#6 – IWATE-SAN
Clenching a small white form in my hand, I winced as I took in the steepness of the grass clogged ski slope rising in front of me. A sausage and bacon flavoured burp crawled up my throat and softly burbled out into space through pursed lips. As wonderful as All You Can Eat Business Hotel Breakfast Buffets were, today it constituted an extra kilo and a half of weight I didn’t need to be lugging uphill. Things had looked a lot flatter on the map at breakfast time. I’d bussed out of Morioka to Amihari Onsen, a hot spa and ski locality nestled on the lower slopes of the enormous Iwate-san volcano. A “Hiking Intentions” form was what I held in my hand. It’s something that can be found at many of the trailheads around Japan. You’re supposed to fill it out with your details and hiking plans before popping it back in the post box it came from. Subsequently, at some arbitrary point in time in the future, some old coot in a plastic helmet will arrive to collect it. Probably weeks after you’ve been molested by bears and left to rot on the mountainside…but that’s hardly the point. I couldn’t understand the bloody thing. I wrote my name, phone number and address across all the boxes and lines and left it in the booth for someone else to decipher. The way things looked I wasn’t going to be causing anybody much trouble. Odds on, halfway up that ski slope and I’d be a goner I reckoned. Two new sparkling, bullet-proof hiking poles might save my knees, but cardiac arrest I was sure they couldn’t do too much to remedy.
I steeled myself for battle and set off up a muddy little track running straight up the face of a slope only maniacs with a death wish would dare ski down in winter. Physics was never my strong point, but how the hell anyone could pull up at the bottom of the hill without the aid of the forest on the other side of the narrow valley was beyond me. Halfway up, doubled over with exhaustion, I grimaced and imagined lycra clad Japanese dare devils with a death wish flying over the rise above me and hurtling downhill at 200 miles an hour, eyes open wider than nature ever intended as they clattered into the trees at the bottom of the run. A grim fate to be sure, but at least, unlike the nuts that struggle up the slope in summer, they were set to be put out of their misery relatively quickly.
Miraculously, I made it to the top of the ski run and spent the remainder of the morning and early afternoon strolling through a wondrous forested landscape where whiffs of volcanic gas wafted out of bottomless valleys, past my nostrils and off into the great blue yonder above. I luncheoned beside a mountain spring where sweet, fresh, water dribbled out of a metal pipe hammered into moss covered rock before a long, hot afternoon of climbing ensued. Scrambling out of the forest up a steep set of log steps I joined the ridgeline trail stretching from Hachimantai just at the point it begins to get interesting. A balding, stony dome oozed faint wisps of black smoke as I skirted through the trees beneath it and commenced a scramble along an increasingly jagged spine of ridgeline. Cascades of wildflowers spilled off the edges of the rocks in knotty tangles of blues, yellows and whites. Far below, inside a gaping forested canyon, a blue crescent shaped lake taunted me with its inviting waters as I struggled ever upward beneath the gaze of Iwate-san’s looming cinder cone. After some three hours of exertion, as the sun set a course for the western horizon, I found myself at the end of the ridge staring down at a pair of mountain huts nestled inside an ancient crater. Rising like a cankerous boil fit to burst; the sinister, barren cinder cone crowning Iwate-san smothered the left hand side of the bowl and spilled off down the northern flank of the mountain. I dug a water bottle out of my pack and drained of energy, flopped down on the gravelly ground and soaked up the spectacular scene. My first two thousand metre peak was at last within reach.
The rhythmic tinkle of a bear bell caught my ear. Someone was on the move down in the crater. Leaning forward and squinting, I spotted him, out amongst the sea of chest high vegetation he was on a determined march towards the dark, silent cone.
“Hmm,” I screwed the top back on the bottle, “So there were at least two madmen out here today.”
Hauling my pack back onto aching shoulders ready to pop out of their sockets, I staggered around a final rocky outcrop and found myself standing atop a wall encrusted with ice.
“Oh for fuck’s sake.” I’d reached the point where doing anything requiring effort was becoming an increasingly frustrating proposition. Just when I’d thought I was home and hosed the mountain threw up one more twist to mess with my frazzled psyche. How dare that little piece of snow hang about into June. How dare it just happen to sit on the one piece of mountain graced by trail.
I seethed; probably oozing my own little bit of black smoke into the atmosphere as I did so. It was as if I was treading water. As I slowly got to grips with this mountain caper the bastard things were simply responding by incrementally turning up the heat. I dumped my pack and went for the crampons.
Knees bent, brow furrowed, hiking poles gripped as though I had a couple of cobras by the throat, I sidled down the ice into the crater. At the bottom I threw all my gear inside an empty stone hut and collapsed onto a recently varnished wooden floor. The place reeked of the stuff but it was as clean as a whistle and as solid as the proverbial brick shithouse. And speaking of toilets, they’d even been thoughtful enough to fit the joint with a western style one and stock it full of toilet rolls to boot! I squeezed out a dump there and then in celebration. There was no flush but I guess you can’t have everything up inside a 2000 metre volcano. Bloated black fly buzzing against a small glass window, I sat there quietly hoping the buggers that dug the pit hadn’t got too carried away as they burrowed into the active volcano. The last thing I wanted was for my buffet breakfast bombs to hit rock bottom and set the bloody thing off square under my bare arse.
Ablutions taken care of I surmised there was still an hour or so of daylight remaining. It was time to hit the top. Packless and pooless I floated over to the base of the 200 metre high pile of barbeque heat beads that made up the summit of Iwate-san. Up on the rim the other hiker offered a gruff “Konnichiwa,” after I scrambled up the scoria and made it to his side. Peering across the barren bowl complete with a scattering of religious relics I eyed an ominous bulging dome of pinkish grey rock and wondered whether the old girl was slowly building up for another blow. The bloke beside me, probably in his early 40’s caught the scene on his camera’s video card and gave a “humph” of satisfaction when he finished. He pocketed his tiny device and stomped off towards the relics bear bells a-tinkling as he went. A cool breeze whispered around my ears and I wandered off in a clockwise direction around the gently rising rim, following a track lined with little carved monuments.
Through the orange haze the sun dropped to the line of mountains on the horizon and the breeze strengthened sending wisps of volcanic dust into my eyes. At the summit marker I set up the camera on its little silver tripod and sat down next to a reclining Buddha sporting a faded red bib. Proof shot number six taken care of, I sat back on the crater rim and watched the colour gradually fade out of the day.