Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Week 104 | Go to Tsuru-no-Yu

The trees close around us, hugging the sides of the road. The car jolts into a rut dug by water, hops back up onto the trail.

I say, “I can’t believe I took Penelope through this.”

Tony says, “You took Penelope through this?”

I say, “Yeah, in winter.”

A laugh. “How?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I can’t believe I took Penelope through this.”

The rain hangs in the air. It might not even be raining anymore, but the wipers are going, and moisture hits the windows.The air has the quality of rain, heavy with wetness and heat. The woods around us are topographically schizoid, rising and falling in sharp angles. The road lurches the way that only roads laid before the age of cars can. It looks like an attempt at pavement was made many years ago, but in the intervening time traffic and nature have wrecked the concrete into plates of rock and rubble.

We arrive at the onsen. It consists of a family of small wooden buildings huddled on a little level ground. All around are tall bushes and reeds. The platonic form of a brook babbles by on the left. The ground rises steeply behind the onsen, up into the clouds somewhere in a wall of green.

The buildings all look tremendously old, the sort of clumsy rigidity of old men. The roofing is thatched and the walls are all wood worn down by the weather, dark, wrinkled, the edges worn off. A man in a yukata slides a window open and leans out. Our footsteps crunch on the round, wet gravel. We exchange a shiny gold 500 yen coin for the right to enter the onsen. A lady in a dark blue apron hands us a map with English words on it, all drawn by hand, and smiles.

We move to a low building off to the right. There are a couple of doors, above which are signs painted in Japanese characters indicating men’s and women’s sides and the names of the baths. We enter our respective sides.

The changing rooms are cramped and make you feel awkward in your body, all elbows, when you undress. The floor is wooden and soggy, the air tangy with the smell of sulfur. The two baths sit separately off the main changing room, behind sliding wooden doors with glass windows. They rattle in their casings as you slide them. The sound is deeply satisfying.

In the Shiro-yu bath, water runs through a gutter on the wall and drains out into the bath, which is big enough for maybe four people who are comfortable with each other. The gutter, the bath, the floor, are all crusted with a hard, smooth mineral deposit from the water. There’s a place where the water drips out of the gutter, at a joint; the floor below it is raised in a small yellowish stalagmite. The water is lukewarm and milky. You can’t see more than an inch or two into it. It smells deeply of sulfur, which here is a healthy, relaxing smell -- not the smell of rotten eggs or the sour taste of someone else’s flatulence, but one of minerals and nature and warmth.

No one speaks much. A couple of syllables are exchanged in reverence. This onsen has been open since the 1600s. I have no idea how old the buildings are. Everything I’ve seen could have been built in the 1800s, for the technological simplicity of it. The glass in the windows is mottled, warped. The wood is worn way down on the boards leading back outside, to the outside bath. I catch a glimpse of a security camera, hidden inside a wooden box. It’s aimed at the door to the women’s changing room.

The outdoor bath, too, is milky white. It’s alongside a public pathway, separated from the rest of the onsen -- e.g. the rooms for staying overnight -- by a row of tall reeds. It’s a mixed-gender bath, but the only people in it are old men. Most of them sit motionless with closed eyes, statuelike. There’s a suzumebachi, or giant hornet, buzzing around people’s heads. Tony and I scoot to the part of the bath furthest from the hornet. It lands on one old guy’s head. I squirm in place. The man swats it away. It lands again, he swats again. An old, tremendously wrinkled guy, probably not more than four feet tall, produces a fly swatter from nowhere and kills the hornet when it lands on the rim of the bath. Doesn’t he know that killing them releases the pheromone that attracts more? He flicks it into the bushes. Another hornet appears, skims the water. I stand up and head inside.

The Naka-no-yu bath is darker, an opalescent gray. It’s also significantly hotter than the others. I sit on the edge of the bath with my legs in the water. When I take my legs out, they’re bright pink from about mid-thigh down. I decide to sit down and count ten slow breaths. It’s brutally warm in the same way that a massage is brutally painful. I feel brutalized, but somehow better for it. My runny nose is clear for the first time in days. My skin feels soft, new. It’s hard to breathe but my body isn’t reacting the way that it normally does when it’s hard to breathe. I feel like I’m getting enough oxygen. I reach ten, don’t want to get out, decide to count another ten.

