IX. Over the Arayama Pass.
The morning that was to give me my self-promised land crept on tiptoe into the room on the third story, and touched me where I slept, and on pushing the shoji apart and looking out, I beheld as fair a day as heart could wish. A faint misty vapor, like a bridal veil, was just lifting from off the face of things, and letting the sky show through in blue-eyed depths. It was a morning of desire, bashful for its youth as yet, but graced with a depth of atmosphere sure to expand into a full, warm, perfect noon; and I hastened to be out and become a part of it.
Three jinrikishas stood waiting our coming at the door, and amidst a pelting of sayonara from the whole household, we dashed off as proudly as possible down the main street of the town, to the admiration of many lookers-on. The air, laden with moisture, left kisses on our cheeks as we hurried by, while the sunshine fell in long scarfs of gauzy shimmer over the shoulders of the eastern hills. The men in the shafts felt the fillip of it all and encouraged one another with lusty cries, a light-heartedness that lent them heels. Even the peasants in the fields seemed to wish us well, as they looked up from their work to grin good-humoredly.
We value most what we attain with difficulty. It was on this principle no doubt that the road considerately proceeded to give out. It degenerated indeed very rapidly after losing sight of the town, and soon was no more than a collection of holes strung on ruts, that made travel in perambulators tiring alike to body and soul. At last, after five miles of floundering, it gave up all pretence at a wheel-way, and deposited us at a wayside teahouse at the foot of a little valley, the first step indeed up the Arayama pass. Low hills had closed in on the right, shutting off the sea, and the ridge dividing Noto from Etchiu rose in higher lines upon the left.
Here we hired porters, securing them from the neighboring fields, for they were primarily peasants, and were porters only as we were tramps, by virtue of the country. Porterage being the sole means of transport, they came to carry our things as they would have carried their own, in skeleton hods strapped to their backs. In this they did not differ from the Japanese custom generally; but in one point they showed a strange advance over their fellows. They were wonderfully methodical folk. They paid no heed to our hurry, and instead of shouldering the baggage they proceeded to weigh it, each manload by itself, on a steelyard of wood six feet long; the results they then worked out conscientiously on an abacus. After which I paid accordingly. Truly an equitable adjustment between man and man, at which I lost only the time it took. Then we started.
From the teahouse the path rose steadily enough for so uneducated a way, leaving the valley to contract into an open glen. The day, in the mean time, came out as it had promised, full and warm, fine basking weather, as a certain snake in the path seemed to think. So, I judge, did the porters. If it be the pace that kills, these simple folk must be a long-lived race. They certainly were very careful not to hurry themselves. Had they been hired for life, so thrifty a husbanding of their strength would have been most gratifying to witness; unluckily they were mine only for the job. They moved, one foot after the other, with a mechanical precision, exhausting even to look at. To keep with them was practically impossible for an ordinary pedestrian. Nothing short of a woman shopping could worthily have matched their pace. In sight their speed was snail-like; out of it they would appear to have stopped, so far did they fall behind. Once I thought they had turned back.
The path we were following was the least traveled of the only two possible entrances into Noto by land. It was a side or postern gate to the place, over a gap on the northern end of a mountain wall; the main approach lying along its other flank. For a high range of uninhabited hills nearly dams the peninsula across, falling on the right side straight into the sea, but leaving on the other a lowland ligature that binds Noto to Kaga. To get from Kaga into Etchiu, the range has to be crossed lower down. Our dip in the chain was called the Arayama toge or Rough Mountain pass, and was perhaps fifteen hundred feet high, but pleasingly modeled in its lines after one ten times its height.
Half-way up the tug of the last furlong, where the ascent became steep enough for zig-zags, I turned to look back. Down away from me fell the valley, slipping by reason of its own slope out into the great Etchiu plain. Here and there showed bits of the path in corkscrew, from my personal standpoint all perfectly porterless. Over the low hills, to the left, lay the sea, the crescent of its great beach sweeping grandly round into the indistinguishable distance. Back of it stretched the Etchiu plain, but beyond that, nothing. The mountains that should have bounded it were lost to sight in the spring haze.
Mechanically my eyes followed up into the languid blue, when suddenly they chanced upon a little cloud, for cloud I took it to be. Yet something about it struck me as strange, and scanning it more closely, by this most natural kind of second sight, I marked the unmistakable glisten of snow. It was a snow peak towering there in isolated majesty. As I gazed it grew on me with ineffable grandeur, sparkling with a faint saffron glamour of its own. Shifting my look a little I saw another and then another of the visions, like puffs of steam, rising above the plain. Half apparitions, below a certain line, the snow line, they vanished into air, for between them and the solid earth there looked to be blue sky. The haze of distance, on this soft May day, hid their lower slopes and left the peaks to tower alone into the void. They were the giants of the Tateyama range, standing there over against me inaccessibly superb.