Saturday June 20, 1998


Difficulty 2 Number of Days 2 Tochigi



"The Weekend That Was Oze: A Personal Memoir"

by Victor Heese


It started off badly for me - very badly. As I didn't wish to be late, I arrived at the meeting area at midnight Friday - a good half hour before we were to meet. Unfortunately, my favourite Friday night haunt, Gold Rush, is also in the area so I decided to kill some time there as I waited for the others.

Since I am Gold Rush's best customer, the waitress immediately came over to take my order - which was a bit unnecessary as I ALWAYS drink the same thing (my very reputation depends on it). However, as I was about to climb into a car and drive for the next few hours, in this case, I ordered coffee. The waitress fainted, the bartender called 911 (or whatever it is in Japan), people checked my forehead for a fever, and a friend, who I never suspected of such viciousness, immediately began a rumour of secretive AA meetings in my apartment. I knew then that it would take months of wanton and indiscriminate drunkeness to re-establish my cherished reputation.

With these thoughts weighing heavy on my mind, I returned to the meeting area where the others had now arrived. We loaded our gear into the cars and set off in a convoy of 3 cars with Laure as our intrepid leader and Paul riding shotgun and navigating towards our destination - Oze. I and my troops followed with Valerie acting as our rearguard.

But, it couldn't be as simple as that. Oh no. The gods had determined that even the simple process of driving was to be a test of our endurance and intelligence. In their desire for all of us to 'build character,' they had decided to burden us with The Beast - the rental car from Hell.

I'm sure that at some time in the past The Beast had been a totally benign entity. But, perhaps because of a troubled childhood or through some traumatic experience that not even the most inspired psychologist could resolve, The Beast had become a bitter and aggravating being whose only source of satisfaction was in causing the misery of others. The Beast had a muffler that didn't muffle, a headlight that didn't light and, beware the foolhardy soul that followed too closely, a brake light that refused to warn of impending collision.

The problem with the non-muffling muffler was too great for our limited resources; the brake light that failed to provide complete safety was determined to be inconsequential as there were 2 other lights that did work; but it was decided at a rest stop along the Tohoku expressway that the headlight ought to be replaced. To determine the difficulty of this task, the 'bonnet' (how many goddam Brits were on this trip anyway and why haven't they learned by now that the proper name for this particular car part is a 'hood'?) was lifted. Much to everyone's consternation, it was discovered that the very lifeblood of The Beast was being sprayed all over the engine as there was no oil cap. Though my vote was that we drive The Beast until every drop of oil had been expelled from its bitter little body and its parts had fused into a molten mass of uselessness, the others decided that, since it was the beginning of the trip and not the end, we should try to do something that would allow us to continue our odyssey.

Through the remarkable ingenuity of a Japanese mechanic (I take back everything that I have said in the past about Japanese mechanics (well, not everything - I think that we were lucky in that we happened upon a uniquely gifted and creative mechanic)), an effective oil cap was constructed from some inner tube and a Honda wheel bearing cap. Amazing!

The rest of the journey to Oze was inconsequential - except for the time that I tried to follow a car that I believed to be The Beast down an exit ramp. (Sorry Valerie: I'm so, so sorry!) Despite that minor mishap, we were able to stay together and arrived at the Oze parking lot at 6 AM - tired, hungry and relieved that The Beast had not chosen to self-destruct in the midst of our voyage.

We rendezvoused with the Abiko/Tokyo contingent of our party, bringing the total number of the group to 14, and after unloading our gear and a brief rest, set out to accomplish the purpose of our excursion - a walk in the mountains of Oze.

Now, it must be said from the beginning that I am a beginner to the idea of 'walking.' When I go for a walk, I go into Doho Park (very close to my apartment) and I saunter around the lake (pond). I carry my wallet and my keys. As I walk, I throw away my one yen coins because they are too heavy to carry. Every 4 or 5 minutes, I sit down on a park bench to have a rest. I was not prepared for this! 'Walking' for everyone else in the group seemed to involve great distances with heavy packs. As our camping spot was many kilometres from the cars, we had to take tents, sleeping bags and clothing and food for 2 days on our backs. This is fun?

