#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 traveller had joined Kazu-san, his tiny impish wife and I. He was a large, bloated, sweaty postal worker from Tokyo.
We shared tales of travel and adventure and, as usual, half a can into a 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.
The following morning a 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.”