The tree of life gives hope to us all  

Saturday, 10 October 2015


Hiking alone around the Japanese mountains gives one plenty of opportunity for rumination and general navel-gazing. I guess in a way that's part of the attraction - getting away from the normal hubbub and allowing the mind some space to step back and take stock.

Yesterday I had a very agreeable few hours exploring the hills above Hatonosu in the Tama valley. We've been spending a lot of time around here recently, in particular around Lake Okutama. Big M is not a fan of Yamanobori (mountain climbing) - hence the reason that I tend to hike alone. But she does enjoy being outside. Lake Okutama boasts a well maintained, and most importantly, an almost entirely flat hiking trail along its southern shoreline. We've had a couple of nice days exploring the 12km trail, enjoying the views and catching rare glimpses of the forest's residents, such as monkeys and snakes.

But whether you are slogging up steep mountain trails or meandering along lakeside paths, the one common feature of the landscape is trees. Lots of them. In fact, Japan has pretty much cornered the market in tree covered mountains. From the bamboo groves of sheltered valleys, through deciduous woodlands and up into the majestic cedar forests, trees are your constant companion when walking in Japan. So yesterday I got to thinking about trees.

In Old Norse tradition, the world was supported by Yggdrasill, the World Tree connecting the nine worlds of Norse mythology. Its roots ran to the wells of knowledge, while its upper branches reached to the heavens. The world of men lay nestled in its branches and squirrels ran up and down the trunk carrying messages between the gods and the different worlds. The evergreen tree as a symbol of life is deeply embedded in Western European culture; it's why every English churchyard sports a yew tree, and why we celebrate Christmas with a decorated pine tree - a distant echo of a far older pre-Christian tradition.

I was pondering yesterday, how the Norse view of the universe as being supported on the limbs of a great tree could be interpreted another way. If one were to imagine one's existence not as a 3 dimensional creature, but as a 4 dimensional one - the extra dimension being time - the effect rendered back into 3 dimensions would not be unlike looking at a tree. Every branch would represent some decision point in your life, where reality takes a fork into two equally valid but increasingly divergent realities; each then forking again and again as they extend upwards before finally tapering to a singular conclusion as they touch the sky.

IMG_20151004_134734 The thing about trees is that they grow upwards towards the light. A tree never juts out a limb sideways unless in an attempt to find a new way towards the light. Unconsciously, the tree knows how to do this, and I guess we do too - constantly searching for meaning and fulfilment in life. Perhaps we too know that when we lose our thirst for sunlight, we will wither and die. But most of the time, as long as we keep trying to move upwards, just like the tree reaching upwards, our efforts will prove successful no matter what branch we start from. There are no wrong turns because we can always go forwards, and upwards. We just need to chose to.

Carrying on with my tree-related ponderings, I thought about the different trees and how the environment shapes and changes them, just as our environment shapes and changes our own development. The English Oak stands solidly alone. Its massive roots reaching deep into the earth to support its sturdy trunk and spreading foliage; the Japanese cedar grows tall and strong in the company of its fellows, wasting no effort in reaching straight for the sky from the dark forest floor. Like the roots and trunk of Yggdrasill, I kind of see each of us supported by our personal histories, our cultures and our families. The deeper and stronger these roots, the stronger we are and the higher we can reach. I guess that's why these things are so important to me - to us as human beings. And how important it is to recognise that everything we do now, everything we are, is rooted in our past effort and the efforts of those who have gone before. Our parents, our families, our ancestors and our communities How much we have to be thankful for.

So why not do something right now to nurture your own root stock - hug the mrs; pick up some litter from the street outside your house; phone your mum; take the time to appreciate the good things about where you live, who you are and where you've come from. See if you can't grow an extra inch upwards today!

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A flame that has burned for seventy years  

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Seventy years ago today, a single US plane flew a lonely mission to drop a single bomb on a Japanese city. That city was Hiroshima. What fell from a clear blue sky at 8:15 that morning changed the world forever.