When I get out I’m sweating profusely. I towel myself off but sweat springs back up on my arms, chest, back. I pull my t-shirt on anyway, my sweat bleeding dark islands across my stomach. The sweat from my forehead is dripping into my eyes while I dress. I wrap my towel around my forehead and head out into the cool, rainy afternoon. The sulfur in the air is almost sweet to me, by now.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Week 101 | Climb Tomuraushi

Standing in the parking lot with Tony, I don't know what's in store for me. The cliffs of Tenninkyo stand above us, like parents, their heads in the sun, the river at their feet gurgling white noise among its low rocks, so many. I don't know how much the pack on my back weighs, but 31 hours from now, when I arrive at where I started, I'll know that whatever number the scale would show is bigger than I signed up for. I had to haul the pack up with two hands to get it in place -- not the typical one-armed bicep curl by which so many nonchalant high schoolers in movies throw their Jansports over their shoulders -- this is the real deal. This is Serious Shit.


the real deal, i said

At the trailhead is a sign that says, Mt. Tomuraushi Trailhead 17 km. The sign is made of wood and painted brown, the letters recessed and white, in the style of so many national parks. The ground is a little wet and the dirt gives a little bit. The trail goes straight up the southern wall of Tenninkyo Gorge. The switchbacks are tight. There are rusty fences in places where the trail gets narrow. We ascend probably some 200 meters in half an hour. When we get to the top, I loosen the strap across my chest -- it's preventing me from getting all the air I can. We trek a short way across the plateau to a lookout. Below is a long waterfall, the sounds of the river, indistinguishable from the wind in the trees. Above us is the huge Asahidake massif, the long characteristic gouge in its face pointing off to the left, the ropeway terminal minuscule in the distance. We stop here, briefly. An older couple wearing matching tabi take our picture for us. Then we head into the woods.

The trail winds through the woods for a little while, cuts up some more switchbacks to a meadow. I'm by this point good and sweaty, but I feel a lot of wetness on my lower back and ass and legs -- more than I should be sweating. I ask Tony to stop and I open up my pack. One of the two two-liter bottles of water I've brought along has sprung a leak. We wrap athletic tape around the bottle and put it in two plastic bags. It doesn't help, so we drink liberally until the water's all gone. We're not worried.

Past the meadow, in a swamp, we run into a couple from France. They had just spent four days in the mountains and were coming back this way because the guy had lost his passport. They ask, "Do you know of anywhere in Hokkaido a little less remote? Maybe with some mountain villages, very old, very authentic?" We tell them that Hokkaido is pretty well-settled, that they're going to run across a city at some point; and nothing gets more remote than the middle of the Daisetsuzan. They seem disappointed but not disheartened, wish Bon voyage, and take off. When we get to the bottom, we see their names, signed a couple of days ago in the registration book, as Bitch and Rintintin.

Eventually we come out onto the round flank of Pon-Kaun-dake. We've finished the bottle of water with the hole in it, but we're hiking on pretty level ground so the water situation is still okay. We can see for kilometers in every direction. Clouds move in along a ridgeline ahead of us but disperse as they flow over the edge. They look liquid. We descend into a saddle between Pon-Kaun-dake and Kaun-dake and overlook a great cirque below. The cliffs running along the rim of this cirque look like the cliffs from that waterfall place in Up.



the views

Eventually we summit Kaun-dake -- a huge round heap with a large boulder on top. From a distance it looks like a giant breast, the boulder the nipple. We drink water and catch breath. This isn't the mountain we came for. We don't stop for long, descending the south side of Kaun-dake to a junction for Hisago-numa, a mountain lake down along the east flank of the saddle between Kaun-dake and Tomuraushi. The clouds have moved in so from the junction we can't see our goal. We head down to the campsite at Hisago-numa.

At this point we have two liters of water between the two of us. We have drunk six. The water has become this little nagging thing at the back of my mind. I'm purposely skipping water breaks. My mouth is sticky with mucus, but instead of spitting I swallow it.

You can see the campsite from faraway, coming down the slope over the lake. The tents are all brightly colored and mashed together like a display at an outdoors store. We traverse a snowfield to get there, then a series of old wooden stairs, or stair-like structures. It feels like a secret town or something, this cluster of people so far from anything. We pitch our tents. Tony retreats to his tent to "lie down and be quiet." I do the same.

