Japan: The Wilderness of Hokkaido


japanThere is no feeling that can compare to walking on the top of a mountain ridge on a beautiful day, and nothing but wilderness spreading as far as the eye can see, the skies as blue as they will ever be, and absolutely no signs or sounds of civilization. Words cannot quite express and pictures cannot completely relate the experience. It was exhilarating. The landscape was unique, beautiful, and except for a few people in the distance, all ours.

I find that the fact that mountains can be so scary makes them so awe-inspiring. Nature is at its most powerful here and can take us from the best to the worst of experiences – and back, just in a matter of hours. Just a week before, I was walking along the same ridge, with a visibility of a couple of meters, strong horizontal rain soaking most of my clothes, and a harsh wind chilling me to the bone. I was really hoping I would not encounter bears, who roam the mountains here. And with the fog, I have to admit, I was imagining them lurking around every corner. I was yanking my bear-bell like a crazy person. One of the two guys I crossed paths with had seven of these bear-bells, which made me feel considerably less crazy.

Mountains of Hidaka are not quite on the tourists` to-do lists, and even the most avid hikers have troubles getting there. The new restrictions and regulations make bookings couple of months in advance a necessity. That said, these are some of the most beautiful and majestic mountains in Japan. To get there, I first took a once-a-day bus to a small, one-street town of Furenai, from where I was intending to walk for 3-4 hours next day to an even smaller village, from where minibuses were taking people up to the hiking trail, a one-hour ride away. I stayed the night in a modified old train wagon. The lady who keeps the wagons (and manages the bus station and the produce market of the town, as I would find out later) was so nice and kindhearted, that upon hearing my plan, she called a friend who`s cousin drives the minibus. I got a free ride. Oh the joy!

The weather was pretty bad the first time around, and unsurprisingly all except one guy cancelled. I have cancelled for the same reason two years in a row, and it was now or never for me. Third year`s a charm. After a beautiful wide path in the canyon, passing a number of waterfalls, we reached the tricky part – the river itself. I was lucky I was not alone, because I had troubles finding the right places to cross the rapids, and the river was swelling up from all the rain. Two days later I was among the last people to make it back down, in increasingly bad weather, which turned out to be the typhoon that caused record floods in Japan. Enchanted by the little of scenery I managed to witness, but feeling defeated by the mountain which I could not fully experience or enjoy, I returned to the civilization.

A few days later the weather cleared up like nothing had happened. On a whim, for the first time in my life, I decided to risk it all, and went for this 4-day adventure again, without booking, and with company. It was our last chance, as the hiking season was nearing its end in late September. They let us go up. This time, it was a walk wordy of fairy-tales. We found our way across the sparkling river, and the next day hiked up the mountain laden with barriers and late-autumn flowers. Towards the end of our hike our luck ran out though, and due to an injury, we were still in the mountain come nightfall. We managed to appreciate the starlit sky exactly for one second before going back to crossing rivers in pitch-black conditions – survival mode on. Trying to find our way for a while, finally we followed tiny piles of stone, arranged here and there, letting us now we were on the path. We reached the cabin full of worried experienced Japanese hikers, who decided to stay up drinking while waiting and planning for our rescue. They wrapped us in blankets (yes, I fell in the river just before we reached the hut) and gave us warm food and sweets. Once again we were showered by kindness.

I am so grateful for this wonderful experience. I am grateful for second chances. I am grateful for the wonderful people we met along the way. We managed to get a glimpse of the true heart of Hokkaido in all of its striking natural beauty. And most importantly, we encountered no bears.

About the Author: Biljana Novkovic, PhD in Environmental Science, moved to Japan for her graduate studies in 2008, and has since traveled in Asia whenever the opportunity presented itself. She loves hiking, traveling and writing.

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