gold in the windows welcomed those out in the cold to step in for a cup of tea. I lingered here until the darkness swallowed all that was visible away from the lanterns. Then it was time to snap out of the spell and blink again under the fluorescent lights of the train station.
I stomped the snow off my shoes and pants and, dripping, made my way up to the waiting train. For a moment the mountains behind the town stood above the scene, indifferent. Then the train doors hissed shut and with a jerk I was carried away from what must surely have been a reverie. I held on to the trails of bitter air and light that clung to my jacket, all the way home. And I promised myself mountains for the year ahead.