Chapter Eighteen: Lakes and Mountains

The Fire Mountain Festival at Urabandai

One of my fellow Assistant Language Teachers, Warren, lived in the small town of Kitakata but worked in the even smaller town of Urabandai; a lake-speckled paradise about a forty-minute drive away. Richard and I joined him one humid July evening to the ‘Fire Mountain Festival’ (火の山まつり) at a scenic, if rundown, spot on the edge of the majestic Lake Hibara. The venue was a large and admittedly unattractive car park where street food sizzled on stall hot plates, greasy and irresistible. Beneath the dazzling and rapidly descending sun, a demon on stilts tottered around for the amusement of spectators and young women modelled their festival yukatas with explosive floral patterns of joyful colour.

We joined the crowds gathering upon a grassy knoll offering a panorama of the tranquil water framed by highlands of rich greens which faded to temperate blues as the light gently diminished. We settled down on a surprisingly good patch of grass at the top of the slope. Witnessing families around us enjoying picnics and hot drinks on their comfortable blankets and camp chairs, however, made me feel amateurish as we sank empty-handed to the naked ground.

The sky was still pale when the first fireworks flew into an air filled with serene music. Each rocket ascended singularly while the radio voices of a man and woman read messages from people who, I assumed, had sponsored the event. There was a lingering minute, if not three, between each single firework, and in my calm, faulty logic I concluded that this was a manifestly Japanese way of conducting a display; to announce the launch of each missile in dulcet tones and relish the experience of watching it burst, fizzle and cascade like a detonating poem. Warren said it was exceptionally boring.

After about a half hour of mellow announcements and mollifying fireworks, the show was over. Anticipating a swarming exodus, we swiftly left. Curiously, no one else seemed so hurried, and as we walked back to the car in the enveloping darkness there was an explosion overhead. The main firework show, in all its meteoric and thundering glory, had begun in our absence, quick-firing into the black sky. We stood on the empty road, watching in awe and vexation. The absorbing pitch of night was splattered with dazzling expansions of light, some of which diffused into the recognisable shapes of daisies, smiling faces, Saturn and, incredibly, watermelon slices. I gawked at the spectacle that far outstripped any firework display I had ever before seen. Never again, I vowed as the coloured stars fell, would I pragmatically rush to escape, when I risked missing something so glorious and intoxicating.

The Tombs at Iimoriyama

One of my best friends was getting married and I couldn’t make it. I Skyped Anna back in England as she prepared for her big day, but after about three minutes she had to go. There was a small but aching sadness in my naval knowing I wouldn’t be there to bear witness to this transformative ritual which would mark the rest of their lives and redefine their identity. Thoughts of my absence stung me; I would not be among the beautified guests gathered to celebrate a love strong enough to have lasted a decade already, smiling, eating, dancing, hugging, joyous.

To prevent myself from wallowing in loneliness, I invited the other ALTs to go adventuring. We drove to Iimoriyama in Aizu, a famous historic site. From 1600, Japan was ruled by the feudal military government of the Tokugawa Shogunate, until the last Shogun was coerced to resign in 1867. Between 1868 and 1869 the Boshin Civil War was fought between forces still loyal to the Shogunate and those who wished to see governing power returned to the Emperor. In Aizu, supporters of the Shogun were beaten at the city’s Tsuruga Castle in 1868. A small band of soldiers known as Byakkotai were on the Iimoriyama hillside during the battle and saw flames rising from the castle. Believing themselves defeated, the group of twenty boys, aged between sixteen and seventeen, committed seppuku, cutting open their own stomachs in ritual suicide. However, the castle had not in fact fallen; the fire was in the surrounding town. One of the boys survived his self-mutilation and lived to tell the sad story. A tragedy augmented into local legend, the site now has nineteen tombs, several monuments, two museums and a collection of souvenir shops. Among the tributes sits a pillar from Pompeii capped with a bronze eagle, donated by Benito Mussolini, who was impressed when he heard of the boys’ loyalty.

Having driven part way up the short mountain, we pulled into a small gravel car park, but noticed a sign that seemed to indicate that we did not have permission to stop there. Just as we were trying to interpret the notice, a woman appeared and asked if there was anything wrong. Explaining our predicament, she told us that, as the shops were shut, we could park there. She then claimed in English: “This is my mountain.” Her pronunciation had been impressively natural, but as we walked up the hill Richard mused that we may have just let ‘crazy Ethel’ mislead us into thinking that she had the authority to sanction our parking.