We recently visited Hiroshima as part of our 10th Anniversary celebratory trip to Japan's Inland Sea area. It's a place that neither of us had visited before, but one we both wanted to see. I wasn't really sure what to expect, but I felt very sure it was something that I should see; maybe it's something that everyone should see. Any discussion of the war in Japan is pretty much taboo - extremely dangerous territory that arouses strong passions on both sides. Even seventy years later, so many aspects of the debate remain unresolved and questions unanswered. But for me, Hiroshima and what happened there is not so much about the rights and wrongs of the war, but about the terrible price paid by ordinary people for the decisions made by others; people whose only "crime" was to have been born in that place at that time. They could have been anyone; they could have been you or I. Their story, then, is our story.

DSC_8399 The name Hiroshima invokes mental images of death, fire and carnage. But in reality the city was, and is, a beautiful place with an almost European feel to it. Trams ply the streets and the rivers are lined by tranquil parks and little cafes. The only thing out of place in this neat, clean environment is the remains of the City Hall which stand as a stark reminder of the carnage unleashed on that August morning. The Genbaku Dome (genbaku means atomic fission) is instantly recognisable. The atomic weapon exploded 600m directly above the dome, and because the force of the blast was directed directly downwards rather than laterally, the building remained standing - one of only a handful to remain so.

Only a small proportion of the uranium in the weapon underwent fission. But the energy released was enough to completely flatten the city to a radius of 2km, and create devastation for many kilometers beyond that. People near to ground zero on that fateful day were simply vaporised where they stood. In the nearby museum, there is a section of stone step from the City Hall building that has the shadow of one victim burnt into it. They just happened to be sitting on the step waiting for the office to open. Their ghostly shadow is all that remains.

IMG_20150721_153454 The museum at Hiroshima leaves visitors in no doubt about the horrors faced by those left horribly burned and injured, nor those that searched in vain amongst the scorched ruins to find loved ones. Many of those killed and horrifically injured on that morning were school children, who had been carrying out civic duties in the city centre or on their way to school. Their stories, and the pitiful relics they left behind like burned school uniforms, shoes and personal effects, are simply heartbreaking to see.

Even today, some Western commentators criticise the Japanese for portraying themselves as the victims of war. But seeing the reality of what happened in Hiroshima, it is difficult to think of the Japanese civilian population as anything other than victims; ordinary people who paid a price every bit as horrible as those in Dresden, Coventry or Nanking. Some in the West even go so far to say the Japanese deserved Hiroshima and Nagasaki in atonement for its aggression in Asia. Even the English captions in the museum seem to pander towards this line of thinking, using phrases like "...Japan started the war in the Pacific". The Japanese captions, however, use very different language. And therein lies the source of the heat that still burns seventy years later.

IMG_20150721_153706 This is a massive subject, and maybe one for another time. But it's just worth noting a couple of points. Firstly, the West has largely written-out of history the reasons why Japan felt compelled to go to war. The story actually began a long time before that, in July 1853 with the arrival in Tokyo Bay of the US Navy under Admiral Perry and his fleet of warships, that turned their guns on the city and threatened to destroy it unless Japan opened its borders to the West. What followed was a period of dramatic and violent political upheaval in Japan, and a series of somewhat one-sided treaties that the Japanese were forced at gunpoint to sign. That set in motion a chain of events that culminated in 1941 with the US blockade of oil shipments to Japan which was the immediate precursor to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour.

The second point is that until the US occupation in 1945, Japan was still effectively a feudal economy under military rule, just as it had been under the Tokugawa shogunate. There was no democracy in Japan. Unlike Nazi Germany, where the rise of fascism at least had its roots in democratic process, Japanese people had no power whatsoever to effect change, nor to avoid the consequences of the policies followed by its military government at the time. They were, then, in a very real sense "victims" of both their own ruling class AND US foreign policy at the time.

The Japanese are acutely aware of both their own sense of victimhood, and the fact that these feelings are not understood in the West. The museum at Hiroshima makes much of the children killed and maimed in the atomic bombing, but almost completely fails to mention the fact that Hiroshima was a garrison city and one of the main embarkation points for the Imperial Army, essential in supporting Japan's military campaigns in Asia. But for all that, the Japanese today are genuinely passionate and resolute in their commitment to peace. One phrase used on one of the memorials in the city cautions against the "misguided policies of governments". An admonishment that could apply equally well to Blair and Bush's criminal war in Iraq as it could Japanese imperial expansion in Asia.

