Hakodate – Mt. Osore
It was a short 90-minute ferry ride from Hakodate to Ōma, a small town upon the tip of the axe-shaped peninsula of Shimokita. Ōma is famed for having some of the most delectable and pricey tuna in Japan, an abundance which can commonly be found in Tokyo’s rampant Tsukiji Market. A stone’s throw to the north was Cape Ōma, the northern most point of Honshū. A black and white lighthouse sits just off shore on a tiny low-lying island, the last rock to stand between Honshū and Hokkaidō; the big island now a mere shadow grafted onto the horizon. The skies were free of cloud cover as the sun shimmered brightly off of the calm waters of the Tsugaru Strait. At a Cornetto incinerating 24°C, I quite rightly slapped on some sun screen before turning my back on Hokkaidō for the very last time.
Cycling south-easterly, I’d see the rise and fall of Shimokita’s rugged coastline to Ōhata. There, curious eyes and light-hearted giggles would greet me as I wandered the supermarket in search of snacks and supplies for my forthcoming ascent into the region’s remote and mountainous interior.
Outside the supermarket I sat on a bench and noshed on some sushi. An elderly gent approached me, hands in his pockets and a cigarette dangling from his lips. As he sat down next to me, he began to speak; his accent a thick and incomprehensible drawl. I struggled with his line of questioning but told him roughly what I thought he wanted to hear. Acknowledging me with neither surprise nor disgust, he nodded his head humbly, before pulling a packet of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket and offering me a smoke. I declined his offer politely, which led him to ramble on for a while before working out that I didn’t have the foggiest. And so we sat in silence for some moments, as I slurped on a carton of spicy tomato juice. Finally, he stood before taking a long hard look at my cycling rig; then he wished me a safe journey. I thanked him as he shuffled away slowly to sit on another bench, less than two metres away from me.
Leaving Ōhata and heading inland to the mountains, my rig felt uncomfortably weighty, yet reading beforehand about the remoteness of the area I had no intentions of running out of fuel, and thus had stocked heavily on supplies. My main concern however was that I’d bought a bunch of bananas back at the supermarket, forgetting that I was now heading into prime macaque territory. Now, I’d heard no rumours of macaque-attacks in Japan, but Google Images clearly details the devastation our distant relatives can cause if they happen to be having a seriously bad day at the monkey office. And anybody that’s anybody knows, that a banana is a monkey’s best friend, so the last thing I wanted was a bloody fight to the death in the remotes of Shimokita – over the faintest hit of potassium. So… I cycled the steep mountainside in a stealthy silence, observing my surrounds meticulously in mild fear of any sudden macaque-attacks.
I ascended for some 9 miles, up into the crater within the dormant volcano of the 879 metre Mt. Osore. The roads were devoid of traffic and the surrounding forests stood eerily vacant of wildlife.
Descending from the rim of the crater down to the shores of Lake Usori, the first thing that overwhelms one is the potency of sulphur lingering in the air. A number of scalding hot shallow waterways raced around the borders of the volcanic lake, as cracked fissures vented steam amongst the fluorescent yellow puddles of sulphur. The shadows of the surrounding forested hills cast a dismal reflection across Usori’s almost lifeless waters. Lifeless for a reason perhaps, considering the area is renowned locally as being a gateway to Hell! The whole area is steeped in mysticism stretching as far back as 1,200 years ago when a Buddhist monk stumbled across the sacred mountain, whilst looking for a land that would resonate the world of Buddha. In fact, Mt. Osore, or Osorezan as it is also known, is considered to be one of Japan’s three most sacred mountains. The others are Wakayama Prefecture’s Mt. Koya, and Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures adjoining Mt. Hiei.
Osorezan’s translation is also slightly undefined; straddling names such as Mt. Death, Mt. Fear, The Daunting Mountain, the Mountain of Horror or just good old-fashioned Mt. Doom, yet whatever the translation, joy and happiness is evidently out the window, that much is clear.
