Charles Harries

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Week 27

Back to Yamabiko-no-taki in wintertime to see the frozen waterfall.

I'm outside of Maruseppu, two hours after disembarking from the Okhotsk Limited Express from Sapporo. The sky is gray-white, threatening snow, and I am walking down a road that was ploughed probably sometime in the past couple of days but not today. The road is closed but I crawled under the big steel barrier across the road and went on by foot. Nicole is also there, but she isn't talking, and I'm not talking. Silence is oppressive but freeing, especially out three or four miles from the nearest real-life fully-conscious human being -- the silence sits on top of you like snow on, well, everything; but it (silence) doesn't actually demand anything of you, allowing you total sonic freedom, allowing you the recognition that filling it in really isn't a requisite. In the forest it's a little eerie as well, because the tassels of your hat brushing your coat are amplified to like tremendous relative decibels and give you this spooky feeling that there's something moving, following always just outside and below your peripheral vision.

After 15 minutes of walking we come by and by to a big unploughed parking lot that indicates the trailhead at Yamabiko Falls. There's also a little hut with a couple of picnic tables, buried benches, and what looks like an empty ranger station with some pictures of the waterfall in summer and winter. Although the laminated promotional material on the side of the ostensible ranger station seems to indicate people come here with some degree of regularity, there is no evidence that anyone has been in maybe a week. There's a narrow trail leading up into the forest, but it's covered with a couple of inches of snow. There are no footprints, or soft outlines thereof, anywhere.

We move up the trail. The whole thing is only about 250 yards but in the winter hiking takes more out of you than you remember, and so halfway up we pause for a second and exchange small talk about being out of shape and about the general inflexibility of winter gear. The rest of the trail is much more gentle, the slope in summer winding up the side of a brook that might be described as babbling but today makes its presence known only as a barely perceptible rumble underneath the snow, one you wouldn't notice if you didn't know it was there.

Whereas last time I was here, back in the wet autumn, I had to hurry because, remember, there was a bear, this time I take my time, I stop and take pictures of the woods in winter, I utter some permutation of the sentence, Look at that [insert literally anything here] (e.g. "Look at that little tree," "Check out that fallen log,"). After a couple of minutes of this, I'm shut up handily by the enormity of the pillar of ice before me -- the falls are completely frozen over.

if anyone doubted how cold it gets here
if anyone doubted how cold it gets here

The falls themselves aren't that big -- only 28 meters if I remember right -- but there's something darkly impressive, foreboding, heavy and threatening about them, like a mammoth trapped in ice, protean and hugely powerful, dangerous, knowing no laws but nature's, but momentarily held captive for tourists and unwitting foreigners to gawk at. I don't know if anyone else has this sort of fear, but I get like pants-wettingly frightened by proximity to things much bigger than myself. Like for example one of my most terrifying memories ever is standing on the shore in Nassau, the Bahamas, beside the groaning monolith of the cruise ship Disney Wonder, and considering that I would rather straight-up die than get in the water with the thing, God bless ship-cleaning divers. In much the same way the frozen Yamabiko evokes that sort of fear, and so sidling up to it, laying my hand on it, putting on my best I'm-not-worried-at-all face for the camera -- all of this is a marginally transcendent experience, nature getting at a part of me that is necessarily only exposed when I am weak. Beneath my hand the pillar of ice trembles slightly, imperceptibly, and sends some vibrations into my skull where I can actually hear them. They sound like white noise. Nature doesn't scare me, mostly -- in the most egregious weather I might get a glimpse of its bigness, its disengagement from human rules -- but Yamabiko Falls scares me.

So I wander around the back of the thing, into a cave featuring a small shrine mostly protected from the snow. The inside of the cave is blue with light filtered through the pillar of ice, but here and there orange extremophile lichens have sprouted, bubbling inside the white frost and higher up on the snow-brushed walls. The wall-frost appears to have been blown into scales, but in the back of the cave I really can't puzzle out which natural forces did this, there being little wind or moisture or anything, really besides cold and stone. It's distantly mythical.

even in canada frost is not like this
even in canada frost is not like this

At the back of the cave I'm standing on a big shield of ice, a plinth for the pillar above. The white noise comes back to me, echoing like the Big Bang in the cave, growing louder as I approach the pillar. It's not too long before I find myself on the edge of a hole in the ice leading inside and under the pillar itself, and where water is still falling, even in the dead of winter. The hole is barely visible until you're right on top of it; thin mist emerges like steam from an underground vent, there's some evergreen scrub sticking weakly out of the ice, but the sound around the rim is deafening. I get down on my hands and knees and try to peer into the hole, but it extends downwards for five or six feet before branching around directly under the pillar of ice. Instead I heave my feet before me and slide down into the hole, bracing my boots on the trunk of a fallen pine, and immediately an unbelievable rattling climbs up into my legs and I put out my arms to hold myself against the side of this little tunnel of ice, thinking that the whole structure must be coming down, and for a second I actually believe it. But nothing moves, and on the balls of my feet I gradually get used to the rattling and I half-squat, half-pike down to see what it could be. I'm looking into a round open space, maybe fifteen feet across, littered with dirt and pine brush, in the center of which is the bona fide Yamabiko Falls, as in still liquid, coming down like God's holy wrath upon this fallen tree (the upper branches of which I'm standing on), which with the friction & impact has given up a good number of its layers, looking uncannily like a limb stripped of meat and left with nothing but creamy, battered bone underneath.

fig. 3 the mines of moria
fig. 3 the mines of moria

So I'm halfway in the hole, my head well now below the surface of the ice, totally incapable of hearing anything but this huge roaring, the air all around me dense with river smells, smells of fish and bacteria and moss and organic matter, and I realize that I've been in this situation way too many times before, digitally, as in through video games; and the grand sum of my experience is urging me dimly through hitherto unknown neural sensors in my abdomen to come to grips with the undeniable reality of some huge beast that must exist in there, something inhuman and Nature-borne and indescribably vicious and probably sporting wild fangs and a hunger that only hibernation through 'til mid-February can evoke. For a very brief moment I am able to convince myself that this is ridiculous because this is real life, but in a flash of recognition I recall, as I was sliding into the hole, seeing a number of human bootprints, which is strange not just because they appear only at the top of the trail (and not on the trail itself), but also because all of these bootprints point inwards towards the hole, and none seem to point away.

Frozen in this hole for a moment I can actually only call out Nicole's name, and her not answering (which makes a ton of sense because at the time I can't even hear myself calling out -- and in retrospect maybe I don't even call out at all) stirs me to action, and I scramble up and out of the hole, back out onto the ice, back onto the trail. When we leave behind the sounds of the falls, when we return to the little path among the trees, I don't look back.

Ed. note, 19/9/2022: Not sure where else to put this, but the nearby Maure Onsen does (or did, at the time) occasional trips up to the frozen Yamabiko-no-taki in the wintertime. They light up the waterfall with lights and bring up hot drinks and everything.

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