My feelings are that Hiroshima truly stands today as a monument to peace. More specifically, a reminder to our rulers that it is the ordinary people that pay the price for their decisions in fire and pain and blood; a reminder that people today in Baghdad, Kabul, New York, London, Paris and Tunisia are STILL paying the price for their failures. In that regard, both Westerners and Japanese people share absolutely the same mind. Today is a day when everyone should say a silent prayer for those that died in Hiroshima. That prayer should ask that the heat still generated by the events of seventy years ago be nurtured not as the fire of war but as a flame for peace and reconciliation. In this way, those deaths will not have been in vain.

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What's so great about Japan?  

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

When I travel back to Europe and I meet with someone who finds out that I live in Japan, the inevitable first question is along the lines of "What do you like about Japan?" It's a question I have fielded hundreds of times, and to be honest I tend now to try and just skip over it as quickly as possible. It's not that I don't want to answer, or that I find it tedious to trot out the same basic response each time. It's more to do with the fact that I find it such a difficult question to answer honestly. What's so great about Japan?

Everyone has their own ideas, of course. For me, it has always been a problem to articulate my particular viewpoint. I have loved the country since the very first moment my foot touched Japanese soil. I have visited and worked in many countries, and I've enjoyed them all. But I have never felt such an instant connection with any of them in the way I did with Japan. I have never been able to adequately explain why.  Until now.

Prompted by our own recent trip to Japan's Inland Sea for our 10th Anniversary, I bought a book of the same name by - as it turns out - a truly wonderful writer by the name of Donald Richie. Richie, originally from Ohio, came to Japan as a young man and like me fell in love with the country. However unlike me, he is able to express his own affinity to Japan eloquently and elegantly. He wrote in response to the question why he liked Japan:

I think the most honest answer is: I like myself here. There are places—Calcutta is one—where you can come to loathe yourself. I never knew I would be ready to kick children from my path, to strike out at cripples, to compose a face apparently contemptuous at the sight of misery so great it seemed almost theatrical. And all because of sheer terror. I, along with most of my richer Western brothers, had believed that such qualities as disinterested politeness, trust, friendship, even love are necessities. It had never occurred to me that they are luxuries until India showed me that this is so. Such attributes—the pride of Western man—are but accoutrements, like well-cut clothes. They are removable. One can go naked and miserable.

For me, that's it in a nutshell. I like myself here. In Japan, you can be kind, polite and gentle, and nobody mistakes this for a weakness to be exploited. In fact, quite the opposite -  to be strong, yet quiet and benevolent are considered the ultimate manly attributes. As the great Dan Inosanto (shameless namedropping: Malc, Lewis and myself had the honour of training with Guru Dan many years ago) is fond of saying "Don't mistake kindness for weakness". The inference is that the truly strong man has the capacity to be kind and gentle, not because he is weak but precisely because he is strong. But in the UK, wherever you go, there is always some entity that tries to challenge this and impose its "Might is right" view of the world on others. Either personally through loutish anti-social behaviour, or indirectly through faceless unaccountable corporations or useless government bodies. I got so tired of having to fight endlessly with these people on a daily basis. I got tired of having to stand my ground, react forcefully to a threat or waste time and energy fighting with idiots. All of that stopped the moment I arrived here.

But even that's not the whole answer. The wonderful Donald Richie goes on to write thus:

Japan, then—to answer this perennial question—allows me to like myself because it agrees with me and I with it. Moreover, it allows me to keep my freedom. It makes very few demands on me—I am considered too much the outsider for that, a distinction I owe to the color of my skin, eyes, and hair—and, consequently, I become free. I become a one-member society, consistent only to myself and forever different from those who surround me. Our basic agreement permits an amount of approval, some of it mutual; our basic differences allow me to apprehend finally that the only true responsibility a man has is toward himself.

In Japan, not only am I free of the jobsworths, louts and gobshites, I am free to be exactly who I want to be; to hold my own standards and to set new ones of my choosing based on the things I have learned here. In other words, Truly free.

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Hair today...  