Flanking around the lake’s edge is a red bridge which crosses a small waterway, this is known as the Sanzu-no-Kawa, a.k.a. the Sanzu River. It is a Buddhist belief that to reach the afterlife, the souls of the dead must cross this river; yet this can only happen if your karma is sufficient enough. If one has lived an innocent life, then one can just waltz quite gaily across the cutesy red bridge without qualm. If one has been mildly frivolous, but from time to time has helped someone’s gran across the road, then one can traverse a shallow water crossing and ideally make it to the other side with a relatively unscathed soul. However, if one has dabbled nefariously in life (and voted Conservative) then don’t expect a free ride to the Underworld, please ready yourself for some turbulent and demonically hell-bent waters that will ultimately devour your very soul. Gaining a shot at reincarnation was certainly no easy feat.
Through the gates of the lakeside’s humbling ancient Bodaiji Temple, a baron, craggy and sulphurous world awaits, a world that looks as though it was once turned inside out. The heavy surrounding silence is dented only by the random flickering sound of spinning pinwheels jutting out of piles of stacked rocks. Close by Jizo stone guardians like those I witnessed back in Nikko’s Kanmangafuchi Abyss can be found, caring for the souls of the unborn as they make the tricky transition into the next world.
I explored all of this alone, this in itself gifted the sensation of being in a truly sacred place. Its silent tranquillity was absorbing and beautiful; an artisan’s dream. A number of wooden outbuildings lay scattered around the main hub of the Bodaiji Temple complex. I peered inside one and saw a tub of steaming water; it was a hot spring. I smelt my pits, they reeked of the living dead. If I‘d have had a God at that precise moment, then I would have looked to the skies and thanked him/her/it. But alas I didn’t, so I quickly peeled off my clothing and cast myself into the spring’s mineral rich waters. My skin felt instantly invigorated, if not a little scorched as the water was outrageously hot. I relaxed for a good 3 minutes and 24 seconds… until I felt like my head was going to explode. Then I shakily clambered out like a used up junkie. The water’s unclear turquoise glow disguised any evidence of my greasy day in the saddle. I sat on a bench and dried off, peering out of the same window that led to me to discover the hot spring in the first place. A monk appeared to be walking from building to building and was seemingly locking up for the evening. I hurriedly finished towelling off and gathered my belongings, exiting the building with haste.
The air outside was now noticeably colder as the sun began to bury itself beyond the crest of the encircling crater. I said my farewells to the monk as we passed one another, before finding myself in a desolate and roomy car park, next to Lake Usori. Content with the stillness of the life here, I set up camp in this perfect nirvana. And as night fell it began to rain… or so I thought.
I lay motionless in the dark, listening to the all-familiar pitter patter of droplets upon my tent; a somewhat soothing noise but one that unfortunately also encourages the bladder. I held on for as long as I could in the hope that the rain would cease; it was by no means heavy but enough to cause a mild dousing. Yet, it didn’t let up. Begrudgingly, I unzipped my tent, before unexpectedly becoming engulfed by a small swarm of flying insects. There was no rain. I quickly zipped the tent back up and rummaged around for my torch. With the aid of light I was able to work up a sweat and splatter a bulk of the invaders. The light from my torch illuminating the tent would give me some perspective as to what was going on outside. Cast upon the thin nylon walls of my tent the shadows of hundreds upon thousands of bugs were projected, all seemingly piling across one another in some sort of bug orgy. The only thing I can confirm about the strange phenomena was that they were not mosquitoes; their bodies lightly coloured, and their flight and movement more rapid and direct. They lacked the lazy, meandrous floating of the pitiful mosquito, yet I feared that it was the warmth of my blood they too craved. If they were to eat through the very fabric of my tent then, by dawn, I would surely be nothing more than a husk. And then, suddenly, I didn’t really need that piss after all.
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