Sayako waves goodbye from our apartment window as I pull the car out of the driveway. With one hand, I wave back, feeling slightly guilty about leaving her for the day. But her broad smile transmits an assurance that it’s ok to go on the hike today, she’ll be there waiting when I return.
On Sundays, we have an agreement I can take the day to recharge by hiking alone in the mountains of Nagano.
Getting out of the car in the empty parking lot at the trailhead, I pack light: 2 liters of water, mobile phone, an extra jacket, a survival bag and whistle for the worst case scenario. November is late for hiking, but global warming has been changing everything.
A Torii gate marks the start of the trail. It begins as a very easy climb, walking through Japan’s endless pine forest. The traffic noise quickly fades and becomes an eerie stillness. Being alone on the trail, thinking of where to place each next footstep, empties my mind of worries.
Two hours later, I pop out of the tree line and the scenery opens into a moonscape of jagged boulders and views of far away peaks. A lizard darts under a rock as I approach. Its one of the few signs of life I’ve seen today. I make my way upward, scrambling over boulders and slogging through loose rock toward the summit.
“Whoo-hoo!” I shout from the top. Only the faintest of echoes bounces back from the surrounding mountain ranges. Far below, I see the city of Matsumoto and can just make out the shape of the castle. A provincial backwater, Matsumoto had its heyday as a shogun capitol in the 1600s.
Like a bite of a Fuji apple, the taste of victory is crisp and sweet then fades quickly. I take a selfie, and begin the descent down. It takes three hours to climb Tateshina, so it should be two hours down. I fall into a daze lulled by the rhythm of the steady descent. Besides the ache in my thighs and the irritation of clothes scraping now sore skin, time passes quickly. I quickly pass the terrain I painstakingly climbed through earlier.
Something ahead catches my eye. A flash of purple pops out of the browns and greens of the forest landscape. Descending closer, I see a figure. A person is sitting on the ground.
In moments like this, time slows down. I hear the wind rattling the branches of the trees. I feel my feet wobble in the soft bed of pine needles underneath. The smell of the forest is musty and damp.
I reach the figure, and with a jolt, I see it’s a woman. She's wearing new hiking clothes. A logo on the jacket, Montbell, is an expensive brand.
“Are you ok?” I ask, using my basic Japanese.
She shows no reaction. Her eyes stare blankly into the distance. Hypothermia? Or has she escaped from an attacker and is in shock? I look around, but see no one.
It's late afternoon. She needs to get off the mountain.
“I’m James. You need to get up.” I reach out my hand. When dealing with people in shock, one needs to be assertive to break the inertia.
“James?” she says, now noticing my presence.
“We can walk together down the trail. You need to get down off this mountain.”
Her eyes slowly come to life. She looks at me with a sparkle, and reaches out her hand. “Yes.”
I grab her hand and pull her to her feet. I ask, “What's your name?”
“Were you hiking?”
I was hoping to find out more but at least she’s moving. I take the lead and look behind my back to see if she’s following.
My Japanese coworkers told me that Mt Tateshina is an active volcano. I remember on my Mt Fuji climb, active volcanos seem to attract eccentrics. Thrill seekers. Maybe Kaori is one of them.
After ten minutes, we reach a fork in the road. An arrow shows the parking lot 3 km down. Another arrow reads: Fukuro hot spring 4km.
Kaori taps my shoulder. “My friend Tomoko. We need to help her. She’s run out of food.” She’s pointing at the route toward the hot spring.
By now, it's so terribly cold, snow is falling, and it’s almost dark. I really want to get back to the parking lot.
Kaori gazes at me with pleading eyes. I now see she’s a very attractive woman.
My cheeks sting from icy flakes of snow that have begun to fall. She needs my help, she’s half my size. “Let’s help your friend,” I say. “You know where she is. You take the lead.”
We slowly trudge down the trail toward the hot spring.
“‘James, I’m becoming tired,” she says. “Tell me a story.”
“Yes, to stay awake.”
“A story? Well about me, I arrived in Matsumoto on the JET program to teach English 10 years ago. My first class was middle school—” I tell her of my journey to Japan and of a series of teaching jobs. It's not very interersting, but she’s listening carefully. In Japan, the misfits and rebels are often the best listeners.
My body resists my will to continue; we’ve been walking for a very long time. I say, “I’m getting tired, maybe your friend has already left. Let’s turn around.”
Kaori stops and looks at me. “James, let’s play rock paper scissors, if you win we got back to your car, if you lose, we keep going.”
This feels like an odd proposal, but, I’m too tired to argue. I hold out my hand in a rock, and on 3…2…1…make a scissors. She puts out another rock. I’ve lost.
We start walking again.
“Tell me another story, James.”
“Another?" I don't think I have any choice, so say whatever I can think of. "Last week I had a dream I was climbing a volcano, during an eruption. It started me thinking about volcanos, and if there were any close to Matsumoto. That’s how I came to find this Mt Tateshina. My dreams often lead me to new places.” I tell her about several others dreams I've had, and after a while, I’ve talked for so long I’ve run out of words.
Kaori sits down.
I hold out my hand to pull her up.
