I should preface this article by saying what I did was dumb. Don’t follow my lead.
In Japan, when I tell people that I’m studying microbiology, they usually respond with something along the lines of “Oh, wow, you’re so smart!”. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, as I thoroughly proved tonight. Today, I decided to hike a mountain. There’s a lot of good mountains in the Kyoto prefecture, where I am, so that’s not such a bad idea. But see, I decided to go on this hike I’ve never been on alone (dumb), and because I woke up late, missed my train exit, and I couldn’t find the trailhead, I started at 3ish. Dumber. And finally, even though there was a sign, kindly printed in English, that warned “This hike takes about 5 hours to complete! Don’t stay out after sunset. There have been incidents.”, I thought to myself, “Oh, I’ve got a flashlight! I’ve hiked in the dark before! I’ll be fine.” This, right here, is the proof that while I might be a little book smart, I’m actually very much an idiot. The hike itself wasn’t that difficult. Good elevation climb, the trail was a little slick and muddy, but nothing I hadn’t encountered before. I got around 3 miles up a 4 mile hike before I decided to head back. Pretty close to the top, and the idea that I could make it to the summit tempted me. I started heading back a little before sunset, even though with the fog, there was no way I could see the sun. Surprising no one, it got dark while I was still on the trail. See, this didn’t really bother me because I, like I mentioned earlier, had a flashlight. The only concern I had in my mind was that I might not see the trail and slip, but given that that could happen at any time, it wasn’t something that dissuaded me from doing anything. Of course, the thing I didn’t think about was wildlife. See, the mountain was pretty close to Kyoto, which is one of the biggest cities in Japan. I walked to it from a train station a mile or two away, so I didn’t exactly think of it as the wilderness. Wolves, however, thought of it as the wilderness. And it was after dark.
Throughout the hike, I was listening to a podcast my previous girlfriend introduced me to, called Reply All. As such, I must admit that I wasn’t paying the greatest attention to my surroundings, and in fact, I hadn’t seen any wildlife. If there had been any rustling in the bushes up till then, I hadn’t heard it. So when I heard rustling in the woods ahead, I pulled out my earbud and listened. Very quickly, I determined that this was not a rustling I liked, for the singular reason that it was a big rustling. There’s squirrel rusting, there’s small bird rustling, then there’s loud, branch-snapping, predator-sized rustling. This rustling was very clearly the latter. Previously, I had the flashlight pointed mostly towards the ground, so I could watch where I was stepping, but upon hearing this, I pointed it up, in the direction I was going, which, coincidentally, happened to be the direction of the rustling. I saw briefly something move, something with four legs, a tail, and a height that came up to about my waist, about 50 feet ahead of me. And then I saw a second. After shining the flashlight in their direction, they both stopped. One looked at me, dead in the eye, and with the flashlight, the eyes of the wolf were very clear white circles on the dark background.
In this time which probably lasted 2 seconds, I stared it straight in the eye and shined the central, brightest part of the flashlight on it, and thought several thoughts. First thought – “I wonder when they’ll find my body. It’s supposed to rain tomorrow, so I’m not sure any hikers will come up. After that, it’s Monday, so… maybe there’ll be someone? It’s a weekday, though, so maybe not. If not, does that mean that I’ll be here till next weekend? Will anyone be able to recognize me?” Second thought – “I’m going to keep shining this light right in its eyes till it goes away. It’s a pretty bright flashlight, so it can’t like that very much.” Third thought – “Should I scream for help? The last person I saw was going down, and I kept hiking up 15 or 30 minutes after I saw him. Which means he’s 30 minutes to one hour below me. Which means he’s out of earshot.” Fourth thought – “Should I scream at the wolf? Would that be effective? Or would that only make it more aggressive? I’m outnumbered – I saw two, but I have no actual idea how many are here. Could be a whole pack, for all I know. I don’t think I can intimidate a whole pack.” Fifth thought – “I nearly slipped on a rock a while back, to the point where I stopped and took a picture of it. Kind of scared me, because I was worried that I would be stranded and couldn’t get back down, and I’d have to worry about the elements and the rain tomorrow. That wasn’t quite the right thought, was it? If I was at a point where I couldn’t walk very well, I would be killed by the wolves. I wouldn’t see the rain tomorrow.”
Around this point, the wolf, probably not liking the light shining straight into its eyes, ran off, to my right. The path went towards the point I saw it, and then off to the left. Great, right? I made it! Except, I’m still on the mountain. In fact, I’m probably closer to the top of the mountain than the bottom. It’s still dark, and now I’m acutely aware that if I injure myself in any way that impairs my ability to move there’s a fair chance I’ll be killed. But I can’t not hurry, right? Who would be able to take it easy in a time like this? Not me, that’s for sure. Thankfully, the trail is rocky, and I pick up a slightly-larger-than-a-fist rock near my feet. It’s too big to be effectively held, though, but I carried it a ways because I thought if I crouched down to pick up another one, if I bent down and made my body small, I’d be attacked. After a little bit of walking though, I switched it out for a better one. If I’m going to be attacked, I figured, I might as well be able to put up a fight. That rock was too small, as it turned out, so I picked up a third one a little later and held on to that one. And I went down, being absolutely terrified of the woods which completely surrounded me.
Despite somewhat hurrying, I managed not to fall on my way down. I didn’t see any signs of the wolves on the rest of the descent, though I constantly kept watch for them. At the base, there’s a small parking lot, complete with toilets and vending machines and a very bright light which I was incredibly happy to see. I stopped there and rested for a bit. I was definitely calling a taxi. If you remember, I walked here from a station a mile or two away. About half of that was through woods. I was done walking through woods.
Fate had a different plan, though. See, to get a taxi, you’ve need to get an app for the Japan taxi service, called Dido. When you sign up for Dido, you’ve need to give them your telephone number and have them send you a confirmation text. Problem with this, though, is that I’ve got no phone number that I use, I just got the cheaper data-only plan. I never hated myself more for being cheap than that moment. I couldn’t get a taxi. I started to try a different route, maybe registering through Facebook or something? But then, I heard it again. The rustling of an animal big enough to do me harm. This parking lot was not really an area I’d call civilization. Apparently, the wolves agreed. I never saw them this time, but I was confident they were there. I decided that being on my phone wasn’t a smart idea. So, I started walking back. I kept the rock.
This story doesn’t have a particularly climatic ending. The road I walked down slowly got wider, and the streetlights got more frequent. Soon enough, I had to put the rock down, as the fear of looking suspicious began to outweigh the fear of wolves. I had made it back to the safety of the town. As I walked back through the city, though, I could faintly hear wolves howl distantly in the mountains. Rather than being afraid, I was grateful that they chose to start then – if they had done that while I was still up there, I probably would have peed myself.
I was just glad I made it out safe.