Gunkanjima: Japan’s Battleship Island

Gunkanjima "Battleship Island"
Gunkanjima “Battleship Island”

Nagasaki’s World Heritage haikyo “ruin porn”

From the crowded second-story deck of a tour boat, the distinctive profile of Gunkanjima, so-called “Battleship Island,” hoves into view in the crisp blue Sea of Japan off Nagasaki. The long, streamlined seawall and tiered superstructure so closely resemble the Japanese battleship Tosa that a story went around during World War Two that the Americans tried to torpedo the island. The Yanks actually sank a coal barge, but the story has taken on a life of its own. Gunkanjima looks THAT ship-like.

Stories cling to the island like seaweed to a coral reef. The coal that came out of the undersea mines fuelled the engine of Meiji-era Japan’s industrial revolution and imperial expansion. Hundreds of Chinese and Korean forced labourers worked the mines from the 1930s to the end of World War Two. By 1959 the reinforced concrete apartment buildings clustered on the north and west sides of the island housed 5,259 miners and family members, the highest population density on Earth at the time. Yet within a few months of the mine closing in 1974 the island was completely abandoned until rediscovered by urbex adventurers drawn to explore the half-preserved ruins.

Gunkanjima "Battleship Island"

What it must have been like to live on such an exposed and crowded place just boggles the imagination. A treeless island of coal slag built around bare rock, enclosed within in a seawall and concrete buildings. One-room apartments for the miners and their families, with communal bathing, cooking, and toilets. The community had bars, shops, schools, a hospital, restaurants, even a brothel – everything needed for sustenance except for food and water which was still brought from the mainland. A labyrinth of underground corridors connected everything. Still, when winter storms and typhoons blew in from the Sea of Japan it must have been an wind-lashed, salt-rimed nightmare.

Gunkanjima "Battleship Island"

Recently, Gunkanjima has gone prime time. After years appearing as the photogenic subject of photo books, and TV and YouTube documentaries, the island made its Hollywood debut as the evil lair of Raoul Silva, James Bond’s nemesis in 2012’s Skyfall. Then, In 2013, Google sent their Street View camera rig to the island. Most recently, in 2015 Gunkanjima was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The media spotlight has not arrived without some controversy, however, as opponents of the UNESCO bid insisted that Japan must recognize the tens of thousands of Korean and Chinese labourers conscripted to work here and in other difficult and dangerous locations during Japan’s imperial years leading to its defeat in World War Two.

Gunkanjima "Battleship Island"

Today tour boats make the half-hour trip from Nagasaki and deposit tourists in a designated safe zone at the stern-end of the island. A short tunnel and concrete path workshops and a factory once stood, for a panoramic view of apartment buildings and a school: all the services and facilities to sustain a population of 5,259 miners and their families.

Gunkanjima "Battleship Island"

Even now, however, Gunkanjima remains a ways off the beaten path for most tourists. First, you have to visit with a tour group, and stick to the designated safe area: those luscious photos of weeds in empty courtyards, of so-called “stairways to hell,” and abandoned 70s-era TV sets are only available to photographers who receive special permission from the Nagasaki prefectural government. Even so, you must still sign a waiver releasing the tour company from liability from injury or death. And signing on with an approved group is no guarantee: boats turn away from the dock if the wind and waves are too rough for a landing.

Gunkanjima "Battleship Island"

Fortunately, on the day I visited the sea and wind stayed calm, and our ferry – full of mostly Japanese visitors – successfully unloaded at the pier. Despite having browsed picture books and Google Images, and watched videos on YouTube, the complex of ruins made an immediate impression. From the moment you step onto the pier and see the tumbledown ruin of the mine entrance and the glassless windows of the managers’ quarters perched sentinel-like at the the island’s high point, tombi black-eared kites wheeling and shrieking overhead, it’s clear that this is no Disneyland. Immediately in front of you lie the tumbledown ruin of the mine complex. To the left, following the newly laid concrete walking path into the tourist zone, the rubble remains of the island’s industrial zone, the mine’s offices, workshops, and the shell of one former residential outpost, the notorious Building 30, a 9-storey residential structure erected in 1916 which started the whole development of the island which led directly to the island reaching the highest population density of anywhere in the world at the time.

