Sometimes in the Japanese autumn, when the days are still warm and the air is beginning to smell of persimmons and fallen leaves, my mind stumbles across a day nearly 20 years ago now, and I turn the memory over and over as I try to make sense of how the time since then has passed.
The memory itself has been worn down by the passing years, its sharpness smoothed and rounded, like a pebble in a mountain stream.
Nonetheless, I well enough recall that we were three young exchange students: me, an Australian-Canadian eager to escape small-town-Canada life; and a Canadian ironically transplanted from my high school to Machida, a stone’s throw from my homestay in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture. As for the third of our number, all I have now is a vague image of an American girl, all long legs and long hair and unbending values — but it could have been another.
For the first few months of our year abroad, we students clung together, explaining and comparing experiences that we couldn’t, and didn’t, share outside the group. After that we drifted apart, finding our own footings in what seemed a brave new world, and years later the other students appear less as individuals than as a collection of common observations. But it was autumn when we met at the station, and we still grouped close.
We made a late start, as teenagers do, and after about an hour’s train ride from central Tokyo we arrived just before noon at the base of the mountain.
Mount Takao and its environs — comprising the Meiji no Mori Takao Quasi-National Park — is one of the last wild spaces near the metropolis, and despite the crowds of people there for the fall colors, the air smelled of wilderness: damp earth, leaves, growth and decay. From the little shops that cluster below the base of the 599-meter mountain came a whiff of the savory tang of grilling rice crackers: soy sauce and charcoal.
The mountain is not a long climb, but the ascent can be made shorter still by taking the chairlift or the funicular that both run halfway up to the low, forested summit. Most tourists take one or the other, and we joined the line for the chairlift, talking as we waited — no doubt — of our host families and schools, of the difficulties of being very tall, as my Canadian friend was, or needlessly rebellious, as I was, or vegetarian, as was the American girl, in a country where we were already so very different.
The chairlift deposited us on a wide plaza surrounded by trees, and we followed the steady stream of walkers toward the summit. Takao is a holy mountain, traditionally an abode of long-nosed trickster tengu spirits, as well as to Yakuoin Temple, and the paved path is lined with lanterns marking the main route up the slope.
Ranks of tall sugi (Cryptomeria, Japanese cedar) towered overhead. Momiji (Acer palmatum, Japanese maple) splashed crimson between taller trunks that reached up toward the cloudy sky. We walked fast, and the crowds thinned as we made our way on up, passing family outings, couples on dates and groups of elderly friends out for the day — all of us together just the tiniest fraction of the more than 2.5 million visitors this area, with its eight hiking trails, receives every year.
We soon reached the intricately carved vermilion buildings in the temple precincts. Dating from the 8th century, Yakuoin Temple is home to ascetic yamabushi (literally, “hiding in the mountains”) monks, as well as to those tengu spirits — depicted there in the form of winged statues.
Passing one of those statues, my Canadian friend made some comparison to his own appearance. We laughed — there was, indeed, a striking similarity to our wild-haired companion.
The buildings are fantastically ornate, and their brightly painted carvings showing mythological scenes are screened, in the autumn, by feathery Japanese maples — red against red.
After the temple, the summit of the mountain itself comes as something of a disappointment. All you find there is a grassy space between the trees, a handful of benches and ranks of vending machines.
By then, though, the afternoon was darkening; dusk arrives early in the autumn. We had left the remnants of the crowd behind in the temple precincts. Nearly by ourselves on the summit, we availed ourselves of those machines to drink hot cocoa from cans that warmed our hands more than our stomachs, and contemplated the route down. There was the way we had come up, broad and boring with stairs and handrails, or there were other, more mysterious trails that vanished invitingly into the darkening woods.
We took one of those “unknown” routes and were suddenly, completely, alone. The forest dropped steeply along the flank of the mountain. We fell into single file on the narrow trail, deciduous leaves and soft soil muffling our footfalls. The air was silent but for the sound of birdsong and leaves rustling in the wind.
Then, suddenly, twilight was upon us. The air turned blue, and distances vanished into darkness under the branches. Just as suddenly, a haunting chant reached us, drifting through the stillness from the temple. We paused to listen for a few moments, the Buddhist sutras exotic to our ears. When we resumed our descent, the evening prayers followed us down the mountain, catching our hearts in the beat of the drum.
It was fully dark when we reached the flat ground at the base of the mountain. We emerged from the woods into a grassy orchard of yuzu citrus and persimmon trees. The night was indigo, soft and wild. The cool wind tossing the boughs was perfumed with fruit and autumn grasses.
In the dark, we were invisible, released. All the rules and restraints fell away and, giggling, we each took a fruit from the low boughs to quench our thirst. To this day I clearly recall the tart, sweet, surprising taste of freedom that exploded in my mouth. I had never eaten yuzu before, yet still, years later, that fruit tastes to me of mystery and wildness.
Sometimes, in the autumn, when yuzu are in season and the air is smoky with the smell of burning rice stubble, I feel a hint of the old, vague longing that drove my rebellion back then — and think about how time changes us, moving friendships into the past and building experience in layers the way river sediments layer upon each other.
On days like that, I think about Mount Takao, and how, where the city meets the mountains, you can still find yourself alone in the falling dusk with only chanted evening prayers for company — and perhaps, too, find something you didn’t know you were looking for.
Mount Takao is in Hachioji City. It is most easily reached from Takaosanguchi Station, which is around an hour from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo on the Keio Takao Line.