Thursday, 2 July 2015

One of the great things about the internet is the way that it has democratised writing. Once upon a time, getting your work into print was the hard-won privilege of the favoured few - at least, those who didn't want to stump up the cost of vanity publishing. Now we have Amazon, and anyone with a computer and a story to tell can have a go.

cueball-sm Predictably, this has generated an awful lot of tosh. I spend a lot of time looking for authors worth reading on my Kindle, and a lot of the time it's like searching for a Wispa bar in a sea of turds. Just occasionally I stumble across someone really worth the effort, like the excellent Carrot Quinn (see my links). But more often than not I find myself getting to the end of a slim volume and thinking "What the bloody hell was the point of that"?

One such example was the book on "Over 50's Fitness" I previewed last night. Among the earth-shattering insights offered by the author was the fact that you slow down as you get older and you probably shouldn't try to go from coach potato to marathon runner in one month. But the one thing that really tickled me was the author's authoritative run-down on medical conditions likely to afflict the over 50's. Number 1 was stiff joints. Well, OK we all feel a bit stiff in the mornings. Number 2 was hair loss.

Now, I had never considered hair loss due to natural ageing to be a medical condition. But our font-of-all-knowledge solemnly assures us that the psychological impact of male hair loss can be catastrophic. Really?

Let's face it, most of us blokes are going to go a bit threadbare up top as we get older. For the vast majority of us, it's going to occur in our thirties, and for the vast majority of us, we're over lamenting the loss of our youthful mane in a very short space of time. Just have it cut short and get on with life. There are always going to be some that just can't handle it, finding solace in the syrup or hair transplant or comb-over for the stingy ones. Incidentally, the comb-over is known as "the bar code" in Japan - which always makes me laugh.

I feel sorry for anyone that struggles to come to terms with approaching slap-headedness. But at the same time, I can't help thinking that their grasp on their masculinity must be a bit flimsy at best if they allow it to be defined by their lack of spam. It's a well-known fact that male pattern baldness is in fact dictated by the amount of testosterone flowing through your veins. Therefore baldness surely should be celebrated as a badge of honour rather than covered up and cited as a cause of psychological trauma. Mr "Fit Fifty" is talking out of his arse.

And anyway, as any bloke over fifty knows, your hair doesn't disappear - it merely migrates from the sunlight uplands of your bonce to the shaded groves of nostril and ear lobe!

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Tuesday, 16 June 2015

In the recent film Interstellar, a team of astronauts are sent far from Earth to try to find a new home for humanity. Due to the effects of gravity, time appears to run differently for the astronauts and for those left on Earth. With each message the astronauts receive, greater and greater amounts of time appear to have passed for the senders, so the astronauts observe increasingly marked differences in the speech and appearance of the senders.

So it is for me - currently back in the UK for a biannual visit. Because I am not here all the time, those gradual, creeping changes that would probably go unnoticed for people here all the time, stand out like a sore thumb to me. One such change is the now widespread habit of padding out simple exchanges in retail outlets with empty and meaningless platitudes. Whereas the process of ordering a pint was once as simple as :

Barman - "What can I get you?"
Customer - "Pint of Stella please"

We now have...

Barman - "Hi guys how are you today?"
Customer - "yeah I'm good thanks how are you?"
Barman - "Yeah I'm cool - what can I get you today?"
Customer - "Pint of Stella please"
Barman - "Great"
Barman - "Do you want any nuts with that at all?"
Customer - "No thanks"
Barman - "OK - is there anything else I can help you with?"
Customer - "No"
Barman - "Did you find everything you were looking for today?"
Customer - "err yes I guess so"
Barman - "That's great"

Now I don't mean to sound uncharitable, but what an utter load of bollocks. Some twonk at head office has decreed that its front of house staff go through this upselling/data mining charade everytime a customer walks through the door. Does it sound friendly, welcoming and warm? No. To me it sounds utterly insincere, which is actually the exact opposite of its intended purpose. Especially when the script is obviously out of sync with reality, like asking the knackered driver of an HGV if he's "been anywhere nice?" or is "Having a great day?" Of course he's bloody not. He's having a shit day - and you've just made it a little bit more shit by pointing out the shittiness of it.

