September 15-16, 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.
Although I originally planned for Hokkaido Nature Tours to provide me with only transport and guides for the climbs of Hokkaido’s hyakumeizan peaks, the company’s founder, Ido Gabay, constructed my itinerary in a way that not only maximized my chances of success (an important consideration, given my aggressive timeframe) but transformed the necessary “rest and travel days” into opportunities to experience much more of Hokkaido than I dared to hope for. September 15, 2018, was one such “rest day”–on which my guide, Takuto, showed me some highlights of the city of Obihiro.
Food is a highlight of any journey, and in Obihiro, that meant a lunch stop for butadon at a famous restaurant chain. The picture above was my lunch–the “standard size” grilled pork bowl, which featured slices of tender pork grilled in a tangy, slightly sweet glaze and served on a bowl of steaming rice. The covered bowl to the right contains soup, and the yellow discs are tsukemono (Japanese pickles)–specifically, pickled daikon (Japanese radish).
After lunch, we went to see traditional Banei Tokachi–also known as “stop and go” horse racing–a sport that originated in Hokkaido, and is still done only here. The sport began as a way for local farmers to compare the amount of weight their prized draft horses could pull. Originally performed only at festivals, today the track has races every weekend (and some holidays). The horses pull sleds that weigh up to a ton (depending on the weight class of the horse) along a 200-meter track that contains two small hills.
Some of the horses, like the one in the photograph above, become quite famous (locally at least) during their careers. The beautiful animal above lives at a stable near the track; he no longer races, but he won so many during his time at the track that he was granted official citizenship in Obihiro upon his retirement.
This type of racing is known as “stop and go” because the race isn’t run at a consistent pace. Instead, the horses pull the sled a little way, stop for a moment, and then move again. I’m always concerned about the welfare of animals (and horses in particular, because I’ve loved them all my life, and used to ride on a regular basis). Fortunately, the horses on the track seemed healthy and well cared-for, and didn’t seem distressed by the racing process. In fact, the horses that won both of the races I watched came from behind to win, because they put on a burst of extra speed when they saw another horse making a move to pass.
Unlike Western horse races, the winner in Banei Tokachi is determined by the back end of the sled itself–the first horse to pull its sled completely across the finish line is the winner–regardless of whose nose may have crossed the line first.
After the races, we drove almost three hours northeast to the shore of Lake Akan (with a stop at a lovely onsen on the way, to break up the drive) where Takuto dropped me off for an evening on my own. After checking in at my hotel, I walked through the nearby Ainu village, an area containing traditional buildings constructed by Hokkaido’s indigenous Ainu people and a number of modern shops operated by Ainu craftsmen (and women), many of whom sat in the doorway carving traditional statues while waiting for visitors.
Traditional Ainu homes had thick walls and roofs to protect against Hokkaido’s heavy snowfall, as you can see in the photograph above.
As I mention in more detail in CLIMB, I hoped to find a hand-carved wooden owl to bring home as a souvenir of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. However, I didn’t want a mass-produced carving; it was as important to me to meet the person who made the owl as it was to find the right one–and as I wandered through the shops, I worried that I might not find it after all.
But I did–although you’ll have to read the book to learn the whole story.
The little hand-carved statue above is my “Ainu Owl,” who sits on my desk and watches over me as I write.
The story of the carved owl does not end with the purchase–and for those who have read the book, the picture above (which I took earlier in the evening, as I walked toward the Ainu village, not realizing what an important role it would ultimately play in the adventure) shows the shrine where I later heard the owl call.
According to legend, Mt. Meakan’s regular eruptions are caused by her anger at her husband (nearby Mt. Oakan) because he had an affair with the lovely Akan-Fuji–who everyone believed was a prettier mountain than Mt. Meakan. While there’s no doubt that Akan-Fuki is a lovely peak, I hoped Mt. Meakan would keep her temper under control long enough for Takuto and me to get to the top and back.
The trail up Mt. Meakan begins in the forest, and starts out relatively flat. In fact, the trees block the view so completely that you wouldn’t even know you were climbing a mountain, but for the trail signs.
The forest at the base of Mt. Meakan is beautiful, and although it doesn’t take long to get to the start of the ascent, the first part of the hike was a lovely, relaxing start to the day.
Once the trail starts to gain elevation, the trees quickly disappear, and are replaced with short, thick brush. The wind can be quite strong on Meakan’s upper slopes, but fortunately it wasn’t blowing hard the day we climbed.
The scrubby foliage allows for spectacular views–which quickly became one of my favorite parts of hiking in Hokkaido.
The trail itself is rocky, and gets quite steep as it approaches the summit, but not nearly as steep as many of the other peaks I climbed in Hokkaido. In fact, Meakan was the easiest of the hyakumeizan in Hokkaido–and not only because of the climbs that preceded it. That said, lack of difficulty doesn’t translate to lack of interest, and this was yet another fantastic climb.
How could you not enjoy views like this??
The trail to the high point circumambulates the crater rim, and offers excellent views of the steaming fumaroles and volcanic mud pit below. The trail does not go into the crater, for obvious reasons.
The peak behind the clouds, center frame above, is the unfaithful Mt. Oakan, legendary husband of Meakan and–according to local belief–the reason she gets feisty on a regular basis. Note that he is also smaller than she is.
The steaming crater at the center of the frame is another of Meakan’s craters, and the steam is coming from several active fumaroles.
The final ridge to the summit parallels the crater rim; it’s wide and relatively flat, with views that leave no doubt you’re walking on a live volcano.
While I loved the climb, it was also bittersweet, because I knew that after we descended, I would say farewell to Tak and meet my last Hokkaido Nature Tours guide. That said, the guide was Ido Gabay himself, and I’d been looking forward to meeting him for months.
A new dome is rising directly next to Meakan’s summit crater–a sign that this volcano continues to live and grow.
In some places, the scrubby pines grow so close to the trail that you hike through a tunnel of shrubbery.
We descended without incident, and I said a fond farewell to Mt. Meakan and to Takuto, who headed home to his family after handing me over to Ido Gabay–who was every bit as nice in person as I’d expected, and I knew we would get along famously.
Ido wasted no time setting out for our next destination–a mountain so remote we would spend the night in a hut at the trailhead before starting up the following morning, and one that I will always remember as an important watershed of the 100 Summits year.
To find out more, click through and join me for Chapter 30: Water Over Rock
* 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).