Gunkanjima "Battleship Island"Tourists are limited to the concrete path that cuts through the rubble of the industrial zone. The tour only lasts about an hour — just enough time to take in the rubble foreground, and let your imagination stretch its sea legs down the narrow roads between the vacant concrete buildings. Still, it’s enough for Gunkanjima to work a little haikyo magic.  We visitors from the post-industrial present travel back forty years, seventy years, a hundred, to an earlier time when generations sacrificed themselves daily in the dangerous, claustrophobic mines which tunnel under the sea and the concrete apartments which rise like a coral reef above the high tide line in order to build the world we live in today: the wealthiest period in human history.

Or, see the pictures in full-resolution glory on my Gunkanjima gallery at 500px.

Ka Chou Fuu Getsu “Flower Bird Wind Moon:” an Explorer’s Guide to Japan’s Wild Places

花鳥風月, Kachou Fuugetsu: “experience the beauty of nature, learn about yourself.”

A tangle of scrub pine, roots bone-white in the gunmetal blue of a Hokkaido dusk. Around us low, forested mountains rolled out to sea. In one direction, the Russian Far East; in another, Tokyo and main-island Japan. Only 1500 meters (4500 feet) above sea level, but the harsh climate of Hokkaido —  Japan’s northernmost, frontier island — put us already well above treeline. Below, I knew, higuma brown bears, cousin to the grizzly back home in Canada,  foraged among the bamboo grass for bedtime snacks. We stood in the triangular shadow of the summit as night crept up-slope, looked over a lightless wilderness, and marvelled at the irony of two city kids from Canada travelling halfway around the world, to one of the most urban and densely populated parts of Asia, to wind up alone on a mountaintop in bear country.

Grizzlies weren’t high on the list of things my admittedly eclectic research on Japan had prepared me for: a sporadic diet of Lone Wolf and Cub, Black Rain, Kurosawa movies, Akira, and Godzilla, had prepared me more for the 85 million-person conurbation on main-island Honshu, the Tokyo-Osaka megalopolis. Nature, for all I knew, was limited to the disciplined gardens of bonsai trees and ikebana flower arrangements, rather than big-N Nature red in tooth and claw.

But in fact, as I was quickly learning, this high tech, near-future, post-industrial nation still has plenty of countryside and even wilderness. In fact, in many parts of the archipelago it seems more like the people are squeezed into what arable land exists, mainly on the coasts, while large parts of the island interiors remain uninhabitable, and thus undeveloped.

Of course, Hokkaido is not main-island Honshu. In fact, that’s kind of the point:

Japan is a surprisingly big and diverse place. 6,000 islands hang pendulously from wintry Russian Far East, all the way to distant Taiwan in the semi-tropical south. Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku and to an extent Hokkaido and Okinawa make up the bulk of what most visitors think of as “Japan,” but there are literally thousands of smaller islands which unfurl into the East China Sea.

Hachijojima
Hachijojima

Some islands are heavily developed, such as main-island Honshu with the Tokyo-Osaka conurbation (though, as you will learn, there’s still a lot of wildness left even on Honshu); others still have untouched forests of antediluvian fern and palm — such as on Iriomote — and millennia-old cedar — on Yakushima — at their mountainous hearts.

Continue reading “Ka Chou Fuu Getsu “Flower Bird Wind Moon:” an Explorer’s Guide to Japan’s Wild Places”

Tokyo High City and Low: a Visitor’s Guide to Shinjuku’s Neighbourhoods

“There’s an anything goes feeling to the place.”