This eventually morphs into a fitful, broken sleep. It's more like chronic dozing. I'm aware that the voices die off, eventually. A terrible taste blossoms in my mouth. The dull light of the afternoon gives way to darkness. A thick, thick fog rolls in off the lake. The tent smells terrible. It smells like pine and sweat and sour deodorant. All around me, old men are snoring heavily. I become acquainted with several varieties of snoring. After a number of hours I begin to hope that the snoring is the sound of someone choking on themselves. It's keeping me from sleeping. The air is wet and humid and vaguely cold. It tastes like recycled air gone bad. I roll onto my other side. My hip is starting to hurt. I roll onto my stomach. My pillow is starting to get a little wet. It still smells like my bed at home, which smell is one hundred percent out of place. I dream vividly and at length about Lorde. In my dreams she has a big, black, Brooklyn-type beard. I snap violently awake at one point, the snores and smells about me. I sit up and unzip my sleeping bag. I can't remember if Lorde has a beard in real life, but suppose it's possible that she grew one while we've been out on the mountain. I leave the tent and suck the wet air. The moon is hugely bright in the sky, corona-ed by the retreating fog. The sky is getting bright-ish in that vague way of the pre-dawn, where you can't actually tell if it's getting lighter or if it's just wishful hallucination on the part of a brain awake during the pre-dawn. I tap on Tony's tent and say, "Let's hit the summit." It's quiet and desperate, borne more of a desire to be away from my tent, which I hastily shove, wet, back into its stuff sack, than of any desire to hit the trail again. Though my legs do feel remarkably alright.

We scramble back up the snowfield and out to the junction, watch the sun come up over a sea of clouds hanging over Obihiro -- or at least, where we assume Obihiro to be. We both look worse than we feel, which is a small blessing, probably. We leave the heavy stuff at the junction -- we'll be coming back this way -- and head for Tomuraushi. There are no clouds in its direction at all. We bring one liter of water.

The trail is flat for a while. It dips into a ravine at one point, some 150 meters down and back up, but mostly stays level, crossing about 4 kilometers. At one point we traverse a field of boulders, evidently deposited there by some historic eruption of Tomuraushi. Tony says, "I think this landscape could be described as blasted." I agree. Another hour passes, two. We arrive at the foot of the summit. The book 北海道の山 says of Tomuraushi, "The summit is just a big pile of rocks." It couldn't be more true.

We climb. It's funny -- the closer you get to the top of a mountain, the less you look up. Your last steps before the slope evens out at the pinnacle are always intimate, you and your boots, slow, kicking up dust or snow. You feel like your nose is dragging on your shoelaces. 

And then -- the summit. We're 17 kilometers from where we started. The marker is a tall brown pole. I lean on it. I say, "There." Tony says, "Good." We fist bump, then take off our shirts and snap pictures of each other flexing our muscles.


admittedly I lost three kilos on this mountain, so I'm prolly a little skinnier than I should be
On the trek back to the packs, we finish the liter of water. We have one liter to cross the ten kilometers between us and Tenninkyo. We pause at the junction, considering the options. The sun's getting high -- it's about 10 in the morning and the sky is aggressively blue. I lean down to re-tie my shoelaces and when I stand up my vision swims. I haul my pack onto my shoulders, readjust, trying to find a more comfortable position. My instinct is to spit; I hock it up in my mouth, but swallow. We walk.

Along the descent conversation comes staggeringly. Morale ebbs. We debate, for a while, whether it's okay to eat the snow that we find, if we dig a little bit. We agree, as northerners both, that since as kids we ate a whole bunch of snow and didn't get sick, it would probably be okay. We pack a Nalgene full of snow. Tony carries it in his hand or under his shirt. He says, "Feels good."

The snow melts. We drink it. We'll take our chances with the runs or whatever else. We agree that next time we'll bring a stove. We polish off the last liter of water, back in the meadow. We have about four kilometers left. Tony says, "The water isn't doing you any good outside of you." I'm significantly worse off than he is. I don't know why. I feel licked.

The forest is muggy, humid, brutally warm. Any time we come to a big step, I kinda fall off it, rather than step down. I learn how cushioned the bottom of my boots are. I say, more than once, "God bless Mr. Vibram." It becomes a running joke -- the Earl of Vibram, Sir Vibram, Count of Vibram Estate, George Vibram. Tony keeps the mood light. I'm flagging, asking for breaks. When the last of the snow-water is gone -- it had already started getting warm -- I get this weird feeling of hopelessness. I can't stop for water breaks anymore. But we agree that the lookout over the waterfall is just ahead. We think it's coming up around this bend. Or the next. Or the next.

Then -- voices. We're at the lookout. Five guys, all with packs bigger than ours and spirits higher. One's off to the side, smoking. All up earlier than us, all having made the trek we just did. I ask, "Does anyone have any water left that they're not planning on drinking?" I wave off a blackfly.

One man does. I almost cry. He's maybe in his sixties, all cheekbones and elbows. His pack is as big as I am. He tells us we can finish it. Tony and I drink a liter of water in less than the time it takes Usain Bolt to run 100 meters.

