#4 – HAKKODA-SAN
WARNING! WARNING! RED ALERT! If you aren’t partial to a good dose of Enya then I suggest you avoid the Moya Hills Youth Hostel at all costs. The woman’ll be joining you at breakfast and dinner on an endless audio loop filtered throughout the building’s communal areas for the listening displeasure of all and sundry. I guess it shouldn’t have been such a surprise, Lonely Planet does warn readers that the place is home to a certified Irish freak. But then, what did I know? Lonely Planet and I weren’t on speaking terms at that moment in time.
It took me the best part of a day to travel from Hyakuzawa Onsen to the Moya Hills district, a ski resort north of mountain number four, Hakkoda-san. Overrun with summer grasses the area resembled a virtual ghost town in June. An old lady poked her head out of a tea house door when I knocked on it and directed me with a bent finger towards the hostel across the road. The humidity of the day had waned and the afternoon was bathed in a golden glow as the sun sunk towards the western horizon. A cuckoo cooed out of sight, concealed deep in the surrounding greenery and I limped across the road as the fire, ignited on Iwaki-san, crackled away deep inside my right knee.
Kazu-san in a green apron and round rimmed spectacles, smiling like a happy little Japanese leprechaun greeted me at the front door. The about face in Hokkaido had hit the budget pretty hard and I wouldn’t have minded finding the little fella’s pot of gold, but he just politely dealt my fiscal condition another blow before showing me to my sparse tatami floored quarters at the top of a set of stairs. Stairs which could well have doubled as that icy gully on Iwaki-san, had they been smothered in snow and slapped onto the side of a mountain.
By dinnertime, as twilight faded outside, another traveler had joined Kazu-san, his tiny impish wife and I. He was a large, bloated, sweaty postal worker from Tokyo, sporting a pair of swollen, yellow, uncut finger nailed hands, one apparently fused to a camcorder/digital camera thing the size of a small Chihuahua. As he reached up under his t-shirt or around behind his neck to scratch his rough scaly skin he photographed everything in sight. Skin flakes flew, the camera snapped, Enya wailed and I winced imagining the hot plate in the middle of the table, loaded with sizzling meat and veges, copping a light dusting of the bloke’s epidermis.
It wasn’t long before I succumbed to the lure of the beer in the small glass fridge perched beside us in the dining room. Quietly guzzling away on a can, I was relieved to have already taken a shower before the fungally challenged chap across from me arrived to liberally scatter his spores around the bathroom. He ordered a Guinness from Kazu-san’s stash and proceeded to photograph it in its can and then again having poured it into his glass. Dinner was served and without a second thought, swilling his stout, he took a couple of shots of the meal before realising, as he started scratching again, that he should have got the Guinness in the shot with the meal. We sat and waited, watching him rearrange everything on his side of the table for the perfect composition before flicking something off his fingers and firing off another volley of snapshots.
Over dinner we shared tales of travel and adventure and, as usual, half a can into the beer I was well on the way to being sloshed. I sat back as the other three blabbed away in Japanese allowing the booze to soothe the dull ache in my knee. Kazu-san told us of his glory days, 20 years ago, when he cycled around New Zealand on a generic Japanese grannie’s bike. The Postman announced his plans to visit a nearby town that had hit such financial dire straits the council was selling off its civic treasures, a vast collection of golden dolls that resembled skinny bowling pins with faces. His camera’s trigger finger twitched at the prospect while its counterpart on the other hand picked out a chunk of meat from somewhere deep within his yellowy toothed maw. I announced I might lay up at the hostel for the following day before hitting Hakkoda-san, allowing my knee some much needed respite.
Breakfast was the same deal. Cheery leprechaun accompanied by his faithful nymphette wife, scratchy postman and limping Australian feeding our faces under Enya’s looping panpipe and penny whistle morass.
“So it’s a great day,” smiled Kazu-san. “Will you go hiking Willie-san? To Hakkoda-san?”