West Shinjuku
West Shinjuku

 

From time to time, the question arises on travel discussion forums: which is the best neighbourhood in Tokyo? Never mind the vagueness of the question. If I had, say, 36 hours in Tokyo, I’d head to Shinjuku, a city-within-a-city. There’s no better place to get a feeling of 36 million people living together Blade Runner-style than in this west-end microcosm of The Big Sushi.

It’s where I first landed in Japan 18 years ago. Then, I spun a jet-lagged fugue through Shinjuku’s neon canyonlands, elevated footpaths, tatami sidestreets and alleys, and in the labyrinthian train station. You know: the setting for Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Bill Murray? That was me, minus the hair — and Scarlett Johansson.

Now, Shinjuku still pulls me into its orbit whenever I want some “bright lights, big city” excitement in my suburban commuter life.  Familiar landmarks – the massive, six-storey Kinokuniya bookstore on the Southern Terrace, Shinjuku Gyoen park and garden, the warren of dive bars in Golden Gai – calm my nerves, and help re-center my wanderlost spirit.

After almost two decades of exploring this multi-nodal city, Shinjuku is still the single neighbourhood which best embodies Tokyo high city and low.

For the same reason, Shinjuku ranks first in places I recommend for first-time visits to The Big Sushi.

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West Shinjuku

 Shinjuku Station & Vicinity

If Tokyo is a collection villages tied together by a web of rail lines, then train stations are the village commons, the places around which daily life revolves. And of all the stations in the city, Shinjuku’s is the one by which all others compare. The Guinness Book of World Records awards Shinjuku Station the title of “world’s busiest station.” See the morning rush firsthand, and it’s easy to believe:  Over three million passengers a day pass through: Dark-suited office workers, shoppers with oversized brand bags, schoolboys in Prussian jackets, schoolgirls in plaid skirts, GothLolis in frilly dresses and hats, retirees decked out in leather mountain boots and daypacks, English teachers with trademark bookbags slung over their shoulders (why do they all have close-cropped, thinning hair? why do I?), and tourists mesmerized by the spider scrawl of coloured lines on the transit map. Uniformed staff, “the human cogs in the Shinjuku machine,” do their best to keep passengers from tumbling off the over-crowded platforms. Sights that might otherwise catch your eye – a sheaf of archers with unstrung, spear-long bows wrapped in velvet; a super-sized sumo wrestler in kimono speaking into a Hello Kitty cellphone – blend into the constant, ever-changing parade of humanity around you.

Channel5’s recent documentary “World’s Busiest Station” gets it right: “a perfect storm of busy-ness.” There are 36 platforms serving twelve or so train and subway lines. At the station’s busiest time, apparently, a train moves through every three seconds. Including underground passageways, there are some two hundred exits. No less than ten malls and department stores are a part of the main building; many more are linked by those aforementioned passages.

And all that’s only counting the main station; there are many more of all of the above if you include satellite stations.

The Station is the gravitational heart of Shinjuku: shops and restaurants can’t seem to resist its pull. UniQlos and fast food joints cluster around the tracks and buildings and exits.

Out the East Gate exit, giant screens loop ads for cellphones and animated PSAs on earthquake safety. Karaoke bars blast J-pop into the streets. A pair of electronics superstores battle for customers with chirpy welcome songs and sidewalk displays of Roomba robot vacuum cleaners. Trucks blare more J-pop, and tow larger-than-life bikini-clad robots. Pachinko parlours are already hard at it, cascades of small metal balls triggering flashing lights and bleeping, blipping, blooping alarms. The crossing signal twerps for a green light. From somewhere in the core a siren wails. And all this noise is channeled, amplified by the 10-storey urban wall that presses in all around. And everyone, all the time, talks on cell phones, as if they’re not really here, but somewhere more exciting, with more interesting people.

