The Foot of Mount Asama


Deep within a dark, deciduous pine forest, cuckoos sing without rest. Echoes cheerfully respond from the mountains, their answers monotone. Nightingales’ boisterous chirps blend with the trickling of streams as if it were July, but neither they nor even sparrows are thought unusual here at any time of year.

Should you thrash your way through valley thickets, you will come to a solitary abandoned house. Inside it, in darkness, water spills over the rim of a decaying bathtub, blanketed by green algal slime. Water pours through derelict pipes and flows over paving stones under reeds, becoming a river borne of this distant bath-spring. Yellow strands will coil like a rope around the feet you soak in it, beneath a sulphurous miasma. Regardless of whether the season is too early for flowers or not, irises and red Venus flytraps bloom in abundance. Gooseberries, which locals pickle in rice wine before consuming, hang as transparent blue-green jellies. Sometimes the scent of rose is so rich, it suffocates.

Climb paths arbitrarily cut by lava through white birches and pines, and you’ll reach a sudden plateau where Asama erupts before your eyes, like a plume of smoke. From afar, the mountain’s neatly hemmed foot slopes upward gently, but seen close its emerald tunic is loosened at the breast, revealing patches of skin burned rusty red, as if telling you its past.


The place where I stayed is some sort of institution, perhaps better described as a hospital crossed with an inn. While I heard that expensive, unobtrusive antiseptics are used there to prevent it feeling like a hospice, it is actually an old estate which had been converted into an infirmary, set on the way to Asama’s peak. Beginning in the early morning, middle-aged country women carry sick children up its long path. Ladies who come to be examined themselves twitter, “Anyone who got seriously ill had to go all the way to Nagano before, but now everyone can have surgery here, even for things like appendicitis, and get better quickly.”

You may wonder who the place’s lauded surgeon general could be to perform each and every operation. In fact, she is a graceful beauty whose eminence is apparent by her using a red cloth to tie her chignon.

“Women surgeons are something else,” remark students there impertinently as they peek into the operating room. True, the sight of a newlywed young woman clad in a white surgical gown, a surgical knife in one hand and a baby in the other, defies imagination. A car comes to collect her in the afternoon for house calls, and her husband, the hospital’s owner, tells the babies he took from her arms, “Alright, time for mother and baby house calls.” The surgeon general with the grand chignon hands her doctor’s bag to a lone accompanying nurse, then climbs smoothly into the car.

Various patients descend upon this young surgeon in the evenings. One foggy night, a farmer still dressed in filthy working clothes raced in by car, clutching a baby they said had fallen into a toilet. Not during her giving birth, but when the worked-ragged farmer had paused for a break, her freed baby crawled in there itself. Hearing the tale relayed from a nurse, the young surgeon raised her exquisitely styled head, flashed a slight scowl, and snapped, “Is it breathing? Does it smell?” Yet she soon adopted a calm composure befitting her position, and made her way to the triage room. Though she acts mainly in obstetrics and pediatrics, she majored in women’s medicine. Nonetheless, the scarcity of conveniences in the mountains requires that any and all minor demands fall to her, from surgery to everything else, making her wear many different hats.


In buying a postcard in Komoro, I found that as well as there being many featuring photographs of the monument to the Chikuma River song, there were close-up portraits of author Shimazaki Toson and others who looked like movie stars. I supposed I ought to go see the nearby old castle while I was there, but no one in the street knew where to find it. I asked at a barbershop and the scissors and razor-wielding, grinning barber’s face conveyed as he gave me directions, Why’d you want to see something that boring?

I started in front of the station, turned a corner when I came to a row of houses with rough, white plaster walls, then went over a railway crossing to a place called Kai Park, where the castle’s remains lay. “Kai Park” was written in large letters typical of the Tokugawa clan on a sign at the gate, and beneath them, “Originally built prior to the Warring States Period, the castle was washed away by floods in the second year of the Kanpo era, and remodeled to suit modern pasture and irrigation technology when reconstructed in the second year of the Meiwa era.”

“Where’s the Shimazaki monument?” I asked a teashop owner, as instructed to go past the zoo, over a bridge, then cut across the horse-riding paddock and go straight. I made my way through typically flourishing old trees in the castle grounds and down into Deer Valley, where it was dark despite the midday sun, and as cool as if I were standing on the edge of a cliff. Melancholy deer squirmed, prisoners condemned to indefinite incarceration. Above our heads the open plain of the zoo housed monkeys and bears feverishly pacing their cages while jazz music piped through radios all around, but there no sense of holiday placidity made it down into the valley, nor any sense at all.

The bridge I’d been told to cross turned out to be a suspension bridge spanning the valley. Its planks creaked and quivered underfoot, and its guide-ropes rasped and groaned when children ran across it. Enormous yuzu trees craned their necks up to the bridge’s underside from the black abyss of the valley. Perhaps those who crossed it long ago were samurai, serfs, and handmaids . . . Of course, back then it would have almost certainly been a treacherous bridge made of arrowroot or something, and what a picture it would have made when snow fell. At last, here, I was able to savor a taste of being in a folk tale.

The panels of the sculpted relief in France’s Fontainebleau forest celebrating Millet and Rousseau are said to fit perfectly into natural rock formations. So too the stone monument for the Chikuma River song nestles on a cliff at the remains of the castle, but instead of “the waves of the Chikuma River” as per its lyrics, a new spinning mill and factory arose before me. The river appeared from greenery at the base of hills opposite and meandered under shrouding old pines, glittering white and bubbling like water at boil.

Castles are usually built atop promontories, but the castle I saw from here was a cave castle, strategically positioned to take advantage of the river. A young man from around here has said that no other instances of this kind of fortification—designed dependent on irrigation of the Chikuma River—have ever existed in Japan, but we can’t be sure. Indeed, only traces of freestanding, stone-walled castles remain today.

Several young women in loose, summer dresses, parasols in their hands, climbed up and sat together near where I was resting. They cast only cursory glances at the monument before being immersed in conversation as they looked out only at the scenery beyond us. Taking in the body of water that stretched out from their left like a behemoth, they were gripped with enthusiasm. “If the Shinano River’s the greatest river in Far East Asia, then this river has to be the greatest one in Japan, isn’t that awesome?”

“I don’t think so,” I laughed. They whipped around to face me, glaring. “It is.” At this, I wondered whether the old castle’s remains and historic atmosphere alike will be buried in soot from the mill before long, and cease to be at all.


Toriko Wakasugi

Toriko Wakasugi (1892-1937) was sold to a geisha house in Ibaraki at the age of one. She became involved in literary societies at 12, though continued training to be geisha until the age of 16, when she moved to Tokyo and soon became a newspaper journalist. As part of a proletarian writers’ alliance, she sought to expose gendered viewpoints through a proletarian lens and edited journals by and for working women.

Marissa Skeels

Marissa Skeels is a translator and editor based in Melbourne. Her translations have appeared in Hunger Mountain, Necessary Fiction, Inkwell, and elsewhere.

English translation copyright (c) Marissa Skeels, 2019.