Out of Season

Trip Start Sep 08, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Japan  , Hokkaido,
Monday, October 18, 2010

We were staying in a mountain resort but we had come at the wrong time of year. We were a month and a half too late for the last of the summer flowers, three weeks too late for the  autumnal colours and two weeks to early for the snow and the skiing. Still the setting was spectacular and we wanted to explore. But we really struggled to find good information, some helpful advice to point us in the right direction or even a sensible map and for a day and a half we found ourselves frustrated by the very limited and prescribed nature of things in Japan. We became sick of being told we couldn't do things, you're not allowed beyond this point, this route is closed to you, NO ACCESS HERE. After hiring a bike for twice the price, we later found out, that they were available from our own hostel if only they had mentioned it, we ventured out to see the natural wonders of the mountain valley; waterfalls, a steep-sided enclosed gorge and a large lake. We cycled through a stunningly beautiful landscape but found ourselves restricted to the cycle path which was the pavement to a highway - the main artery cutting through this mountainous region - and the sense of being at one with nature was slightly hampered by the fumes of the caravan of lorries.
At the waterfalls - which were quite amazing - we, along with the unloaded tour coaches, were shuffled to prescribed viewing points from which to take our original photos. Indeed two or three tiered bleachers had been erected for the best composition of group photos.
To get to the gorge we had to cycle on up beside the highway which almost immediately entered a tunnel which continued in turbine airflow orange fluorescent darkness for five kilometers. I'm sure the landscape outside this enclosure was quite magnificent but this we were ot permitted to witness. The cycle route which normally by-passes the tunnel, taking instead a route that runs gently alongside a mountain stream, was inexplicably closed.
On the other side of the tunnel we found ourselves again restricted to a prescribed viewing platform from which we were kindly offered a tantalising glimpse of the gorge before it swept around a bend concealing from us, I'm sure, the most spectacular geographical formation. There was no opportunity to explore or discover, no chance of engaging with the natural environment in a way we saw fit. But the few Japanese that milled about this carpark/beauty-spot seemed content with what they had been allowed. This Asian obsession with capturing the pre-ordained photo, the set view, and not having any notion that it might be worthwhile and somehow fulfilling to explore further is one that is so foreign to me and one that I am struggling to fathom. Perhaps it goes back to this idea of education through repetition and reproduction rather than the West's obsession with the development of the individual and the unique expression of a unique personality.
As for the lake? this was a whopping great dam with the potential for a large reservoir behind which, unfortunately, by the time the cycle path had abruptly ended and we had been forced to cycle up the wrong side of the road to get to it, was all but empty.
As we freewheeled back down, a great sadness seemed to settle in the valley and I felt distinctly unwelcome.

The following morning we wanted to go for a walk. Simple. We wanted to go for a gentle stroll in this beautiful countryside, to enjoy the mountains without the exorbitant expense of the cable-car which was the prescribed means of engagement. Again our attempts were frustrated - as a few puffs of snow swirled in the valley updrafts, a no access barred the path suggested to us by the hostellier, and when we stepped over this chain linked blockade and continued on up the valley, a small man in a hard hat came running out from a site hut to ensure we progressed no further.
We turned back round and began to descend but from this point our fortunes began to change. As we walked dejected back down to the town we bumped into the Belgian couple who were also staying at our hostel and had been given the same advice. With their help, we succeeded in finding an overgrown path and together we enjoyed a thrilling adventure, hiking up the side of the mountain, climbing 650m in an hour and a half and ascending from the damp overcast valley into the snowing foothills of the mountain. By the time we reached the cable car station at the top. a thick layer of snow crunched under foot and the green bamboo held a white handful in each cupped leaf. We had earned our bowl of hot ramen.
The trek back down was just as much of an adventure but in the eyes of the few Japanese that got off the cable car at the bottom to jump onto their tour coach to flee this off-season town, I'm sure the four Westerners emerging from the snow-covered jungle must have appeared quite mad. And in many ways I'm sure we are. Why this need for adventure & uncertainty & exploration? Why this obsession with trying to understand something new for yourself when everything here worth knowing has already been gleaned by men far wiser than you? Why not pay your money, take your photo and leave?

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