Compared to the East Gate, The Southern Terrace is relatively calm – except during Christmas illumination season. There’s also not a whole lot of reason for the visitor to drop by unless a guest at the Odakyu Hotel Century Southern Tower or craving a Krispy Kreme donut. The seven-story Tokyu Hands in the Takashimaya Department Store does, however, have an eclectic selection of character goods, stationery, and other omiyage, souvenirs. The Takashimaya Book Store also has one of the larger selections of English and other foreign-language books in Japan.

Continuing in the west side of Shinjuku Station’s gravitational field, electronics superstores Yodobashi and Bic Camera both have large outlets – Yodobashi’s is more of a village, really – where you can play with the newest cameras and lenses and check out the latest in Japanese consumer electronics.

Near the track underpass at the north end of the station, the ramshackle bars and eateries of Omoide Yokocho’s so-called “Piss Alley” are a throwback to the post-war Showa era.

West Shinjuku
West Shinjuku

 Skyscraper District

Staying on the west side of the tracks, but straying a little further afield is the Nishi (“West”) Shinjuku Skyscraper District. Here, starting in the 1970s and growing along with the infamous Bubble Economy of the 1980s, a former working class neighbourhood and student ghetto were razed to make way for a new generation of skyscrapers and international hotels. Not everyone likes what’s happened to the old neighbourhood. Keizo Hino describes the area in his story, “Jacob’s Tokyo Ladder:”

Some particularly grand skyscrapers… were built in the latter half of the sixties and into the seventies, during the flood tide of rapid growth, and are nothing less than massive parallelpipeds, constructed with absolutely straight lines and planes, utterly without embellishment or a light touch. The steel shells of these buildings are massive and the walls thick as fortress walls, and even the relatively small rectangular windows, fitted with tempered glass from top to bottom, are set in perfect alignment vertically and horizontally.

The Bubble Economy has burst long since, but today architect Kenzo Tange’s computer-chip-inspired Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building still towers over the area, and offers a great — and free — panorama of western Tokyo from 202 meters up.

Main "Entrance" to Kabukicho
West Shinjuku

 Kabukicho

On the other side of the tracks from the Skyscraper District, a 10-story urban wall of shops, restaurants, karaoke bars, and the landmark Don Quixote discount store along Yasukuni-dori, featured in countless movies and music videos.

A couple of dim, narrow archways lead to a warren of side streets and narrow alleys. Welcome to fabled Kabukicho, Tokyo’s “Sin City” and Shinjuku’s blue-light entertainment district — the largest in Asia. Photographer Watanabe Katsumi documented life in Kabukicho circa the 1960s and 1970s in the collection Gangs of Kabukicho. In 2009, Mizoguchi Atsushi published a long essay on the history of the area titled Yabasa no Shincho, “Kabukicho — The Truth of Its Dangerousness”, which explores the historic events and social conditions that transformed Kabukicho into an akosha, bad area.

Kabukicho has been the setting of several novels and movies by Western and Japanese writers and directors, including In the Miso Soup by Murakami Ryu,Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, and the inspiration for the setting of the cult classic cyberpunk dystopia Blade Runner. 2009 was a banner year for Kabukicho in culture: Jake Adelstein wrote his memoir Tokyo Vice about his time as a crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper; Jackie Chan released Shinjuku Incident, and Gaspar Noe’s psychedelic melodrama Enter the Void premiered at Cannes.

“There’s an anything goes feeling to the place,” reports Murakami’s narrator, Kenji, a thoughtful young sex tour guide. According to Kenji, in Kabukicho there’s “no ‘normal’ standard of behavior to live up to and illusions of glory or shame.”

Not that Kabukicho limits itself to sex and crime. Couples young and old also frequent the bars and restaurants in the area, and sometimes pop into one of the love hotels in the area. More recently, tour groups from China have started to navigate the narrow streets, Nikon and Canon DSLRs and cell phones snapping.