Do we in the UK always have to slavishly follow this US drone speak? Whatever happened to bloody common sense

Have a nice day y'all

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Indiana Jones and the Soiled Underwear - Part II  

Saturday, 6 June 2015

In the last instalment, your humble scribe had managed the impressive feat of falling off a mountain along a precise magnetic bearing. Muddied but otherwise unhurt, he now prepares to continue - but more surprises await!

Feeling somewhat relieved, I headed off on the well-defined path. But while I was quite sure that the worst was behind me, I was  - quite literally - not out of the woods yet so caution was still very much the order of the day.

The map I was using ( was bloody good; clear, accurate and detailed. Marked on the map was the precise location of every official trail signpost, together with accurate distances between each. So this meant it was very easy to use a system of dead reckoning to pin-point my position extremely accurately as I proceeded along the trail. This information could be vital if I encountered another situation where I lost the trail and had to navigate cross-country. The process of navigation is deceptively simple; I had worked out that in this terrain with my current load, I was travelling 100m every 90 paces. So by just counting out 90 paces, I could measure my progress very accurately. Every 100m I picked up a stone, and in this way I was able to count out distances of 5, 6 or 700 m between signposted waypoints with surprising accuracy.

To my left was the running water I had heard through the trees. The trickle of water gradually broadened into a mountain stream that gurgled and bubbled its way downhill through the increasingly rocky gully. The path crossed the stream and I stopped to wash the dirt from my arms, face and hair in the cool mountain water. I was feeling pretty good about everything in my secret mountain valley as I continued, with my bear bell clinking out the steps as I counted.

Rounding a bend in the trail, I encountered something I hadn't reckoned on - a bridge. A simple wooden bridge had been constructed over a shallow rocky gully. As I got closer, I noticed that the bridge had seen better days. In fact, it was quite seriously decomposed in places. Untreated wood decays incredibly quickly in Japan's hot and humid summers. From the faded date on the "Path Closed" notice, I guessed that the last time this path and its bridges had seen any maintenance was over a year ago at least. I gave the bridge a closer inspection: its main supports, while corroded, seemed robust enough. So with caution I edged along what I hoped was the strongest part directly over one of the beams (incidentally, the picture comes from

Having crossed with no problems, I continued. The valley I was following had become progressively steeper and rockier as it followed the increasingly energetic stream downhill. I started to encounter more bridges. Some, looked almost new; some looked like they were in serious need of repair. The gullies crossed had become deeper and more rocky. A fall through the rotten wood onto the unforgiving rocks below would be catastrophic, and I once again noted that a leg injury could prove extremely serious in this environment as there was little chance of being discovered by passing hikers. I began to have concerns again over what obstacles still lay in my path.

My concerns became more substantial as the terrain underwent a change of character from easy wooded trail to challenging rocky ravine. Walls of limestone rose steeply either side of the trail, which periodically disappeared as it passed over mossy bedrock. There was no way except forward and back. The stream now became punctuated by short, rocky waterfalls and the path skittered back and forth across rock ledges stepping their way downhill. Bridges appeared more frequently, spanning gullies that were ever deeper. The state of some of these crossings gave serious cause for concern. Suddenly the path and river parted company, with the river dropping away very sharply into a completely impassable rocky ravine. Up in the distance I could hear a waterfall. The path climbed up sharply around a rocky outcrop, narrowing as it did so. Rounding a bend, I saw a sight that made me take a big gulp.

Clinging to the side of the ravine was a completely rotten wooden walkway, complete with DANGER sign. Below, nothing but empty space and mossy rocks. Shit! I was so close to the end of the trail. But this looked to be the most serious challenge yet. I stopped to really examine the obstacle. It was clearly totally rotten. The rocky wall to the left had some tree roots growing out of it which would provide some hand holds. Below the wood was a narrow band of rock, which I hoped would be resilient enough to prevent me dropping into the ravine if the bridge collapsed. I had no choice but to continue, so puckering-up and chanelling Indiana Jones, I gingerly picked my way across, alert for the sound of splintering wood and a sudden dropping sensation. 

I made it back to solid ground. Phew.

The path once more became benign as it descended gradually through he trees. Behind me, I could hear the sound of rushing water, which I guessed marked the spot where the stream plunged over the rocky precipice. According to my map, I should now be approaching the end of the section which had been marked as closed on the sign I encountered. And sure enough, at exactly the point predicted, there was the signpost with rope strung across the path announcing its closure. I'd made it.