When we get off the mountain, we head into the hotel and buy drinks. Unscrewing the cap of my flavored water, I drop it (the cap), but don't pick it up. I can drink as much as I want. I don't have to ration. I drink the whole bottle in one go.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Week 66

You won't know why the Shiretoko Peninsula is a UNESCO World Heritage Site until you get within some fifty kilometers of it; but when you do get within that sort of henge of understanding the whole thing becomes really plain and clear to you and it makes a lot of sense. It appears first as like an outline on the horizon, a dimmer blue against the blue of the sky, cropped and cut like the edge of something sharp, something with teeth; but at this point a good deal of it is over the horizon, visually, and you don't really get that good of a look at it. It looks like something off the cover of a science fiction novel, where some truly gifted artists get their actually pretty stunning oeuvres (if you think about it) covered over by bright yellow Word-Art-esque fonts chosen by someone who definitely is not a designer working at publishing house Tor. This view of Shiretoko from afar is more of a gesture towards what it really is than something serious to view in the first place, like a billboard set up some fifty kilometers out, assuring you you're on the right track. And indeed somehow all of the roads in the northeast corner of Hokkaido, which really is a geographical corner, a meeting of two coastlines at a 90-degree angle, all of the roads up there somehow seem to orient themselves with respect to Shiretoko, kind of an all-roads-lead-to-Rome scenario, so even at the end of the day when you're leaving Shiretoko's corner of Hokkaido, still somehow it seems you're traveling towards it.

fig. 1

fig. 2. compare this, asimov's second foundation cover, w/ fig. 1

After another ten or fifteen kilometers, at about thirty kilometers' distance from the peninsula's collar, Shiretoko kind of unveils itself very suddenly -- the atmosphere parts and shifts and you come round a bend in the road and the massive many-peaked ridgeline of Shiretoko's spine just hulks there in front of you, veering way out into the ocean like an arm reaching out for the Arctic or something. This time of year the peaks are all dusty white on top and the bases are that grayish brown that shows up just everywhere there's a big spread of trees post-autumn, that bland almost non-color of tree bark. Here and there are big patches of evergreens looking almost black against the surrounding pale, or some hardier specimens that have held on to their leaves through the wind and rains of autumn and in the low-angle early-winter sun (which, remember, never actually gets above like 40 or 50 degrees above the horizon, even at noon, and so noon here looks like maybe 5 or 6 o'clock down at the equator) have almost the exact color you think of when you hear the word 'amber,' a misleadingly healthy color that looks like sunlight through lager.

fig. 3 some things that look like beer, apparently

By the time you're close enough that anything at all comes into detail -- of note is the tall conic peak of Rausu, the head of Shiretoko's long toothy ridgeline -- you're already on Shiretoko itself, and the coast stretching all the way back to Abashiri (or like Shibetsu, if you're coming from the other way) is making itself visible through the shimmer over the Okhotsk (or I guess from the other way, the Nemuro Straits). You realize in a kind of in medias res kind of way that you're already pretty high over the water and pretty far out onto the peninsula before you know it, that you're looking back on a very generous amount of coastline some hundred kilometers out behind you. I don't know if it's that you're absolutely forced to gawk at the mountains overhead or if Shiretoko like defies geographical centering or what, but Shiretoko kind of distracts you from how far you are from your destination until you're already there. You feel as though you've just sort of woken up already at where you were trying to go, and the ride to this point was more or less a movie or a dream that you were sort of wandering timelessly through. Before you know it you're at the Five Lakes District, which I don't know whether to use the English name or the Japanese name, Goko, because on the English signage it was actually referred to as both, as the quote 'Shiretoko Goko Five Lakes District.' Anyway.

The legend of Shiretoko is built, as well, by the people who work there -- up to this point sure the mountains were huge and majestic and sure the snow and weird weather patterns on top caught the eye, but there didn't seem to be much of a character and legend and World Heritage to the Site. It's just some mountains in Hokkaido, which, on paper, aren't particularly special or anything -- there are taller and more dangerous mountains in Honshu, for sure. It's when you throw people at those mountains that they develop that extra something-something -- e.g. the landskeeper at Shari who was stung by a suzumebachi and died, or the Daisetsuzan's old moniker, The Playground of the Gods, or for another example the mirroring of Mt. Fuji in our own Mt. Yotei. In the same way Shiretoko takes on that through-the-ages legendary quality when you learn that it has only actually been called Shiretoko for the past century, give or take, and that for hundreds of years before that the Ainu called it The End of the Earth.

fig. 4 where the earth ends, or so they thought

Which makes sense. This is this spit of land sticking out into the Okhotsk, twenty-five kilometers wide at its widest at rising more than a kilometer and a half above the waves. The whole peninsula is volcanic, by the way, and home here more than anywhere else to the Ezo bear, literal granddaddy of our more famous American variant, the grizzly. Which is to say nothing of the hordes of eagles and deer and assorted critters and oh yeah killer whales (which are actually dolphins, but ehh) and oh yeah actual whales as well, more than ten different species of them. Keep in mind as well that there's actually no consistently level surface to be found anywhere on the peninsula (which makes for some very clever engineering, road- and parking lot-wise).