Golden Gai
West Shinjuku

 Golden Gai

Beside a Mister Donut on the corner of Yasukuni Dori, a flagstone path leads to a six-lane warren of some 200 tiny bars double-stacked in ramshackle buildings. Long the haunt of intellectuals and artists — Wim Wenders filmed part of his 1985 Tokyo-Ga in the legendary La Jetee bar for film aficionados — the Gai is currently undergoing a transformation which includes open doors and welcomes to visitors in places once reserved only for regulars. I have published a guide to Golden Gai on Medium.com: ‘Down the Rabbit Hole in Tokyo’s Best Nightlife District.’

Hanazono Shrine
West Shinjuku

 Hanazono Shrine

Never fear: there’s an oasis of calm next to the highrise hostess clubs and karaoke bars and other distractions. Not the most likely location, maybe, but one of Tokyo’s major Shinto shrines lies at the end of either of two nondescript paths. The name Hanazono means “flower garden”, so you can think of this jinja, “shrine”, as a secret garden just outside the Golden Gai and Kabukicho nightlife neighbourhoods of northeast Shinjuku.

Apparently the shrine comes alive several times a year, including the Grand Festival in late May, and Sundays for flea markets.

The rest of the time, during the day at least, the shrine’s grounds make for a quiet retreat from Shinjuku’s bustle.

Store Window Display, Shinjuku
West Shinjuku

 Shopping

Shinjuku has all kinds of shopping options above ground and below, from department stores to boutiques. It’s not really my area of expertise, so I’ll point you in the direction of another blog, Japan Visitor, which has an excellent overview of shopping in Shinjuku.

Shinjuku Nichome
West Shinjuku

Nichome

I’ve been to Nichome a few times: it’s certainly straight-friendly as well as being Tokyo’s most happening LGBT ‘hood. Once again, however, I defer to the expertise of others: it seems to me that JapanVisitor offers a good insider’s perspective…

 

Pagoda, Shinjuku Gyoen
Pagoda, Shinjuku Gyoen

 Shinjuku Gyoen

Shinjuku Gyoen is a gated, entry-fee charging (200 yen as of February, 2016) park a few minutes’ walk from the New south Exit of Shinjuku Station. There are gardens and park-like fields within the boundaries, and it’s a nice place to take a break from the city. Especially popular in spring cherry blossom season and in autumn when the leaves change.

 

All this is just one part of Tokyo, of the megalopolis that I call The Big Sushi. Perhaps that’s one reason I’ve stayed in Japan so long: to try to get a handle on what Tokyo Time Out magazine recently called “the greatest city in the world.” Different people have different styles of travel, of course, but if you like to step off public transit and go for a walk, a circumnavigation of Shinjuku Station will introduce you to Tokyo, high city and low.

New! View Tokyo High City and Low: Shinjuku Photo Gallery to see more images of the city-within-a-city.

Good Medicine Islands: sleeping wild on Okinawa and Iriomote

A.k.a. down and out in the Yaeyama Islands

iriomote

Just so you know, I recently uploaded a lengthy travelogue on a trip I took to Okinawa and Iriomote my first winter in Japan. The full text is online over at Medium.com: https://medium.com/the-big-sushi/good-medicine-islands-sleeping-wild-on-okinawa-and-iriomote-4e0cf83cff2#.9i3gauwm0 

Tokyo Photo Hike: Mount Takaosan, February 2016

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I’ve written before that Mount Takaosan in western Tokyo can feel as busy on a weekend as the infamous Hachiko Crossing, aka “The Scramble,” in Shibuya. The crowds, the theme-park like temple complex, and its proximity to suburban Hachioji, means that R. and I tend to stay away from Tokyo’s most famous mountain daytrip. Continue reading “Tokyo Photo Hike: Mount Takaosan, February 2016”

Japan Photo Hike: Kamikochi in Winter

Snow trekking and photography in Japan’s North Alps winter garden.

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R. and I visited the popular mountain resort of Kamikochi in the Japan Alps for the first time back in May of 2015, during the busy Golden Week holiday here in Japan, and loved it. The volcanic ponds, the dramatic mountain scenery, and troupes of wild macaques along the rivers and in the forests more than made up for the crowds of daytrippers around Kappa Bashi bridge. So over the winter break we returned and discovered a whole new side in the off-season: Kamikochi as winter wonderland.

