The volcano scraped the distant sky, darting around the large window frame as the train twisted and turned through grassy valleys and hills. The train roared beneath my feet, with every squeal and jump echoing through the carriage. I was not entirely sure the locomotive would complete the journey in once piece; were it to run these tracks more than the arranged two times a day, surely it would fall apart entirely. Only one other soul shared the pendulous carriage; a tall native in walking boots and thermals, whose gaze, despite my own constant fascination and studying of him, never once met mine.
It’s an established norm in Japan for the locals to treat a foreigner such as myself either one of two ways; with curious fascination, joyfully accepting your presence and praising even the most basic knowledge of the Japanese language, or with apprehension; actively avoiding contact and keeping to themselves. Young children stare at you curiously and teenagers flutter their eyelids and beg for you to pose in their photos, while elders avoid your gaze and continue as if you were not there. You are the oddity; subjected to curiosity and ignorance. Whilst so far out in this unpopulated countryside, I was unsure of which edge of the Katana I would be receiving. Would the locals blush and bow at my feet, or pay no attention to just another tourist seeking the summit of Kaimondake? My gaze returned to the window, as the volcano appeared to grow, tall and dark, ominously hanging over the small village of Kaimon and its estimated population of 7,000. The suspense was familiar, as this was not my first time taking the journey.
“Something to conquer”, the Australian expat had said 2 days previously, in the bar that sheltered us from the rain. The conversation had turned to suggestions of where my 6 week tour of Japan would take me next. “Definitely worth the journey; my friend wasn’t too badly hurt”. He continued to sell the excursion to me, but I was already sold, fascinated by element of danger and adventure. It was the very next day that I was taking the slow train south from Kagoshima in search of Kaimondake, a dormant volcano that looms over Kaimon, in the vicinity of Japan’s southernmost point, and has remained inactive since its last eruption in the year 885. I found myself at the foot of the ominous volcano with the afternoon sun burning the back of my neck as it began to set behind me. A lie in after a heavy night, a casually late brunch; my lethargy had been my downfall.
“Two hours up, two hours down”, the Australian had added. At this rate it would be dark before I reached the top, and I didn’t believe a pitch black descent would be ideal. Besides, what good is climbing that high when you can’t enjoy the view? I admitted defeat and resigned myself to taking the slow train home followed by an early night – something I had not yet achieved while left to my own devices in the neon soaked streets of Tokyo and Osaka – and an attempt at an earlier ascent the next day.
And behold, I found myself once again the foot of the volcano; a tower of unkempt rock and fauna that loomed over me. In reality the volcano was only a little over 900 metres tall, a mere fraction of the infamous Mount Fuji, but this was a first for me; a vertical challenge to test my dedication and spirit for adventure. The lone passenger that had shared my rickety journey had put his best foot forward since leaving the train and had already disappeared into the woods that shelter much of the climb, leaving me to take stock of the scene around me in silence. The volcano had no official entrance or ticket booth, and no security or entry fee; elements associated with any western attraction that jumped at the opportunity to make a quick buck. You were left to your own devices, accompanied only by a sign that bore a simple drawing of the volcano adorned with a single line, which circled it, depicting the route up. A single revolution to the top.
It wasn’t long before the incline began to take my breath from me, as grass and pebbles gave way to steep falls and treacherous boulders that required the use of all my limbs to navigate over. The earliest of the early risers were now making their descent and passing me as they returned back down, filling me with nervousness due to the equipment that accompanied them: walking poles, heavy boots, winter jackets and backpacks. I looked down to my own armour of jeans and converse trainers, and a backpack which carried only a jumper, a sandwich and my video camera. Had I terribly underestimated the endeavour? Had the Australian’s friend suffered injury due to the same lack of preparation?
I continued on with determination, if only for the story to tell or at least a thrilling obituary. It was only when I began contemplating my inevitable doom on the volcano side that I realised I hadn’t informed a soul of my whereabouts: not a note left with my hotel in case I was not to return that evening, or a casual email to inform my family of where the body could be found. I was suddenly alone on this rock, but the independence was liberating, and with a cocktail of adrenaline and fear pulsing through me, the peak eventually revealed itself. I lay my back against a rock and breathed in blissful lung-fulls of the empyreal horizons; a heavenly view of the clear blue seas and sandy beaches that had eluded me on my travels thus far now opened up beneath me. A Japanese man reached the top shortly after me, similarly decked out in extreme hiking gear. Through a mess of broken Japanese and English we greeted each other, nodded, bowed, and posed for photos between deep breaths of sea air.
The sun would eventually set, suggesting a prompt decent, though I savoured the harmonious views and soothing breezes for as long as possible. I was almost melancholy. Though I rested after the exhausting climb, I ached to relive the adventure and perilous journey that had appeared out of nowhere from a conversation in a bar two days before. Never before had the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson felt so apt, “Life is a journey, not a destination”. I paused and took my last few breaths of the summit. Losing myself in this beautiful country was not my destination, but a journey that was only just beginning.
The writer: Jason Thorn
Jason is the face of rapidly growing Youtube channel ‘Jason Is Lost In Japan’ which showcases the realities and fanciful distractions of daily life in Japan. He currently lives in Tokyo and is studying a bachelor degree in Japanese language. In his spare time he an actor, writer and musician.