Learning What Hiking Means in Hokkaido
By Eric Ysasi, owner of http://www.kumalanguage.com - translation and writing service Kuma Language Services. Written in Spring of 2016 about our climb in 2014.
Hiking - In Texas Terms
Say the word "hiking" in Texas and the typical Texan mind will conjure images of a leisurely stroll down a caliche road in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. As long as you take a minute every now and then to walk down a manicured park trail, you can call yourself a hiker and no one will think twice about it.
I'm a Texan, and my whole life I thought that hiking was just a walk on a path that wasn't a sidewalk or street. I went to a nearby state park called Lost Maples with my family as a kid where they have multiple mile hiking trails. My mom told me that we'd be hiking a 3 mile trail one day, which I thought was ludicrous, and I remember climbing 2 or 3 minutes of a steep incline that seemed even more ridiculous.
Of course, I felt triumphant at the top of the hill and had a blast sliding down the loose rocks on the downhill. But that first hiking trip set the stage for what I would deem hiking for the better part of 25 years of my life. In Texas, where plains of tall grass really do wave like the ocean and the sky stretches further than your eyes can see, the Earth beneath your feet lies flat and silent, rolling only here and there to let you know that it's still alive amidst the serenity of the valleys.
Land in Japan is decidedly different.
The Hokkaido Definition of Hiking
Count yourself lucky if you decide to live in Hokkaido. Your experience of Japan will be unlike that of any of your Japanophile friends. Don't think bright lights and robots, forget crowds of salarymen and painted young Japanese girls. Hokkaido is impossibly peaceful, even in the buzz of its only large metropolitan area, Sapporo.
My Texas sensibilities were thrown out the door when I embraced the majesty of the quaking Earth beneath northern Japan. Shifting plates have crafted beautiful natural structures throughout the island of Hokkaido in arrangements that even Frederic Church couldn't recreate. Mountains crash into one another punctuated by deep valleys rich with fertile soil where farmers transform the landscape into mosaics of green and yellow.
More impressive than the natural beauty is the reality that unfathomably broad tracts of land remain largely untouched by humans. The distance between towns is enormous, and the land that lies therein is almost completely virgin. It's a testament to the Japanese, or at least Hokkaidoan, respect for nature and the belief that everything, from rocks to buildings, contain spirits and are governed by gods.
It's in these lost worlds that Earth's children congregate for mountain climbing, skiing, snowboarding, picnics, and any number of gatherings and ceremonies.
I enjoyed the great fortune of waking up to a mountain, or something more like a hill, in my backyard. The locals called it "Yakushiyama" or 薬師山, a name shared by many of Japan's smaller mountains where Buddhist medicine men crafted cocktails intended to heal wounds and ailments common among the people of Japan. The steep inclines from Lost Maples reappeared at Yakushiyama - only this time, they were ten-fold the height and distance. The first trek my wife and I took through Yakushiyama took us nearly 2 hours, which was due in part to our lack of knowledge about the local area. Still, it left us hungry for much, much more.
I decided against my better judgment to do my first real mountain climb with a group of friends led by Jeremy Blanco, another Hokkaido English teacher who had an obsession with conquering physical challenges. Since I normally take relatively good care of my physical health, I thought that a hike up a mountain would prove to be a slightly elevated challenge compared to my previous hikes in Texas. But the long, steep, unforgiving trek up the mountain disagreed with my definition of hiking.
Footprints on Mount Yotei
Jeremy and his friends had arranged a group hike up a mountain in West Central Hokkaido. They call it Mount Yotei (羊蹄山). As we drove toward its trailhead, we could see the huge swell in the distance where we'd be climbing. The peak was surrounded by a beautiful ring of clouds - a rare and encouraging omen. We strapped on our gear, put on our clothes, and the hike began. The first few steps were just as flat and easy as I remembered all of my hikes - then we encountered the first major incline.
As I forced one foot in front of the other, I looked over my right shoulder, where I could measure our progress by the size of the shrinking barns and farmhouses. I could see where one crop began and the one before it ended and I knew that each one of those grueling steps I took meant one more push toward the heavens.
When that first incline began to level, I hoped deep inside that all of that work had pushed us near the top of the mountain. Of course, I was hopelessly wrong. The entirety of the remaining climb challenged my withered legs through steady inclines, upper body climbing, rocky crags, and loose dirt. Though we made plenty of stops for food and water, my Texan idea of hiking did not prepare me for the full-body assault of a real mountain trek.
Another new climber just like me started to lag behind the others, and we began to worry that she may give up before the last haul to the camp. My enthusiastic new friend Eisuke and I tumbled back down the trail with whatever remaining strength we had and grabbed a few of her packs to help her up the final mile or two of the hike.
As it turned out, your hero Jeremy had been hoofing it with her the whole time the rest of the team was rushing to the top, regaling her with stories of intense physical challenges and personal victories. His words had been lighting her fire while we clumsily hopped to the campsite. I remember being truly humbled at his dedication to seeing the entire team to the peak.
3 Or So Hours of Sleep
Once we huddled the whole team into an overbooked emergency shelter to lay down a sleeping bag, we annihilated most of our remaining food supply and rehydrated. A few of the more advanced climbers enjoyed a shot or two of whiskey and a hot bowl of soup, but for most of us, onigiri rice balls and Calorie Mate nutritional sticks sufficed.
We still had to force our tired bodies up early to catch the sunrise at the top of the mountain. The campsite was a measly 30 minutes or so from the top, but there was still plenty of prep in the morning before we could forward. In my haste to pack for the climb, I managed to totally foil the "bring a flashlight" portion of the to-do list and lazily packed an oversized flashlight with dead batteries. Thankfully, the English teacher Paula from my neighboring town had a powerful headlamp she was willing to share and she lit my path to the finish line.
We slogged to the peak where we had to wait only minutes in the thin, cold slice of atmosphere before the sun peeked above the horizon. The ring of clouds that had formed near the top of Mt. Yotei scattered at the command of the sunrise and we beheld a truly golden landscape of unreal magnitude. The patchwork of farmland gave way to rolling hills sprinkled with wildflowers. We drank in warm, moist air as plains of rocks and grass opened at our feet.
As far as first climbs go, I couldn't have asked for more. The physical challenge of hauling my body, food, and water to the top of an unforgiving wonder of nature made the taste of the sunrise only sweeter. After a magnificent rest, a few laughs, and plenty of water, we threw ourselves back down the mountain.
An experienced mountain climber knows that the way down can sometimes be tougher than the way up. I'm not an experienced mountain climber, and I didn't know. Once I started to feel the pain of the descent, I opted to instead try to run down as much of the mountain as I could without losing control and tumbling to a harrowing demise at the foot. It worked for a while - I was saving lots of time and the drive to catch my breath distracted me from the fatigue in my legs.
I and my hiking mates eventually caught up to the group of hikers that had left earlier than us that day. We all managed to convene at about the same time back at the trailhead, but each one of us had grown and changed since we last set foot there. Tears were shed, hugs were shared, and high fives were exchanged.
Our rewards? Fresh spring water straight from a large natural fountain, cold, soft ice cream from some local vendors, a well-deserved hot meal in Kutchan, and memories that will never, ever be forgotten. My definition of hiking changed that day from a park walk to a mountain climb, and even though I'm in Texas again and hikes are few and far between, I still look to the mountains and dream.
By Eric Ysasi, owner of http://www.kumalanguage.com - translation and writing service Kuma Language Services
Video by Jeremy Blanco of a HAJET BBQ to promote intercultural learning and a sunrise hike led together by Jeremy Blanco and Adam Gentle of HAJET done the year following the story written by Eric Ysasi.