At the far eastern tip of the Kameda Peninsula near Hakodate sits an active stratovolcano named Esan. Rising directly from sea level to a modest height of 618 meters, the double volcano is the southernmost active volcano on Hokkaido island, and my destination for an overcast morning in late August. I boarded a bus from Hakodate station for the hour-long journey to the start of the route, which sits directly on the shoreline.
The initial part of the climb is on a paved public road that skirts past an abandoned elementary school before passing a temple with an immense gold-tinted Kannon statue. A bit further on, a hot spring hotel sits alongside a pair of vacant holiday homes: a surefire sign that the economic bubble had long burst.
I followed the quiet road through a series of sharp switchbacks toward a vast green plateau pockmarked by pumice boulders from previous volcanic hiccups. Due south, across the Tsugaru Strait, the mountains of Aomori Prefecture spread along the horizon, the tops capped with a beret of gray cloud. The road terminated at an empty parking lot and shut visitor’s center. I turned east, faced with an immense mass of igneous rock hissing with venomous gas. For the time being, the fog was held at bay but the pressure on my barometer was heading south quickly.
I picked up the pace, darting through the debris field like a soldier navigating a mine field. Once on the path it became a matter of following the paint marks on the rocks to the skyline. The winds picked up from above, smothering me with noxious fumes. I covered my nose and mouth with a dry towel and trotted through the thick stench while gasping for oxygen. This was not the smartest of plans, but turning back now would be accepting defeat, something that was not on my lunch plate.
Shortly before the high point, the fog enveloped me, but I pushed on and reached the summit marker a few minutes later. Somewhere beyond this white void a rumble crescendoed past. Did that burp originate from the heavens or the depths below? No time to loiter.
I hit the ground running, just as the clouds emptied their bladders. Forget switchbacks: I scurried straight down the behemoth as the rumbling drew closer. Once back out of the cloud line the rain turned horizontal as a lightning bolt ricocheted off of Mt. Kaikou, barely 2 kilometers away. I screamed, turning my horse trot into an olympic sprint.
I made it back to a rest shelter next to the visitor’s center and stripped off my drenched gear. Fortunately I had brought an extra layer that remained dry and tucked into lunch as nature continued the electrical show. Eventually the storm passed and I retreated back down the main road and to the bus stop. Esan put up one heck of a battle, but victory was mine. I’d still like to have another crack (no pun intended) at the mountain in more favorable conditions.