The old, droopy eyed, flannelet shirted driver swung my pack into the boot of his cab. As far as he was concerned, Hokkaido was a no go. June was too early in the season for climbing in Japan’s northern frontier, especially where his local mountain and my target, Poroshiri-dake, were concerned. He was more adamant than he had been the day before when I’d knocked on his door inquiring about a ride into the mountains. The rivers were too high, awash with snow melt, the bears were too aggressive, having recently awoken from their winter slumber and I was obviously either too inexperienced or insane to be allowed to head into the hills alone at that time of year. He drove me down the street to the bus stop free of charge, foregoing the hundred buck fare he would’ve pocketed had he driven me to the trailhead instead. I guess I should have been thankful he didn’t drop me off at the nearest loony bin. My mood was as heavy as the skies that hung low over the tiny, nondescript town of Furenai, deep in the Hidaka region of Hokkaido. Sent packing at mountain number two – I was shattered.
Heavy overnight rains had done me in once and for all. The course that led to the foot of the climb up the mountain literally ran up the guts of a river. A river that, thanks to the overnight deluge, would in all probability be swollen to impassable proportions. The thunderstorms had started rolling through the region around midnight and I lay and listened to the rumbling heavens on the floor of a leaky train carriage that had been gutted and converted into a shelter. When a shallow, restless sleep finally came it was accompanied by visions of bears and raging torrents. By morning the storms, instead of fizzling out and leaving clear blue skies in their wake, had bogged down over southern Hokkaido, soaking the land with a persistent drizzle. My heart wasn’t in it anymore. I didn’t require much convincing to get out of town.
“Live to fight another day,” I conceded. “Another day in July.”
At the bus stop, when I assured the driver I’d return, he handed me a business card and explained something to me in Japanese that sounded important. I had no idea but made all the right sounds and nodded intently and thanked him for his help before glumly wandering into the tiny bus station to contemplate my next move.
The sensible option was to abandon Hokkaido and head for Tohoku, the Northern region of Honshu where there’d be less snow and smaller, less aggressive bears. Once there I could work my way down over its clutch of fifteen or so Hyakumeizan and then ferry back up to Hokkaido in July. The downside of this plan was that somewhere along the lines I was going to hit the brunt of ‘Tsuyu’, the Rainy Season, on its annual progression northward up the Japanese archipelago. The advantage of spending June in Hokkaido is that the Tsuyu has minimal effect up there in comparison with the lower latitudes. But then again, a bit of rain never hurt anyone. Look at Noah, he got on alright.
So into Tohoku it was then. But, I mused as I leafed through my trusty Lonely Planet hiking guide, if I caught the ferry across to Tohoku from Hakodate the imposing volcanic cone of Yotei-zan would be on my way and a June climb of that peak was reportedly doable.
“The trip up to Hokkaido might not have to be a complete waste after all.”
Two days later, on a brilliant blue skied Saturday, as a towering white thunderhead grumbled threateningly halfway between me and the horizon, I hauled myself skyward over rotten snow and crumbly rock and poked my head up over the crater rim of Yotei-zan. Eighteen hundred vertical metres of pure, unadulterated torture lay behind me. I stared down into the gaping ice walled crater, a perfect bowl of white, rimmed with brown volcanic crags, at its centre a small round pool of aquamarine water stared back at me like an opaque pupil in a giant inverted eye. I wanted Ibuki back. That day in April suddenly resembled a walk in a slightly inclined park. Where were the crowds of happy daytrippers and tea houses selling refreshments? Where was the bus off the thing? Yotei-zan was virtually deserted. I could’ve counted the people I met that day on the palms of my hands. Apart from the trails up it and a solitary mountain hut on its western side, Yotei-zan is a mountain left to its own devices.
Halfway around the top of the rim, on my way to the summit proper, a vicious cramp rippled through my right thigh sending me hobbling and gasping for a pile of rocks. Sprawled on the small, roughly piled cairn of stones I slid out of my pack and fumbled around inside for sustenance, scoffing down a handful of chocolate almonds and a few gulps of water. That was all my gut could handle. The cramp and exertion set me on the verge of throwing up.
To my left the best part of two thousand metres below me a patchwork quilt of farmland stretched away to the feet of distant mountains. Niseko in summer; lush, verdant, smothered in greenery, a stark contrast to its famed wintery white scenery. Another rumble of thunder broke the trance and I slapped my thigh into action and dragged myself over the last stretch of rocky ground, past a couple picnicking amongst the boulders, to the summit marker and a promised twenty minute sit down.
The descent was no gentler than the climb had been. Rotten snow gave way beneath my feet sending me arse over tit more times than I could count, loose rocks underfoot threatened to snap my ankles, a fire erupted inside my right knee and, just when I thought the worst was over with, down on level ground in the depths of a cool, dank forest, thick, black swarms of mosquitoes, hell bent on devouring me, rose out of the undergrowth. So dense was the swarm, it was as if a wraith of the forest was attempting to materialise before my eyes. An incessant whine rang out through the trees. No patch of bare skin was spared. They swarmed onto my arms, neck and ears, into my nose and the corners of my eyes. I stopped and went for my repellent but that only encouraged more of the vampiric mass to rise up out of the undergrowth. A clap of my hands in front of my eyes would splatter about half a dozen of the little black bloodthirsty vampires so laden had the air become with them. I gave up on the spray and ran, hoping like hell my right knee would hold up. Going down on the trail there in those woods, virtually guaranteed anybody passing through that way the following day to be tripping over my blood drained carcass.
I hit the car park at the bottom of Yotei-zan full pelt, an oasis of asphalt in the middle of the forest that allowed just enough respite from my pursuers to dig out the repellent and fumigate myself.
Propped up against my pack, awaiting my prearranged ride back to civilisation, the cloud of spray around me cleared to reveal a couple setting up camp on the other side of the car park. She, a typical Japanese lass, the sort with a phobia-like aversion to anything with more than four legs, was calmly strolling around in long sleeves and pants, sporting a hat more fitting of a bee-keeper than a camper and he, a long haired, bare-chested foreigner in shorts was doing his best impersonation of a Swiss folk dancer, bouncing around slapping his knees and elbows as the mozzies, smelling the blood of an Englishman or whatever he was, descended upon him.
“Ahh Hokkaido would keep,” I thought later that evening, reclining alongside three other blokes, neck deep in the hot spring waters of a local rotenburo. The stars sparkled between the leaves of the trees above our heads and I slowly massaged my right knee as we discussed the various virtues of Korean women, New Zealand countryside and Hokkaido. One of the blokes, a Japanese, who ran a scuba diving operation in Thailand had climbed about fifty of the Hyakumeizan.
“Have you climbed Daisen?” I asked.
“Oh yes, I fell off Daisen. Fifty metres down off the ridge. My friends thought I was dead but I got up and dusted myself off. No problem.”
“You got to the top?”
Somehow that was encouraging. I rested my head on the rim of the bath and soaked up the tranquility of the evening.
At last the adventure was underway.