After a cozy night at a cheap minshuku on the shores of Lake Akan, I was whisked to the trailhead of Oakan by the kind owner. She gave me her cellphone number, indicating that I call her if I needed a ride back to town after coming off the peak. Kind service in the countryside never fails to impress. As I tightened up my boot laces, I gazed at my map and prepared for the obvious: a long, steep climb in questionable conditions. Sure it was sunny here at the foot of the massive volcano, but higher up the cone lie wrapped in thick blankets of wind-swept cloud.
With the inherent risk of brown bear attacks, I deviated from the norm and actually filled out my info in the trail registration book. Oakan was not a peak to be taken lightly. I soon caught up with a middle-aged female out walking alone, and the two of us pushed on for most of the uninterrupted climb up to the crater rim. The first part of the trail was easy enough, skirting a couple of scenic lakes before reaching the 1st stagepoint. Lake Jiro was particularly attractive in the early morning light.
Compared to Meakan, Oakan, albeit long, was rather gentle to start. I rose up to the 3rd stagepoint without too much effort, passing through areas of hidden subterraneous caverns, from which pockets of frigid air would rise suddenly, cooling my sweat-soaked torso. While most of the climb of the previous two days had been above the treeline, here at the male peak the forest reigned supreme, blocking any lake-effect winds from reaching the trail. Humid was an understatement, but I had other problems at hand in the form of blood-sucking horseflies.
The horseflies, known in Japanese as abu, were relentlessly persistent, taking every opportunity to swarm and dive-bomb their prey. I was starting to wonder if the creatures had an affinity for foreign blood, as my Japanese companion walked with ease while I swatted endlessly. Breaks were next to impossible, as every stop in motion meant the sweat-chasing abu could make landfall and deliver their nasty bites. Luckily they were fairly easy to kill once they landed, but my upper torso quickly became inflamed from all the smacking. My walk in the woods was somehow becoming a sadomasochistic ritual. Walk, rest, swat was my mantra.
Immediately after reaching the 4th stagepoint, the path turned predominately steeper and muddier, but the slowly expanding views and scenic alpine flora made the effort worthwhile. The views back down to the lake made me forget completely about the nasty thunderstorm of the previous day. Meakan put up one unforgettable fight, but Oakan wouldn’t submit so easily either. I collapsed at the 5th stagepoint, too tired to move any further. I needed nutrients, even if the abu made such attempts futile.
Somehow I managed to stuff a fistful of peanuts between my lips and continued on the overgrown trail. Alas, I could see what appeared to be the summit directly ahead. Dropping into a long saddle, I pushed up the curving switchbacks with renewed vigor before ascending into the cloud. Cut off from the surrounding views I chased a lone hiker to the 8th stagepoint, mistakingly thinking I’d reached the summit plateau.
From here, it became a monotonous series of ups and downs along the wind-swept ridge until I’d finally seen the ancient, grass-filled crater rim. It’s easy to forget that this peak is indeed a volcano. Perhaps Meakan will one day look like this, once the cyclical eruptions cease. If only the clouds would lift so I could get a better sense of perspective and scale…
Nearly 3 hours after setting foot on Oakan’s broad flank, I arrived at the summit, only to be met by a crowd of 20 strong. They’d taken nearly 5 hours to cover the same ground I had, and the elderly team spread out on the summit like chocolate syrup on vanilla ice cream. I found it difficult to position myself amongst the organized chaos and cigarette smoke. Why on earth would you want to pollute your lungs after filling them with clean mountain air?
Sitting on the bald summit, I felt a sense of dejection in the thick mist and frigid wind. Sure I’d successfully scaled a massive volcano, but couldn’t the crowds and flies just leave me alone. I sunk my teeth into a soggy sandwich, wondering what the peak looked like on a crisp, cloudless day. “At least I’ve got a hot spring to look forward to,” I sighed in resignation. Clearly Meakan was turning out to be the victor in this battle for volcanic supremacy.
Silently and briskly I retraced my steps back down to the treeline, flying past the tour group I’d met earlier. Just below the 8th stagepoint, well out of reach of the crater rim, the clouds completely dissipated, revealing jaw-dropping panoramic views. “You gotta be kidding me,” I screamed, cursing my incredibly bad timing. If only I’d spent another 20 minutes on the peak! Too exhausted to return to the summit, I accepted defeat and slid back down to the treeline, through the warm sunshine and awaiting abu.
Returning back to the main road, I thumbed a ride back to Akan-kohan and the refreshing waters of the hot spring baths. Rain fell steadily on my aching body, a sign that perhaps I was wise to retreat when I did. I long for the day when Akan would reveal herself in her cloudless beauty. Just as in the Japan Alps, I fear those days and few and far between. So, who won the battle between Meakan and Oakan? I declare a mistrial due to lack of evidence, and can only hope to schedule a rematch on a clear autumn morning in the not-too-distant future.