Maybe it’s the location, in a river valley high in Japan’s North Alps and accessible only by way of a 1310 metre (4300 foot) long, dark, underpass through the mountains. From November, the tunnel is closed to cars and buses; you have to hike in, ten sweaty minutes uphill in the headlamp darkness, the insect-like click of hiking poles on asphalt reverberating in the windy passage.

Or perhaps it’s the weather. Even in this El Nino winter of 2015, when Tokyo temps are still in the double digits, Kamikochi has a good 30-40 centimetre (12-16 inch) base layer of fine champagne powder snow, which transmogrifies the European Alps-like mountains, and the volcanic, particoloured ponds and streams around Taisho Ike Pond and Kappa Bridge into a winter wonderland, silent but for the  jingle of Christmas sleigh trekkers’ bear bells, the swish of snowshoes and cross-country skis, and the occasional, disconcerting avalanche-like boom of hikers on the boardwalk.

Or perhaps it’s the situation, the shops, hotels, restaurants, and guesthouses shuttered for the season.

For whatever reason, Kamikochi in winter has a secret-garden-like fuinke, atmosphere, to the place. This winter holiday, R. and I joined an overnight snow trekking tour based out of Taisho Ike Hotel. We were extremely lucky with the weather — the guide later said it was the finest he’d seen in years — and we took a lot of photos of snow-covered ponds and rivers, mountains, and tree-and-bamboo-grass forests.

 

 

Up the River

The Japanese sport of sawanobori “shower climbing” in Daisetsuzan National Park

sawanobori

“We have to climb that?” I asked, craning my neck to see the black, water-slick rock that stood between us and the next pool, part-way through our trip up the Teninkyo Gorge on Mount Tomoraushi in Hokkaido`s wilderness heart, Daisetsuzan National Park.

Water and high places hold special significance in Japan. From the very beginning, when Izanagi and Izanami – two lovesick gods at play in the early cosmos – reached down from the Floating Bridge with a heavenly spear and created the Japanese archipelago, the relation between high and low, base and superstructure, has defined the cycle of life on these volcanic islands. Even today in this hyper-tech nation, yamabushi, Shinto holy men, worship mountains as the soul of the nation. Meanwhile, back at sea level, floods and tsunamis plague farmers and fishermen, and typhoons sweep in from the East China Sea, bringing wrath-of-god like rain to the coasts. Fast flowing rivers and waterfalls vein the volcanic landscape.

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Water and high places were also taking on a special significance for me as I stood waist-deep in a raging mountain stream, balanced on rocks as smooth and round as 100-year-old eggs. Ahead a waterfall rose out of a sumi-e ink painting. Water cascaded down toothy rock, into a pool the color of green tea. Earlier in the day, as dawn refused to light our cold, shadow-filled bivouac, and I pulled sodden shoes onto chilled feet, I had offered up a prayer to the mountain gods for deliverance from this boulder-strewn river, swollen with lashings of rain from the early autumn at higher altitude.

Apparently, my prayers were about to be answered.

sawanobori-10

Two days of hiking not on but in the Kuwaaunni River, and my introduction to sawanobori, the distinctly Japanese sport of mountain stream climbing, was not working out as planned.

Somewhere far above, in a snow-streaked meadow, a cabin promised warmth, comfort and safety on the shore of an alpine lake. Or so my companions, Martin and Hashi, assured me. All we had to do was get there.

Already, the late afternoon sun was dropping behind the gorge walls. Along the riverbank, ryukyu pine and sa-sa, bamboo grass, exuded the damp breath of early evening. River water surged around our waists. Once again, night threatened to catch us short of our destination. Along the narrow shore, the sa-sa would make a hardscrabble bivouac. Spray from the falls coated everything in a hypothermic mist. Being wet and cold is, it seems, a regular part of the wilderness sawanobori experience. So is running late.

