Wednesday, January 02, 2013
Nippon Extremeties: Hokkaido X
August 14, 1997
Waiting for a 8:10 bus to Cape Soya, the northernmost point in Japan. A guy with an enormous head started asking me asinine questions in horrendous English. All the while, my eyes were fixated on the spittle flying from his lips and making beelines for my yogurt. Luckily, the bus was full, forcing us to sit apart. When he wasn't looking I slipped on my headphones so when he asked me, "Are you listening to music?" I could pretend not to hear him. I found some relief in the jacket of the guy sitting in front of me: "Kinki University Agriculture Cycling Club." A kinky proposition if I ever heard one.
The cape disappointed in being yet another pointless tourist site, so I decided hit the road, thumb out, beginning what would a marathon hitching session of about 350 km. I rode with one family for better than half the trip. When they stopped for an hour at an ice museum, my fatigue kept me from exploding with sheer excitement, and I opted instead to read down by the sea. Outside Shari, a young couple picked me up, but when they went a bit past their destination on my account, the sight of an incredible traffic jam in what would be their return direction forced them to drop me in the middle of nowhere. As I stood there feeling bad that I caused them this trouble, I was lucky to catch a ride with a family in this weird converted bus which dropped me off at the hostel where I failed to find a message from the to Akikos who I'd met with Jordan on Furano-dake.
I finally made it to a nearby mountain hut that I nearly burnt down while cooking my dinner. Afterward, I found heaven in the natural hot springs out in the woods. There were a number of bathers there, co-ed, but it was hard to make out anybodies gender due to the steam and the rapidly fading light. Later, I had a fascinating conversation about an intriguing indigenous group living on Sakhalin, which had once been half-Japanese and half-Soviet. During the war, the Japanese had enlisted them to spy on the Reds, who subsequently had them executed after the war. Today, most of them consider themselves either Russian or Japanese (depending on where they live). An old woman running a small museum in Abashiri figures that their language will die with her. I also talked with a native Japanese traveler of 38 countries (including time spent on a kibbutz) who married a Polish woman. Facing social pressure in both countries, they are now both traveling on Canadian passports.
As lights out was at 20:30, I sat out on the deck of the hut in misty rain, finishing an amazing book of stories by Edogawa Rampo...
I surprised myself in waking up late. Most everyone else had already left, their departures having been marked by the tremendous rustling they made as they packed. There had been a few idiots in the hut who had been up talking and drinking until well past three o'clock, but surprisingly, they too had gone. The other only person besides myself was Kazu, who I'd met the previous night. He was an interesting guy, a Tokyo school teacher who takes a 6 month leave every few years in order to hike and photograph the Himalayas. I didn't know such a thing was possible in Japan, and am not quite sure how he pulled it off. We began the day with a soak out in the hot springs near a waterfall, followed by a light breakfast. When we finally set out, it was well past nine. A few hikers were already coming out of the backcountry, and scolded us about such a late departure.
Kazu had warned me to expect a slow pace, but it was comfortable for me to move slowly due to the heavy weight on my back. He seemed to really enjoy frequent stops in order to appreciate nature's glory, so I expected a mellow, mindful walk. The trail moved up through the clouds, their moisture lining dozens of spider webs. A light misty rain fell intermittently but never got too heavy. In one area, a sign warned us about bears, both of us eager to see one. The trail itself was incredibly muddy, with water running down it in some places. It eventually fell into a ravine up which we hiked, alternating between snowbank and over large rocks.
By now this 'mellow' pace started to include frequent nips off the flask. All of this start-stop, tightrope-walking heel-to-toe steps were beginning to drain my energy. Finally, I politely told Kazu that I'd meet him at the camp near the base of Rausu-dake, which was our mutual goal for the day. I then raced up the final ascent, allowing my momentum to carry me.
It was strange to literally step out of the cloud cover and onto a tableland saddle between Rausu and its neighboring peak. All was sunny and blue. I staked out my campsite amidst some stunning scenery, then climbed to the summit of Rausu-dake.
Down the range the cape points to America.
Volcanic scars filled by snow banks,
Alpine meadows of yellow and blue.
Russian islands rise from the clouds,
Scattered stones framed in white.
Back down in the saddle, I met an American guy from Tucson named Greg who'd also chosen this quiet and peaceful spot to set up camp. He and his Taiwanese girlfriend had met at Tsukuba University's language school, and had hitched to Hokkaido for their summer break, sleeping in shrines along the way. We talked until well after dark, until it became too dark to stay out any longer. Sadly a couple of guys had followed suit in setting up tents nearby, diminishing some of the peace with their obnoxious radio. Sometime later,
I left my tent after the moon had set, to stare up at a brilliant sky of stars...
On the turntable: Serge Gainsbourg, "L'Integrale"