She refuses to move. “Can you talk some more?” she asks.
This hike is starting to feel like a wild goose chase.
“Tell me more, James,” she says. “Do you have a girlfriend?”
”If you stand up, I’ll tell you about my job," I say.
She rises unsteadily to her feet.
“Monday to Friday, I teach English at Sunshine International School. Being a teacher for age 4, my job, besides teaching toddlers a few words of English, is being chief cat herder. Children that age scatter off in all directions the second you lose their their attention. So everyday, I do six hours of singing and dancing and using all the tricks to keep 20 children in one place.“
“I have children too,” Kaori says.
I ask her about the names of her children, but she oddly won’t answer my questions. So I go back to telling her the details of my teaching job. When my story ends and I stop talking, she drops to the ground and sits down, again. I'm about to shout at her, but when I look at her face she looks very pale. I'm beginning to think it was a bad idea to go looking for her friend Tomoko.
I stand, puzzled, thinking about my options. A light flickers in the distance. Then I smell the scent of burning wood.
I leave Kaori here for a few seconds to run ahead to investigate the source of the light. There’s a cabin in the distance with lights on but no sign of inhabitants. Running back down, I’m excited to tell Kaori the good news. But in the spot I left her, shes vanished.
“Kaori!” I scream but hear nothing back. I run down the trail wondering if she walked off in a stupor. Then I spot something on the ground. A tangle of purple clothes. The same brand name, Montbell is showing.
Out of the corner of my eye, I fell I’m being watched. I turn and see a fox in the forest not far away. It studies me, and then turns around and disappears into the trees.
I’m now alone, in the dark, while nothing but my mobile phone to light the way. An existential fear grips me, what if I don't survive this? I need to get out of here.
I half trot, half run, the trail back to the fork in the road. checking my back every few seconds. Now on the main trail, I break into a full sprint downhill. After an eternity of running, I reach the Torii gate entrance, cross under it, and sprint across the empty parking lot to the car. I get in. With my shaking hands, it takes a few attempts, to put in and turn the key. I'm relieved when the engine starts, I drop into gear and drive out fast. My panic doesn’t subside until I see the gas stations and convenience stores of the main highway. Where’s there’s people, there’s safety.
I return home later than planned, but my wife doesn’t notice. She’s still cooking dinner. I smell the sour spiciness of Kimchi. It reminds me how Japanese home cooking often includes Korean or Chinese recipes. The sense of normalcy and being home is deeply reassuring.
After she places a steaming pot of spicy Kimchi hotpot goodness on the table, she declares, “Itadakimasu!” Time to eat. She sniffs the air with her nose, and glances around the room searching for something. She walks over to the apartment’s entrance and examines my hiking clothes. “Your clothes smell today. Where did you go?”
“Tell me about it over dinner.”
We sit down and eat hungrily in silence for a while, stuffing spicy cabbage, daikon and slices of pork into our mouths. The kimchi broth is so spicy, I honestly can't tell if it’s beef or pork, but it tastes great, especially after a long day of hiking.
When my hunger is mostly satiated, I tell Sayako what I learned lately about how vaccines are injecting nanobots into people’s bloodstream. She agrees, and says “uh ahh” as I go through the details.
“Now,,” she says, “tell me what happened on your hike today.”
I give her the overall gist of today’s events, perhaps simplifying or leaving out some of the stranger details.
“You were helping another woman? And then, you saw a fox?” She’s frowning at the information about the other woman.
“Just like I told you…”
“You should never go there again.” She stops eating, and looks serious. “Japanese say that on Mt Tateshina, every year around this time, someone disappears, never to be seen again. The legend is a fox needs to feed herself and her children before the long winter begins.”
“But she was dressed head to toe in new clothes, and spoke normal sounding Japanese.”
“You think foxes would dress and speak like old fables?” She laughs, and slaps her thigh. “If they did that, how would they catch anyone?”
“I still can't figure out why I found her clothes on the ground.”
“I will tell you why” she says, grinning at her chance to explain something to me. “When young foxes shape-shift, they can’t hold human form for long. Their bodies want to return to fox form. Not until they eat at least ten human souls can they remain in human shape.”
“Shape shifting foxes?” I laugh. “The ridiculous stories Japanese used to make up in the old days.”
She raises her eyebrows. “You believe in nanobots, but not in Japanese legends that told over thousands of years. Typical foreigner.”
There's no arguing anymore, so I say, “Great dinner tonight" and finish the last of my bowl.
She clicks her tongue and begins cleaning up the dishes.
It’s been a long day. I grab a can of Asahi beer out of the fridge and pick up the remote control on the TV cabinet. From the front window, I see the sparkling light of dozens of apartments in Matsumoto. They must be going about lives very much like our own.
In the reflection in the window, I sneak a glance at my beautiful wife picking up the dishes. I am blessed. As I watch her, I sense something animal like about her, a glimpse of someting else, perhaps it’s a reflection of something from outside.
She rushes over and closes the curtain.
“Let me pour your beer,” she says. “You should sit back and digest your meal, after the long hike today.”
She pours the beer. I sit back on the sofa and decide I need to stop thinking about old Japanese fables about clever shape-shifting foxes.