Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Straddling the Edge of a Knife, or Spring Comes to Hokkaido

Spring is here, in force and without hesitation. Steady rain gives way to sun returns to rain, making the earth in my vegetable garden black and turning the grass deeper and deeper shades of green. All of the rice fields are flooded now, some already planted with rows and rows and rows of skinny shoots. Snow has retreated towards treeline in the mountains, and the valley walls are becoming brighter and brighter every day as buds open and blossoms burst. Cherry trees scattered across the hill sides look like individual petals lying on a bed of new moss. Last week, as I sat in the pine grove behind my house, the first mosquito of the year homed in and touched down. I squooshed it.

On Saturday I climbed Mt. Hamamasu with several Japanese and American friends. Hamamasu is a strange mountain, in truth barely more than a hill, but more technically difficult and physically striking than most of the larger peaks nearby. It sits surrounded by rice fields on the edge of a broad valley only a few miles from the Sea of Japan in an extremely isolated corner of Hokkaido, about halfway between the towns of Ishikari and Rumoi.

Imagine a Himalayan Peak, steep and craggy, tapering to a impossibly narrow summit ridge. Now, in your all-powerful mountain-crashing imagination, neatly lop off the last 800 meters of that peak and plop it down in the ricefield of a Japanese farmer who suddenly became very religious. Let the peak settle in for a few millenia, and you probably have a good approximation of what Mt. Hamamasu looks like.

It took only an hour and a half to pull ourselves up to the summit. Japanese trail builders tend to ignore details such as waterbars, switchbacks and pitch, with the result being trails so heavily eroded that it is difficult to see over their banks. The trail up Hamamasu was the worst I've ever seen. It went straight up the side of the mountain, quite literally in many places, where the soil had eroded entirely and left vertical cliffs of loose rock and tree roots. Without the climbing ropes strung along the trail it would have been quite impossible to ascend without forging a more sensible path.

Frustration over trail conditions eased when we pulled ourselves over the last cliff and onto the summit ridge, a bare strip of narrow rock about 100 meters long. The sides of the mountain fell off vertically from this granite knife-edge all the way to the ricefields below. In the narrowest spots, which I crawled to on all fours, it was possible to sit cross-legged with both knees hanging over different sides of the mountain. We sat up there with all the time in the world, swinging our feet off the precipice and watching the sun glint off of the backs of hawks circling hundreds of meters below as we ate our riceballs and laughed the giddy laughs of sugar-highed children at the top of the jungle gym.

Around lunch-time a group of elderly Japanese men and women joined us on the summit, pulling six pack after six-pack of tall, cold cans of beer from their oversized hiking packs. One of them wore at shirt that said, "I AM PERFECT HIKER" on the front.

The summit was clear of snow, but great tongues of hard-packed drifts spilled down the sides of the mountain like Boardercross courses. Instead of lowering ourselves down the trail, we took exhilarating rides down the snow patches, going far too fast at times and narrowly avoiding disaster when one member of our group only just managed to halt his wild descent at the edge of a sheer waterfall.

Missing skin in patches and soaked through, but thoroughly happy, we bushwhacked through thickets of bamboo to the trail, emerging in front of the extremely surprised and mildly drunk picnic party. Later, soaking in the public bath up the road from the trail head, some of us talked about how easy it would be to live on the road in Japan.

"Look at all the mountain vegetables we found today," someone said. "All that good food free for the taking."

"You wouldn't even have to deal with those," said another. "Last week, when I was resting in a parking lot after we climbed Shokanbetsu three different Japanese people gave me things, beer, chocolate and some kind of dried sea creature. And I was only there for an hour!"

"Yeah. If you look a little dirty and tired and far from home, you practically have to fight off people trying to give you food, or a ride, or a place to stay. Being a bum here really would be great."

"It's true," said the first person. "Unless you were a Japanese bum of course. Then everyoen would just be giving you dirty looks and wondering why you hadn't killed yourself yet."

We didn't laugh, because that was completely true.


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