I clambered through the rope, and walked a few paces. Crossing a (well repaired) bridge, I was rewarded with the sight of one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have seen in Japan so far.


Shortly thereafter, the trail became a paved road, and shortly after that I arrived at the campsite. The adventure was truly over and I'd survived unscathed.


I wasted no time in pitching my tent in the pretty much deserted campsite, and getting myself sorted out for the night. An hour or so later, a light flicked on in the campsite office and I wandered over to pay my pitch fee. To me delight, there was a fridge, well-stocked with Asahi Super-Dry. After purchasing a few tins at vastly inflated prices, I retired to my boudoir to cook dinner and reflect on the day's events.


Basically, I'd been lucky. My decision to proceed along a closed path had been risky, but it was a calculated risk - a calculated risk that had paid off on this occasion. The alternative would have led at best to a pretty miserable and pointless slog; at worse an even more dangerous situation in failing light on an unfamiliar path with exposed paths and steep scree slopes. Given my equipment and the fact that I am a confident navigator, I don't feel my decision was a bad one.

Where I did feel that lessons needed to be learned was in my emergency procedures - what would I have done in the event that I had become injured or lost in the dense woodland? I had both tent and an emergency bivi bag on board, plus food and water, so sustenance and shelter would not have been a problem assuming I could get to my pack. But what about summoning help? Mobile phones are useless in Japan's mountains. I had a whistle, but it was packed away in my emergency tin and therefore not immediately accessible. What would happen if I lost my pack?

Considering these points as the Super Dry buzz kicked in, I resolved to make the following changes:

1 - Attach whistle to pack straps so it's easily accessible - useful for bear encounters too

2 - Carry smaller emergency kit in my belt bag. In the event that I lose my main pack for whatever reason, I still have shelter and some form of sustenance.

3 - Investigate some form of personal GPS beacon such as the Spot Gen 3

I guess these measures might seem over the top given that I am really a casual weekend hiker rather than a seasoned adventurer. But even so, as thousands of Japanese weekend backpackers find out every year, you can find yourself in trouble very quickly in Japan's wooded mountains. I have no desire to become a statistic.

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Bear Grylls eat your heart out  

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

As recounted previously on these pages, I have been somewhat frustrated of late in my efforts to get out hiking. In particular, my urge to get out for an overnight trip. I had originally planned to do a 2 or 3 dayer to Oze Marches, but time has just run out. So instead, I thought a little trip closer to home might be a bit more practical. So with that intent I booked a couple of days off work and headed for where the WiFi can't find me. Little did I realise that my leisurely stroll through the woods would turn into something off a Bear Grylls tv show.
My plan was to return to Mt Otake, via the picturesque mountain village of Mitake. After stopping for lunch at the 1266m peak, I would swing south for a couple of kilometers and then pick up the trail which would lead me eventually to Otake campsite and an overnight stop. Then, the following day I was going to retrace my steps back to Otake, but skirt the peak and press on to Oku Tama and the train home.
Things started to come a little bit unpicked shortly after leaving Mitake. I had originally planned to tackle one of the other little peaks in the area on my way to Otake. But on hitting the train junction, I was faced by this sign.
Bear activity is not unusual this time of year, and the quieter areas around Mitake are known bear haunts. The Asian black bear is a famously bad-tempered animal at the best of times. But a female with cubs is particularly dangerous, and this time of year is when cubs and their mothers are likely to be more active. Bears will normally try to avoid human contact, but being mid-week there weren't so many people around. Travelling alone meant that I was at increased risk of a chance encounter, so I decided that sticking to one of the busier trails might be a good idea, so I continued on to Mt Otake.

I really enjoy this little mountain. Approaching from Mitake, you go around a series of rocky outcrops that get gradually more challenging as you approach the final ascent. The latter ones requiring you to grap chains set in the rock to steady yourself as you clamber over. The drop away is steep, but not sheer so it isn't trouser-filling scary in the way, say Crib Goch, is. But it certainly adds a bit of drama to an otherwise fairly routine trail. The final push to the summit is a hands and feet scramble up the rocky shoulder of the mountain. Coming down the other side is I think marginally easier, but still has a couple of points where you have to stop and think "How am I going to tackle this?"

