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Backpacker Magazine – November 2013

Best Discovery: Hai Country, Japan

Can you really find true wilderness in the most civilized country on Earth?

by: Ted Alvarez

Sulphur vents steam below 7,516-foot Mt. Asahidake.
Sulphur vents steam below 7,516-foot Mt. Asahidake.
Dwarf Azaleas bloom in the first few weeks of July.
Dwarf Azaleas bloom in the first few weeks of July.
Guest shoes line the entrance to Hakuun Hut.
Guest shoes line the entrance to Hakuun Hut.
A sign warns you're entering bear country near Kogen Onsen.
A sign warns you're entering bear country near Kogen Onsen.

And then the weather roars. The next day, hunkered down against the wind below that Siberian dwarf pine, my indecipherable topo flutters in the gale. Beyond lie the best parts of Daisetsuzan—the remote, 6,603-foot summit of challenging Oputateshike, the entire day of knife-edge ridgewalking between Sansendai and Biei Fuji. How can I miss that?

But I’m being greedy, and I know it. Cruel weather, 40-degree snowfields, and my solo status eat into my chances of success. I think about my fiancée at home, imagine the searchers shaking their heads at the frozen and foolish gaijin who got his head bitten off by Daisetsuzan when he could’ve been soaking in a hot tub. Thinking about the promise of an onsen at every trailhead makes it easier to do what I know is right. I turn around. 

Over the next two days I retrace my steps back to Kurodake hut, climb Mt. Kurodake, and walk out a new route to the popular Sounkyo Hot Springs. Except for a pack of vacationing salarymen crowding the Hakuun hut, I have another solitary day vaulting across the tundra, capturing the views I’d missed on my first pass. 

Near sunset, at the top of the ridge connecting Mt. Hokkaidake to the valley below, I notice a dim brownish mote shuffling across a snowfield perhaps a quarter-mile away. Just as my eyes focus, it melts into nearby bushes. Fox? Bear?

The answer only registers when I reach the snowfield: plantar prints the size of my face edged by deep claw marks. Definitely higuma—brown bear. Then I hear footsteps.

A young guy with spiky hair skates out onto the snow. He’s wearing a bright yellow rain shell, jeans, and Vans. He rattles off machine-gun-fast Japanese, and I try to get his attention by pointing to the tracks and saying, “Higuma! Higuma!” I finally bumble into a passable pronunciation, and he begins taking photos of the tracks. 

“We stay ... together?” he says, pointing at the footprint. 

Hai!” I say, and we hike the final mile to Kurodake hut, trading mangled English and Japanese along the way—I’m finally over being tongue-tied. When we arrive, Makoto, the hut keeper, pops out from behind the counter, proffering noodle cups and cans of Sapporo. He joins us at a wooden table, and we stay up into the night. My new friend Kazuhiro, a civil servant in Tokyo, wants to see the Milky Way—ama no gawa, or “river of heaven.” We tell bear stories, drinking stories, and goofy-friend stories until a trail of sparkling sugar connects the serrated horizons.

As I drift off for my final night in the wilderness, I realize I feel perfectly OK with quitting the Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse. In fact, thanks to the park’s interchangeable access points, I’ve created my own. Let’s call it the Ted Traverse: 51 miles, seven summits (some climbed twice), one bear, and a few new friends.

A phrase I’ve learned comes to mind: Takane no hana (“flower on a high peak”). It’s when something spectacular remains just beyond reach, but should stay there. So what if I only glimpsed the wild heart of Japan? I know it’s there, and that alone is powerful. I think about all that remains untouched in Daisetsuzan and feel nothing but calm. Takane no hana.

--
Ted Alvarez is an editor at Grist.org, and our survival guinea pig (backpacker.com/dropdeadted). 

 




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