Those Ezo bears are no chumps, either, as it turns out. At the Shiretoko Goko Five Lakes District lodge, which serves also as the locus of a big 3-km ring trail through the five lakes, they keep a chart of bear sightings in the past week. They more or less shove this chart down the throats of any would-be trail-walkers, but with good reason: when I was there, there had been something like eleven bear sightings in the previous week. Jordan and I elected to watch the nationally-funded Watch Out for Bears Cuz They Will Mess You Up, Like Seriously bear safety video, as well, featuring more bears than any other given piece of media I think I've ever laid eyes upon, and I read the shit out of those Bearensteins, when I was younger.

okay let's get real this is just nature porn at this point


A better warning against the Ezo bear, though not exactly Shiretoko-based, would have been the tale of the Sankebetsu Ezo Bear Incident, a period of some four days in 1915 when an Ezo bear measuring almost 3 meters tall came down from the mountains in the late winter and killed seven people in a rural Western Hokkaido village. The bear had almost certainly been involved in another skirmish further south where it killed three other people and earned the name Kesagake, which means 'diagonal wound across the back.' When it was decided that the bear had developed a decided taste for human flesh (which I am led to understand is a quasi-scientific behavioral modifier applicable to the whole Kingdom Animalia, 'man-eater,' which happens to some animals as amok happens to some Southeast Asians), a Haboro-based bear-tracking sniper task force was assembled and dispatched the bear. The best part of the story is the son whose whole family was killed by the bear, and himself injured, who grew up to be an expert bear tracker, vowing to kill ten bears for every person he knew that was killed. When he died he had 106 notches in his belt.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

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 one (1)) 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 stamp (4), 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.

it looked like this

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 waystations (6), 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)

this is not how they grow usually i know this to be true

there is tree under there somewhere

also people ski down this im pretty sure
so lets go in a coupla months

And then back down.


* * *

REQUISITE SERIOUS INFORMATION WHAT WHAT

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.


* * *

NOTES

(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.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Week 64

It's fall, now. For some weeks I remember clinging to the last shreds of the summer, those watery photons coming down out of the sky like a fog; I remember looking at bold leaves, green against the encroaching cold; but those leaves have gone brown, now, phased through sick pear-ish yellows and vivid reds, leaves so like stars in that respect, blowing themselves way out to the edges of legitimacy with color and vibrancy before passing out entirely, something shriveled and brown and dark in a greater, empty darkness.

They're all over the ground, now, these fallen husks of trees' livelihood. Some are still a little rusty with their early reds but most of them are brown, grayly brown, like soil emptied of nutrients. The grass is still green under the leaves but if you look closely you can see where it too is giving up inch by inch to the cold and the cloud; but grass is hardy and will still ring green under snow, if you dig it up -- will only be really truly yellow in the spring when the snow retreats to the sky.

And so the sound of these days is the wind somewhere far off, blowing across dry fields, is the crackle of crunching leaves tumbling stem over frond in that wind, is the sound of so many rubber-booted feet shuffling through so many leaf-clotted gutters. The sound of straining heating systems firing up in cars everywhere. There's this weird drawn-out feeling, like one form holding itself tightly as it expands, outgrows its capacity for self-holding. The dried out crust of skin as that which is below balloons outwards, some outward pressure pushing back down, biting in with long teeth.

And the wind.

Wind like nomads moving across the mountains, bringing with it some souvenir of where its been. The rich tang of onions in the fishing district, the sickly smell of wet slapping fish at the feet of mountains. Wind in tall caravans of clouds rolling over long fields, wind shaping the sky with such striations you can see the curvature of the earth, where the sky lists and rolls and dips below the horizon. Wind that loads weather up onto its back and shrugs it off over coasts and mountains, that whips clouds into wide blankets of uniform color and depth, clouds which drape the sky in subtle grays and cut the edges off everything, the world some new babyproofed house, nothing pointed for you to hurt yourself on.

The sun almost seems to have disowned us as our top of the world now disinclines from it. In another month and a half the sun will not rise above halfway overhead; but even an earthbound observer can tell, when the wind packs up the clouds and moves off to the sea, that the light from the sky isn't so much settling on earth as glancing off it, lost in those white clouds, lost in (on those few stunningly blue days) the wide electric sky.

