Hiking Mt. Shakotan

June 19, 2011 – I’ve learn a valuable lesson. When invited on a four-hour hike, you should always clarify whether it’s four hours roundtrip, or four hours each way. I had been invited on such a hike by Kawai-sensei just the day before, and I eagerly accepted without clarifying the length of the trek. Perhaps I should have been more suspicious of the fact that Yamazaki-san, who loaned me a lot of gear for the trip, declined to come along. I figured he was just busy.

I met Kawai-sensei at the Seicomart at 8:15 on Sunday morning. I had bought food and water for the journey; a 2L bottle of water, two cereal bars, an onigiri and inari-zushi for lunch. I also purchase a little canned coffee drink (very Japanese) to drink right away, and hopefully wake myself up a bit before heading out. We met up with other hikers just a few blocks away from the convenient store, hopped into cars, and drove out. During our drive, I discovered that the starting point for our hike was actually very close to the Abe farm, which had previously blown me away with its amazing mountain views. I was already convinced the hike would be spectacular.

The parking at the trial head was pretty amazing in its own right. After having driven up the steep, gravel, mountain back road, everyone had very little room to park their cars. They really packed the cars in like sardines, spilling out from the designated area a bit, but not going far enough to lose their vehicles down the side of the hill. I never would have been able to maneuver a minivan through that madness, but the locals had no trouble.

The amount of gear that everyone had for hiking looked completely ridiculous at first glance. For instance, I had my backpack, gloves, and rubber boots, as well as a bell to warn the bears they were about to get Chuck Norris’ed, and multiple insect repellents. In additional to the magical peppermint bug spray that Yamazaki-san had given me, I also had a coil of insect repellent incense, burning in its own metal case, hanging from my belt. While I had everything from my neck down covered, Kawai-sensei even had a bee keeper-esque mosquito net that hung from the brim of his hat and covered his face completely.  (I was about to see why.) Additionally, many people had poles to assist their cross-country trekking.

After a group photo, we were off. Along the way, there were posts marking each stage of elevation gain. Where we staged was level 3, but the peak would be level 10. The trail itself reminded me of the hikes I had done in the Seattle area, although the foliage was different. For most of the trail, just on the edge of the path, a thicket of thin bamboo blocked one from wandering off into the wild. This bamboo, in its young sapling state, was actually quite desirable for the people in our group. It’s called “takenoko” (竹の子 – bamboo shoots) and it’s used a many delicious traditional Japanese dishes. Before the hike was over, I had even spotted and snapped off a few bamboo shoots for myself. When in Rome, right?

There were also stunningly beautiful flowers to see, although much of the time they seemed almost hidden. It was a definite bonus to find one on the side of the trail, although I failed to get many good pictures with my camera.  The most interesting part of the hike for me was the large patches of snow we encountered. It was the middle of June, but in some areas we had to cross over 150 meters of snow, as it we were in the Lord of the Rings. While the temperature seemed comfortable to me throughout (maybe even a bit too warm in places), there was lots and lots of snow. This was contrasted by swampy sections which were extremely saturated; definitely necessitating the waterproof rubber boots.

And the bugs! WOW, THE BUGS! I’m shocked that you don’t hear more people complain about Japan’s bugs, because they are epic. From the moment we entered the forest trail, we were besieged by an army of mosquitoes, unrelenting in their quest for human blood. Luckily, Yamazaki’s mint bug spray was very effective and I reapplied it countless times. I was very happy that I had been warned to leave as little skin uncovered as possible. Normally I don’t wear a towel around my neck, but now I’ll never go into the woods in Japan without it. Honestly, I wished I had Kawai-sensei’s face net.

For most of the hike I was near Kazama-sensei, from Hizuka ES, who had come along with his wife. Kazama-sensei has spent time in Cameroon, so he speaks French and a little English. In fact, French words usually sneak into his speech when he tries to say things in English. While we walked, we made conversation in a funny blend of Japanese, English, and French.  It was très amusantだよ.

The view from the summit was breathtaking. The rocky ridge of the mountain poked out from the green foliage like the spine of a sleeping colossus. It was only mountains in most every direction, as far as the eye could see. If you really scoured the horizon, you might be able to catch a glimpse of the sea. The mountains were a swirling patchwork of trees and snow–green and white–really beautiful. While at the top, everyone sat down and ate their bento lunches. Then, before descending, we got another group photo.

Our group became spread out on the way back down, mostly due to some overzealous takenoko hunting. With less supervision, I started to revert to my normal state, that of a five year old boy who thinks he’s a ninja. Many of the trail’s trees hand low branches growing wildly in every direction, and with the swampy path, it seemed like a good idea to climb. Eventually I was moving from tree to tree, making my way down the trail without touching the ground at all. I was Tarzan.

By the last quarter of our hike, my feet were killing me. The rubber boots that Yamazaki-san had loaned me actually belonged to his 13 year old son, Chikaru. They were almost my size, but just a little too small, and walking downhill put agonizing pressure on my toes. I ended up with some blisters, but thankfully I wasn’t bleeding from my toenails, which I was honestly expecting from the pain.

In the end, we had hiked for eight hours, making it to the summit with an elevation of 1264.9 meters. It truly was a great experience and I’m glad I went. However, if I was invited on another one anytime soon, I’d probably decline.

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