The bus took me up to Sukayu Onsen, a rustic old hot spring establishment sitting on the main road dissecting the Hakkoda massif. There the trail to O-dake, the highest of the eight Hakkoda Mountains, begins. The gentle trail leading through sun-drenched forest took me up past blooming azalea scattered amidst sweet-scented Aomori fir whose dark green spires, twisted and bent, bore fresh scars left by the most recent of harsh northern winters. A rushing of water heralded the approach of a river crossing and rounding a bend I emerged from the greenery to an open, barren gully of ashen boulders piled in the black, yellow and brown soil. I smelt the pungent odour of sulphuric gases for the first time as I negotiated a broken wooden bridge that appeared to have been hastily repaired by the local backyard boys. Beyond the bounding torrent I was greeted by a sign announcing to all who passed that Hakkoda-san “is still alive.” I followed the river, scrambling up black and grey rocks and back into the vegetation, flourishing beyond the reach of the poisonous gases. The trail levelled out onto a boardwalk, partially buried in snow, and traversed the glorious 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 expansive fields of snow, where pink plastic tape tied onto bamboo sticks guided me around to the final steeper climb. Snow gave way to rock once more, and white and yellow alpine flowers bordered the rising trail. Nearing the top, my right knee, suddenly screamed “enough” and erupted in sharp, fiery lashings of pain. On the exposed, gravelly peak my left knee began to chime in with its own hints of imminent surrender and I collapsed behind a boulder, sheltering from a chilly wind that sent white fluffy clouds sailing across the blue sky.
The ensuing three-and-a-half-hour descent 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 across the boardwalked expanse of the spectacular two-tiered Kenashi-tai marsh had my knees howling in protest. It was torture in paradise. I met not another soul, hobbling alone in my little cocoon of agony. Snowmelt trickled down from higher elevations, across sodden ground, flowers amassed within summer grasses. The sun sank low in the sky and I soon detected the sounds of traffic, not too far off. I’d made it. 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.”
This is an excerpt from Willie’s knee-knocking 100 mountain memoir: “TOZAN– A Japanese Mountain Odyssey”