We made for the main hut, a low, mouse-colored shanty fast asleep and deep drifted in snow. The advance porter summoned the place, and the summons drew to what did for door a man as mouselike as his mansion. He had about him a subdued, monkish demeanor that only partially hid an alertness within, - a secular monk befitting the spot. He showed himself a kindly body, and after he had helped the porters off with their packs, led the way into the room in which he and his mate hibernated. It was a room very much in the rough; boards for walls, for ceiling, for floor, its only furnishing a fire. It was the best of furnishing in our eyes, and we hasted to squat round it in a circle, in attitudes of extreme devotion, for it was bitter cold. The monkish watchman threw a handful more twigs on the embers, out of a cheerful hospitality to his guests.
The fireplace was merely a hole in the floor, according to Japanese custom, and the smoke found its way out as best it could. But there was very little of it; usually, indeed, there is none, for charcoal is the common combustible. A cauldron hung, by iron bars jointed together, from the gloom above. It was twilight in the room. Already the day without was fading fast, and even at high noon, none too much of it could find a way into the building, now half buried under the snow. A second watchman sat muffled in shadow on the farther side of the fire. He made his presence known, from time to time, by occasional sympathetic gutturals, or by the sudden glow of a bit of charcoal, which he took out of the embers with a pair of chopstick fire-irons to relight his pipe. The talk naturally turned upon our expedition, with Yejiro for spokesman, and from that easily slid into the all-important question of guides. Our inquiries on this head elicited nothing but doubt. We tried at first to get the watchmen to go. But this they positively refused to do. They could not leave their charge, in the first place, they said; and for the second, they did not know the path. We asked if there was no one who did. There was a hunter, they said, near by who was by way of knowing the road. A messenger was sent at once to fetch him.
In the mean time, if they showed themselves skeptical about our future, they proved most sympathetic over our past. Our description of the Friday footprints especially brought out much fellow-feeling. They knew the spot well, they said, and it was very bad. In fact it was called the Oni ga Jo, or place of many devils, for its fearfulness. It would be better, they added, after the mountain opening on the tenth of June.
"Mountain opening!" said I to Yejiro; "what is that? Is it anything like the 'river opening'?" For the Japanese words seemed to imply not a physical, but a formal unlocking of the hills, like the annual religious rite upon the Sumidagawa in Tokyo. Such, it appeared, it was. For the tenth of June, he said, was the date of the mountain-climbing festival. Yearly on that day all the sacred peaks are thrown open to a pious public for ascent. A procession of pilgrims, headed by a flautist and a bellman, wend their way to the summit, and there encamp. For three days the ceremony lasts, after which the mountains are objects of pilgrimage till the twenty-eighth day of August. For the rest of the year the summits are held to be shut, the gods being then in conclave, to disturb whom were the height of impiety. A pleasing coincidence of duty and pleasure, that the scaling of the peaks should be enjoined to pilgrims at the times of easiest ascent! Preparatory to the procession all the paths of approach are repaired. It was this repairing to which the watchmen referred and which concerned our secular selves.
Our difficulties began to be explained. We were very close to committing sacrilege. We had had, it is true, no designs on the peaks, but were we wholly guiltless in attempting so much as the passes in this the close season? Apparently not. At all events, we were a month ahead of time in our visit, which in itself was of questionable etiquette.
At this point the messenger sent to find the hunter returned without his man. Evidently the hunter was a person who meant to stand well with his gods, or else he was himself a myth.
Distraught in mind and restless in body, I got up and went out into the great snow waste. The sunset afterglow was just fading into the moonshine. The effect upon the pure white sheet before me was indescribably beautiful. The warm tint of the last of day, as it waned, dissolved imperceptibly into the cold lustre of the night as if some alchemist were subtly changing the substance while he kept the form. For a new spirit was slowly possessing itself of the very shapes that had held the old, and the snow looked very silent, very cold, very ghostly, glistening in its silver sheen.
The sky was bitterly clear, inhumanly cold. To call it frosty were to humanize it. Its expanse stretched far more frozen than the frozen earth. Indeed, the night sky is always awful. For the most part, we forget it for the kindlier prospect of the cradling trees, and the whispers of the wind, and the perfumes of the fields, the sights and sounds that even in slumber stir with life; and the nearer thrust away the real horror of the far. But the awe speaks with insistence when the foreground itself is dead.
Shivering, I returned to the fire and human companionship. The conversation again rolled upon precipices, which it appeared were more numerous before than behind, and casualties among the woodcutters not unknown in consequence. There was one place, they said, where, if you slipped, you went down a ri (two miles and a half). It was here a woodcutter had been lost three days before. The ri must have been a flight of fancy, since it far exceeded the height of the pass above the sea. But a handsome discount from the statement left an unpleasant balance to contemplate.