Nebbadoon Press

The Long Way Around



Chapter 19

The day of my trip to Shiga Heights arrived, and I packed a small bag and went to Tokyo. I took a local train to the station, where I had arranged to meet Mr. Hirata. Somehow I was able to find the right train and get off at the right station, but it was a matter of sheer luck for, with no English language signs to steer me, I had to find someone to direct me to a place whose name I could not pronounce. But I came to the right place and found Hirata waiting for me. We boarded another train and took the long ride to another nameless place, a distance of several hours.

On the way we made a number of stops, and the train was greeted at some of these by groups of women, dressed like nurses (Hirata explained that they were members of patriotic organizations), carrying flowers and packages. The train was carrying soldiers returning from Manchuria, some of them wounded, and these women, after making short speeches welcoming the men home, handed out these gifts. Then, as the train pulled out, they waved little Rising Sun flags in farewell.

Hirata was an interesting companion: he was educated at Princeton, was an engineer, and, of course, was fluent in English. At first he was a little diffident about discussing the international situation, but after a while he warmed up, and he gave me the Japanese viewpoint on many matters. I found him very interesting, for this was my first exposure to the Japanese outlook. Hirata was quite sure his country would be at war with the United States and Britain. It was not a matter of imperialism, he told me. His country's adventure in Manchuria had demonstrated that the Japanese were not good colonizers, being much too bound to home and family. It was a matter of survival: this tiny island could not live without access to outside sources and markets, yet it was being frustrated by the two powers that had their own plans for expansion. I was surprised that this young man should express his opinions so openly, but he was clearly quite sincere and repeated that, sorry as he was to say it, our countries would be at war, and before long.

We came to the end of the train journey and got into the car that Hirata had ordered. This took us through some hilly country for about an hour to a village called, if I can remember the name correctly, Kambashi. At a small hotel there, a man waited with a horse-drawn sled. It had seats for four, two fore and two aft, facing each other, with a charcoal urn between. Over the urn, after we had seated ourselves, one on each side, the man draped a heavy blanket over our knees, forming a tent over the urn. This arrangement kept our legs and feet warm during the long climb to Shiga Heights. The man walked beside the horse all the way as we wound up the mountain. It was dark, but in the half-light, enhanced by the white of the snow, it looked beautiful. Our way was otherwise lit by an oil lamp hung on the side of the sled.

We came at last to the hotel at the summit. A Swiss chalet style building, though quite large. Built of logs and stone, with the overhanging roofs and balconies characteristic of alpine buildings, it looked a little out of place here, though I had no difficulty in imagining myself back in Europe. Inside was a big lounge, with an enormous stone fireplace in which a roaring fire was blazing, making a most welcoming sight indeed. We checked in and went up to our rooms. I was soon back, sitting beside that fire, warming my chilled bones.

At the far end of the room, I saw other guests sitting around a table having their aperitifs. They were a jolly group, laughing and teasing each other-in German. As far as I could tell, there were no Japanese guests, apart from Hirata, and these people, ten in all, were the rest of the guest list. As I sat there pondering this piquant situation, a big, blond, tanned Aryan came up to me. He bowed and clicked his heels and introduced himself. He was, he said, Otto Santner, the ski trainer here. "I should like to present you to zer uzzer guests!" When I hesitated, he said, "Come, Mister Baldwin! Ve are all here for ze same purpose-to forget ze vor, no?"

So I followed him over to the group, keeping an eye open for a British consul that might be lurking under the furniture, watching for defectors. The Germans all stood and greeted me, clicking their heels and bowing, shaking hands. They all spoke excellent English, and they never again spoke German while I was in their presence. They were all on vacation from the German consulate in Shanghai, I gathered. Invited to join them for a drink, I sat down with them and, joined by Hirata, spent a pleasant half hour.

Next morning, at the invitation of the trainer, Hirata and I went out on the slopes. We hired equipment from the hotel, not usually recommended practice, but my skis were back in Oslo, while Hirata, who had never skied before, didn't possess any. This was my first formal lesson. My instruction up to now had consisted entirely of admonitions from my Norwegian friends to "just follow us, lean forward, and keep your knees bent!" So I didn't do very well. Hirata, with that extraordinary adaptability and resilience so typical of the Japanese, quickly mastered the rudiments and became Santner's star pupil.

