If you had told me that I was going to spend my summery June weekend trudging through snow, I definitely would have expressed some disbelief. I had settled into a relaxed Sunday morning do-nothing vibe, when my better half came to me looking for adventure. It’s sunny! It’s beautiful! We have to go, go, go! I took a moment to savor this role reversal, and then we joined forces, determined in our Quest for Fun.
My suggestion? The Hachimantai Plateau. It was a locale steeped in mystery: smack in the middle of Akita, but still inexplicably inaccessible, surrounded by mountains, with an alpine atmosphere juxtaposed with “evidence of volcanic activity”.
Tantalizing destination? Check.
We gathered together some intrepid friends and headed off by car into the heart of Akita. Once we reached the Hachimantai area, we had to ascend a punishing slope to get to the plateau. During the climb, my attention was equally split between the gorgeous mountain view and the temperature gauge of our car, which was stubbornly climbing upward as well. I’m not sure that name “Red Bullet” is appropriate any more; she certainly wasn’t faster than a speeding anything, and we had to give her a rest a few times on the way up.
Once at the top, you could truly get a sense of the mountainous spine which runs down the center of Japan. We found an alpine marsh, preparing to burst into bloom. Pockets of snow could still be seen on the mountain, and in the distance, we could see Japanese skiers who had flocked to a still-covered slope, and were enjoying the last bit of powder as they jumped off of snowy hillside ramps.
Several paths led to and around the summit, skirting past many of the partly frozen ponds that characterize the Hachimantai area. Elevated planks led us across still-barren meadows, soaking wet and dripping with the sound of snow melt. Stone paths led us through thickets of pine, and voluminous clouds added majesty to a scene still tinged with the breath of winter.
Ten minutes into the hike, the planks we had been happily traversing were completely covered in snow. Snow had been tiresome in March, but in mid-June, as heat and humidity begin to afflict the lower altitudes in Japan, discovering snow was like some uncanny summer hallucination. We all did our best to shuffle, slip and slide across to where the planks emerged again, including our friend Claire, who was dressed to the nines a very summery go-go dress and boots. We repeated this maneuver over and over again… plank-snow-plank-snow, working our way through the intermittently frozen landscape.
On our way out of the park mid-afternoon, we made a detour to visit a nature trail from which you could observe “volcanic phenomenon”. “Phenomenon” was a huge understatement. I’m not saying that there was red-hot lava flying through the air or anything; but if you stepped off the path, imminent death awaited you. There are not enough words in the English language to explain the smells which suffused the air. My nose couldn’t quite parse all the olfactory excitement. “Smelly” does not begin to cover the spectrum of the fumes which poured forth from this conduit to geothermal happiness.
We passed several bubbling mud pools, and steam periodically hissed from beneath the rocks at our feet. Holes in the soil beside the trail swore and spit, belching fumes from the belly of the earth. Here and there you could see where the path had been re-routed in deference to a newly-formed steaming pit. One of these bubbling cavities surfaced directly under a pole by the roadside, which had sunk several feet into the mire. We stumbled upon a mud volcano (the biggest one of it’s kind in Japan!), which looked downright quaint until we read that the pool was 25 feet deep and 85 degrees Celsius.
Signs warned not to touch the deceptively benign water running by our feet, as the pH was somewhere in the vicinity of 1.5. We skirted a small volcanic rim, and soberly noted a sign on the far side that had been subsumed by all the bubble and toil.
A hot springs resort occupied the real estate adjacent to these hellish pools. Thick and incredibly ugly black tubes snaked around the nearest spring, piping hotter than hot water to the baths. Guests emerged from the resort in kicky little white and green yukatas (little more than thin bathrobes), to stroll nonchalantly amongst the scalding and bubbling mud, before returning to their hot spring retreat. On a distant rock was a Christian cross, surveying the scene from on high… I’m not sure what was going on there. Make the corresponding parallels to fire and brimstone if you wish. It was a surreal scene on a lot of levels.
I am thrilled to live in a place where, even after a year of relentless investigation, there is still more exploration to be done. Surprise still lurks in the cracks and crevices of this odd back-country, a niche half-forgotten, half-ignored by those living in the bigger city, on the faster track.