Fall is squid season. When the sun sets over the northern limns of the Daisetsuzan the lights come back up in the east, out on the ocean -- but this time it's not the thin yellow of sun and atmosphere, of remembered warmth, but the sterile glow of halogen, white on the blackness of the Okhotsk, squids by the hundreds swimming to their deaths in that pale light. You'll see the lights from the shore, impossible candlepower, but you won't try to imagine the scene out there. At least, I don't.

There are days that the wind settles down and the air becomes still and on these days you can almost feel the blunt edge of winter rolling in. Mornings that the fog doesn't quite burn off all the way, where the sun can't muster enough wattage until maybe 11 or even noon before it can take the crisp frost off the low fields. There are mountainsides that don't see the sun all day and when you drive by them the treed fog looks ready to collapse and for snow to materialize in some little atmospheric freak and rain down on the mountainside, on its lonely evergreens standing still among the silver bones of the birches. You see steam rising from sewer vents by the sidewalk, this steam rising up vertically, rising beyond the tops of the one-story houses, in some places rising to the second floor before coming apart entirely, lost in that cold dry air. You see little towns no more than six or seven buildings clogging some hilly bottleneck in the landscape where the smoke rises up from tin chimneys black thick, viscous, almost. It's in these little towns alone that you'll see this low oily cloud, for in any town of respectable size the denizens have switched over to kerosene. It's in these little towns alone that you'll pick up that weird nostalgic campfire smell, that cold promise of warmth that brings you back to your childhood, regardless of if your childhood featured campfires heavily or not. It's again in these little towns alone that you won't see a single person, in these little towns alone you'll wonder how close the nearest person is, because in these little towns, alone, wouldn't everyone be up at this time, winking, blind-man-walking with sleepy eyes to find someone else to share humanity with after the long starry night?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Week 62

this picture is meant to like entice you to start reading

The trailhead at Kogane-yama is a sloped parking lot, typically gravel, with a small hutted toilet and a fence. Below, off to the left, runs a narrow stream, a babbling-type brook on steroids, which isn't saying much. I'm coming to associate that wooded sound of water with mountain-climbing: it's always after a drive along a poorly-maintained trail up to the trailhead that I step out, a little stiff from the drive, into air violently clean, as if years of living amongst cities and concrete has adapted me for city living, has adapted my respiratory system for carbon di- & monoxides, and so breathing totally clean air again, out in the wilderness, does for the first couple of minutes more harm than good, like starved prisoners eating their fill and collapsing from the shock.

Even if you don't like nature, if you're metro-/cosmopolitan and you own a MacBook Pro and a sound system worth more than $1000 and you wear lipstick and have a small fortune's worth of dressy-ass clothing for quote-unquote going out, your body will thank you for getting away from it. No number of cleanses or purges or whatever will clean out your body like a rough hike and three liters of water passed from pack through your body and back out again. It's like going to a spa or something, except you come out stronger for the experience.

Kogane-yama is a bit of a tricky mountain, visually speaking. You can see it from the main thoroughfare, Route 451 from Hamamasu to Takikawa, but it rears up with such misanthropic steepness that you can't believe, from where you stand, that it's climable without serious rock-face-mounting gear. And then along the rocky trail up to the trailhead the mountain disappears entirely and maybe you forget it for a little while, concerning yourself with the supplies (water, mixed nuts, bananas, &c.) that you forgot to bring, as I did. And so the hike starts out reasonably easily, a shallow grade along a trail wide enough to fit two, maybe three abreast in some places, grassy and strewn this time of year with fiery leaves, clean and quiet but for the whupping of birds' wings and the sound of the sea's wind coming up across the low bushes. When you stop moving you can catch the strangest noises, little scuttlings of tiny animals, usually drowned out by the roar of the world around them: you can hear the individual footprints of birds, of single leaves brushing up against others, of someone's bear bell distorted by the intervening forest, somewhere off in the distance. You can hear speaking, but not individual words: a distilled sound of humanity & of communication, totally unlike the sounds around it, wholly parsable from all those quiet forest noises even though you can't make out words or syllables or any kind of detail whatsoever.