The German guests were all expert skiers. They were quite helpful, offering much advice to us both. "Remember to keep the knees bent and lean forward!" they would shout as we climbed clumsily back from our latest sitzmark. We spent a couple of days this way, skiing for an hour or two, then taking a dip in the hot spring over which the bathhouse had been built. That water was almost too hot to get into, springing as a constant steaming stream from a crack in a huge rock. But it was most relaxing and helped soothe our aches and pains (mine anyway-Hirata didn't seem to have such problems). In the evening, after dinner, there was billiards in the games room or nodding beside the fireplace, a glass of toddy in hand.


Two days later a fresh group of guests arrived: three Germans, a Danish-Chinese girl and, to my surprise, two of the Norwegians from the trans-Siberian trip. At afternoon tea that day, we had a happy reunion. Ulrik, the older of the two, would have nothing to do with the Germans. In fact, he told me, reproachfully, that I ought not to be so friendly with them at every encounter, and I half expected the long-awaited second front to be opened at Shiga Heights.

The Danish-Chinese girl was a real beauty, and the younger Norwegian was badly smitten. The feeling was clearly reciprocated, and we others quickly ruled the couple out of our plans from then on. Hirata suggested, after a few days, that we should head back to Tokyo, since I would not have much more time before my boat for Canada sailed. Ulrik, who seemed to have appointed himself my guardian, said that I could return to Tokyo with him and Hirata didn't have to stay if he wanted to get back to work. So Hirata left the next day, somewhat uneasy about leaving me up there. I reassured him that I could easily make my way back to Tokyo in time for my boat, and Ulrik chimed in with similar reassurances.

So I had one more day at Shiga, skiing with Ulrik. We had one unpleasant encounter with one of the Germans. He called out to me as I performed on the slopes, "Remember! Keep the knees bent!" Ulrik turned on him. "He doesn't need any help from Germans!" he snarled at the poor man. I thought there might be an incident, but the German shrugged his shoulders and left the scene.

I began to get rather restive as the afternoon wore on, for our train to Tokyo was the last one that day and we had to make our way down the mountain to meet our car to the station. Ulrik was in no hurry, insisting we had time for afternoon tea before leaving. Consequently, it was already dusk before we started out-on skis.

How we got down to that hotel I will never know. It was rapidly darkening, we had never been on that terrain before, the sign posts were all in Japanese, and my skiing was not really up to this kind of trip. The younger Norwegian had elected to stay for another day with his new girlfriend, so Ulrik and I had started off alone, the plan being to drop off our rented skis at the hotel in the valley and meet our car there for the journey to the station.

That trip was quite an experience: the trails seemed to wander all over the landscape, the signs at the intersections were quite uninformative, being in Japanese, and I kept falling at every turn, as the snow, melted by the day's sun, froze over, making the surface quite treacherous. Poor Ulrik. Not only did he have to find our way down, but at each tricky turn he had to stop and tell me whether it was safe to proceed or, perhaps, safer to sit down. When we came to a sign, he would study it for a moment, then say, "I think it is this way;" then he would take off in a new direction. A group of Japanese skiers came along at one point, and Ulrik pointed down the trail, asking very loudly, "Kambashi? Kambashi?" They giggled at us and rattled off a few words, nodding vigorously, then vanished.

We arrived at last at the hotel, where we handed in our skis and went inside. This was no tourist hotel, strictly local trade. It was run, we gathered, by the owner, who lived in quarters off the main room of the hotel. We found that we had almost two hours to wait (another paranoid miscalculation on my part), so we took a room, where we could change out of our ski clothes into our city togs. After changing, we had a meal in the small dining room. We were the only guests, so we received most attentive treatment. After the meal, the owner, a very small elderly man, invited us into his quarters.

Following his example, we removed our shoes as we entered (no holes in my socks this time!) and found his family and the servants squatting around a square charcoal pit in the center of the room playing "go," a checkers-like game (only much more complicated than checkers). They seemed to be having a contest, for there were three games going on, and at the end there was an award from the owner, a small gift that was received by the winner with much bowing and giggling.
When our car called for us, the whole retinue came out onto the porch to bow and wave. The only English-speaking member of the family wished us a safe trip and begged us to return someday. A heartwarming little episode canceling out the less pleasant encounters with Japanese people.

Our journey back to Tokyo was uneventful; in fact, it was boring. It was dark, so one could not even watch the scenery go by. There was no dining car, so we had to sit in our seats the whole distance except for an occasional stroll along the corridor. Back in town I said goodbye to Ulrik (he was taking a boat a week later) and went back to the New Grand. There I had a meal with Glwadys, and we compared notes on our respective trips. While I thought her tour of the Shinto shrines sounded like a bore, she said that I must be a nut to head for the nearest snow after cursing the stuff all the way through Siberia.

©2013 Estate of Alan Baldwin