A sign at the blocked off trailhead warned that high water levels, rapids, rock falls and treacherous footing had killed several climbers over the last few years, and the route was closed until further notice. I know this because Martin translated the written kanji characters as we stepped over the single strand of chain and hiked up a boulder field, past gorge walls freshly wounded by falling rocks.

By morning, our special felt-soled shoes were frozen into blocks. Ice melted between chafed toes as we struck out into the main channel. The current had scooped out hollows in the river bed, and wooden hiking staffs gave much needed support as we navigated past hidden sinks and ankle-twisting rock jams. The gorge narrowed to less than the width of a Tokyo alley as we climbed higher on Tomoraushi’s slopes. Rock outcrops thrust into the treacherous main channel, and forced us to make improvised horizontal free-climbs. We boulder-hopped along the sa-sa and rubble-choked riverbank to dodge the worst of the rapids, and swung from shore to shore in a daze of constant immersion.

An ever-changing trail demands constant attention, and the familiar pain- and time-numbing rhythm of a good hiking pace eluded us. The water was cold, but the sun shone brightly into the gorge, quickly drying shirts and pants soaked by the occasional stumble in the fastest, deepest main channel of the stream as we switch-backed between close shores.

A sinuous rut uncurled up the loose, wet earth at the side of the waterfall, and required a scramble, limbs sprawled like a water bug, grasping at grass, roots, anything, to keep climbing. Water roared past our heads, and turned to smoke on the toothy rocks below. As would we, if we lost momentum and slipped off the rut. But we didn’t lose momentum, and the trail continued over the lip of the fall, onto rock as flat and smooth as inkstone, and covered in slick algae and a patina of fast-flowing, ankle-deep water. The gorge walls offered no place to pull out, no handholds to grasp, if someone slipped. We paused a moment, taking in the beauty of this natural garden, the green and tan rock, the green and blue water, the lush green, ruddy gorge walls.

“Kind of like walking on a water slide,” Martin concluded. “With nothing to catch if you fall.”

sawanobori-11

We continued up what turned out to be a sequence of short falls, a staircase of water-worn rock. A single strand of weathered laundry cord provided dubious protection on the most treacherous climbs. Other times there was only bamboo grass or roots to grab. Above us the gorge opened onto the broad-shouldered slopes of Tomoraushi, aglow with red and orange leaves in the early autumn of higher altitude.

For the next couple of hours we followed worn spots in the alpine meadow and hopped across boulders the size of Honda hatchbacks as we struck out for the main trail. On into the dusk. Below, the street and house lights of Asahikawa, the nearest city, spread out below and behind us, until low clouds and rain reduced everything to a dreary haze. Our headlamps picked out a trail as darkness settled and the wind continued to build.

Until, finally, even Martin had to admit we wouldn’t reach the hut that night. We pitched tent in a hollow in the meadow floor, partly protected from the wind by a jumble of boulders that was also home to a colony of pika.

Our tent made a blue lantern in the gray, miserable twilight that settled over the meadow. We cooked noodles and rice inside the tent, Japanese style, and turned our campsite into one big sushi roll for any passing bears.

To christen this campsite, as he had the previous night, Hashi used his own brand of bear deterrence: clusters of firecrackers tossed into the surrounding gloom. AThe chance of a bear encounter in this forsaken place seemed remote. Surely bears were smart enough, unlike us, to spend the night in the tree line, out of the worst of the weather? I tried to take comfort in this rationalization, and in the lingering aroma of gunpowder from the firecrackers, while Hashi took comfort in a deep, snoring sleep. A can of bear mace lay next to his head.

Cocooned in my sleeping bag, I speculated on our chances of survival if a bear did rip through our tent. The irony of being eaten by a grizzly in a country most people didn’t know even had bears, preyed on me as night thickened and the weather worsened.

