In the spring of 2011, I was hiking alone along an abandoned trail west of the small jinja which serves the village of Nagakuma, not far from where you live in Yaizu, up there in the backwaters of the Abe River. I'd heard about the trail from an old man – a local wasabi farmer – whom I’d asked about an old Jizo statue which I’d discovered fading into the green at the end of a mostly abandoned mountain farm-road. The old man told me that years ago, before there were modern roads between the villages, the Jizo marked the entrance to a trail connected that village with a village on the other side of the mountain. He said that such trails were once common in the pre-modern period, providing access between the villages which dotted the lower reaches of the Japan Southern Alps, and which provided mountain village residents with a means of communication and commerce with neighboring villages. The old man was a bit surprised that I’d found the trailhead, though he warned me to not try to use it, as the trail had been abandoned for decades and was certainly washed out and dangerous. With his cautions in mind, I decided nevertheless to give the pass a try.
A few months later I was back and ready to try the trail. The Jizo was there and as welcoming as any Jizo ever is, and I was soon picking my way into the forest beyond, following the sound of falling water while trying to discern what remained of a once well-used community trail. I found no further statues, though at times I could clearly make out what seemed to be remnants of the old trail crisscrossing the river every fifty meters or so. After more than an hour of careful clambering I came to a quite large waterfall, with no clear way around. Whatever trail had once bypassed this natural hazard was long washed away or perhaps the trail simply reached up and over the falls from a diversion I had somehow missed. I foolishly decided to hazard a climb along the side of the waterfall and despite some reckless footing I succeed in getting around and above the falls, though at great personal risk, which was exceedingly stupid as nobody knew where I was that day, and my car was parked in such an out of the way place that it would not likely be found without a concerted and directed search. If I had fallen then, and broken a leg, or worse, then I would have been trapped in the worse way. Climbing that falls was both reckless and stupid and I was rather disappointed in myself for having tried, as I am a family man and normally avoid such senseless risks.
I continued up the canyon which grew very narrow and difficult, and I wound up climbing the side of the mountain in order to continue at a higher elevation, out of reach of waterfalls and better removed from the chance of another dangerous fall. However, by now the trail was utterly gone and I was moving blind up the mountain with only the vaguest hope of recovering the ancient mountain trail. It was about this time – maybe two hours up the canyon – when I decided to stop to rest in the midst of a very dense grove of bamboo to shoot an impromptu video chastising myself for my earlier foolhardy risk. It was then, sitting precariously on the steep ground, surrounding in dense green, utterly beyond my own species, in a place where we humans no longer ever go, and where I had been warned not to go by someone with more local knowledge and sense than me, with the camera running, and with me loudly monologuing into the camera, that something mysterious from the woods decided to come and give me a closer look.
I’m a skeptic and a non-believer in ghosts, the supernatural, gods or any hope of an afterlife. I once gladly explored the abandoned buildings, temples, shrines and graveyards which I once found in the deep mountains of Japan. I was not afraid of the supernatural then and I remain unafraid now. However, I also remain at a loss to explain whatever it was that came at me that day in the woods in the high mountains of Shizuoka prefecture. Here is what I remember, which is backed up by my own verbal description of what I was then seeing, which interestingly was captured in the video I was recording at the time, and which is titled “Careful Footing” and which can be found and viewed on YouTube beginning at the 2:30 mark.
While talking and looking at the camera, I spotted to my left something moving impossibly fast through the bamboo and coming straight at me. The thing was moving far too fast, and seemed to be almost ricocheting off the thick bamboo stalks, bouncing almost like a basketball-sized pachinko ball moving horizontally through the forest at a height of maybe five feet above the forest floor. The thing stopped at about the same distance that a capable predator might pause when spotting something in its environment which did not belong (me). It hung there, seemingly hovering in the air, for no more than two-seconds before suddenly retreating back the way it came, and via the same impossibly fast zigzag pattern. But what was most unsettling of all was the appearance of the thing, which was simply the blackest spot of darkness you can imagine. The closest thing I could think to describe it is if you took a child’s black crayon and began turning circles with it on a white sheet of paper. Just keep turning and turning and turning, working to fill every spot and patch of white with black until the paper is nearly burned through with friction and you are left with the blackest hole of ebony empty which any crayon could possibly impress onto white paper. Add to that a rough and ambiguous shadow-like edging and you are closing in on what the thing in the Japanese woods looked like. The thing didn’t scare me – at first – though if you watch the video you can see how I became increasingly unsettled as I tried to continue the story I’d been telling, only to waylay myself to expound and try to explain away what had just happened.
I remain a skeptic, and a doubter of the supernatural. And I do not believe in gods or heaven or hell or any afterlife. Yet, for the life of me I have no idea what that black hole thing I met – or maybe imagined – that day in the woods was. Though I can tell you one thing for sure. I will never again venture past that ancient and worn Jizo gazing out through the green at the end of that farm road in the Japan Southern Alps.
My name is Kurt Bell.
You can learn more about The Good Life in my book Going Alone.
Be safe... But not too safe.