So after what I thought was going to be the main excitement of the day, I left Otake behind and headed south on an easy woodland trail, anticipating setting up camp a couple of hours later and cooling my feet in a mountain stream whilst supping the tin of beer I had lugged along for that purpose. Things were going well until I hit the fork in the train where I was due to turn north. There, strung across my path was a rope and a sign saying "Path Closed"

Well, that was unexpected. The path was seemingly quite  popular one and I had seen nothing to indicate the closure up to that point. There was a notice posted on the Oku Tama Visitor centre website that one path was closed for maintenance, but the location given was further south. But I had a bit of a problem. To continue south would take me way off course and dump me miles away from my destination, with nowhere to go. Doubling back was an option, but difficult. The detour would take me 10km or more out of my way, and involve tackling what looked like a difficult and unfamiliar scree descent in the dark. I didn't fancy that either. There was no other way to reach my destination, so I had to make a decision: return to Mitake and abandon trip or to trust to my map reading skills and common sense and try to find a way through the closed trail. I decided to take a chance.

Trails are usually closed for either maintenance or logging operations. I figured that in either case, the actual site of the works was likely to be quite small. From the map, I could see that the path had a couple of steep-ish descents, but nothing dangerously so. I couldn't hear any machinery or chainsaws, so I reasoned that if I could navigate around the area of disruption, I'd be fine.

I walked the 250m to the first signpost indicated on the map. So far, so good. However shortly after that I began to see signs of logging and the path evaporated into a featureless clearing. The land dropped away sharply in front of me and it was clear that I was going to have to commit to a descent. It would likely be one way, as the chances of being able to scramble back up the hillside again if I screwed up were diminishing rapidly. However, I had an accurate fix on my last known position from the signpost and the map I was using was detailed and accurate. Therefore I had an accurate bearing on the next signpost marked on the trail, so I had a good idea on what direction the trail lay. I started to descend. At first, I managed to zig-zag down the slope using the log breaks left by the woodsmen. But pretty soon the slope became steeper and more treacherous, and the game started to get a bit more serious.

I used the trees as brakes, aiming from one to the other to arrest my descent. At each couple of trees I stopped and checked my bearing and looked for clues to match my location on the map. I could see that I was heading down a spur, with gullies either side of me. That matched with what I expected on the map, so I was still reasonably confident in my direction. But the going was getting harder. The soft forest floor underfoot was now interspersed with rocks, which dislodged by my slippery descent, tumbled noisily into the undergrowth below.

Then, I fell.

My footing simply disappeared and I started an uncontrolled slide in a shower of dirt, wood and rocks. I managed to dig my heels in and used my trekking pole like an ice pick to try and get control. After sliding maybe 10-15 m I managed to use a tree to bring me to a halt. After taking a few moments to compose myself and check my map and bearing again, I continued. I started to get a bit more concerned now. The chance to retrace my steps was now absolutely zero; I was well off the beaten track with no hope of discovery and the valley floor was still not in sight.

I was heading into a valley, and off in the distance I could hear water. Water flows downhill, and usually eventually leads to a road or some form of settlement. I appeared to be following the right general direction and the features I could see around me matched what the map was saying. But nevertheless, I needed to consider my options. I was well equipped. I had food and shelter. If necessary, I could survive an overnight stay quite comfortably. I felt sure of my map and compass, and I was confident I had a reasonably good idea of my location. My biggest worry was getting injured - either breaking a leg, being clumped by a falling rock or running across one of Japan's poisonous snakes in the undergrowth. In the latter case, I was quite happy that my noisy descent should alert any animal to me presence long before I arrived, so trying to avoid injury became top priority.

I slid some more - fell some more and clattered over loose, moss-covered rocks. And then - miraculously - I saw the more than 5 paces to the right of my predicted position! I'd made it to the path again. The path was clear and easy to see, and the sign post showed it was the right path. Nevertheless I double-checked the map and bearing to make sure I was where I thought I was. Everything checked out, so scratched, muddied but otherwise OK, I headed off expecting the rest of the trail to be a piece of cake - expectations that were soon to be dashed...
PART II to follow!

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