Mt. Asahidake

Act I: Setting the Scene

I've come to believe that remoteness is a medium of clarification.


After taking an hour train, a 2-hour flight, another 4-hour train and a 2-hour bus, I finally reached the base of Mount Asahi, east of Asahikawa (旭川) in Japan's northern island of Hokkaido (北海道). The allure of high latitudes and high altitudes invited me to climb the highest mountain on the island in the hopes of exploring the volcanic vents during a 2-day hike.

The marriage of high snow levels and low temperatures means much of the Daisetsuzan National Park is closed off for December & January. However, now that 'spring' officially began in Japan, I jumped at the chance to follow in Matsuo Bashō's 'Narrow Road to the Deep North' and trek upwards.

-18°C, windy day, unrelenting snow.


Act II: The Plot Thickens

Whiteness is terrifying.

The landscape quickly changed from familiar snow-dressed trees and the specifics of rocky streams to the ultra panoramic immensities of nothingness. Absolute nothingness. The trail vanished into unrelieved stretches of snow and ice so I was left to the aid of my map, compass and 'I think this is the way.'

What made it most punishing was the incessant piercing wind whose frigid assaults bring tears. There's a Gaelic word for that - 'greann-goath' - and I like it because it sounds like what you'd mutter in such conditions.

This is a photograph of the hiking trail. Snow depth: 2.2m , visibility: 1.5m?


Act III: Character Development

In the event of extreme vastness, the eye seeks detail to position its perception.

When there's no ascertainable detail, a new fear sets in. Where am I? What if I ...? But don't explore that trail of thought. Just focus on the next steps, literally. Focus on switching between crampons and snowshoes as a means of charting the space - both mental and physical.

Trekking singly through the monotonic and monotonous mountain is not the best idea. As a precaution, I did give all my details to Ryan in case the worst happens - what trailhead I was at, the route plan, the timeline and what colour jacket I was wearing. If I didn't call by a certain time, he'd call the necessary people.

I did, however, see two other people on the mountain about halfway up. Who was on the designated 'path'? Me? Them? Both? Neither?


Act IV: Climax

'To exercise a care of attention towards a place - as towards a person - is to achieve sympathetic intimacy with it' - Robert Macfarlane.

This was definitely an exercise and I definitely reached intimacy with the mountain in that I was engulfed by its snow. With every step, I sank to my waist and struggled to haul myself up only to do it again.

By now it's been 7 hours into the hike and I passed the halfway mark hut. From here on out, I was going up the left ridge of the volcano's blown out crater. Suddenly, time seemed to slow down. The snow stopped pummeling from above, the wind held its breath, and the clouds ebbed.

Then and there, I was able to see the volcanic vents: two dark holes spewing plumes of white smoke from a white ground into a white sky.

真っ白 (mas shiro - pure white).


V: Plot Twist

How do you define success for yourself?

The answer to that question is something I have struggled with, toyed with, and fully embraced since coming to Japan. If you have preset metrics of grades, courses, and involvements, the definition of 'success' is easier to resolve but also has several external inputs. Pass the midterm? Cool. Become a coordinator for X project? Check. Learn more about ...? Deal. Take all those away and you are tasked with the freedom & the responsibility of crafting and recrafting a definition of your own.

The blizzard decided to overstay its welcome, despite my several attempts to wait it out. There came a point where I had to act: continue and find a spot to set up camp or turn back before I was benighted and my tracks buried beyond retraction. Maybe success was summiting the highest mountain in Hokkaido, overcoming the challenges and proudly proclaiming "I did it!" But that typical 'success story' is predictable and perhaps puerile. I turned back after 2/3rds of the way up, and happily thought, "I'll come back."

At the end of the trail, the setting sun peaked through the clouds and concluded an 11-hour emprise that is to be continued...