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Going to the Top of Akita

2009-02-18

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The following is an essay I wrote for the Feb 2009 Hanabi, the Akita JET quarterly.

I got up too early, put three rice balls, a chocolate bar, a bottle of water and a thermos of tea in my bag, and walked out the door. Conbini Sato wouldn't open for another hour. In Jinego there's only one convenience store and it was closed. The vending machines were open. So I bought two cans of coffee instead of sunblock.

Forty-five minutes later, I arrived at Haraikawa, the trailhead. It was a beautiful April day. Maybe in Kisakata spring had arrived, but not here on the slopes of Mt. Chokai. The snowbanks by the road formed a tunnel. The mountain was sitting snow-covered, waiting patiently. Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Murayama arrived. He's the oldest teacher at my school and is somehow faster for it. He loves to hike and so do I.

The trail up Mt. Chokai winds its way, zig-zagging over rocks and streams, but not when it's covered with snow. When it's covered with snow you can go straight to the top. I suppose you could turn, but your boots might lose traction. A hundred people were hiking that day, most of them with skis. Mr. Murayama and I weren't carrying skis, because we believe in the saying, "No pain, no pain." Still, we wanted to have fun going down, so we brought two pieces of heavy duty plastic. Calling them sleds would be an overstatement.

We got to the top three hours later. Not a bad time, all things considered. I suppose you don't want to stop for long water breaks when, if you sit down, your butt gets cold. Like I said, it was a beautiful April day, but at the top it was windy. It was ridiculously windy and very cold too. So we quickly took some pictures, feeling pretty good about the ascent, and started back down. We couldn't use our sleds at the top because it was too steep. But a little way down we could, and in 10 minutes we slid back to the halfway point.

I had assumed we would go up and down fast, maybe finishing with a late lunch in Yashima. But Mr. Murayama disagreed — apparently it's traditional in Japan to have a large lunch when hiking. Mr. Murayama took out his stove, canned meat, tea, ramen, rice balls and chocolate, and gave half to me. I felt a little embarrassed, considering how little I brought, but that feeling soon passed and we enjoyed the bleak and lifeless, magnificent and pristine, scenery. We could see Yashima and Honjo to the north and the Sea of Japan to the west.

After lunch and some more sledding, we got back to the cars. Mr. Murayama drove home, and I drove to the onsen to nurse my sunburned face. It was a bad sunburn that hurt even a week later before my face peeled and I grew a new one. But the mountain and onsen are still there. I'll be back to visit both, as soon as it snows a bit more.

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