The Northern Welcome Party in Kembuchi.
Life is slowing down now. The rough jostle of speed and cracked pavement flying by has trimmed its pace to an easy jog, not altogether relaxed, but relaxed enough. The Japanese world is still new to me, but the trees, the roads, the buildings are all growing a little bit more familiar. My home is a mess, my guitar is missing a string, and, inexplicably, almost everything that I own has a iron weightlifting plate on top of it, the word FIGHTING in great, unyielding letters seeming to challenge me as I open doors, cook food, read books, and so on. I am losing things and finding things, eating better, doing groceries, and minute by minute donating my time to the vast, unfillable hole of the Internet. Slowly this country is coming to feel like home.
So it was Saturday last. Some friends and I piled into an unreasonably spacious van owned by a Japanese guy (who seems to be friends with everyone) and set sail for Kembuchi, site of the Northern Welcome Party, a camping-slash-party adventure extravaganza.
As the sun edged closer and closer to the horizon, hundreds of cars sardined with eager foreigners descended on a little plot of land not nearly well-enough equipped for us, such a rowdy, unruly bunch. The campsite at Kembuchi consisted of several mountainside terraces, leading up to a park golf course (park golf is the happy medium between mini putt and real, big-boy golf) overlooking what appeared to be some sort of reservoir but I am assured is a lake, and the little valley growing up around it. We pitched our tents on the bottom terrace, eking out a piece of land for ourselves back maybe thirty feet from the highway, planting our flags and staking our claims, if only overnight, on our quaint nylon homes.
It’s curious how whenever a group of foreigners get together, they seem to do their best to make the Japanese land they inhabit their home, they seem to try to make it as familiar and knowable as possible. What’s even more curious is that no less than 4 different nationalities had assembled that night, and so what emerged was something somewhat more accurate but less cohesive than what I imagine other countries think English-speaking countries are like. A sort of hodge-podge, cornucopia of anglo culture, brash, forward, loud and unforgiving at any and almost every time of night.
The sun had set long ago, and into our brilliant night we fought fatigue and stress and the onslaught of the vaguely unfamiliar, seeking solace and company in the faces and words of people who, six months ago, it would be cosmically improbable that we would meet.
But there we were, our bastion of anglophonia, our triumphant little plot on which we erased ourselves and became, seething, raucous, ecstatic, a minutely explosive beacon on the face of the Hokkaido night. We danced, we sung, we leapt fences and climbed trees. We walked boat ramps down into the shallow grime of the lake, we floated through the warmest, topmost five inches of water; when our limbs dipped, shocked, into the cooler water below, we shrieked, we cried out for the safety of the cement shore.
We moved in packs, like wild animals hungry not for prey, but for experience, for stories half of which we could obliterate, half remember, half skew into fantasies for no one else to experience; and at the end of the day it didn’t matter that three-halves of memory didn’t add up, because between us all it came out to more than chemicals and electricity could store in our brains anyway. As the small hand charged fearlessly, unstoppably through 60, 90, 120, pushing now 150 degrees around the clock face, our groups, all at once galvanized and slowed down by the encroaching hours, ionized, lost electrons, particles flashing out with an intense heat and collapsing on stages, hillsides, and what might have been either a retention pond or a soccer field. The din lulled but the words, echoing faintly on the insides of our skulls never dulled, never lost their sharpness, and cut still deeper in the hush.
Our frantic grasping after some combination of the new and the known meant more to us than we could comprehend or articulate, and so to gesture to the reality of it, we had to learn new words like gestalt and zeitgeist and maybe even bildungsroman if you’re more literarily inclined, I guess? German seems to be the language of experience and learning — I don’t know why we’re still fooling around with English.
But our shouts, our laughs, our notes, sharp and flat, never really in key, dissipated into the night, into the first chills indicating the slow fall of another summer, into the still forests quietly humming all around us. And I think that you could almost see, climbing to the top of the park golf course, the light coming off us, phosphorescing into the darkness and making everything a couple photons brighter for miles around.
As the sun rose the following morning, making our tents greenhouses and our sleeping bags saunas, we peeled ourselves from our dewy slumbers and emerged, blinking and sore, into the dawn. We collected like moths around the life-dispensing vitamins of vending-machine drinks, we sprawled out on embankments and slopes, we pleaded with Simon’s children (Simon is Hokkaido’s resident everything guru) to stop bringing Japan’s distinctly oversized insects to spasm in our faces. We asked for ten more minutes of rest before groggily succumbing to the unresistable pull of the frisbee. We packed our tents, we jerry-rigged grilled cheeses with pre-sliced cheese, hot dog buns, some salsa at the bottom of the jar and the leftover charcoal from the night before. We assembled in the shade, we tied our shoes, we prepared for the day ahead.
I ended up in a group going for a hike up Kurodake, a mountain of about 1,900 vertical meters. We toured through the countryside, our little Japanese cars winding their ways through canyons rising for hundreds of feet on either side of us. The first walls of foliage I saw on the train into Yubetsu couldn’t hold even one of those piddly dinner candles to the sheer drop-offs of Sounkyo Gorge. If anyone reading ever has the chance to make that drive, I can’t suggest it heartily enough.
And then, rising like some hulking beast climbing up out of the earth, was Kurodake.
I don’t know how else to describe it. If anyone remembers that scene from Disney’s Hercules, where the titans are walking across the countryside to climb Olympus — these titans are impossibly large, their footsteps the same acreage as a small town. This is the only way that I can conceptualize the massiveness of this mountain, towering up further than I could see, wearing the clouds like a mantle, and rising further up, even, than that.
It doesn’t serve well to chronicle the ascent — we rode a gondola the first 1,300 meters, a chairlift the next 300, and climbed the rest on foot. The hike out of the clouds was rough, rocky, and tiresome on the legs. Passing people coming back down was troublesome and tricky: we had to balance halfway between the drop on the one side and the wall on the other, letting groups of people stumble down over the same boulders we then stumbled up. We uttered more than our share of breathless ‘konnichiwas.’ But as the clouds burned off and dispersed in the early afternoon, and the full vista of the Taisetsuzan National Park opened up in front of us, the weariness subsided, edged out by a view the effects of which crowded out every other feeling we could muster.
Like I said, it doesn’t serve well to chronicle the ascent. Go look at Peter Lennox’s spectacular photos on Facebook. Better yet, go and make the trek yourself, especially in the coming weeks when the leaves will be changing. It’s one of the closest experiences to the sublime that you will find in Hokkaido, probably anywhere. And you can take that to the bank.
Back at the bottom we washed away the previous two days in an onsen, we filled our stomachs with food and our lungs with great conversation and company. For all that the previous night had been a manifesto and manifest of our spirits in this land of the rising sun, the following night was a conclusion, a moment taken in respite and ease, a moment to dwell in our skins and breathe a bit easier. For all that the previous night had been a bonfire of titanic proportions, the following night was the remaining ember, glowing dimly, quietly smoldering, waiting for the reapplication of fuel to fire up again.