I start hard and early and won’t let myself pause till I’ve cleared the outer edge of Sapporo. So much frustration and worry to burn off. The city emerges as the sluggish late-winter sun crawls above the snowy peaks…
..and I pound down the kerb like a man pursued as Rt 12, my chosen escape route, begins to fill with inbound traffic.
I allow myself a hurried lunch stop — sugary white bread, alleged peanut-butter, a joyless banana — among some roadside shrubs, and at last I begin to feel the wide open spaces Hokkaido is famed for. As I write in my journal that night:
I got free of the commercial sprawl of Sapporo and into a landscape that could legitimately be called “rural”. Pastureland began to open up, bordered by humps of dirty snow, there were barns and a beautiful river, the Ishikari, and beyond it all great white walls of mountains.
I crossed several long bridges, stopped three times to use the rest rooms in the omnipresent convenience stores, and spoke to nobody all day. Lots of curious stares from passing motorists. I gather that any kind of gaijin [foreigner] is pretty exotic in these parts, but my kind, in rabbit-skin hat and sunglasses, lugging an enormous pack with snowshoes, ice-axe and stuffed goat [dangling from my pack], must be quite conversation-worty to passing motorists used to seeing potato farmers and harried office types zooming to and from Sapporo.
The sun takes the edge off the cold breeze; I remove my fleece. The suburbs thin out, and I leave behind the ugly boxlike dwellings Japan does so well…
..and the cable-and-pylon monstrosities that are its engineers’ pride and joy…
..to savour this most un-Japanese of landscapes. Say Hokkaido to the Kanto Japanese and they’ll inevitably rhapsodise about the potatoes, the snow, the space. It’s frontier Japan, settled relatively recently if you ignore, as most Japanese do, the indigenous Ainu, driven off “mainland” Honshu centuries ago to the deep north and virtual extinction.
For me, this wide, clean landscape is comfortingly spacious but eerily empty. I see almost nobody in the fields, the winter-hammered pastures, and quickly christen the place The Empty Land.
Did I say “un-Japanese”? There are barns here, for God’s sake:
..and wide, flat and “western” expanses of soil:
It’s Hokkaido, though, and the vast cluster of mountains at the island’s centre is always present, brooding beyond the settlements and fields:
But what fresh hell is this? My unrelenting speed, my 30-mile day, those murderous kilos of winter gear on my back, take a tortuous toll by day’s end. My right knee is hurting, a limp developing. Ominous, and an old story, but I’m a slow learner. More settlement, pachinko parlours and grimy noodle bars, and with light fading and stealth opportunities few, I settle on a park in the suburb of Iwamizawa.
Well, I always wanted to sleep under a bridge, and tonight I get to find out if the reality matches the ideal…The park is completely deserted, drifts of remnant snow cover a large portion of the grass, and my selected campsite lies next to a stream, but still in view in view of any nosey pedestrians on a nearby footbridge… ~ Journal entry
The reality is horrible indeed. Next day I write:
Today started badly after a poor night’s sleep — don’t listen to Woody Guthrie et al, sleeping under bridges is way overrated. I got very cold [despite my allegedly minus-20C synthetic bag] and woke repeatedly, adding clothing during the long night, and the cars going across the bridge that doubled as my roof were a recurring rumble…
My limp is terrible. I resolve to send some gear home, but can’t find an open post office; $500 worth of barely-used ice-axe and snowshoes are ditched in an underpass without regret — a sweet windfall for someone. I bury my worry and buy breakfast at a Seicomart konbini in Mikasa…
..where the staff, like staff in convenience stores all over Japan, mask any curiosity with their devastating cheerfulness.
My girlfriend at present, Mika, is a nurse. I wash down one of her high-strength painkillers with some hyper-sweetened cold tea and set myself a more realistic goal: 16km, to Lake Katsurazawa. With outside taps and hoses seemingly non-existent in Hokkaido, presumably because of the crippling winters, I figure I shouldn’t want for water at a lake.
The road climbs; I’m inching into the pine-clad, snow-carpeted hills. Billboards feature dinosaurs; ammonite fossils a-plenty have been unearthed in the area. Along Rt 166, past an almost-deserted ski run at Ikunshunbetsu, awful J-pop bleating out of loudspeakers into the farthest corners of the valley. A 780m length of roofed, avalanche-proof road, where I jump onto a barrier to clasp a girder whenever vehicles pass. The Empty Land.
Finally, the painkiller wearing off, a signboard with a map showing a campground. A dumped handbag, scattered make-up, discarded underwear like a roadside crime scene. The lake — actually a dam — is a forebidding but eerily beautiful bowl of grey-green ice…
..and the campground, when I reach it at last, is completely buried under snow and utterly deserted.
Well, almost deserted:
I stomp through deep snow, confirming that all amenities are locked or boarded up. The one snow-free patch is beneath a tight copse of evergreens; I manage to squeeze in my little tent…
..and wearing all my clothing, after wolfing down a hot meal and another painkiller, I feel something close to contentment.
A light rain begins to fall. Crows caw in the lakeside birches; a hawk or kite sounds a piercing Screeeeeeeeee! like something from a samurai film. Dusk and silence settle, and the place — this cold, empty, beautiful, terrible place — is mine, and mine alone.
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote
Next post: some welcome sun, surf and sand — miles and miles of sand…