It is deathly silent, the snow seems to absorb every sound, and we marching without saying a word through waist deep snow. The winds on the ridges have forced us into the valleys where the snow is deepest. We change leaders every few minutes as the effort to break trail in chest deep snow is exhausting.
The feeling in my fingers is almost gone, hands are curled inside my mittens; they are balls of ice that refuse to melt. It has been three days since the storm arrived while we were trying to cross this mountain. We have no visual reference, no communication with the outside world. We are on our own in this frozen world. It is time for me to take the lead, but I don’t think I can make it much farther.
The year is 1902 and I am one of 210 Japanese military men on a training exercise in Northern Tohoku. Ordered to cross a mountain in the dead of winter, we are hit by a massive storm, lost and struggling to stay alive. We march on through the never-ending snowfall. By the end of this exercise, only 11 of us will survive, 199 will die in the deep ravines funneling off the eight peaks better known as Mt. Hakkoda.
“The ferry is now entering Aomori Bay, docking in 30 minutes.” The voice from the loud speaker jolts me awake. “What happened?” I dreamt I was about to die from hypothermia in a blizzard more than a century ago. I breathe in warm ferry air as I unzip my sleeping bag and sit up. We left Hokkaido last night, crossing the Tsugaru Straight and will soon arrive in Aomori, the most northern prefecture in Honshu.
We were well rested after sleeping on the boat; it is 7 a.m. and it’s less than an hour’s drive from the ferry terminal to the gondola parking lot. We’ll arrive well before it opens and soon be exchanging high-fives and spraying each other with Tohoku’s best powder. Boy, am I thankful the year is 2008.
A 17-year expatriate from the U.S., I have been photographically documenting the winters in northern Japan for the last 10 years, but this is only my second trip to Hakkoda. As I drive my car out of the ferry and onto a fresh layer of Tohoku snow, I ask myself why I don’t come here more often. It has been an easy trip so far.
The road up Mt. Hakkoda is a long winding affair with huge snow banks growing steadily higher with each curve. We were arriving at the tail end of a storm, and the sky was clear as we crested a plateau and were treated to a view of Hakkoda’s eight peaks. The sunrise painted the mountain a pale yellow as we snapped pictures and pointed at what we would soon be riding.
Except for me and my trip here seven years ago, everyone in the crew was a Hakkoda newbie. Kazushi Yamauchi, Yusuke Mino, Hayato Doi and Shinya Nakagawa were my riding partners for the trip. Our local connection was Ryoma.
Originally from Tokyo, he fell in love with Hakkoda and now spends his season exploring and showing friends around the mountain. He met us in the parking lot and was beaming as he urged us to get ready. “This is the first day with visibility all season. You guys are so lucky!” he nearly screamed.
The eight peaks of the Hakkoda range are rich in history and still maintain an ancient forest feeling. Hakkoda’s peaks are certainly not the highest in Japan; the gondola takes just 10 minutes to the top and lets you off at 1,324 meters. The tallest peak in the range is Mt. Akakura at 1,551 meters. With a hundred people per gondola (four trips each hour) and only 150,000 visitors per year, the mountain feels virtually empty.
This is a powder mountain. There are no groomed runs from the top. Hakkoda is not a “resort” in the traditional sense. The two trails from the peak are called “Direct” and “Forest” and are marked only by red poles stuck in the snow every 10 meters. Ropes and netting are minimal. A refreshing change from a typical Japanese resort, but it means you should not just go charging off into (the very tempting) fields of juhyo (snow monsters). Keep your eye on the red poles; if the visibility is bad, they can be difficult to spot even from a few meters away.
Because Hakkoda is basically backcountry with a gondola, a few guide companies have sprouted in the area. Tour routes vary according to the conditions, and you will have to do some hiking, but it is an incredible experience with plenty of chances to pull out your camera and get “the shot.”
A unique feature of Hakkoda, which makes it so tour-friendly, is the road circling the mountain range. This allows guides to take you deep into the backcountry, yet have a bus ready and waiting to pick you up for the ride back.
THE STORM HITS
Our first day off the ferry was like a dream. With Ryoma leading us effortlessly around the mountain, we were still getting fresh tracks just off the course after lunch. We were cruising past snow monsters finding our way through an endless variety of wind-blown lips and shapes. There are all kinds of jump and jibbing possibilities; just don’t fall in a tree well, as they can be quite deep.
Pine trees cover the upper half of the mountain and, due to the snow depth, we ride among the very tops of these snow monsters (juhyo). Halfway down, trees change to buna (beech trees), large-trunked with branches extending out to form a protective “roof.” Covered in snow, they are beautiful to look at and provide protection from wind and poor visibility.
We ended the day with a short hike and long run down a natural half pipe-like valley with the sun setting behind a thick wall of clouds to the west. That evening we watched the local weatherman point out a big low-pressure system moving in off the Japan Sea. “Big snowfall and high winds for the mountain ranges,” he predicted.
We awoke the next morning to howling winds and a view from the main entrance that made me laugh. The parking lot and all the cars had disappeared! My Mitsubishi Space Gear and roof box stands well over two meters high. It was nothing more than a lump in the snow field. We spent that day soaking in the hot springs while the staff of the hotel had to repeatedly dig out each car, move it and clear the lot.
TWO MORE DAYS
The last two days I joined a group of friends from Tokyo for a guided tour experience. Flights into Aomori Airport had been canceled due to the weather, so everyone came up on the bullet train. The 730-kilometer ride takes four and a half hours from Tokyo.
Our guide would be (First name?) Soma who I met seven years ago during my first trip to Hakkoda. He is a seasoned veteran and year-round guide in the area, so I knew we were in good hands. A leisurely 9 a.m. start got us to the top where our tour began. With a guide breaking trail and pointing the way, it’s easy to enjoy the view. The morning consisted of a series of 30-minute hikes followed by mellow powder lines down open bowls.
The pace was excellent; break a little sweat and then enjoy the fruits of our labor. The final section was a long run through trees that grew progressively tighter, until we reached the road. There were many other groups out touring that day, but the guides all knew how to avoid each other, and we all got our share of fresh tracks. The confidence and ease of being led around by a proficient guide makes for a fun and enjoyable backcountry experience.
After a week of hiking and riding around Hakkoda with a heavy backpack, my body was hurting. I knew I needed one more trip to the onsen at Sukayu. Soaking my sore muscles in the hot water, I closed my eyes and relaxed.
I had seen more snowfall in a single week than ever before. It is crazy to think the same conditions that killed 199 soldiers a hundred years ago are now sought after by people in search of a good time. It made me think about the amazing progress of humankind.
With waterproof clothing, a gondola and skis or a snowboard, the deadly storm is not a problem, but a blessing. Of course experience goes a long way too. A foolish decision or a wrong turn, and you could suddenly find yourself in a situation similar to those soldiers.
I move to the waterfall bath and let the falling water massage my shoulders. A conversation I had with one of the “old timers,” drifts into my mind. On one of my last gondola rides, I found myself sitting next to lifelong local “Mr. Yuki.” He spoke some English and proudly told me he had bought a season pass every year since the mountain opened after the war.
As the gondola arrived at the peak, he told me the real secret of what keeps him coming back to Hakkoda. “At my age, the girls in the city won’t give me a second look, but up here on the mountain all the young ladies stop and talk to me,” and with that he gave me a knowing wink and disappeared among the snow monsters. Now there is a good retirement plan.