Halfway up the hill-climb to Devilrock, I collapsed on a park bench. The Sun was too strong and my legs and lungs too weak. A steady stream of hikers trickled past me, all Japanese, all with more grey hair than me. I exchanged a genial ‘konnichi wa’ with a few of them. A few feet away, a bare cherry blossom tree stood next to a vending machine. The tree wasn’t quite bare actually, at the far end of one of the top branches, the last leaf hung precariously. I watched it for a bit, then left before it fell.
With conversation with anyone or thing not really on the cards, nature provided the diversion along the walk: the squeals of kites over the fishing port, pink camellias on the edge of a bamboo grove, another lemon-coloured butterfly, and another failed attempt to catch a falling leaf. Under the green canopy of cypress trees was a series of centuries-old stone-slab pavings, reminding me of the stone-slab sweets on sale in the town: ‘sticks like moss to a stone’, went the advert.
At the top of Horse Pass was an extraordinary sight: a Japanese man whistling for joy, and his wife practising her golf swing. This was unprecedented chirpiness; perhaps many Japanese DO like walking. In one afternoon I saw more Japanese walkers than I did during 7 days along the better-known trail sections. Perhaps I am reading the wrong guidebooks.
Devilrock was a red, bungalow-sized boulder. Balanced on top of a ridge, it made an arresting and unsettling sight. Sitting on the rock, pondering Life, the Universe and what-to-have-for-dinner, a lady in a grey tracksuit suddenly began speaking to me in fluent Japanese. For a few seconds I had no idea how to react. It is much easier being on the outside of conversations. Then, after explaining I was only in town for the day, she offered to show me a little more of the mountain before driving me to my hotel lodgings.
We ended up talking and walking for around 1 hour, She showed me the transparent blue waters of the Choshi river, told me about the anti-world heritage status protests of the owner of the mountain – ‘no money in it for me!, ‘ he complained; discussed the ever-present threat of a tsunami or flooding – her home was inundated several years ago – and the lack of work in the town that forces so many children to move away; she also showed me a piece of graffiti centuries-old carved into a stone slab, and told a tale about the Sun Goddess. I told her about tram-driving and a bright blue kingfisher I saw in Devon 13 years ago. “It was very fast you know”. I bet she wishes she had just said ‘konnichi wa’.