Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Nippon Extremities: Hokkaido VII

August 11, 1997

Last night before going to bed, everyone in the hostel had a meeting about the following day's hike. It was kind of funny how the Japanese plan everything to death, even telling us to wear long sleeves and pants against poisonous plants.

The next morning, the bus picked us up at 6:10, and for the entire trip, the two appointed group leaders had their maps out.  We were let out at Cape Sukoton, with its famed musical toilet.  The cape was the official starting point for the 'Hachijikan (Eight hour) Hiking Course."  I walked down to the edge of the cape, where old men and women were dragging seaweed onto shore.  The waves broke in two directions off the point, crashing into one another with great force, lifting great walls of spray into the air to be carried away by the strong winds.

I usually like to hike alone, but this time thought it might be fun to go with the other young Japanese staying at the hostel.  This also allowed me to store my bags and to slow me down, forcing me to match my pace with the others.  Because there were so many people going on this hike, we were split into two groups.  It was kind of silly how we were broken into equal numbers of men and women.  Our group leaders, appointed at random the night before, were taking their positions quite seriously.  After some obligatory taking of photos, we were off, and walking down the road leading away from the cape, I couldn't help but feel like I was on an elementary school field trip.  

After leaving the road, the trail led over a series of grassy peaks whose bases had been carved away by the waves.  I pushed on ahead slightly, temporarily leaving the conversation behind in order to have the scenery to myself.  All around was the gorgeous sea.  The clear skies were being purged by strong winds.  From the first and highest hill, I could see Sakhalin Island, about 100 km to the north.  The descents in particular were pretty treacherous in this wind, which let up somewhat in the fishing villages below.  In one village, I came across two small boys who had caught an octopus, which slithered and rolled its body across the concrete.  When the rest of our group caught up, the boys caught a sea-urchin, and a sea cucumber, which the boys cut open and fed us raw from their knives.   At the village's south end were huge molds, which finally solved for me the mystery of the birthplace of all those tetrapods that litter the perimeter of Japan.  

In another village was a shop whose master was crafting beautiful sculptures from driftwood.  I admired his work and asked a few questions before rejoining the group.  We climbed back up into the hills, past a small cemetery, then along a long path through grasslands that served as the canvas for a riot of colorful wildflowers.  This eventually gave way to forest, the trail lined with dwarf bamboo that hid the approach to quite a few difficult water crossings.

We wearily stopped for lunch, atop a high bluff that offered no respite from the wind that threatened to blow the food off the ends of our chopsticks.  We continued along a dangerous, crumbling route along the cliff's edge, then the final descent down a long sand dune, which most of the group walked gingerly in small steps, but a few of us ran at full speed down to the black sand beach below.  

The remainder of the hike was a slow, four-hour meander over large porous volcanic boulders.  We passed below a few high waterfalls that dropped into tide pools garnished with seaweed.  In one spot, the hills were striped with green of grass and black of rock, a dazzling effect. At the base of this stood a single house, still occupied, judging by the long strands of seaweed laid to dry on the beach in front.  I marveled at the life these people must have, living amidst such power and beauty, so far from roads or towns.  Winter must be especially rough, trips made by small boat traversing ice flows and partially submerged, snow covered boulders.  Further along the beach was another house, half-collapsed with the other half still occupied.

Where the ridge dropped to the sea ledges had formed.  They were difficult to cross, so much of the going was aided by ropes.  With good shoes and porous rock, it wasn't too tough, but many in the group couldn't grasp this, and the going became slow, made worse by frequent rest breaks.  I was beginning to grow a little impatient and tired by the time we finished at the base of a large tower of stone that is the favorite of the postcards back in town.  

Throughout the day, I was happy at the instant friendships created by our shared toil.  This feeling continued throughout dinner at the hostel, and through the simultaneous fireworks displays we witnessed over both islands.  We sat up late talking,  until one by one started to fade and sought out the comfort of bed...

On the turntable:  Yulara, "All is One"
On the nighttable:  Lian Hearn, "Across the Nightingale Floor"

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