As many times as I do it I don’t think I’ll ever get used to waking up with the sun, especially when it’s before 9am. I cracked the tent flap and cautiously peered outside from my sleeping bag trying not to lose any of the warmth trapped inside. Now let me tell you that’s pretty difficult to do, especially when you have stubborn zippers. The sky was painted the usual grey tinted with light shades of pink and blue in the pre-dawn light. That wasn’t what interested me. What caught my attention and caused me to leap out of my tent with the eagerness of an 8 year old on Christmas Day was the island sitting in the middle of Lake Toya.
Wait a second, you’re problem wondering what happened to Sapporo and how did I travel 120km south to Lake Toya. Well, Sapporo was just like last time, cloudy with occasional showers. The only highlight was my breakfast snack that I had at the small fish market near where I stayed (only 1.5km away). I noticed a young lady chomping down on a still moving shrimp as I was walking by a stall and just had to give it a try. As for how I got away from Sapporo, I cheated and used a bus. By the time I had figured out what I was going to do it was mid-afternoon and since I didn’t want a repeat of my Sapporo to Asahikawa hitch I went for the easy path. That and it would be cheaper to take a bus to the new town and take my chances then stay in Sapporo for another night and catch a ride in the morning.
As usual after taking an hours worth of pictures and expending all of my energy I headed back to my tent for a bit of rest, though not for much. The place where I had placed my tent was pretty much in full view of anyone who decided to walk through the lakeside park. It was the best place I could find and it had easy access to a bathroom as well as a roof, a must for the weather I’d been experiencing since I first set off the boat in Tomakomai. The planners of the city had each of the two camping ground an annoying and equidistant four kilometers from the relaxing hot spring town and that was a bit out of my walking range.
Now I should mention, like many hot spring towns, was in close proximity to a volcano. In this case it was a highly active one with the last eruption only ten years ago and Lake Toya hot spring town was snugged up right against its side. A bit dangerous in my opinion but it made for great pictures and hiking.
Sometime around late morning I finally dragged myself from writing and dropped off my backpack for storage at the tourist center. There was no way I was going to lug around 27kgs as I hiked up a mountain when I didn’t have to. The ticket they gave me to get my bag back said I had to be back before five to pick it up but the staff said that actually any time before six, when they closed was just fine.
My planned hike was to trek to Showashinzan (Showa era new volcano, about 5km away), take a ropeway up to the main volcano (Mt. Usu) then walk around the crater rim (roughly 2.5km), then descend down the other side into a different town (looked to be about 3 kilometers total from the map) and catch a bus. The catch was that the buses left about once an hour and if I wanted to be back in time to get my bag I’d have to be on the one that left at 4:26, a little bit tighter of a time schedule but still doable. Five hours for ten kilometers, no worries…
First, let me say do not ever use a sightseeing map received in Japan for judging distances. It is futile and will lead to great amounts of frustration. There are some maps that are very detailed in their descriptions of paths and distances but those are extremely rare. By the time I finally made it down the mountain and to the bus station I was ready to scream and the artist who had drawn up the cute squiggilies that made up the map I carried.
Mt Usu itself was gorgeous. Like most scenery it was hard to describe and should be seen for yourself (or you can just check out my pictures/video). If you’ve ever visited a volcano crater you’ll understand what I mean. The sparse vegetation, trees stripped bare, raw earth overturned everywhere, a deep sense of foreboding and recognition of the massive power the heart of our planet contains, yeah, a volcano crater.
It was of course cloudy and raining which made taking pictures a bit difficult as the wind always managed to always blow right on my face.
The hike around the rim was no problem and felt like it took no time at all but when I looked at the clock on my cell phone I was startled. There was only 45 minutes to make what I thought to be a 3km hike down the mountain to the bus station to catch the last bus that would get me to the tourist center in time to claim my bag. I put on my game face and determined that I would make it.
Sliding down the mountain (literally) was a blast. Most of the paths were made of up steep slabs of mud with a rope on one side to help you down. The rest were moss lined paths that bobbed up and down and weaved left and right to match the landscape. Progress was fast and I was sure I was going to make it. Every once and a while a sign appeared to alert me as to my progress. The first notice was 2.9 kilometers and the last said 300m, no worries.
Then I broke out of the forest on to the trail head, sweaty and breathing heavily. There was still 15 minutes until the bus departed. I checked the cute tourist map and by comparing different distances it looked like I only had a short walk to the station and refuge, a kilometer at most I thought.
The road in front of me seemed to stretch on and on. I checked the map again and again as minute after minute disappeared under my feet. I started to trot. My full winter clothes and decently heavy day pack making me sweatier and sweatier as I ran forward. ‘How much further?’ was the single thought that paced around my head. Ten kilometers had already gone by and each step now was getting tougher and tougher. Ahead I saw railroad tracks and thought I was saved. The bus stop I was aiming for was right next to the train station, 5 minutes to go.
The few choice words that parted my lips when I arrived at the tracks I will not repeat. I did see the train station from the crossing, but it was at least 800 meters away off of a road that I could just begin to make out up ahead. Three minutes until the bus left and I didn’t even know which side of the road it would be on. I still wasn’t ready to give up and started back into a rough trot. Hiking boots are not meant for speed.
I was still huffing and puffing when I did find the bus stop, 15 minutes later. My watch read 4:40. For the last hour I had been pushing my body to the edge to catch a bus and I had failed. The sweat that coated my body was soaking my clothes and the cool wind that I had been able to ignore while on the move was now making it self known.
‘Hmmm’ was the deepest thought I could muster at that moment. Peering at the bus schedule posted on the bus stop sign I tried to make out when the next bus would be by, just in case it might get me back in time. To be honest I didn’t even know if this bus station was on the right side of the road, I was completely lost.
I stepped away from the bench trying to get my bearings and figure out what to do next. Tired, hungry, and body quickly chilling as the sun began to set, my mind was not at its peak. Then a car pulled over and an older gentleman stepped out.
‘Where are you going?’ I checked my arms. Had one of them raised itself into the international sign for a hitchhiking without me knowing? Nope, they were still loose at my sides. I looked up and replied hopefully, ‘To Lake Toya hot spring town.’ ‘Get in and I’ll take you there.’
It turns out that I was on the wrong side of the road but that didn’t really matter. He was still eager to help me out and we enjoyed a great conversation all the way back to the tourist center (he works for the Tenri branch of the Buddhist church and teaches Karate to young children) where just before I got out he handed me a Japanese energy drink. I think that energy drink saved my life because at that point my tank read ‘E’ and I wasn’t sure how I was going to lug my bag to a hot spring.
I did make it to a hot spring about twenty minutes later after claiming my bag and repacking things. The warmth that poured into my cold and sodden limbs as I lowered my body into the steaming water can only be described as heavenly. The restorative waters didn’t bring me back to life but they did manage to thaw and relax my tortured muscles. My body was going to have its revenge on me, but that would be tomorrow.
Dinner was the usual lunch box from a local convenience store (yeah Seicomart!). It was nice to sit back and watch the nightly fireworks while munching, even if they were sparse. The day had been pretty rough but I had no complaints but if I ever meet one of the people who make those cute little maps…