The first leg of our journey was a 7 kilometre jaunt to the lake. For me, 7 kilometres takes about 10 minutes - depending on the traffic and whether or not the signals are in my favour. This 7 kilometres took about 2 hours. Someone, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to put hills in the way and rocks in the path. Nevertheless, I made it with the rest of the group to the lake where civilization seemed once again to reign - I was able to buy smokes and a beer.

At the lake, a decision had to be made. We would split into 2 groups: one group would take a leisurely stroll to the campsite while the other group would take a more difficult route. Exhausted but convinced that the worst was over, I decided that I would join the 6 others in the group that was taking the difficult hike. Oh, what a fool the inexperienced hiker can be.

Up and down; clinging to rocks by my fingernails; walking through streams up to my knees (OK, so I am exaggerating a little - artistic license), we climbed. (By the way, did I mention that it was raining the whole time?). Finally, we made it to the summit - a peak just over 2000 metres. The view might have been beautiful but we will never know because we were completely enveloped in mist.

Happy that I had made it to the top, I foolishly assumed that all that remained was an easy descent to the campsite where I would be able to relax and nip into the flask of scotch that I had brought with me. But, I was ignorant of one thing. The rain gods must be appeased. It had been raining or misty all day. Apparently, someone from the Tsukuba Walking and Mountaineering Club had forgotten to proffer the appropriate sacrifices and the rain gods would have their due. If proper tribute was not offered, the offending persons would be made to suffer.

As a boy growing up in Canada, I, of course, played hockey. Ice is slippery right? Very slippery! But, all those years of skating on ice did not prepare me for the wet boards on the trails of Oze. On our descent from the mountain, many of the trails had wooden boards that hikers had to walk on. This is done to protect the fragile plant life in the region. Unfortunately, it is in total disregard for human life. Because of the rain, they were VERY slippery!

Seeing this as an opportunity to exact revenge on those who had failed to sacrifice the sufficient number of chickens to ensure good weather, the rain gods gave a tiny little nudge to Paul's shoulder and in attempting to recover, he jammed his leg down hard and, according to him, his kneecap jumped all the way down to his ankle then all the way up to his hip and finally returned to its original spot. Not having experienced a dislocated kneecap myself, I can only imagine the pain. When I came upon him, I immediately pulled out my pistol (that's what we do to horses back in Saskatchewan) but was immediately voted down as the rules in Oze require that you pack out anything that you bring in. Better to let him walk down the mountain and then shoot him.

So, after lightening his pack a little, we set off down the mountain. Although it was the descent, there were still some difficult sections that remained. To his credit, Paul hardly whimpered at all - I guess that he remembered my pistol. I once again offered a suggestion: wrap him in our sleeping bags and roll him down the hill. Unfortunately, as I mentioned previously, it had been raining all day (although, now that the rains gods had had their revenge, they had relented), the ground was wet and the others were concerned that their sleeping bags would be wet for that night and they once again voted down my suggestion. (I am somewhat disappointed at the selfish attitudes of this group - thinking only about their comfort for that night.)

As Paul was still having some difficulty, Andreas and Franz offered to take turns carrying his pack. (Remember that we were packing everything that we needed for 2 days - tents, sleeping bags, clothes, food - so this was no small feat.)

We finally arrived at the campsite where the rest of the group was waiting. We regaled them about our triumphs against great adversity (without any exaggeration, of course).

On a more personal note, I found to my great surprise that, although the campsite had no roads nearby and all supplies had to be packed in or flown in by helicopter, there was a beer vending machine! God, I love this country! I immediately set out to restore my tattered reputation that had been so severely damaged the night before.

It was time for dinner. We all dug into our packs and started to munch away. I guess that most of us, motivated by our concern that we had to carry everything that we wished to eat, had miscalculated on the amount of food needed. With dinner finished, some of us were still hungry, so we all set off to see if we could find a Macdonalds in the Oze campsite. Although we failed in that venture, we did find a small shop that served noodles, curry and onigiri. I'm sure that the proprietors of this establishment had never been confronted with such a large group of funny looking and very hungry gai-jin before. With Ichiko interpreting the menu, we were all able to place our orders and soon the food began to arrive. As I was the closest to the counter, the responsibility fell to me to deliver bowl after bowl of noodles, plate after plate of curry. (Apparently, the majority of diners in our group have been in this country too long, as everyone failed to remember to tip their gracious waiter.)