We followed the wide and meandering grey stone path uphill and soon came across the remarkable, the stunning, the positively hallucinatory double-helix pagoda. The three-storey hexagonal Aizu Sazaedo was constructed in 1796 entirely out of wood. The spiraling twin corridors provide separate routes up and down the nearly seventeen-metre-high tower. I was completely enthralled by its once-dark and weathered wooden panels, its beams sitting at distorted yet regulated angles, giving the illusion that it was haphazardly bolstering itself against an unrelenting gravity like a crooked fairytale cottage.

Disappointingly, this chunky Buddhist Escher steeple was closed, as was apparently everything on the mountain at this time on a Thursday, and we saw no one else as we drifted around the site, admiring the prospect over Aizu city beneath a lumpy blanket of grey-cream clouds. After I had distracted myself from the life I was missing on the other side of the world with this mountain of death and history, my friends sent me a photograph of themselves, grinning and blowing kisses to me across the miles that separated us.

The Enichi Temple and Lake Inamwashiro

Jason volunteered to drive us to the Enichi temple complex and then around Lake Inawashiro, so we piled into the car under a sky bright with possibility. At the gates of Enichiji we scrutinised the information board and debated the five-hundred-yen entrance fee. The conclusion was that, as we could see most of the complex from where we stood, it was not worth the price. Wandering to the right of the entrance and up a small hill, we passed other religious buildings. One pleasingly symmetrical structure had a small and rusted playground before it where I naturally had a go on the swings. 

We entered some dense woodland and in the crisp sunlight the world appeared intense and magical, as though its usual foggy veneer had been burned away. Hanging miraculously from a stone sculpture I found the vacated exoskeleton of a large insect with black marble eyes and a conical abdomen. We did not venture far before returning to the car to circumnavigate the lake. The late afternoon sun glistened on the peaceful expanse of water while the silhouette of Mount Bandai raised itself majestically in the distance. Inawashiro is so broad that its waves lap steadily at sandy beaches. We stopped and I hastily kicked off my footwear to cautiously paddle in the murky shallows. Unfortunately, the water was not the liquid crystal that the landscape had promised. Having no towel, I haphazardly wiped the adhesive sand from my feet before we piled back into the car and I watched the lake as it stretched to the horizon where a grey line of mountains undulated along a hazy sky. 

The lakeside drive soon enough transitioned into a mountain drive as the roads ascended away from the water and into elevated forests. For entertainment, Warren played the Ducktales theme song in German, blending the joy of nostalgia with the humour of unfamiliarity. As the car rounded hairpin turns and glided past unguarded drops, we contemplated our mortality and considered the eventuality that the last sound we might hear in our short lives could be the jubilant melody of Germanic Ducktales. Thankfully we lived on; long enough to start recalling other theme tunes from childhood animations, and together we sang a hearty rendition of Gummy Bears. Richard was reminded of all the boyhood crushes he had entertained for the lead females in the cartoons he used to watch; and began to list all the anthropomorphic animals he had been aroused by in prepubescence. 

The journey was extraordinarily beautiful, and as we traced the outline of the bulbous inland sea, the perfect disc of the incandescent sun began to fall, smoothly descending to the earth, its burning halo becoming sharper as it dropped from the misty heavens to plunge heavily into the dark mountain waves. 

The Cycle Around Lake Hibara

In the hope of finding a decent cycle trail near to Urabandai, I bundled my bike into the car and went to the town’s Visitor Centre. The area was lush with trees, occasionally interrupted by low buildings. To maintain the region’s image of an enduring sanctuary of nature, much of the local architecture is comprised of rustic wooden and stone chalet-style structures in earthy colours, and even the garish orange, red and green branding of the resident 7/11 convenience store has been muted to a muddy green and turf brown. Inside the lodge-like Visitor Centre a tall and slender gentleman with grey hair and a kind face produced a tourist map of Lake Hibara and its sightseeing highlights. I explained that I wanted to go for a bike ride, and he traced a route in pink pen, which was, admittedly, simply an outline of the lake. He also recommended a ramen shop for lunch to the north of the long loch.

