Week 65

Hokkaido is full of little hidden places that fill you with terror and awe and wonder and amazement and whatever. I think that this blog is a growing testament to that. I think that in most other blogs (politics, news, thoughts, self, &c. -- okay maybe not that last one1) a sentence like that might be a little bit inflammatory, a little bit exciting or hyperbolic, might render in the reader a sense that the writer doesn't actually know what he's talking about, saying something so wildly untrue. Only in very sensitive people would a piece of legislation deliver a sense of real terror/awe/wonder/amazement/whatever, a real hormonal rush that sets your whole body into some quasi-fight-or-flight. In Hokkaido this sort of thing is part of our daily existence. I don't doubt that if some endocrine researcher was to look at the nervous systems of leaving ALTs, those (ALTs) from Hokkaido would be somewhat more frayed by continual firing -- either in the face of winter or of height or of vastness or of sheer power -- than the nervous systems of ALTs from anywhere else.

And because we run into this serious hormonal response to Hokkaido so often, individual instances of awe kind of cheapened, relatively. The view from the top of Kurodake, down over Sounkyo, has been photographed so many times the general surprise at the view is more the lining up of photography and real life than the power of the view itself. We've all seen that view from Hakodate-yama so many times that when we actually go there, the reaction is more of Hmm yeah it does look like in the pictures doesn't it. When we stand at the monument at Soya-misaki we don't consider looking up towards the Arctic and towards Russia and cold way worse than we get here, but instead mentally overlay all the pictures we've seen of the monument that our friends have taken, so we can almost see the hundreds of ALTs who have been here before us, all frozen in their pictures in our imaginary Facebook memories.2

But every now and again you come upon a little view, a little experience, a cachet of experiential gold somewhere along the side of the road and you experience that new thrill of adrenaline and excitement again and you fray your nervous system that much more with the sympathetic response.3 And one such cachet sits at the top of Nakayama-toge, a pass through the mountains between Sapporo and the flat bundt-cake pan surrounding Mount Yotei, which was Saturday morning my destination. Because the pass winds up steep through the mountains and then levels off somewhat as it nears the top, still coiling about the hills' peaks like so much gray ribbon. But due to the coiling you never really get to see over the top before you come over this long hump and curve, and even when you do hit the top there's this big Michi no Eki in the way, a sprawling empty parking lot on a little bit of a rise, with a road-cum-roadside-staircase up to not much more than a mound above the Michi no Eki's building proper. I pulled into the parking lot to see if the Michi no Eki was open, because I wanted the stamp4, but it wasn't, and it was as I was pulling Penelope around backwards to find the exit that the familiar warm, electric tongue of adrenaline licked across my brain, and I saw Mount Yotei in the big bundted bowl ahead of me.

The picture there doesn't do the vista justice. That's one of the great things about those little secret views -- they actively resist photography, as if the frame of a photo can't hold them. Which is literally true about Yotei, because it's super large. Maybe it's the lack of anything else around it. Maybe it's what mountaineers call the peak's prominence. Maybe the clouds were lower than usual and the massing front behind the peak of the mountain constructed some kind of optical illusion that made the Yotei look more brick-shittingly titanic than it actually was.5 Maybe it's any number of things. The picture I took from the top of Nakayama-toge isn't, to me, a representation of the view, but a reference thereto -- something to jog my memories, to get the hormones racing again with the impossibility of what I was seeing -- something just too big, as a single entity, something out of science fiction, like a massive spacecraft seen from a huge distance, distorted by space and air but still intimidatingly large.

And I wanted to climb it?

The perennial problem faced by the hiker-blogger is that what seems tremendously fun and blog-worthy on the side of the mountain becomes exceedingly boring put down into words. You see this all over the Internet -- the better part of the post deals with the drive to the mountain, the first impressions, the gear to pack, maybe a couple of weird things that happened along the trail, and then impressions from the peak. So: the drive up was long. I planned to hike the Makkari Trail which took me around most of the mountain's base before reaching the trailhead in a campsite. Sometimes the peak of a mountain doesn't actually look that far away from the trailhead, as if you could almost leap to the top with a couple of serious jumps; Yotei is not like this. The peak appears to be impossibly far from the trailhead. The trail itself remained pretty continually steep throughout, shallower at the beginning and end but necessitating at any rate a bit of a break at the waystations6, which somehow or other seemed to get further and further apart as I climbed. Another curio I came across were icicles that had formed diagonnally in the wind, rather than the traditional up-down shape icicles are supposed to assume. The peak was hard and frosted over; the frost had formed on only one side of everything in the wind. From the peak you can see the trailhead -- for a while I could see the tiny white speck that signified Penelope, alone in the parking lot, but from the top the whole parking lot was a faraway gray blur of such distance I wasn't entirely certain that a human body could cross it without the power of some sort of engine.7

And then back down.


The official map at the bottom of the Makkari Trail says that the hike should take between 5-6 hours going up, 4-5 hours coming down, but I think that's a bit on the conservative side -- the hike up can easily be done in under 4 hours. I wouldn't recommend starting the hike at any time after like 11 in the morning, even if you are a really strong hiker, this time of year. For anyone reading this at some point in the future, I climbed at the very beginning of November and it was still pretty clear, only really snowy at all after about waystation number 8. The peak on the other hand was pretty windy, so bring some gloves. That should be self-evident. Um what else. I brought 4 liters of water and drank all of it. I also brought two bags of beef jerky and some Calorie Mates and mixed nuts and ate all of those as well, although to be fair I hadn't had breakfast that morning. So.

1 People who write blogs about themselves, see, are often wont to use words like awe & wonder & amazement in self-description, see.

2 Which the fact that we all keep like a backup of Facebook (e.g. the pictures, statuses, events, comments, posts, relationships) in our brains is kind of a scary fact oh yes it is.

3 Which is awesome.

4 Short story: Pokemon meets globetrotting. Gotta stamp 'em all.

5 In Yotei's defense it is actually a pretty titanic mountain on paper as well. [insert height and stats and whatever]

6 Every mountain has ten of them -- they're supposed to give you a sense of how far up the mountain you are. I don't know how they measure the distance between them -- whether by vertical height or distance along the trail or what. From the trailhead to the first one took fifteen minutes for me; to the second took twenty-five; the third, thirty; and then after that everything was a bit of a blur timewise but I'm almost sure that the time between the two last ones was like pushing an hour.

7 Ignoring, as the tired brain of a tired body is liable to do, the fact that I just crossed such a distance, uphill.

Everything You Have Heard JET Programme Japan


Week 66

My first real trip out to Shiretoko, touring of the Five Lakes district in the late fall.


Week 64

Twenty-fourth tour round the sun and I'm still enamoured of the autumn.