Volcano Pilgrim
Five months in Japan as a wandering poet

Asama-yama, 1

From the town of Karuizawa, with its restaurants and gift shops named for Alpine ski resorts, you strike off on foot up the valley toward Asama-yama, Mount Asama. The afternoon is clear and chilly, and you consider taking a bus, but the prospect of walking focuses your restlessness, gives it a pace and a direction.

Above the town you turn off the road onto an old nature trail, signposts with peeling pictures of wildlife, and follow its erratic switchback up and down the sides of ridge and gulley. You meet no other hikers. It is still winter here, leafless and budless – the trees are some type of larch that loses its foliage in winter, and the only green thing is a globe of mistletoe in the high boughs of a tree. A few wax-pale berries have fallen on the path, and when you pick one up it pops between your fingers, releasing a sticky pearl of jelly.


            The mistletoe bush

                        scatters its berries – hoping

                                    for a lower branch


Every now and then you pass a gap in the bare branches and catch a glimpse of Asama-yama, still snow-topped and glittering.

New signs begin to appear. You cannot read the Japanese, but what they picture looks very much like a bear. It is neither cute nor cuddly – the first animal you have seen in Japan that is not a cartoon. At length you come across a caption in unequivocal English: Bear Activity Reported. If You Encounter a Bear, Do Not Run, Back Away Slowly. The staples holding the sign onto its post are clean and bright.

Still, you have come so far, there is nothing to do but keep walking. If you are set upon by a bear, you suppose you could try to spear it with one of your climbing poles, though this might serve only to annoy it further. The forest is suddenly luminous with peril. Perhaps because you are more sharply attentive to any sight or sound of bear activity, it becomes clear how very quiet it is.


            Can’t hear the highway –

                        the air softly carpeted

                                    with last year’s needles


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