JULY, 2007


“Hokkaido was a hell of a long way to come in order to just throw in the towel.”

I’d said that in June as well, the first time I’d set foot on Japan’s northern island and was subsequently encouraged to leave for my own good.

This time, on the train ride into Wakkanai, Japan’s northernmost city, I discovered to my dismay, while flicking through the pages of my trusty hiking guide, that I was to be heading up a mountain with a summit off limits to all.  Rishiri-zan, a rugged volcanic cone, scarred by the snows and rains sweeping in from the Siberian wilderness, rises some 1700 metres out of the Sea of Japan.  The harsh winters and soggy summers had washed away the track between its two crowning peaks, Kita-mine and the higher Minami-mine.

So then there were three.  Rishiri joined Daisen and Asama to form a trio of closed mountains standing between me and Hyakumeizan glory.  Bloody marvellous.  So much for a smooth, uncomplicated reacquainting with the wilds of Hokkaido.  Without summiting Rishiri, attempting the peaks of the other two would be of little consequence.  No, rather, in my eyes, attempting the peaks of the remaining 85 would be of little consequence.

The sea was somewhat calmer than my countenance that afternoon as the little white ferry, loaded with camera toting passengers, chugged out of Wakkanai Port and turned its prow toward the stunning volcano island of Rishiri.  It was a vista immaculately imbued with a late afternoon slant of light that helped conjure up childhood memories of Lost Worlds and Treasure Islands.  Seagulls swooped and circled in the sky overhead and I leant on the rail of the upper deck, braving the chilly sea breeze and admired the statuesque peak, a belt of cloud clinging to its midsection.

“Weru-kum to Rishiri,” announced a black suited cabbie, a rack of sparkling front teeth too wide for his head equipping him with the perfect disarming smile.  So, disarmed, I hit him up for a ride, I needed to get to a convenience store and then the campground up at the mountain trailhead.

As we drove I enquired as to the number of bears on the island.  The Hokkaido brown bear, known to one and all as the higuma sported a reputation that preceded it.

“This is safety island, Gaijin-san.  No bear, no fox, no snake.  Is all okaaaaay.  Pu-rease enjoy Rishiri-shima.  Is beautiful island.”

He delivered me to the campground at the entrance to the Oshidomari Track and after forking out 300 yen for the privilege of camping there I hunkered down for the night, doubt, apprehension and the after affects of a couple of cans of Sapporo Draft swirled in my mind.  I’d read up heaps on Asama and Daisen and come to the conclusion that their summits were somehow attainable – poisonous gas and crumbling trail notwithstanding.  What to expect in the case of Rishiri?  I really had no idea.

The following morning I marched up the mountain through its silent forests and out into a howling gale firing stinging drops of horizontal rain before meekly joining an assembling crowd of hikers up on the sun drenched top of Kita-mine, the North Peak of Rishiri.  It was as far as most went.  Satisfying themselves that they’d done the job by getting that far.  Plonking myself down on a rock beside a little wooden shrine I eyed off Minami-mine, the South Peak, a mere stone’s throw away, separated from where I sat by quite a good deal of thin air and a measly two metres of elevation.

A trail to Minami-mine did exist however, albeit securely sealed off to the public by a fraying, shin high rope.  Much narrower than the main course it wound down off Kita-mine and into the maw of a ravine of eroded crags.  I wondered what to do.  Procrastination seemed like the best idea.  I’d hate myself if I didn’t have a crack at it, but at the same time seriously wondered whether I could just flaunt the rules in front of the growing crowd.  There must have been nearly twenty or so of us up there that morning.  Climbers I’d passed on the hike up began to arrive: here came that cockeyed chap, the fella who would stare unnervingly over my right shoulder as he addressed me, his grizzly, silvery whiskered companion hobbling alongside.  They sat down on a lump of grass topped dirt in front of me, smiled and nodded in my direction and went about unpacking their lunches.   Then came the fella in the white knee high socks that appeared to have held up a damn sight better than he had.  Crumpling into the dirt and gasping for air, he was consoled half sympathetically by his grinning companions.  And then, where were they?  Oh yes, there they were, those bloody Germans, an immaculately outfitted thirty something couple sporting a demeanour that made Hitler and his mate Goebbels look like a pair of light-hearted, slap happy larrikins.

“Good morning,” I had greeted them on my way past, back down amidst the creeping pine as the squall hastily abated.

The withering glance I’d received in response was colder than a mid-winter skinny-dip in the river Rhine.

“Where are you from?” I continued.

“Germany,” replied the woman, baring teeth and flaring her nostrils.  Her man friend stared out into the dispersing grey, barely acknowledging my presence.  I got the hint and moved on.

