Monday, January 07, 2013
Nippon Extremities: Hokkaido XIII
August 18, 1997
I awoke around seven, packed up my gear, and headed out. Going up the driveway, I had the misfortune to run into Ryoko who first asked me I was leaving, then quickly asked if I would stay. When I refused, she told me "firmly" that I had to pay for last night's stay. I refused, saying that life at the Juku that particular summer hadn't been as advertised, and with that, we parted ways.
My next encounter wasn't as bad. Walking down the road carrying all my possessions, I met the old woman from across the road, who loaded them up on her three-wheeled bike and pushed it into town. I shipped my books, made a quick call to my parents, then headed out to the highway again. I got a ride to Akan with a trucker who smoked 3 cigarettes in 35 km. I had lunch in front of a convenience store with a young cyclist. Later, I was lucky enough to see the brilliant hue of Mashiko, unblemished by the usual fog. On the walk onwards, I was surprised to be passed by the same couple who had given me a ride up to the overlook not an hour earlier. This time they ignored me completely, as if they'd already reached their quota of good deeds for the day.
I eventually dropped down to Io-san, a volcano with a crack down its side like the Liberty Bell. Steam with a perfume of rotten eggs poured from yellow rocks. These fumes are incredibly dangerous, yet busloads of people would walk right to them and pose for photos a few inches away. Figuring that it must be safe, I hiked up and took a few photos, then came down feeling the same whoozy way I do after smoking a cigar.
Over to Kawayu Onsen, where a stuffed bear in the visitor center scared the shit out of me. I visited the shops of a few Ainu carvers, looking quite Japanese to my eyes, yet with the same bushy Hemingway beards. Many of them resembled the mythological Ainu figures which they carved.
I couldn't find a rotemburo in town, but had better luck in Sunayu. I set up my tent on the shore of Lake Kussharo, then dug a hole at the water's edge. The hole would fill with water from the lake, then be heated by the thermally heated sand. My own personal evening bath. My work finished, I sat by the lake and read awhile. This lake supposedly contained a beast of Nessie-like proportions. I'm not sure whether or not I believed it, but there were an alarmingly large number of empty boats out on the water. I walked back to the tourist center along the water's edge, partly to enjoy the scenery, and partly to avoid the campsite master who would charge me 300 yen if he saw me. I ate tempura soba for dinner, beside a dandified dog. I wasn't sure what kind of tempura I was eating because when the batter melted down in the heat of the broth, there was nothing there. After dinner, I sat and watched the sun do its creative pyrotechnics act on the sky.
When I got back to my tent, the family from the next tent invited me over for some salmon and beef and conversation. When the night's darkness was full and complete, I excused myself and went to take my bath. It was heard to tear myself away from the placid lake, and when I finally did, the transition from warm water direct to sleeping bag was glorious. I slept soundly, but for a dream where I got up to pee, and the beast of Kussharo went for my bait...
I began the next morning with a lakeside rotemburo just up the road from the campsite. Onward toward Akan Kohan, I was picked up by a young Japanese who had lived better than half his life outside abroad: high school in Guatemala and Spain, college in Minnesota, and now working in Thailand. I was hoping to travel to Cambodia later in the year, and asked his advice, in light of the coup of the previous month. He said that tourism had continued. Getting in country was no problem, but as for getting out, well... We had breakfast together, and I promised to call him when I got to Bangkok next month.
He drove me to the trailhead, saving me a few kilometers walk. I hadn't seen any bear signs, but as a precaution, I took out my bell and put it in my pocket. Seconds later, I saw my first tracks, and attached it immediately. Despite the lack of signs, I saw more traces of bear along this next stretch than in all my previous hikes combined. Scat, tracks, scratched trees. I think that my mind was on bear all throughout the entire hike, the tinkling of my bell like a Tibetan mantra that failed to move me back to awareness and away from anxiety.
The hike led me through some amazing forest, up into denser scrub, then onto yet another desolate, fogged-in volcano. The steam was indecipherable from the clouds, but the quick sudden pain in the lungs would reveal its presence. Below the ridge, the unseen vents roared. Once again, I was hiking through hell. And yet again, I had a strange metaphysical event. Just as I'd seen Bracken a few days before, and had met the Ainu bear "kamuy" that same night, today I passed a discarded bottle, the only words still visible on the faded label being 'G-O-D.' Little wonder that mountains are sacred places.
On the summit, all was windy and cold, so after about three seconds on top, I hiked down to Lake Onneto. I set up camp, then went back into the forest to a waterfall-fed bath. After a somewhat slimy dip, I returned to the lake. A friend of mine is a bit of a mystic herself, and had recommended it. After dipping into my book of zen poems, I did some pranayama, ki breathing, zazen, and tai chi, the latter whilest standing waist deep in the water itself. During dinner, someone was playing opera from somewhere, a perfect accompaniment for the lake's fading reflections. Across the way, tourist cameras flashed like fireflies.
On the turntable: The Chieftains, "Chieftains 4"