Strangers in Hokkaido
Our journey into Japan’s Daisetsuzan National Park started with a six-foot bear. Luckily, it was stuffed and confined to the Tourist Information Office but from that point on, I was going to be picturing bears everywhere.
How did I manage to get my girlfriend to agree to this? ‘Only fifty-five kilometres from one end of the park to the other. The guide calls it The Grand Traverse. With a name like that, we have to do it!’
So there we were, hiking up the daunting Asahi-dake Mountain. Five hours of hiking in boots that weren’t as worn-in as we’d hoped and then half-walking, half-sliding to the campsite on the other side. We slept that night on nails of cold that bit through the groundsheet.
A long hike over mountaintops the next day with Hokkaido laid bare before us. Vocal renditions of The Lord of the Rings soundtrack were now the norm. That evening the reds of sundown threw our tent into a ghostly silhouette as I warmed our hot chocolates on the camping stove.
Day three was slow going and we failed to reach the next campsite before dark. We pitched the tent in a ravine to avoid the freezing winds and I hung our bear bells on a nearby bush. Cling, cling, throughout the night but it was every crack of a twig that pushed sleep further and further away.
Over thirty hours without seeing even a solitary hiker. The mountains in the distance rolled into more mountains, with snow-draped valleys nestled in-between. A troop of deer watched us from the other side of a glistening ice cap. It was the last evening and it began to snow. We headed for a mountain hut but we would not be alone. Four Japanese hikers were already there and they gave us a friendly welcome. Within moments they were offering us warm food and sake. Communication was a mixture of charades and speed-reading the phrasebook.
Dawn. A touching goodbye as we headed our separate ways. I was determined to complete the route we’d marked on the map. Unfortunately, I’d miss-read it; we came out, ten kilometres shy of our exit, into an empty car park with two elderly men waiting on a bench. A middle-aged woman in a jeep came to pick them up and the snow came down harder.
We huddled together – maybe we argued just a little – but the jeep returned. The woman beckoned us in and chatted away happily in Japanese as she drove us to the bus stop. A surprising sight awaited us; our hikers were already there. We soon found ourselves squeezing together for a nine-person strong photograph. There were many bows, thank yous and repetitions of the new word I’d taught them, “cheers”, which soon became “cheersarigato”.
That night, in a warm hotel room, I smiled at this new word. I couldn’t help thinking that of all the beauty of Daisetsuzan, it was the congeniality of a few Japanese hikers that really made our journey.