After a fitful sleep, I cooked the last of my supplies before packing up and hitting the trail. The fatigue from yesterday still hung over me like a swarm of hungry gnats. The rays of sunlight peeked from behind a bank of cumulus. If I hurried to the ridge I just might get some long sought-after vistas. Biei-fuji’s curvy cone rose majestically to my right, but I skipped the summit in favor of the craggy spires of neighboring Mt. Biei. I crawled up the crumbling slopes, losing one step with each two taken in a futile duel with gravity. Clouds began rising from the valley below, threatening to steal my cherished views. I pushed myself harder than ever, clambering up the last few meters until topping out on the shores of a gargantuan ocean of mist.
Dropping my kit, I stood, mouth gaped wide, as nature put on her spellbinding performance. Mt. Tokachi pierced above the clouds like a lean-to placed gently among a softly sculpted field of snow. A deep gorge of hissing and steaming plumes of volcanic gas intermingled with the rapidly rising fog bank, two angelic figures engaged in a choreographed ballroom dance as I stood on the sidelines taking notes. Turning ninety degrees, the entire Daisetsuzan range that occupied my time for the last 5 days stretched out unabated, proof of my interminable drive to persevere through it all. Despite the rain, fog, wind and long distances, my trek had finally reached a point of unwavering bliss; even though I was stripped of panoramic views on both Mt. Asahi and Mt. Tomuraushi, the scenery spread out before me more than made up for it: I was bit by the hiking bug in a major way, the implications of which would alter the course of my tenure in life.
Dreadfully, the clouds soon caught up with me, swallowing me in its entirety as I started on the long slither across the boundless scree fields of Tokachi. Although only 30 minutes as the crow flies, the journey took the rest of the morning, as poor visibility and even poorer footing reduced my pace to an infant’s crawl. By the time I had reached the summit I had lost all drive to continue. I needed nourishment and fast, but what edibles could possibly remain after such a long journey? I released the pack to investigate, pulling out my food bag to find a package of dried miso soup, a few grains of powdered milk, and a half-filled container of angel hair pasta. It was a meal fit for Bear Grylls, but I’d need some fire. As I reached in to pull out the stove, my hand came across a small hard lump wrapped in plastic. An elderly hiker had handed me a couple of pieces of candy on the climb up Tomuraushi, and here they were staring out at me. Hmm, miso-and-milk pasta, or apple candy?
I put away my gear, sucking hard on the candy to try to squeeze every last morsel of energy from the sugar-packed coating. It wasn’t much but it gave me enough of a push to reach the junction for the hot spring. Mt. Furano, like Biei-fuji earlier in the day, would have to saved for another day. I worked my way through the accelerating winds and dense forest of cloud, reaching the top of a maze of stairs leading down through crumbling tufts of pumice. Hundreds upon hundreds of stairs stood between me and a hot bath, but the pressure of a relentless descent started to take hold, and my right knee let out screams of pain with each successive jolt. I had done the entire trek without a pair of trekking poles and I was starting to pay it. Once the path flattened out I was in a pirate’s limp, reaching the hot spring in time to refuel the body with both grub for the stomach and muddy sulfuric grub for the muscles.
Next on the agenda was a ride back to civilization, but first I had something else on my mind. I stuck out my thumb, and the driver gawked at my destination: “Fukiage? But you just had a hot spring!” The driver dropped me off a few kilometers down the road to the bath entrance, a 10-minute jaunt down a narrow mountain path. Fukiage gained fame in the 80s TV drama Kita no Kunikara, and the twin outdoor baths set in a thick forest of natural vegetation are a sight to behold. I stripped, soaking my spent body in the therapeutic waters. Unfortunately my peaceful soak was cut short by a group of camera-wielding Chinese tourists, who came to rubberneck at Japan’s endemic culture of grown men marinating naked in the great outdoors.
Once back out at the main road, I caught another ride a few more kilometers to a campsite, where I had planned to pitch my tent but got distracted by a brand-new hot spring accommodation called Hakuginso that had just opened. Not only was it affordable, but there was a kitchen that guests could use to cook meals, and the maze of outdoor baths in the garden made it a no-brainer. I settled into my room just in time to watch the rain fall in heavy sheets. Thus I had ended my trip in preciously the same way I had begun: in a sparkling new guesthouse in the company of Hokkaido’s ill-fated weather.