But then with time you scale up what I might be able to stretch to call the lumbar of the mountain, the small of its back, the place that gentlemountains might place their hand to lead Kogane-yama out onto some tectonic dancefloor, and the trail starts getting a little steeper. We're (Jordan's here too) out of the sunlight at this point, in the shadow of the mountain itself, and the baked dirt on the sunny side gives way to full-on college-diploma mud, which for the record Vibram doesn't stand up very well to, grip-wise. This trail winds back up around the side, where the gentlemountain's hand will roam mid-dance, and we're back in the sun enough that the mud isn't so much sloppy muck as it was before and has congealed to a solid foothold, which thank goodness for that because the grade has increased from somewhere around 15 or 20 degrees to something like 50, and the path has disappeared almost entirely in favor of something like a well-trodden ravine directly up the side, complete w/ dangling paracord, and we're not so much going for a leisurely forest stroll so much as clambering, Batman-&-Robin-style, upwards across tree roots and boulders, using all four appendages, faintly aware that at any given moment something might give. 

this is what it looks like to caress the gentlemountain

But once we get past the terror-of-the-unknown stuff & just let go of needing to know exactly when we're going to fall way way way off down this sort of huge outcropping which drops perilously & fatally to the right, there's a kind of serious beauty of the Edge, there. It comes close to, but isn't exactly, the beauty of balance, of everything being stacked together in just the perfect arrangement for momentary stasis to hold on to the world. All of which is compounded against the balance of our bodies by the rope against the mountain face, which is pretty cool on its own because it's halfway between hiking and rock climbing -- to say nothing of the whole I-see-a-sheer-drop-therefore-I-must-jump-off-it complex, knowing that at any moment you could fall over the Edge, that there's nothing actually holding you onto the side of the mountain but your own impulse and gravity; and gravity at any moment could become a serious problem for you, if you Go Over.

And that's the big like danger we face as we near the top: the fear and primordial thrill of Going Over. The mountain narrows way down as we near the summit, dropping off more of itself than any real mountain peak ought to. By the time we can hear the happy conversation of those already on the peak, there isn't much more left of Kogane-yama than a slim ridgeline and cliff faces on either side. And the peak itself -- more of a triple-peak, little saddles between them -- consists of a series of cold dirty outcroppings that look out of an old watercolor more than something time and pressure could have actually built.

livin on da edge

And it's here that that dual fear-thrill of Going Over hits you the worst, holds you in the tight arms of vertigo, because you can stand up on the outcropping and look out over the valley below you, and off the fifteen or so kilometers to the Sea of Japan, and out to the Oshima Peninsula beyond, and everything before you is empty air. The ground drops off before your vision can pick it up, standing normally, which puts this weird optical-illusion sense in your head that you're already falling, that there's nothing beneath you at all. It's hypnotic. You stand and you stand and you don't really look at anything -- maybe at the white quivering waves just offshore, distantly -- and you just experience that big emptiness, the thin weight of all that air, of the wind, and then you realize that Jordan's been talking for maybe the past forty seconds or so and only now are you really processing that she's talking at all, because all sensory information has just been kinda backing up in your mental inbox for when you finally come back from the Edge, from the tunnel vision between you and the void before you.



Monday, October 7, 2013

Week 61

This is the story of how I ran ten kilometers again.

As the summer comes to a close I decide to get one last big run in, one last big rage against the dying of the light, a last effort in the sunshine and the warmth before the fall and the winter settle in, before I pull sweaters and blankets around me, before I cradle warm drinks like loved ones close to the parts of me that feel the most. It's not much by the standards of some and more than is possible by the standards of others, but I fall evenly down the middle, and ten kilometers presents the sort of challenge just beyond the boundaries of my capability, somewhere so close I can stand right on the edge and just hop/skip/jump to it with a little effort.

And so here I am Sunday morning with Oliver and Emma and Mark, all vaguely nervous, all a little blue with the cool morning air. We assemble for the start as the sun edges through the gray overhead, the light looking as if it's coming through a plastic bag. Mark says, "I think we have about 3 minutes left," as a loud gunned snap explodes by the start line. We move.

The first kilometer is easy. I breathe slowly and deliberately, I shuffle among the other runners. Shuffle is a good word for it -- somehow our bouncing pace amongst each other feels like cards in a deck. Emma ahead of me is setting a quick pace, but I'm confident that I can keep up; and indeed I almost want to put my long legs to use and peel off ahead, but I don't.

The second kilometer lies somewhere unsure. I'm more or less persuaded that I'm running about one kilometer for every song on Coheed & Cambria's The Afterman: Descension, but when I mistake a non-marathon-related sign for a marathon-related one at about kilometer 1.5, and find that after running what seems to be an eternity I've only traveled 1.5 kilometers, and in fact I've only actually been running for eight minutes but, God, I thought I was at least at kilometer 3 or 4 by now, & we've left the town and everything -- here is where I begin to get confused, temporally & geographically.

On the third kilometer a particularly briskly paced song comes on, but I'm ready for it. In training I had been able to increase my pace with the song and maintain an adequate air supply, but as the bridge winds up and the song heads into its final chorus, I'm finding myself a little more out of breath, in a little more pain that I feel I should be. Still, I'm not worried.

