Monday, May 16, 2005

Shokanbetsu Snowfields

Sunburned face and aching calves - it's been a good weekend.

Winter dragged on into May this year, late even for Hokkaido, but last Friday felt like spring. By 3 pm I was pedaling hard against the wind down the valley, heading west towards the Sorachi plain. The riverbottom willows were fluffed out in pale green and hawks circled high in the thermals overhead. Making good time despite the headwind I crossed over the Ishikari River and into a vast checkerboard of rice fields, some already flooded but most plowed over only recently. Old women in bonnets crouched shoulder to shoulder, planting seedlings in the dark mud.

Turning North, I rode up the valley to Shintotsukawa, a small town where my friend Ryan teaches English. At his house we were joined by Mark, another English teacher from a neighboring town. Mark was worried about how his bike would hold up on a long trip (justifiably as it turned out) and so the three of us piled into his car and drove over the mountains to Mashike, a small fishing village on the Sea of Japan coast.

This part of Hokkaido's West Coast reminds me of the American and Canadian Pacific Northwest. Tall snowcapped mountains plunge down to the ocean in dramatic rocky cliffs and small rivers carve out narrow valleys where people cluster in friendly fishing towns. In the fall, these rivers are choked with salmon.

We arrived just in time to watch the sunset, climbing out on the breakwater at a river mouth and sending hundreds of gulls wheeling indignantly away from their perch. The beach was littered with enough driftwood to start a roaring fire with one flick of the lighter, and in minutes we were happily roasting baby eggplant, sweet potatoes and salmon steaks. As the water boiled for miso soup, Ryan added bits of fresh seaweed he found in the surf. We ate the hot food slowly with chopsticks in the dark. Full-bellied, I scooped a pillow from the sand and burrowed deep into my down sleeping bag next to the fire.

During the night a fox crept up to the campfire coals looking for salmon scraps. Apparently Mark woke me to point it out but I only opened my eyes, muttered "not a bear" and went back to sleep. Don't remember a thing.

Even Western Hokkaido is well east in the Japan/Korea time zone, and without Daylight Savings the sun rises early in the spring and summer. At 5 am I stretched at the waters edge and checked e-mail on my cellphone, chatting briefly with my Mom back home in Vermont. Improvements in mobile technology are making the structured workplace an anachronism. If I need to trade stocks for a living, there isn't a good reason why I can't do it from the beach or the mountains, in whatever timezone I please.

Mt. Shokanbetsu shone white and pure above the rusty rolling hills East of town. After eating bananas and handfuls of a popular salty snack charmingly named "Cocky Pee," we unfolded our bikes and set off for the snowfields.

Asking directions in Japan is always an adventure, but I've learned to trust my translations and accept even the strangest advice. The clerk at 7-11 told us to turn right at the big apple for the road to the trailhead, and sure enough, before long we spotted a large plastic apple spiked on a tall concrete pole. Trusting, we turned right.

Oddly enough, the road wound through cherry orchards as we climbed into the foothills. The last farmhouses ended where the snow began, and for the last 10 km the only sign of human activity was a large gravel pit and several small concrete dams. Below the last dam the river flowed wildly, leaping boulders and flooding stands of bamboo. We stopped to rest on a small beach clear of snow, bending over backward to dunk our heads in the numbingly ice cold rapids.

Mark's tire eventually gave way to the changing air pressure, shooting its valve across the road in a burst of air and deflating in an instant. We walked the last kilometer or so, arriving at the trailhead at 9 am.

Snow was packed thick among the scattered birches at the start of the trail, but it was hard enough to hold our weight. With no idea where the trail might be we started off in the general direction of a ridge that led up to the summit, picking out our own path through the trees. The trail may have switchbacked, but we didn't, and were soon sweating hard despite the snow. Stripping down to long underwear bottoms, we wrapped our shirts around our heads to protect pale winter skin from the reflecting sun and continued up the mountain.

The atmosphere, strange to begin with, became downright surreal when we crested the ridge that led to the summit. Gnarled trees were spaced out like gravestones on the edge of a an encroaching desert, trunks and branches protruding at all angles from the blazing white snow. In the distance, the Sea of Japan was indistinguishable from the hazy blue horizon, extending the dome of sky to the foot of the mountain itself. Wilting in the sun, the snow grew softer and the going more difficult. We pushed ourself from tree to tree, up and up, fifty yards of head spinning muscle screaming baby steps, then a chest heaving rest, then fifty more yards. Mark, wearing tennis shows and cotton socks, became especially uncomfortable.

We stopped for a lunch of snickers bars, dried squid and riceballs on an outcrop of rock that stuck up out of the snow like a chocolate chip in a vanilla ice cream cone. I downloaded a song called sanpo (stroll) to my phone and played it for inspiration.

Near the summit, the wind picked up dramatically. First the shirts went back on, then the jackets and finally our wool hats, but the wind still bit through each layer, and Mark's shoes filled with snow. With lunch sitting heavily in our bellies, we retreated from the wind behind a clump of sturdy little pines at the edge of treeline. The sun beat down heavily, and it was so comfortable out of the wind. With silent agreement, we curled up among the scrubby pine trunks and napped lightly. I dreamt little flickery dreams that I can't remember.

The peak was in sight, but it was time to go back, out of the wind and into the trees. I sat on my windbreaker and slid wildly down the mountainside, feet in the air, steering past the scattered trees and listening to Mark and Ryan whoop and yell behind me. Where it was too flat to slide, we ran, great wild strides past the poor trudging prints of our ascent. Mark continued down to thaw his feet, but Ryan and I stopped at the rock outcrop where we had eaten lunch and did zazen (sitting mediation) for a half hour, breathing slow and deep, hands folded, eyes open but left unfocused.

At the bottom a Japanese man in his early thirties pulled up in a new Jeep. He looked strikingly like a mountain climbing version of Ichiro Suzuki, decked out in Lowe climbing pants, jacket and baseball cap. Ichiro walked over to us. "You guys want a beer? he asked, in perfect English. We did. And it tasted great.

Mark hitched a ride down with two ski mountaineers who showed him their secret spot for sansai, mountain vegetables. the five of us picked bags of ainu negi (Indian onion) and fiddlehead ferns, split the bounty and coasted down to the beach to build another roaring fire.

The bags of vegetables seemed to have no bottom. We propped a pot of water in the coals and boiled batch after batch of tender ferns and onion greens with rice, scooping the food out as soon as it cooked and constantly adding more. For dessert there were more sweet potatoes wrapped in foil and left in the coals until the skin was charred and the middle was soft and creamy. That night, it drizzled a bit towards morning, but I slept like a log.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home