My cousin Pete, visiting from New York City, is sitting on my living room floor amidst piles of damp wool socks and mud-streaked rain gear, scrolling through the photos on his new digital camera. He shakes his head, grinning ruefully.
“No one is going to believe I went to Japan. I mean – these pictures – it looks like Alaska - Kodiak Island or somewhere. Salmon. Scrub pine. The bear! It’s all mountains and clouds – not one fluorescent billboard on the whole memory card.”
“You’ll get your fill of bright lights in Tokyo.”
“Yeah. I’m not complaining by any means. It’s just that I never knew this Japan existed. I never knew it could look so…wild.”
Poor Pete hadn’t even had time to get his bearings. After enduring the fourteen-hour flight from New York to Tokyo, he barely made his connection up to Sapporo and then caught a train directly from the airport to Sunagawa, arriving at 9:30 pm, which was just in time to see the building in front of the station burn to the ground. Early the next morning my mountaineering mentor Watanabe-san rang the doorbell with a thermos of hot green tea in hand, and we piled into his car for an eight-hour drive to the Shiretoko Peninsula, a wilderness area in North-Eastern Hokkaido. When the mists of jet lag finally began to clear, my cousin found himself jumping from boulder to boulder on an empty coast listening to Watanabe-san talk about bears in fractured English while the peaks of Russia poked blue through a fog bank wrapped thick over the Sea of Okhotsk.
“The bears living in Shiretoko are not the same,” Watanabe-san was saying, jumping casually across a gap in the rocks with his pack slung loosely over one shoulder.
“A bear, kuma, lives in…” - he paused, frowning, making sure of himself before using the new word – “…in a ter-rit-tory.” He held up his palm and traced a large circle with one finger.
“If a bear…meet…hoka no kuma…in ter-rit-tory…kenka suru. Fight. But in Shiretoko, so many bears. Perhaps…three hundred and fifty. The area is not so big” - he held up his hand again, tracing many small circles - “so the bears living in Shiretoko…only very small home ter-rit-tory. Any bears go many places for the food. Kenka sinai. They…don’t fight.”
He carefully considered what he had said and, “Soo desu nee,” made a small nod and jumped down to the next boulder.
Watanabe-san is 56 years old and can hike faster and farther on steep trails with a heavy pack than any college kid I know. He started studying English at age 50 in order to travel more easily, and loves to take the foreign teachers of the area on trips into the mountains he knows so well. Not that we teach him any English – usually, he is teaching us - which berries are edible and which plant the Ainu used to poison their arrowheads, how to find a climbable stream-bed on a topographical map, which dirt roads lead to hidden hot-springs in the hills. His voice is deep and resonant, his speech considered, slow and clear, but his laugh comes easily, as if the whole point of focusing one’s energy with such care is to never miss a joke.
The far end of Shiretoko, where Watanabe-san was leading us on that chilly September afternoon, is remote to the point of inaccessibility. Paved roads plied by tour buses carve their way up the coast on each side of the peninsula, but both dead-end about ten kilometers short of the cape. Likewise, the traverse trail that connects the peaks of the Shiretoko Range loops back down to the coast at a point even with the end of the roads, leaving a valley choked with thickets of twisted scrub pine and impenetrable bamboo grass between Io-zan, the last peak on the traverse, and one lonely mountain standing at the very tip of the peninsula. Even this year, when the park was designated as a World Heritage Site, only a very few travelers ventured beyond the paved roads and marked trails, leaving a triangle of wilderness from Io-zan to the cape for the bears to divide peacefully among themselves.
Knowing that their son is venturing into a trail-less, bear infested wilderness is the sort of thing that regularly ruins my parent’s weekends, but with Watanabe-san as our guide, pepper spray holstered to his waist, I felt comfortable leaving the car behind and setting off along the coast. Better than comfortable in fact – the heather on the cliffs glowed burnt-orange in the long-shadow light of fading day, seagulls wheeled and cried overhead and those peaks across the strait - that was Russia – far Eastern Russia! My pack was just heavy enough, cinched tight, full of warm clothes, food and a mysterious bottle of green liquid Watanabe-san had asked me to carry. I felt fine.
For some time after leaving the road we passed weather-beaten shacks tucked in close to the base of the cliffs, some deserted, but others still in seasonal use by fishermen. At one of the last shacks a silver-bearded fisherman and his wife were laying out the days haul of seaweed to dry on the rocky beach of their front yard, faces and hands the same leathery brown color as the wooden building in which they slept. Their dog was nose-deep in a salmon carcass, bracing the fish with a front paw as he gnawed away ecstatically by a small stream that tumbled out of the mountains and into the sea. We crossed the stream on a narrow wooden footbridge, casting our shadows over countless more salmon, hump-backed and hook-jawed, all in various stages of disintegration, all desperately struggling upstream through water so shallow their bellies dragged along the gravel.
Few activities focus the mind as well as traversing a field of boulders with a full pack. Eyes gauge the stability and texture of the next rock and the distance to cover while brain calculates, sending arms swinging and joints flexing; muscles anticipate, stretch and contract, stretch and contract. The mind, fully occupied, is free from the usual flotsam of nagging worries and stray bits of guilt, totally engaged with the simple, rhythmic purity of the task at hand (and foot). This rock, that rock. This rock, that rock. This rock, that rock and then another, each problem as unique and cleansing as the waves.
After an hour and a half of rock hopping Watanabe-san called a rest. The beach behind us curved away into the fading light and up ahead tall pillars of pitted black rock extended from the cliffs into the ocean, blocking the path. Watanabe-san waited while we threw off our packs and took long, throat-pumping swallows of water, a half smile playing in his cheeks. When our breathing slowed, he pointed at the rock face ahead.
“Buddha. Can you see?” And there he was, on top of the highest rock, a golden Buddha, palms up, serene over the crashing sea.
“Now we climb.”