Thursday, May 24, 2007

First Camping Trip

I’ve just returned from my first camping trip of the year, a single overnight in the mountains near Niseko, to the southwest of here. My muscles ache from carrying the heavy pack over rough terrain, my heels are blistered, there are about a dozen little cuts on my hands, and I’m trying hard not to scratch the countless places that now itch from various bug bites and leaf contact. And of course I’m eagerly anticipating my next trip, and hoping it will be longer.

I was excited before this trip, too, but also nervous. As I stepped off the train at a deserted station and started climbing the hillside, leaving civilization down below, I walked with the anxiety that each step was taking me farther from my comfort zone, and that I wouldn’t be returning to that comfort zone until the next morning – on the far side of night. After a long climb up into the woods, I cleared off a small patch of earth just big enough for my tent. I stayed busy exploring and taking photos all afternoon and evening, but then night descended and the wind rose.

When you’re alone on a mountain, there’s nothing like the wind to remind you of just how alone you are. It buffeted the tent, rising and falling through the trees and tearing at my heart with every gust. There are bears in Hokkaido, and even though there aren’t very many in southwest Hokkaido, and it’s been several years since anyone in Japan has been killed by one, every noise out in the forest still set me on edge.

I was expecting all of that, though. It’s always like that the first night I’m out camping, and even moreso on the first trip of the season. So why go at all? Camping simplifies things, removing distractions and heightening awareness. As the wind howled through the hills outside, I pulled out my harmonica (which I’ve recently started trying to learn again) and drove out the loneliness by filling the tent with the chords of “Oh Susana.” When I stopped, the wind had fallen, and down in the valley below, the peeping frogs of the flooded rice fields were sending their nightly chorus into the air. I read Dostoevsky by flashlight until falling into a restless, fitful sleep.

At home, I would have slept well. I also would have stayed up late in front of the computer, clicking away in my nightly search for answers and meaning online. In my tent, I made music, read a classic Russian author, and listened to the sounds of springtime in the night.

In the morning, I was tired, but at peace with my surroundings. No bears had come, although the wind had risen again and blew a small thunderstorm across the adjacent ridge just before dawn. By mid-morning, the fog had burned off to reveal another bright, spring day under clear blue skies. I returned to the deserted station and rode south to Niseko, where I spent the afternoon taking photos along the river, reading and playing more harmonica, before heading home in the evening.

Several high school students boarded the same train at Niseko. Three girls sat in front of me, talking and giggling, and occasionally glancing at me. One of them, the one who wore bright, checkered Converse All-Stars instead of traditional penny loafers with her school uniform, took out an English textbook and began reading aloud, checking the meanings of various words with her two friends. It quickly became obvious that this pretense of studying was simply a ploy to gain my attention. My policy in such situations is to not make the first move, although eventually I helped them along by noticeably chuckling at their “studying.” It was enough.

“Hello!” the girl in the bright hi-tops called out.

“Hello,” I returned. “Do you like English?”

“Yes I do!”

She rose from her seat and stood beside mine. We made introductions and remained like that, me sitting and she standing in the aisle beside me, for the remaining 20 minutes until her stop. We filled those 20 minutes with the kind of small talk that is so good for language practice. It was the same kind of predictably repetitious chitchat that I normally deplore, making it one of my main excuses for having studied so little Japanese. Here, though, it wasn’t deplorable at all. Maybe that was because I was so happy for some human contact after a night in the woods, maybe because she was willing to approach me despite my mud and sweat stained clothes and unshaven face, or maybe because she just seemed so genuinely interested in me.

As we approached her stop, she told me that she would write about me in her diary that night, and asked if I would tell my wife about her.

“Of course!” I shot back.

She then asked me to move across the aisle so she could waive to me from the platform as the train pulled out. Touched by the gesture, I was only too happy to comply. She and her two friends waived with both hands, and as the train began to move, I blew her a kiss through the window. She positively glowed, and blew two back to me.

The train was a lot quieter after that, rolling into the blue light of late evening. I was still smiling on the inside, though, and was for some time to come. I’m certain she was, too. What a wonderful exchange when two people can come away so much happier than they were before. I suddenly thought back to my previous post about living without a car here. With a car, I’d have been struggling to stay awake on a long drive home, instead of leaning back and staring lazily out the window. And I wouldn’t have met her.

Lest I forget, the main reason for this trip was to take railroad photos on the Hakodate Line, which was the original mainline between Sapporo and Hakodate. It’s since been replaced in that capacity by the Muroran Line, so that now, between Oshamambe and Otaru, the only trains on the Hakodate Line are a handful of one- and two-car locals. But these rails, laid in 1966, once felt the weight of double-headed steam express trains.

There is actually one train with some length to it, a six-car commuter run that comes directly from Sapporo in the evenings. I timed my camping trip to see it climbing into the mountains at dusk.

The Hakodate Line runs in the shadow of Mt. Yotei (1898m), locally known as “Ezo-Fuji,” or “The Mt. Fuji of Hokkaido.”

While waiting for a train to cross a bridge, I was passed by about 20 rafts of Japanese whitewater adventurers, all striking peace sign poses for my camera.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Good stuff Scott - I love the photo of the train by the river with Yotei-zan in the background.