Up top they moved over towards me.  I gave them a wink and said “Nice one.  You made it,” before realising that despite the tricky going over the volcanic scoria just below us they still hadn’t managed to remove the bratwurst from their arse cracks.

The jagged mountain crumbled and tumbled in sharp folds away down to the sea on all sides.  Gargoyles of reddish rock speared tufts of left over cloud below us.  Out behind Kita-mine a grey volcanic spire known as Candlestick Peak stood proudly against a backdrop of pale blue.

I washed down dry Calorie Mate biscuit with a few mouthfuls of water and got to my feet.  It was becoming standing room only up there.  I had no choice: defiance of the Japanese Hikers’ Code was going to have to be carried out in the full glare of public scrutiny.  Two feet to my right was the rope.  Would they jump on me as I stepped towards it?  Pin me down until I saw sense, thus saving me from myself and certain doom?  Or would they carry on with their lunches and conversations oblivious to my disobedience?  I could see the Rock Eagle, shaking his head in disappointment, “This is the top of the mountain,” he would say.  “You don’t have to go there.”

I was buggered if I was calling it a day there on the North Peak.  Shouldering my day pack I stepped over the rope.

“No! No! No! NO!”  The old bugger – the cockeyed bloke’s mate – suddenly howled to the heavens in protest, lunch spattering onto his whiskery chinny chin chin.

Instantly I turned, looked him in the eye and raised a reassuring hand like some kind of Japanese horse whisperer.

“Dai-jyo-bu,” emphatic and straight to the point.  A message conveyed to him and me and anyone else who cared to care, that I knew what I was doing, everything was under control. Gulp.

Turning to the task at hand I proceeded down into the gap, skidding on dampened earth down the steep, little trail to the low point between the peaks.  I came to a spot where it looked as though a whole chunk of the mountain had slid away, down into a gnarly scrub filled ravine.  The drop wasn’t completely vertical and I backed myself that I could clamber back out, up the loose bed of rocks lining it, should my footholds disintegrate beneath me.  Halfway across the face of the landslip, as the rock I clung to freed itself from mountainside and sat within my white knuckled fingers I came to understand that it was the not the footholds that I needed to worry about.  Balancing there, staring at that pale brown chunk of stone, gaping maw behind me, my belly and cheek tried to infuse themselves into the mountain.  I hadn’t ground myself up against something like that since those heady Shinsaibashi nights in dirty old Osaka town.  My breath blew grit off the wall.  I dropped the rock and reached out for alternate handholds only to discover they were all about as secure as a six year old’s loose tooth.  Pebbles and chips of rock scattered downhill behind me loosening more earth as they went.  No wonder the course was closed.  It certainly wasn’t a path designed for a high degree of hiking traffic.  They’d lose half a dozen grannies a week up there if they allowed access to the bit of hill I was headed for.

Beyond the danger zone the path was heavily overgrown, nonexistent in parts.  I scrambled up a grassy slope, across the tops of creeping pine and onto a precipitously pointy bit of ground designated as Minami-mine, the South peak.  On a stony patch of earth I found an old flat piece of timber with the kanji characters of Rishiri-san emblazoned on it.  Over on safer ground the others went about their business unconcerned, phasing out the existence of the foreigner brazenly flaunting the rules there in front of them, on their mountain.

Things were good up on top.  I chilled out alone, soaking up the views down to the coastline.  It was the farthest from home I was going to get.  Rishiri was the turning point.  Every step from then on was one more in the direction of Osaka.

Eventually it was time to head back and I was over within approved hiking lines in no time.  Another hurdle overcome and a nice big seventeen hundred and twenty one metred one to boot.  From Kita-mine I happily skedaddled down over the loose volcanic gravel  and slipped back into the forest.

‘How’s the hike?’ Led by a svelte little Lycra clad blonde, a fat, white bloke with a Continental accent, sweating gallons from every pore of his man boobed frame, quizzed me as we met at a narrow point on the trail.

“Great!” I beamed still on a high from bucking the system.  Damn, that woman’s abs were so ripped she could’ve opened beer bottles with her belly button.

“Are the views worth it?”

“Absolutely,” I answered.  Though, with his nose sitting some six inches from that perky little arse on account of the steepness of the trail, I was buggered if I knew why any other views mattered.

“Things get a bit slippery near the top,” I cautioned. Then added: “Where’re you from?”

“Germany,” she smiled.

“Oh, I see.  There are some other Germans out here on the mountain somewhere,” I said smiling, happy to see they weren’t all pricks.  We had a yarn for a bit but there was a camp to break and ferry back to Wakkanai to catch so I left them to it, hoping the exertion, coupled with the views, wouldn’t send the poor bastard into cardiac arrest before he got to the top.

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