JULY, 2007


You think bears are a problem?  At least they’ll finish with you fairly quickly.  Hokkaido has another little fella – and I mean really little – that’ll chew through your guts and brain for decades before you notice.  Then one day, in the autumn of your life, you’ll throw your hands up in sweet surrender having no idea why you’re down at the shops again and toddle off to the doctor’s all in a tizz about Alzheimer’s, only to be told you don’t have enough grey matter left for that to be of any concern. Most of it has been digested by an insidious little tapeworm family that has been sluicing around inside your cranium for the past half century.  Echinococcus is its name, and yep, half your head’s tapeworm shit.

The dirty little parasites reside in the guts of the scrawny Northern Fox and like any creatures that decide to make their homes inside the belly of another, they have to be ready for the inevitable day when nature comes a calling and they make the pass through the arse, landing with an unceremonious thud on the surface of good old Planet Earth.

But that ain’t all folks.  Enter the Hokkaido mice.  These little critters are quite partial to a nibble on a knubbly little fox grogin, steaming away in the early morning Hokkaido sunshine.  In doing so, though, they inadvertently end up downing a few of the tapeworm eggs into the bargain.  Time passes and the mice grow nice and fat and juicy along with the worms inside them and one day up pops Fantastic Mr Fox all eager to down a mousey morsel though unbeknown to him, chock full of maturing tapeworms, who slip slide down his oesophagus just in time for the family reunion in his gut.

As wondrous and majestic as nature can sometimes be, things can occasionally take a rather more nefarious course.  The trouble arises when the contaminated fox poo finds its way into the water supply, your drink bottle and, subsequently, you.  This is the news your friendly family doctor back at the clinic will be breaking to you as he peers up from behind your brain scan.  A snapshot of the inside of your skull that resembles something more like a plate of tagliatelle from Romano’s Italian Restaurant around the corner rather than anything remotely linked to human cranial anatomy.

And so, it was with this sweet little vignette playing in my mind that I found myself squatting outside my tent at the crowded Hakuun Campsite, high in the Hokkaido wilderness boiling my following day’s water supply collected from a stream flowing out from under a nearby snowdrift.

I’d hiked the day away, climbing up out of the clouds that draped the lowlands of central Hokkaido in a pall of overcast, alongside a chap named Satoshi-san.  An orthopaedic surgeon from Osaka, he’d tagged a few days of hiking on to the end of a conference trip north.  We were heading deep into the Daisetsu-san National Park, Japan’s largest and wildest.  All in all it encompasses around 230,000 hectares of bear and fox and tapeworm country.  It was the perfect long weekend getaway.  Well, at least I and some hundred other people thought so anyway.

Add the fact that this was to be the first monster hike of my short life in the mountains, a five dayer, traversing three of the Hyakumeizan to boot and I’d have been telling pork pies if I didn’t admit to a few pangs of anxiety lurking in my otherwise as yet uninfested gut.

Climbers dotted the steep two hour climb of mini switchbacks up the gravelly remnants of the collapsed crater of Asahi-dake, noisily venting plumes of sulphuric gases.  Gripped, to varying degrees, by their own personal struggles against the mountain, they leant into the task, pausing for moments to catch their breaths and wipe their sweaty brows, propping themselves upon their hiking poles or against rugged boulders.

Up on top of Asahi-dake, the highest of the six or so peaks of the Daisetsu-san volcanic complex, the expanse of the place sprawled out before us to the East.  Most people made it to that point and turned tail returning to the ropeway they’d sailed up on.  I was continuing on, further out into those barren wilds.  There came a crunching of gravelly earth behind me, Satoshi-san had made the summit and stood by my side as I stared out across the bare, rocky highlands.

‘Kamuimintara,’ he said, ‘It’s paradise in Ainu language, the Realm of the Gods.’

It was breathtaking.  A cloud sea, broiled at the extremities of the painted earth splashed with brilliant white snowdrifts reflecting the sun.

We left the daytrippers and headed down the snowy back side of Asahi-dake, following the trail heading in a more or less easterly then southerly direction.  A wily fox slunk through a deserted campground at the foot of the eastern ascent of Asahi and we wandered the trails dotted with komakusa, the horse flower, all afternoon.

Skirting the southern edge of a broad caldera and the base of the rocky Hakuun-dake, I arrived ahead of Satoshi-san at the hut and campsite as the setting sun vanished behind the mountainside above us.  The hut was packed to the rafters with potential snorers.  So much so that I feared they’d lose the roof before midnight and turned my attention to the day-glo tent city nearby.  Welcome to long weekends in the mountains.  Negotiating fly wires and tent pegs, jumping camp stoves and boots I found a little plot of damp, packed down mud to squeeze my tent into and with a couple of snaps and clicks had it up in no time.

“How the hell does this thing hold up in a gale?” I wondered as I stepped back to admire my handiwork, nearly toppling backwards over a neighbour’s tent cord in the process.  “Surely there’s no bloody chance.”  I scavenged some rocks to help weigh the tent pegs down.  But if it was “bombproof” as all the reviews had so brazenly claimed then surely it would have to be windproof.

Satoshi-san found me, popping up from behind an orange fly shrouded tent between us as I completed my new evening ritual of water boiling.

“Hey!  Willie,” he came over, “Do you drink umeshu?”  He was brandishing a small silver flask brimming with Japanese plum wine, a sickly sweet drink that tastes like cold and flu medicine.

“Yes I do,” I said.  Runny nose or not I’ve been known to knock back a few umeshus in my time.  They say it’s good for the stomach, and that’s good enough for me.

“Come on,” he said and I dug out my titanium mug from my pack and followed him along the narrow little path wending between the tents over to the southern edge of camp.  There I cast my gaze out across a broad expanse of highland known as Takane-ga-hara and watched as it was slowly consumed by a layer of pale pink cloud moving in from the west.  On the eastern side the land plunged away over a rugged escarpment.  The section of trail that skirted the top of this buttress leading to the flat topped Chubetsu-dake was nicknamed the ‘Kuma-kaido.’  The ‘Bear Highway.’

Far to the South, above the cloud, a dark hulk of rock resembling a crown thrust its crags into the mauve and apricot sky.

“That’s Tomuraushi,” Satoshi-san pointed to where I was looking.

Even from where we stood, over a day’s hike away, it was an awe inspiring sight.  The mountain commanded Hyakumeizan status rather than sought it.  The umeshu was sweet and the air was crisp up there above the clouds.  A dull murmur and occasional burst of muffled laughter arose from the rainbow of Gore-texed domes behind us.  Smokers milled around the entrance to the hut over on a piece of higher ground, coughing and spitting as they regaled old hiking stories and the day gradually faded into night.  The North Star appeared in the deep blue sky above and the calm of the evening and the silent majesty of our surroundings swept over us all up there, huddled together on our little island of humanity in the vast Hokkaido wilderness.


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