By the fourth kilometer I'm almost certainly misinterpreting how far I've run. I've had to slow my pace to recoup after my briskness with the previous song. Emma is pulling far ahead and I decide to stick instead to a tall Japanese guy in a shirt that reads, "HARA." The non-marathon-related road signs by the side of the road indicate now 3 km but I'm not even sure that I'm on the original road (the one with the 1.5 km marker) in the first place, nor am I sure what I'm 3 km's distance from in the first place, so I keep moving.

I reach the fifth kilometer but there isn't any sign of turning around and heading back just yet. I've slowed pretty obviously by this point but everyone else appears to have as well. With the physical fatigue setting in a strange dilation of sensory experience begins happening, a disconnect of my body with the parts of my brain that keep track of my body. I begin to experience my own stride not neurally but through the lens of maybe something like a Discovery-Channel-type diagrammic breakdown: something computer-generated with sweeping angles and color coordination indicating for example the compression of my spine with each step, vertebrae gelling up against spinal meniscus and bouncing back again. I don't even really feel it, this motion of my body through itself -- not consciously, but I know it's there. It's the first real sign that something is wrong.

Somewhere during the sixth kilometer, the race bends back on itself to head back to the starting line. I watch Emma turn around up ahead of me. She's beyond catching, at this point. I know this because she looks like a machine, like a car or a train for example, with purpose and physics more powerful than my own. A guy behind me with a pattern shaved into his head cheers me on as I wend back upon my own footsteps. I've resolved to finish before that guy, and I'm probably some 300 meters ahead of him, so I'm feeling alright about things. But as kilometer six comes to a close, he races by me. He's not even sweating.

On the seventh kilometer we break off the main road and work our way across a wide field. The sky is electrically blue, painful to look at. The wind is coming at us from a very very slightly offset angle, like maybe 4 or 5 degrees right of straight ahead, for me. I'm still running through computer-generated simulations of the workings of almost all of my joints; it's entirely unintentional, like it's the base hum of my brain, the video playing on the waiting room television, something to watch while I'm not focusing on something else, which focusing is taking a tremendous amount of effort and it's easier at this point just to let the television play.

At the beginning of the eighth kilometer I'm counting telephone poles, at the end of my rope. I'm probably not moving that much faster than a brisk walk, if faster at all. All of a sudden I find myself walking. This is not a decision that I have made. I feel very powerless. I will myself to start running again but my body refuses. I am outside of my body, looking down, screaming to get it back on track, as if I don't feel the pain. For a brief moment I remember that episode of Spongebob Squarepants where you know Spongebob is training Gary the Snail for some sort of race, and he's yelling at the poor thing, and wearing a mustache for some reason? The remembrance is brief, anyway, because why would a person in any frame of right mind think of something like that at a time like this? After a hundred meters of walking a man in a car by the side of the road looks at me in the eye. I read disappointment on his face. I start running again.

By the ninth kilometer we're back in town. People are watching now so  I can't stop; my body is beginning to fail so I can't continue. Two girls by the side of the road gesture to each other like 'Oh hey it's that guy, the tall foreign guy' and cheer me on. I try to smile back but I must have failed because they both made the same face of half-horror, half-embarrassment and cheered for the guy behind me, who promptly passed me.

Within the last three hundred meters my music stops. I have reached the end of the album. It's weirdly fitting, everything else peeling back. At the end there's only my footsteps pounding on the ground. I see the finish line. I accelerate. People are beginning to notice me, the high-speed foreigner. I hear murmurs of amazement. It might be terror. I'm moving pretty fast by this point. I pass a man finishing off the 20-km race. I feel a really sick pride at passing him, as if I'm better than the man who's run twice as far as me. Cries of support echo up from the crowds on either side but they're all falling behind me -- maybe for the man finishing the 20-km. I'm intimately aware of gravity. My feet are not longer holding me up so much as pushing me forward. I feel a bunch of meat around my obliques shuddering dangerously with every step. My stride must look robotic to everyone watching. I don't know if I'm running faster now than I would sprint fresh, but it sure feels like it. I'm not breathing, but I feel as though I could run another 500 meters like this. I might hear English; I'm not sure. The world around me is distorting a little bit. I try to hear if the voices from the sidelines sound Doppler-shifted. Purple lights swim around the corners of my eyes. I feel a salty wetness there. I cross the finish line -- smeared chalk on the asphalt -- and come to a hockey stop, for some reason. It feels like my whole body is grinding against the surface of the road. I come to a stop amid people moving in every direction. I am a molecule within the social convection of a finish line. A high schooler in a track suit hands me a juicebox.