Thursday, January 10, 2013
Nippon Extremities: Hokkaido XIV
August 20, 1997
Zazen at dawn, lakeside. Hit the road early, catcing a ride with a guy who liked to drive very fast on the curvy country backroads. The countryside was stunning, dotted with small villages and roadside vegetable stands which reminded me of the Hallowe'en of my childhood back in New Jersey. His car was low and handled well, so it was all quite thrilling. I wasn't really surprised when he told me he'd driven all the way from Kumamoto in three days.
The speed of his driving made up lots of time, but he dropped me off in the unfortunate town of Ashoro which, as I'd experienced a few weeks back in Obihiro, was very difficult to hitch out of. Was I in some ultraconservative bible-belt region of Japan? As I walked for half an hour or so, I cursed the passing cars, in particular the guy who slowed, saw I was gaijin, then roared off. I finally got a ride (and free Pocari Sweat), but this guy dropped me off on the near side of Obihiro, the sight of my former troubles. I figured that I'd be there for awhile, but was able to get a ride surprisingly quickly to the opposite side of town, where I was picked up by three young dudes from Tokyo who played excellent music, including Rage Against the Machine, blaring as we raced up and over a high mountain pass. The scenery was incredible, the weather beautiful for the first time in weeks.
They dropped me on a road just shy of Sapporo, on a road nearly devoid of cars. I finally got a lift to Chitose for a nice long lunch. It felt late but was only 1 o'clock. I walked to the edge of town and was given a lift by a middle-aged woman who at first told me that she'd drop me three km short of my destination, although she not only waited for me while I bought food, but also drove me seven km up a dirt road to the trail head.
It was only a bit past three, so rather than wait around until the next day, and not wanting to oush my luck with the weather, I decided to do the hike. It was a simple thirty minutes up a path laid with railroad cross-ties that seemed to hinder rather than help. With my pack, it was slightly difficult, but nearer the top the going became easier. Since it was a mere 1000 meters high, it well below the cloud layer, and visibility was good. I walked across the volcanic plain amidst billowing pores, then up a steep adjacent hill. On top, I met a couple who offered me tea, and told me I should have taken the lower road. I walked straight down the crumbly slope until I found the trail I needed. It was fairly flat and through sparse forest. Unfortunately, my mind was still on bears, so I broke out my bell. (Written in 1997: "I'll be glad to get this new phobia under control." Written in 2013: "You still haven't.") The latter section of this trail was excellent, along a sand track that zigzagged through a narrow, moss covered canyon, beneath five meter high walls.
When I reached the road at the far end of the canyon it was well past 6, so I didn't have much hope for a ride this close to dark. Luckily, I was picked up. Thinking he was doing me a favor, the driver took me to a campsite, and dropped me right in front of the office of the manager, who was standing outside and couldn't miss my arrival. I begrudgingly paid 500 yen for a tentsite. (This encounter did prove useful since I could later hit him up for some hot water for my ramen.) There weren't many people about, so I was lucky to set up away from the other campers, on a nice beach down at Lake Shikotsu's shore. This was a nice change from normal camp sites where the campers plop tents down so close to one another like they're suburban tract homes. (As usual, the nearest campers are usually the loudest ones in camp.) I sat eating my noodles, watching the lake experiment with the color blue, and the mountains fading in such a subtle way that any magician would be jealous.
After all my good luck the previous week hitching, today took 3 hours and 2 rides to go 20 km. My first ride was with a WWII veteran who I'd have loved to chat with, but could barely understand a word he said. My second ride dropped me dead center in Tomakomai, and it took an hour of backtracking before I could get a lift. Because of the traffic signals, cars would come at me in clusters, like those old video games where alien ships fly in group formation, yet in this case, I couldn't hit a single one.
I was about to ask direction to the nearest train station, when a driver stopped and took me all the way to Shiraoi's Ainu folk village. It's basically a huge shopping arcade built close to six small huts and a museum. The latter was informative, and kept my interest for awhile, but I couldn't understand what 1950's type vintage shops and athletic shoe stores have to do with Ainu culture.
I walked down to the sea for a ride to Noboribetsu Onsen, and went immediately to Kannonji. I had planned to stay here, but the ferro-concrete structure made it look like a cult headquarters. I decided to push on. But first, I dropped into Dai Ichi Hotel and partook of their wonderful hot springs, soaking in twenty different tubs that varied in design and temperature.
At this point I made a small compromise and decided to take the bus. I wanted to travel over a series of confusing roads and thought that hitching might strand me somewhere awful. The deciding factor was that this bus was the only one of the day going to Showa Shinzan, a detour that would save me lots of trouble later. This volcano turned out to be a big steaming pimple, around which grew the usual cluster of souvenir shops and restaurants, all abustle. There was an entire genus full of stuffed bears in various stages of decay, looking more ferocious than those poor creatures in Shiraoi, locked in small cages with their spirits broken. I hoped that the stuffed ones were the bodies formerly captive bears. It was disgusting to think that a few beautiful creatures had been killed simply to amuse tour groups from the city.
Also pathetic was the consumer frenzy that overshadowed the museum. It was dedicated to the man who had made this volcano his life's study, and without whom none of this would be here. The proprietor was a quiet, gentle sort of man who I assumed was the scientist's son. He led me to some of the exhibits, the most fascinating ones about the bizarre governmental cover-ups, since it might be considered an unlucky omen as the volcano had formed during wartime.
Later, I also visited the volcano museum in Toyako Onsen, with its cool pictures and film clips accompanied by a powerful subwoofer. When Mt. Usa erupted in 1977, the town was pretty much wiped out. They've now installed vents and run-offs cut into the mountainside, as if that'll help. What they hope to save was an admittedly picturesque town, a little too dedicated to consumerism, and a hotspot for onsen culture. (Nightly fireworks!) This was all a bit too garish for my mood. After so much time in the mountains, I now found myself hopping from one tourist trap to another.
I decided to hitch to a campsite on the coast further south, but since my ride was going all the way to Hakodate, I asked them to drop me a few miles shy of Onuma National Park. This was a fun, silly trip, with frequent food stops. We arrived after dark and had some trouble finding the camp site, but they didn't seem to mind. I could tell we were near a major city due to the large number of car campers and weekend warrior types. A few cars raced along the roads around the lake, and some biker college students seemed interested only in drinking and making noise. The advantage to arriving late to this kind of circus is that you can wander away from it, grabbing some peace after a long, full day.
On the turntable: Billy Cobham, "Inner Conflicts"
On the nighttable: Murakami Haruki, "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running"