“Hashi thinks it’s about 10 hours from here,” Martin reported at dawn. “It” was a rotenburo in the next valley; a spot where a second river that emerged from deep within Tomoraushi’s deeply buried volcanic heart pooled into a natural hot spring.

With the start of a new day we had also, it seemed, adopted a new motivation strategy for making trail time. Grim pragmatism would take the place of gentle humor and cajoling. Martin and Hashi had to be back to work the next morning. The thought of climbing down a trail as rough as the one we’d climbed up, in the dark, with only two dying head-lamps to navigate with, chilled as deep as the rain-soaked morning that awaited outside.

Dry hiking boots, warmed after a night at the bottom of my sleeping bag, lovingly caressed my bruised and battered feet as we hit the trail.

Mountains generate quick changes in weather conditions. But this day, it seemed, rain and wind had settled eternal drizzle on the mountain. Our ridge trail crossed open meadows, past the shadows of ponds and rock outcroppings in a bleary, gray-and-tan landscape. Far below, tucked between the coastal highway and the sea, villagers prepared for the imminent arrival of a typhoon. Even here, inland and at altitude, rain lashed our faces and clouds whipped past at ankle height as we slipped and slopped through thick stands of bamboo grass and scrub pine. Fresh bear prints – shovels with claws – in the flooded trail seemed far more immediate and real than the humpbacked silhouettes of the Hokkaido brown bear, a relative of the grizzly, painted on the crossing signs along the park highway.

sawanobori-12

In this way, we crossed the high alpine meadows of the Taisetsuzan massif, following a waterlogged trail that made a kanji alphabet of lines and squiggles across the fog shrouded mountain slopes and ridges. At some point we must have passed unseen the turn-off for the cabin, our previous night’s destination. But time was pressing, and no one felt the desire to sidetrack for scenery.

After the first half-dozen stumbles, I stopped counting face- and ass-plants. With the trail as flooded as this on even ground, I wondered, what waited for us on the descent, with the wind pushing us down-slope? My boots, so warm and dry in the tent that morning, had turned to mud.

Until, finally, in a copse of skeletal trees at the edge of a silent and still alpine lake, we started our descent, first through scrub pine and then into the tree line and the sa-sa which followed us down to the valley.

Water, on the ground, in our boots, or in the air, had become an inescapable fact of our sawanobori trip. Once again we found ourselves following a river. Rapids and mini-waterfalls served as stepping-stones into this steeper second gorge. But the wind dropped at the tree line and the rain slackened as the afternoon progressed, and the hiking got easier as the sky darkened and we dropped deeper into the dreary gorge. For the third straight day anxiety drove us on, barely stopping for breath or water, or to treat the blisters that popped on our battered feet.

Trail markers counted down the distance to the rotenburo, outdoor hot spring, which marked the end of our trip: 2 km, 1.9 km, 1.5 km, 1 km. And then the signs stopped. The rocks above and below the stream blended into a smear of dark greens and shadow.

Dusk set on the mountain, and the gorge turned translucent. Trees and rock outcrops glowed milky in the dark. Once again a steady rain, condensation that hung in curtains from the spindly trees, and the splashing mountain stream, chilled and soaked us. And then, just as it seemed like we would need to make yet another makeshift camp, we crested a narrow line of boulders and emerged at a log bridge and the churning river that flowed past the rotenburo.

An hour later we sat on slime-covered rocks in the hot spring’s turgid, greasy waters, breathing in an incense of sulphur and algae. In the dark, surrounded by the shadowy bulk of Daisetsuzan, it was easy to imagine the primordial sludge in which we steeped as the product of Izanagi’s and Izanami’s love. What the cold, fast-running river took from us, the strength of our muscles and the will of our spirits, this hot spring now gave back. The river we had climbed and the pool in which we now soaked had their sources in the same mountain, and we floated in that fecund pool, afloat in the perfect closure to our trip.

(Originally published as “Water and High Places” in Travelmag, 2001. Photos by Hashi. R.I.P.)