Then, back to the campsite for the requisite carousing before bed. This carousing was greatly enhanced by the presence of a marvelous bottle of Bowmore supplied by the ever-generous John (by the way, if you are ever thirsty but don't have enough money for a beer, just find John and you can be sure that he will never allow your glass to be empty (how do I know this? How do you think I can afford my reputation on a teacher's salary?)). A few other goodies were brought out by various members of the group and a good time was had by all.

Finally, it was off to bed in preparation for Day 2 of our Oze escapade. Due to the lack of generosity by certain members of the group, I was denied access to the women's tent and ended up sharing a tent with Paul. I'm sure that if I hadn't been so tired, the moaning and groaning would have kept me up all night.

When I came out of the coma the next morning, my calves reminded me that, as an inexperienced hiker, I probably should have chosen the easier route the day before. After cleaning up as best we could, nibbling a little breakfast and striking the tents, a decision once again had to be made - take the easy route or the more difficult route which entailed a climb of almost 1000 metres. Ignoring the pleading of my calves and with the words from the Village People song "Macho Man" running through my head, I foolishly chose the more difficult route.

This time, there were only 5 of us as 2 of those who had taken the difficult route the day before had more sense than did I. After saying farewell to the members of the other group, we set off into the jungles of Oze.

Though John, in an act of selfishness uncharacteristic of his personality, had denied access to the colourful and detailed map the day before, recognizing the possibility of mortal peril for this journey, he graciously offered us the good map not knowing if he would ever see us or his map again. Fortunately, this map provided detailed information such that we were able to at least assume we were on a trail when there was no physical evidence to support such an assumption. Unfortunately, Emma (just call me 'Little Miss Troublemaker') insisted that we allow her to also look at the map, which was neatly folded inside a waterproof plastic map case. As there were times when the information required was inside the folds of the map, a few times, the map had to be taken out of its case to see where we were. Now, as everyone knows, due to a genetic defect, women are incapable of refolding maps. But, perhaps because we were too tired to object or too afraid of the epithets that feminists would have hurled at us had we refused, we meekly allowed Emma to remove and unfold the map. Although I had mildly dissented, she insisted that she would be able to refold and replace the map in its case. And, true to her word, each time, the map made it back into the case, apparently unscathed. But, unbeknownst to her, I watched as she struggled to force a round peg into a square hole. To accomplish such a feat, she would surreptitiously tear off a piece of the map and discard it into the bushes (despite the rules of not littering in Oze). Thus, the map grew smaller and smaller as we climbed higher and higher. (How we found our way back with such a mangled map I will never know.)

Despite the lack of complete geograhical guidance, we did find our way back. Through swamps infested with snakes and crocodiles (remember, as a survivor of this ordeal, I am accorded a certain artistic license), we eventually found our way back to the lake, where I rewarded myself with an ice cream and a beer. This minor taste of civilization was enough to lift my spirits and all that was left was the 7 kilometres back to the cars.

We set off once again - in virtual silence as we all seemed to be too tired to speak. Trudging along, we made it the last distance where the rest of the group was already waiting for us. After joyful (and, perhaps surprised) greetings, we loaded our gear back into the cars and headed off back to our respective domociles.

The drive home was relatively uneventful (other than me missing the exit for Tsukuba). The Beast was the Beast but did not cause further perturbance. My troops dutifully kept me awake, though I was verging on being comatose. Our convoy kept itself intact, although there was a minor detour, thanks to the Japanese tendency not to mark roads properly.

I survived. I SURVIVED! The doctor says that, with proper physical rehabilitation, I should be out of this wheelchair in less than 3 weeks. Oh joy! Just in time for the 3 day trip to Nagano where we will be climbing over 3000 metres. There is NO WAY that I will be joining that trip! I've learned my lesson. I am not a mountaineer. I am sedentary. Put me in front of a TV with a beer - that's what makes me happy. Hey! Who put my name on the list for Nagano?

"Macho, macho man,

I want to be a macho man....."