Renji sat on the terrace of the Kazan-Kan lodge, which was in a small clearing on the highest ledge of Mount Asama volcano that was still considered safe. Traces of snow which survived the afternoon clung on in the grass out front. At ease, he breathed deep and smelled the pines of the forest that sloped down to the far away towns visible in the valley below.
It’s a four hour walk up from the nearest road and very peaceful this time of year. Few people were around, just the way he liked it.
“The Kamoshika are sure to come today to look around”, he said to himself.
Kamoshika are a mountain sheep, so rarely seen, that to most Japanese they are an almost mythical type of creature. A heavy furry thug of an animal, it looks as if a Goat was crossed with a Sheep and then combined with a Bear. Animal scientists say they are a species unrelated to any other known animal in the world.
At night, when their large unwavering eyes studied Renji inside the lodge, retinas reflecting back the light from inside, he felt a strange chill of terror down his spine. On those days he closed the curtains and turned on the dusty CD player and used up the precious reserves of power stored from the solar panels, and played music until he took his mind off the mysterious beasts studying him.
Winter was closing in and he thought about whether he would be up here in the forest against next summer.
When he filled out the job application for the Kazan-Kan lodge at the Ministry of the Environment office, he had lied. The thought always haunted him. But it’s been a while now. It's a routine life here but at least it’s peaceful. Hopefully no one will rock the boat about the long ago details.
His elbow ached again today, which made him think about what happened and how he came to be here.
He never quite understood himself why on that night, he pushed the man off the platform of the Sugamo subway station. The man was nudging him out of the way, sure, but nothing enough to make sense of what he did in that moment. In a flash, his previously upward trajectory suddenly switched course.
Fortunately the man he pushed was rescued quickly and didn't get struck by a train. But in Japan, anytime someone gets hurt, of course the authorities come down hard on the offender.
After being released 7 months later from Fuchu prison, only then, did he realize that he had lost nine tenths of his friends and family that day in Sugamo.
From then on, only his father regularly talked to him. And that in secret covert meetings, as if he was a North Korean spy or something like that. But in a way, his father seemed closer to him after the incident, and would tell him wild stories from his own past, some of them quite dramatic. His father said all men are holding a rage inside that needs to be directed out, or else it will burn them up from inside.
Tenji felt ashamed remembering how thin his arms had become from the sparse prison diet of barley rice. He saw himself looking like a rag doll in the mirror for months. Of course his job as an up and coming manager at the prestigious charity in Kudanshita was long gone, so he took odd jobs in the Northern districts of Tokyo.
After work, without having the right things to say to any of the type of women he used to date before, he would drink too much and often get thrown out like a used oshibori by the local gangsters the bartenders called on to do such things.
Fortunately, he was much stronger now, with a good solid diet and busy mornings spent chopping firewood. Finding the opportunity at the lodge and signing up for it, was the best thing that could have happened to him.
Providing a clean toilet to a few hikers and being able to chip in on evacuation procedures if an eruption was forecast were easy tasks.
There was indeed a minor flare up in volcanic activity in 2018, and when he returned two weeks later the lodge was covered with a centimeter of ash. That was a hassle to clean off the roof, it had squeezed into every imaginable knock and crevice. But at any rate, whoever in the Tokyo administration years ago had decided to have the nation pay to have him up here to do a few things ended up working out well.
A bell chimed in the distance. It came from above. Gradually the chiming became louder, until he saw a pair of hikers emerge from the main hiking path heading down.
He energetically waved and said “Welcome! Welcome!”.
The hikers waved back, and then like most, continued down on their way without a further word. It was getting late. He tried to keep an eye on the status of people on the mountain. If they were going down that was far quicker, and they seemed to be fully equipped. He could see the expensive Montbell brand logo on much of their equipment.
Frustratingly, when he was in a talkative mood, up-market types were the least chatty. It was important to stick to the standard greeting. When he tried to strike up conversations and say other things, they would give him bad looks.
On the other hand, the working class crowd would get boisterous and laugh and ask him where his girlfriend is and even joke about bringing him some porn the next time around. I have been to university and even studied political science, he thought, and placed himself somewhere between these two groups.
Foreigners were amusing as he could have fun trying out saying different things to them, even though they couldn’t understand it if he used more than the most basic vocabulary. There weren’t many of them since last year of course.
The energy of the mountain also attracted crazies, and every year or two someone would decide to end it all and come all the way up here from Tokyo or Saitama and throw themselves into the crater. By the time someone found them, any traces of evidence was long gone and the authorities would say they fell in by accident, but the real story was usually obvious to Renji. But with the poisonous volcanic gasses in the crater it was too dangerous for anyone to go inside and check regularly. There was nothing he could do to stop them so It was better not to think about it.
Renji sliced green onions for Nabe Soup. As Renji was not allowed by regulations to leave his post, a park ranger carried up vegetables on the 4 hour hike every two weeks. In the heat of the summer, when most vegetables were rotten, the onions always held up. He sliced them carefully so each was exactly the same thickness.
Tomorrow morning he would evaluate the sake inventory and other staples and see what he would store away for next spring. Winter was setting in. He would be leaving at the end of the week. It's not possible to move enough supplies up here in the deep snow and on top of that it would be too hard for anyone to cut enough wood to fuel the stove.
Sitting outside, Renji felt the nighttime bitter chill begin to set in.
Unexpectedly for this time in the early evening, a figure appeared from below.