Leaving my car at the Visitor Centre, I embarked along the wide concrete road and soon enough discovered that I had, of course, set off in the opposite direction to the one I had intended. Turning back, I saw a broad single-storey building with a restaurant and gift shop. The intense sun had been causing me to squint in spite of my sunglasses and I thought this might be a good opportunity to find darker shades for my excursion. The only person in the store was a stout middle-aged shopkeeper who was already walking towards me. When he asked if I was okay, I explained that I was looking for ‘glasses like these’ while motioning to my shades. He told me the convenience store might have some and then asked something about a boyfriend. Confused but smiling, I said I didn’t have a boyfriend, thanked him and left. It wasn’t until I was outside that I realised he’d been looking at my chest for much of the exchange, while I had naively thought he’d been trying to read my T-shirt.

Pointing my tyres in what I believed to now be the right direction, I was soon lost again. I examined a wooden orientation board and it seemed the narrow walking path directly behind this map would get me back on track, although it turned out to be, perhaps unsurprisingly, not particularly bike-friendly. Following the steep inclines and declines, I passed campsites in the forest, with wooden cabins, static caravans and tents. This was the first time I had seen anything like this in Japan, and there was a strange moment of perception-shift when I realised how ludicrous it was to have assumed that this country of mountains, forests and lakes would not have anything that resembled a Center Parcs.

I passed a small sign which said that bikes could not be ridden, and to be safe I dismounted and walked the sandy path which followed the water’s edge below. A number of oncoming teenagers in sportswear ran past me. A white woman walking a bicycle in this remote rural region was certainly a novelty for them, and many barked ‘hello’ at me as they jogged. I consistently responded in Japanese, which amplified their bewilderment.

At length I arrived at the ramen place that the gracious Visitor Centre man had recommended but I was, frustratingly, not yet in the mood to eat. Arrested with indecision, I stood across from the restaurant which sat on a piece of land several meters above the road. During my internal debate, an aged woman on a bicycle stopped and asked in English if I was okay. Simultaneously a young woman walking down the hill towards us also approached to offer assistance. Quite embarrassed, I gave a maladroit and unnecessarily honest explanation that I was trying to decide if I was hungry or not. The two were patient and charitable, and the older lady told me that she had visited the UK some fifteen years previously, and believed that Lake Hibara bore a strong resemblance to Windermere.

I decided against food and resumed my peddling. Along an otherwise unremarkable stretch of road was a low black sign covered in an essay. In cross-reference with the tourist map, I concluded that this was the neck of the northern peninsula which curved upwards into the lake like an arm with the middle finger raised antagonistically. An annotation on the leaflet seemed to say that something had happened there in 1585, and included the character for ‘death.’ Concluding that there must be a memorial site at the tip of the cape, I locked my bike and continued on foot into the dense forest.

The track was uneven and undulating, but was well-trodden and marked. I walked for a long time, seeing no other person, but was driven by an aspiration to discover what the map had labelled “stone mountain castle site.” The humidity was oppressive, and swarms of small black flies, gravitating towards the moisture of my sweat and eyeballs, caused me to emit animalistic growls of frustration and swing my arms in increasingly erratic trajectories. On I hiked, up and down the precipitous slopes of this apparently never-ending woodland trail. After a lifetime of trudging, I reached the end of the promontory. The headland was too high for a shore, there were too many trees for a vista to the lake, and there was nothing – absolutely nothing – to see. No stones, no graves, no castles, no monuments. Just more trees, leaves and roots. Drenched in sweat and disillusioned with life, I made the tedious return journey to my bike, and, having worked up an appetite, headed back to the ramen shop. With the wind knocked out of my sails metaphorically, and my stomach rumbling literally, the road to lunch was torturously long. Each corner I thought must be the last, only to be crushed by disappointment. When I did finally make my way up the stairs to the restaurant, deflated and disheveled, I found the interior was an upmarket affair for which I felt acutely ill-suited. I seated myself on a soft tatami mat before a glass wall with a pacifying prospect onto Lake Hibara. I had the salt ramen which the waitress had recommended, and like a gullible tourist I bought a grinder full of fancy lake salt.

In the shadow of my fatigue, even after a warming bowl of salty noodles, the remainder of the lakeside circuit did not have the same bewitching sparkle with which the day had begun. The beauty of that mountainous lakeland utopia, however, can never be understated, and the shimmering lights on the water and the dignified verdant ascents in my homebound rearview mirror still made my skin bristle with joy while I cheerfully anticipated a shower.