#8 – CHOKAI-SAN
Three hours. That’s how long it took for someone to take pity on me – the slowly roasting foreigner brandishing an upturned thumb on the side of the Chokai Blue Line, a tourist road wending its way up to one of the many trails traversing the mountain.
“Accessu, accessu,” The Rock Eagle had opined, shaking his head as he scanned internet bus schedules on the night of our Asama discussion. “Ahh, this month is too early.”
“Then I’ll just have to hitchhike,” I replied.
“Oh,” his eyes widened and he showed a thumb, “Hitchhike? Okay, yes, I think you can do it. This is a good idea.”
Unless you hike all the way up the road or succumb to the lure of a taxi, long roadside waits are the risk you take heading to Chokai-san early in the season. Three cheers for Takeshi and Megumi for ushering me into their vehicle and getting me up there.
Oh, by the way, if you do choose to hitch a lift up Chokai-san from the edge of Fukura Town as I did, keep an eye out for a bespectacled, blonde haired, Jeep driving lunatic with his roof down. He’s the one that’ll hurtle past at a hundred miles an hour waving at you and yelling uncomprehendible babble. If he appears, by all means consider putting international relations on hold for a moment and hurl an empty stubbie at the wanker. With any luck it’ll send the prick careening off into the scrub on the other side of the road. Don’t beat yourself up too much if you miss him the first time, he’ll probably fly back down the hill and do it again, the cheeky fuckin’ bastard that he is. I dare say, if your aim’s spot on, it’ll be the first and last bit of 4 x 4-ing that bloody Jeep’ll’ve ever done and probably the idiot at the wheel’s too.
After stuffing myself with a curry rice and a Coke at the Hokodate Visitor Centre I began the long slog out across the vast Chokai snowfields blanketing most of the early summer route up to the Ohama Hut. The late start was a blessing in disguise. I decided to bed down there for the night and attack the summit with a bare minimum of gear the following day. The remainder of the afternoon was spent strolling amongst the flowers above the gorgeous crater lake, Cho-no-kai, filling with gushing streams of ice melt, just behind the hut.
A word of warning: go to the toilet at the Visitor Centre. If you’re caught short up at that hut, heaven help you. The fly-ridden outdoor crappers there are atrocious. There were so many of the vile, shit gorged, things buzzing up out of the pits resembling portals to hell, that anyone attempting a squat would have had maggots crawling out of their arse cracks by the time they’d finished. Consider yourself warned.
Day two dawned and there was a stack more snow to traverse. The most nerve jangling, a short, twenty odd metre crossing of a near vertical wall of ice. Iwaki demons swirled around in the ether yet again. If a chain or rope existed they were buried. All I had to stop me plummeting into the ice, rocks and bamboo grass a hundred metres below were a few footholds from preceding loonies and some spindly twigs to grip on to, which I presumed were connected to trees deep in the snow. It was teeth gritting, sphincter clenching stuff. Gravity felt like it had quadrupled, weighing me down like I had a ten tonne pack strapped to my shoulders. I hadn’t concentrated so hard in my life. If I’d focused any harder I reckon I would have melted ice.
The trail dropped down into a broad rift where the mountain seemed to have been wrenched apart during some ancient flux. I wandered up the gently rising snow clogged floor of the depression, a towering ice encrusted wall rising high into the sky to my right. The route was littered with rocky debris of varying circumference, ranging from nothing more than golf ball size to boulders of dimensions more comparable to refrigerators and pregnant cows. Eventually the snow passed beneath my feet and I made it up a steep trail to the shrine and hut complex immediately below the summit. The place was all but deserted upon my arrival sometime around six that morning. A little orange tent, flapping in the winds was squeezed up in a corner, where one of the outer walls of a shelter met mountainside. Shin-san, the ‘New’ summit, formed by an enormous eruption just over two hundred years ago, rose directly out of the ancient mountain top behind the huts.
Painted arrows lured me up over the lower boulders and then deep into narrow crevasses between the lava domes. I spotted the tent dweller, clad in red and scrambling around on an adjacent pillar of rock. Impossible to gain his attention hollering in the face of a gale that would’ve blown a brown dog off a chain, I flapped my arms around like a drowning pigeon instead. Seeing me, he responded with a wide grin and waved back.
“Choujou?” I mouthed pointing to the sky then hollered an impotent, “Top?”
He pointed into the rocks and smiled. The path led me deeper into the lava domes.
In, out of the gale, rock blocked out the sun and just before my return to daylight I was stopped dead in my tracks. A slender strip of light sliced between the curvaceous walls of the lava domes and overhead, wedged high in this narrow gap, was a car sized chunk of ice, steadfastly hanging in its nook despite the arrival of another Tohoku summer. A steady stream of drips issued from its underbelly and down onto its counterparts, smashed and broken into awkward chunks on a steeply descending floor. Every drip raining down from above was another closer to D-Day. In the twenty or thirty seconds it would take to negotiate the drop zone, I hoped to heaven I wouldn’t be finding myself in the unenviable position of standing at ground zero when the last microscopically minuscule piece of ice holding the block in place decided to liquefy and hand things over to the unflinching laws of gravity. I watched the drops and eyed a path over the blocks. Teeth gritted once more, I went for it. Scrambling through to the other side, successfully avoiding having my brains thrust through my bladder, I sent up a silent thank-you to the mountain gods and reminded them to keep everything in good order for my return. Bathed in sunlight once again, the final scramble up to the tiny summit was a mere formality. There, out over the twisted and cracked towers of Shin-san, sat the bulk of Chokai itself and beyond that, the views down across the distant blue floor of Tohoku to the Japan Sea were simply stunning. The thrills of the morning had made the climb all the more special.
Chokai-san is a spectacular mountain. Festering toilets, mad Jeep drivers, lethal ice be damned, go climb the thing.