Rather than contributing to the oppressive humidity, the rain in mid-August resulted in a merciful cooling of the air. I was sat in the silence of the local library, self-consciously sharing the clean but ageing space with what looked like university students. Determined to improve my rather weak Japanese, I was diligently studying kanji when a message from Richard arrived, suggesting that we walk the mountain trail we had found a month earlier on the way to Nichuu Dam. My acquiesce was immediate and eager.
Having bundled up my various study materials and descended the staircase with its familiar sun-bleached posters, I went to unlock my bike from the library’s parking area, but the key would not turn. I fought with the paralysed lock for a while before calling Richard to say I was being detained against my will. He drove to the library and was also unable to release my bicycle from its perplexing entrapment. Thankfully, I had only locked the bike to itself, and so we piled it into Richard’s car and dropped it at my apartment for me to puzzle over later.
Parked up and ready to ascend, the mountain track rose steeply from the tarmac road and vanished quickly into adumbral forest. The narrow and grassy path was modest, but the entrance was busily adorned with a white torii gate, a small stone shrine, an orientation board, and a couple of other notices. A carved log, erected before the torii gate, proudly announced, in unweathered black and white paint, that this was “Nichuu Dam Iimoriyama Mountain Climbing Path.”
The gradient was unrelenting and we were bent double for the majority of the climb. We passed nothing remarkable and there was no respite from the steep ascent. The map at the start of the trail had shown a shrine on route, which we determined to reach.
Each bend in the path felt sure to be the last before the pinnacle, but each new horizon unveiled a further climb, equally as arduous, through the dense forest.
Richard stopped so abruptly we nearly collided. He said there was a guardian blocking our path, and I leaned round to see a large toad on the ground, clearly interrupted during its excursion through the woodland. It was lean, lacking a bloated underbelly, and was raised midstride upon its toes, petrified in its pedestrianism. Excitedly, I took a series of photographs, cautiously edging nearer until I was barely a foot away. It did not so much as twitch; ossified by fear and instinct, its limbs were suspended in their locomotion. Me moved on, it remained frozen.
Sweat cascading from me, my energy and enthusiasm were beginning to diminish. I was convinced we were walking to the moon. After an eternity the gradient of the slender path began to ease and even descended a little, before climbing again. Occasional gaps in the trees gave prospect onto white vaporous clouds below us, reclining lazily on neighbouring verdant peaks. The grey sky felt close.
Along the thin, forested spine of the mountain, where the wood grew short, a heavily weathered stone shrine, about two feet in height, sat at the foot of a tree. The grey masonry was composed of three parts: a plain square plinth supported a block like a shoebox on its side, topped by a curling gable roof with long eaves. The hollow of the body was empty, and faded kanji down the side labelled it a memorial. It was badly chipped and worn, but still resonated a quiet dignity upon the mountain crest.
Richard insisted this could not be the shrine indicted on the map below; this garden ornament was hardly worth mentioning. I reluctantly disagreed on the grounds that, firstly, it would have taken considerable effort to carry the stone blocks to this altitude and, secondly, I had recently experienced the sting of discovering that something which appeared exciting on a map was in fact nothing significant. To confirm that we were not missing anything more substantial, we walked further for a while, before admitting defeat and heading home.
The return journey was then a sharp descent over dry and loose forest ground. The gradient forced us to run down some stretches, and in characteristic clumsiness I rolled my ankle and fell. Feeling unscathed, I pulled myself up, only to have Richard inform me that there was now a gaping rip in the inner thigh of my trousers, which added a healthy dose of embarrassment to what Richard had already renamed “the Mountain of Disappointment.”