Straddling the border of the Tokyo Metropolis and neighbouring Saitama Prefecture, the Oku-Tama region is one of the most easily visited sections of the Chichibu-Tama National Park, less than ninety minutes west of Shinjuku Station. The following hike begins and ends on the JR Ome Line and takes around four hours at a moderate pace.
When I woke up, the sky was grey and the clouds were threatening rain. Setting off shortly before noon, and changing at Tachikawa, I travelled north-west, out, always out, of the city. We terminated at Ome, where the train changed back into a Rapid, returning to Tokyo Station. I stood on the platform by a noodle shop, shivering into my jacket.
There were plenty of seats on the last stretch of the journey. Down the carriage, a man in a face mask sat flicking through a book, someone else stared at the writing on a carton of soy milk, a couple laughed over pictures on a mobile phone, and there was a woman with a bag that said It is very sad when nature becomes dirty and goes. There was a river somewhere below, houses dotted about a valley, trees as straight as matchsticks, and clouds that hung from mountains like breath on a winter's day. All around was green. And grey.
A small group got off with me at Mitake - a few hikers, soy milk woman, her carton now concealed inside a plastic bag, and a man with five umbrellas slung across his right arm - but once I took a left out of the station it was just me and the crows.
Over the train tracks, the path wound up and, very occasionally, down, though for every down there was an even bigger up. Trees lined the sides like spectators at a parade; their roots were as big as hockey sticks, veining the ground. Turning off at a yellow marker the path narrowed sharply, traversing a raised, sloping platform no wider than my feet. As I was mulling over the possibilty that I had, in fact, taken a wrong turning my foot slipped and I tumbled down ten metres of mud, rock and branches before I hit a dead tree and was able to haul myself back up. Gingerly retracing my steps, I followed a trail of blue string that had been tied to tree trunks - though for all I knew they could have been left there as a cruel joke on anyone daft enough to go hiking on a damp day without the aid of a proper map - up a slope that I thought stupidly steep until half an hour later, when I saw what was on the other side. At the top of Mount Sogaku I wiped myself off, ate lunch - tuna-flake riceball, dry bread bun and a swig of an Asahi Vitamin C drink - and rested with a chapter of Bruce Chatwin talking about a coup in Benin. The climb had taken an hour and a half.
With the clouds upon me - the shrine at the summit looked as ghostly as a haunted shack - and darkness and the rain both threatening to close in, I put my foot down, skipping the detour to the peak of Mount Iwatakeishi, and pushing straight on to Mount Takamizu, another forty-five minutes along the ridge. The directions I was following made much of the "sweeping view across to Mount Gozen". Not today, there wasn't. Shrouded in mist, all I could make out was the signpost for Ikusabata Station, the final stop on my walk. Another few hundred metres brought me to Jofuku Temple, with giant swords and an Imperial flag, and then, after a long, rocky, downhill stretch there were streetlights and a concrete road and the first unmistakeable signs of human habitation.
It was, I thought, time to go home.