CHAPTER 25: Hokkaido Nature Tours

September 6-9, 2018

This photo supplement tracks the events in CLIMB: Leaving Safe and Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. The captions offer “extra features” that didn’t make it into the book.

I’d wanted to visit Hokkaido ever since learning the names of Japan’s four major islands (from north to south: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu) in grade school–and I’d been looking forward to this trip in particular for over a year. On my most difficult days in chemo, I read and re-read the amazing itinerary Ido Gabay of Hokkaido Nature Tours designed for me, and the anticipation gave me strength when I had none of my own. Despite a massive earthquake that struck Hokkaido on September 6, stopping all public transportation, Ido confirmed that the trip could go ahead, so on the morning of September 8 I boarded a shinkansen bound for Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto, the northernmost terminus of the bullet train.

Self-heating steak bento: pull the rip cord, and three minutes later you have a steaming hot, fresh meal.

In Tokyo station, I bought a self-heating bento for the trip. To my amazement, it actually worked as promised, and the food (steak and rice, with a few token vegetables) tasted fresh and hot–and considering that I like my food roughly the temperature of molten lava, that’s saying something.

The clock at Shin-Hakodate Hokuto, the night I arrived

I fell asleep on the train and woke as we pulled into Shin-Hakodate Hokuto. Ido had warned me that almost everything was closed, due to the earthquake, so I took a photo of the clock at the station (pretty much everything about new places is exciting) and checked in at the station hotel–which had power and hot water, but no food or beverage service, either that night or the following morning, and no Internet. I didn’t care. I had a shower and went to bed, hoping the buses would start running the following morning as scheduled so I could get to Sapporo.

My first daylight view of Hokkaido

I woke to a grey, rainy morning with almost no one on the streets. The forecast didn’t bother me, and I’d purchased snacks for breakfast before leaving Tokyo (again, on Ido’s advice, because he suspected the convenience stores and shops might not have reopened–or, if open, might be severely understocked, for the first few days) so I checked out of my hotel and headed for the bus stop where I hoped to catch a highway bus to Sapporo.

Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station – with the hotel on the right.

The view from the bus stop. Simultaneously mundane–because it looks a lot like many other stations in Japan–and awesome, because I’d finally made it to Hokkaido.

View from the highway bus, en route to Sapporo

I don’t know what mountain that is in the picture above, or the names of any of the others we passed on the highway during the several-hour journey to Sapporo, but I wanted to climb them all.

Origami at the Michi-no-Eki

The bus stopped for fifteen minutes at a Michi-no-Eki en route to Sapporo to allow the passengers to use the facilities. The shops in the Michi-no-Eki were still closed, due to the quake. However, there was a basket set out on a table near the information kiosk filled with origami birds. The sign says “Take Free” – so I did: my first treasure from Hokkaido.

My “Take Free” Origami bird

I took a picture of the bird to preserve the memory in case it was lost or damaged on the trip. As it turns out, I still have it, and it sits on my bookcase as a daily reminder of my life-changing adventure in Hokkaido.

Coffee and Cookies and Cream gelato

After meeting my first Hokkaido Nature Tours guide in Sapporo, we drove to Niseko, where my guide–who I’d already christened “the Yamabushi” (the Japanese term for a mountain ascetic) took me to Takahashi Dairy Farm. He claimed it had the best gelato in the world–and he was not wrong.

Mt. Yotei–also known as Ezo-Fuji for her resemblance to Japan’s most famous peak

At the dairy farm, I caught my first terrifying glimpse of Mt. Yotei–the mountain we were scheduled to climb the following day. My first impression was “There’s no way can I climb that. It’s impossible.” Fortunately, the sugar high from the gelato kicked in a few moments later, and I changed my mind–assuming the weather wasn’t bad, I couldn’t wait to climb.

The steaming pool outside Niseko Yumoto Onsen

After gelato, the Yamabushi took me to Niseko Yumoto Onsen, where I spent a heavenly hour soaking in all of the onsen’s half-dozen outdoor pools. The water at Niseko Yumoto Onsen is milky white, and so relaxing I was sorry I had to leave. On the way to the inn where we had reservations for the night, I asked the Yamabushi to pull over so I could photograph Mt. Yotei lit with alpenglow from the setting sun:

Mt. Yotei in alpenglow

The resulting image (above) is one of my favorites from the trip, and captures the beauty of Hokkaido perfectly.

That night, another large earthquake shook the area–an aftershock from the larger quake a few days before–but the morning dawned clear, and the quake was far enough away that Yotei’s trails didn’t suffer any damage, so after an early breakfast, the Yamabushi and I set out to make my first Hokkaido climb.

Join me for the story of that adventure (which turned out to be far more adventurous than I planned) in CLIMB, and in the next installment of this photo companion: CHAPTER 26: PEEPING TOM.

* This page is part of the photo companion to CLIMB: Leaving Safe & Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. You can find the story behind these pictures (in hardback and ebook formats, and either in person or online) at your favorite local bookstore or at Amazon or Barnes & Noble (both in the U.S. and internationally).