“Hey? What?” I gasped silently to myself. I was barely making it up and down those bloody stairs and the crafty little leprechaun was encouraging me to bugger off to the mountains in the nicest possible manner. Hadn’t he been listening to me at dinner?
“I don’t need you hanging around here all day you lanky foreign fuck,” he probably thought. “My delightful little wife needs a good seeing to and I shan’t have you interfering.” That, or he needed to fumigate the joint.
“Noooo!” my knee howled like a wailing banshee as I nodded and agreed. And, indeed it was true, the day was too fine a one to waste languishing around there at the hostel. An hour later Kazu-san drove me out to the bus stop. Once there the cheeky little sprite asked me if I remembered the way we’d come because I could walk back from there when I returned that afternoon…
“What the…! Hai, wakarimashita.”
The bus took me up to Sukayu Onsen, a rustic old place sitting on the main road that dissects the Hakkoda Mountains. There the trailhead to O-dake, the highest point in the conflux of eight rounded volcanic peaks, began. It was a gentle climb through sun drenched forest, past blooming azalea scattered amidst sweet scented Aomori fir, whose dark green spires, twisted and bent, bore the scars of harsh northern winters. A rushing of water heralded the approach of a river crossing and rounding a bend I emerged from the green of the forest to a broad, barren gully of ashen coloured volcanic boulders and black, yellow and brown dirt. The rotten smell of sulphuric gases hung in the air as I negotiated a broken wooden bridge hastily repaired by the local backyard boys. On the other side I was greeted by a sign reassuringly announcing to all who passed that Hakkoda-san “is still alive.” I scrambled over the black and grey rocks up alongside the river and back into the vegetation, flourishing out of reach of the poisonous gases. From there the trail ran out onto a boardwalk partially covered in snow which traversed the beautiful alpine swampland of Sennin-tai. The round summit of O-dake rose proudly out of the forest to my left and the narrow boards and marshland soon vanished beneath the expansive fields of snow where pink plastic tape tied onto bamboo sticks guided me around to the final steeper climb. There the snow gave way to rock and swathes of white and yellow alpine flowers. Nearing the top, my right knee, having been relatively pain free up to that point suddenly, from deep within, screamed enough and erupted into sharp, fiery lashings of pain. On top of the exposed, gravely peak with my left knee beginning to signal its own imminent surrender, I collapsed behind a boulder out of a chilly wind, gasping in agony rather than exhaustion and watched white fluffy clouds sail across the hazy blue sky above me.
Three mountains in, Iwaki provided me with the ascent from hell, that afternoon Hakkoda-san gave me the opposite. The ensuing three and a half hours saw me ravaged by an agonisingly sharp burning sensation spearing down the length of my right thigh, over the top and around the front of my knee. Every step I took down across the boardwalked expanse of the spectacular two tiered Kenashi-tai swamp my knees howled in protest. It was torture in paradise. Sodden ground slowly filling with snowmelt trickled down through the head high bamboo from higher elevations, flowers burst forth from within in the summer grasses. A couple of hikers passed me that afternoon but for the most part I was alone in my own little cocoon of agony. The sun sank lower in the sky and as I re-entered the forests above the onsen it illuminated the early summer greenery.
Eventually I could hear the traffic on the road below. I’d survived. A hiker overtook me at near running pace supported by a pair of hiking poles. “That’s what I need,” I concluded. “Hiking poles! They’ll get me through this.”
Back at the hostel I could hardly climb the stairs and getting down them was an exercise akin to medieval torture. Enya serenaded me with the same tunes she’d been subjecting me to for the past couple of meals and I knocked back a beer with dinner relieved that Scratchy the Postman had ridden off into the sunset – probably taking a million shots of it as he went.
“What’s next?” the chirpiness of Kazu-san couldn’t help but lighten the mood.
“Well,” I mused, as the beer commenced its cull of another quota of brain cells, a double amputation was a definite possibility but: “Hachimantai,” was what I boldly replied. “Mountain number five!”