When the bamboo thins, or clears temporarily, you look as far as the eye can see from the mountain ridge you are traversing. Hills and mountains extend to the misty horizon. You keep walking.
All around silent birch trees reach out of the brush, the last of their leaves shed for the season, their white bark gleaming in the sun. They thrive in this climate, and at this elevation, but their sparse branches and characteristic shredding bark make the silent scene seem more like a graveyard where the dead don't lie down, but stand and watch you passively, season after season.
After a gruelling ascent that allowed no glimpse of its summit, you emerge onto a clear peak, with a full panorama to reward your eyes, now sick of swimming through sasa. In the distant, Mt. Fuji's smaller twin, Yote, Fuji of the North, climbs up from its cloudy foundations, an impossible trapezoid reaching into the sky. Undulating hills and thrusting peaks surround a meandering valley that opens onto the Ishikara plain, where Sapporo sprawls. Looking around you know that the only place you have to be, is right here.
We started the hike Saturday morning, crossing just 6km's the first day, to find an amazing little hideway. An incredible two-floor wood cabin nestles in the bush, on the edge of a pristine little pond. Expecting a ten-foot shack which we would share with the squirrels, we were surprised to discover that a caretaker was keeping the cabin warm with a fire. My two friends and I passed the evening talking, having tea, doing some yoga, and most of all enjoying the stunning colours and thick silence of the forest - broken only later that evening by the caretaker's radio announcing the Fighter's win. It is baseball playoffs, after all.
The next morning, at 630 - when he heard us stirring - the caretaker came up from downstairs carrying a breakfast of mizo soup and hardboiled eggs for the three of us. This is in a little cabin in the woods where people can just pop in randomly and stay the night. This is Japanese hospitality.
Sunday was the real trek. On and off for around 23km's that day, with our big hiking backpacks in tow, we were swimming through that bamboo and crossing a slanting trail across the hilly ridge that was more slippery for the mud, decaying leaves, and bamboo stalks that made every step slightly precarious. My friend came out of it bruised and bleeding slightly from a dozen scratches across her legs. Luck and my hairy legs protected me, and I was left only with the wondrous feeling of trusting that the path I followed would lead me through the obscuring and enclosing brush.
At a hut near the other end of the trail, we stopped to chat with the caretaker. He was just heading home at the end of the weekend, so he offered us a ride - without us even asking, or saying where we were going yet. We hiked the remainder of the trail with him, and the three of us piled into his little sedan with our giant bags taking up ay available space.
He dropped us off in Jozankei - the closest onsen town to Sapporo - and we were quick to hop in the hot water in the bowels of a ritzy hotel. Hot water never felt so good, as when I stretched my legs out and gazed up at the brightening stars, and chatted with my friend about living in Japan.
Back in Sapporo later that evening, the three of us had tastey soba and tempura, and a nice cup of tea, at a quaint restaurant near our building, before saying farewell for the night.
Sunday night is my weekly scheduled phone chat with my mom, but I was just too tired to talk. I was exhausted from head to toe.
It felt great.