“Welcome! Welcome!” Renji said and gave him a steady welcoming gaze, and held his smile. He noticed it was a young man.
The man returned the slightest nod, and continued moving uphill.
“Where are you going?” Renji asked.
The young man stopped and then paused for a while and simply said “Ahh.. climbing the mountain”.
Renji saw he had on thin soled fashion sneakers and was carrying a student backpack, not the sort hikers carry with the poles and equipment and all of that.
Renji thought for a moment and stepped forward.
“The hiking path beyond this point is closed” when the young man didn’t react, he continued. “The police helicopter will probably be flying up there later to check for violators.”
The young man stood slightly dumbfounded.
“Well it’s late at night, why don’t you step in and have some hot tea to warm up?”
“I think I’d better go back down then.”
“Well, about that, the wolves are out this time of night, you don’t want to take a risk with them.” Renji paused. “We lost a hiker last year at night down there.”
The young man’s expression became less stubborn, and his eyes looked at Renji searching for what to do next.
“Ok then, in this way!”
He shuffled the young man into the lodge, showed him where to put his shoes off and then got him sat down nervously with a cup of tea.
“Just stay there, I’ve got a pot of Nabe Soup boiling and it's far too much for one person”.
Renji brought out two bowls of the stew, made from dried salmon with fresh vegetables, and placed one in front of his guest. They both began to eat. Dribbles of juice trickled from the corners of the young man’s mouth. He wiped his mouth with the shoulder of his thin blue fleece.
“Well it looks like you’re stuck here with me. We keep some sake up here, so I’ll pour us a cup” The young man refused a few times, Renji ignored his protestations and poured two cups full and placed one in front of him.
“I’m so happy you are up here, hiking is fun isn’t it? I’ve been up here for 14 years and It’s so quiet up here. Can you believe just right down there”, he pointed his finger at the twinkling light of a village below, “in that resort village is where the Emperor, I mean the previous one, not the one now, met his wife? That’s a different world from us up here isn’t it!”
After they finished their food, Renji watched the young man sit back and sip his drink. In a flash, Renji got out some dried fish and salty peanut drinking snacks, then leaned in slightly.
“My father told me a surprising story about something connected to here if you’d like to hear it? Well, There was another event that was really well known all over Japan. So, where do I start? My father was in his fourth year at the University of Tokyo, and the 1970s student protests were in full swing. Students were taking over campus and having raging street battles with the police. In Japan, can you believe it?”
“Ah, like protests in America, and er Hong Kong?”, his guest asked hesitantly.
“That’s it! So, dad was in the middle of it, in the fighting and everything. And because he was especially strong coming from the countryside, the leaders had him on special assignments and recruiting new members who weren’t from Tokyo and all of that.
“So things were going well for him, but that January my great uncle who ran a Sake warehouse, way out in Ibaraki, was busy with the new year festival rush and he broke his arm. My dad was the only one strong enough to help with that sort of work. He had to drop the next term, and delay his graduation, leave campus and go help him. He complained and complained and told them to find someone else but in the end there way he could get out of it.
“While he was away doing warehouse work, at school that same protest group he was involved with the next month came out here to the mountains.”
Renji gulped some sake.
“My dad might not have wanted to come out here on their mission, but when you’re tight with a group like that there’s no getting out of it. No one knew what was going on.
“The leader marched everyone out into the forest in the middle of the night, then asked 5 members to let themselves be tied to trees to prove their trust and sincerity to the movement. And after those 5 were tied, he pointed toward 3 more , some of whom just tied the other guys up and said they too needed to prove they were dedicated members. After they were tied up, he tightened all the knots. He then pulled out a gun and said he had proof those 8 were traitors and ordered everyone else to leave them there. I guess the others thought locals would untie them after they left.
“Well when someone from the town found the bodies frozen solid in the forest the next day, and saw their leftist student hippie clothes, everyone knew who to look for as these long haired people did not blend in with the farmers and conservative youths around here and the police quickly tracked them down to a rental cabin.
“They were too far gone with their extreme politics, and I guess they just couldn’t imagine giving up and saying they were wrong. So they showed their guns, told the police to back off and held out as long as they could and in the end all 5 of them went down shooting
“Imagine that! if my Dad hadn’t had to go to the warehouse, on the one hand if he was lucky, he would go down in a shootout, and on the other hand if he was unlucky he’d be tied to a tree and become a snack for the wolves”
Renji slapped his thigh and laughed mightily. For the first time tonight his guest smiled a bit and let out a laugh too.
“This sake won’t stay good until next year so let’s have a bit more.”
Renji continued to tell stories late into the night about exciting events in the past, without ever mentioning too much about himself, and of mystical stories of things that went on in the mountains. The young man didn’t say much but threw in questions now and then to clarify points. He listened intently, especially nodding vigorously at the points in the stories about girls.
When they were deep into the bottle of Sake, Renji spoke of his theory about the energy of the volcano. That no matter how hot the earth was when it began, it would have cooled into a cold rock within 100 years. The power down there is something more than we can imagine, perhaps there’s something being brewed below, an energy flowing through an unseen dimension, which animates us as if we are puppets, puppets in a puppet theater.
His memory was a bit vague after that, and later, when his guest was settled into a clean futon, Renji went to his own room, took a deep breath and listened. Tonight the wind was calm, the world was quiet and when he looked out the window, there were no eyes of Kamoshika looking back from the forest.