Playing with volcanoes

After a three-months rollercoaster ride in China, it was somewhat a relief to leave the overpopulated, smog-choked cities behind. When we landed in Sapporo, Hokkaido, it felt as if an immense burden lifted off our shoulders. This is by no means criticising our time in China but rather emphasising the immediate effect of Japan had on us upon landing. I mean, anyone would feel the effect of transitioning from a 15 million city, that is Tianjin, to a ‘tiny’ one of 2 million. We could finally breath, literally.

Despite the geographical and historical closeness, modern Japan, in many senses, stands at polar opposite to what China has become. In terms of natural sights, Japan does not have the jaw-dropping wonders that China is fortunate to house in its vast territory. Mt. Fuji, the pride and symbol of Japan, is dwarfed by Mt. Everest bordering Nepal or Shishapangma in Tibet. Almost every nature park or tourist sights lack the scale that comes so effortlessly in China but what they lack in size they more than make up for in their attention to details. National parks are kept in immaculate conditions because the people who look after them seem to truly care about nature conservation and animal preservation. This love transcends to garbage-free natural sights, informative brochures, helpful signposts and educational material for all ages to digest. The boundless time spent, and the meticulous care taken to do anything, and everything is etched in every aspect of people’s life in Japan. Something I deeply admired when I lived there as a student and now as an adult.

In many ways, anyone with a sensible head on their shoulders would not choose Japan as a place for settlement. It lies directly on the Ring of Fire (a circum-belt of an area in the Pacific Ocean where earthquakes and volcanic eruptions often occurs) which means about 10% of the world’s active volcanoes are found here. In addition, 1500 earthquakes occur on an annual basis, while magnitudes of 4 to 6 are not uncommon and a place to which JMA (Japan Meteorological Agency) describes as a “zone of extreme crustal instability”. What a perfect place to try out mankind’s luck in rearing the next generation. The Japanese have not only survived it, they are one of the world’s most advanced civilisations in the world. How did they do it? Hitting the ski slopes, wild onsen-hopping in Hokkaido and eating one the world’s most delicious cuisines until you drop, clearly does the trick. Well, it is a start.

Instead of complaining about the volcanic eruptions, like many of us would rightly do, the Japanese created onsens (hot spring) and turned bathing into an art form. There are so many variations now in Japan that it boggles the mind. However, the roten-buro (outdoor onsens) in Hokkaido takes this bathing ritual to another level. Some are hidden deep in forests, while others are by the sea and in daytime it is submerged by the ocean but come evening during low tide it soundlessly reveals itself.

They are created with such expertise and thorough consideration, that they seamless integrate into their natural surroundings formed zillion years ago. And the cherry on the top is that these roten-buro are mostly free of charge. The number of times Henning and I draped our towels around our necks, treading in ankle-deep snow through the forest, in search of the onsen with anticipation would never get old. Once we spot it in the distance, the delight is parallel to that of Hansel and Gretel stumbling upon the gingerbread house. And sometimes with as perilous of an ending as the fairy-tale had we outstayed our time in the hot water.

In addition to our regular heavenly bathing rituals, a habit we quickly developed, we enjoyed the country’s excellent infrastructure camping with Toyotoro. They were so great throughout the country that it almost took all the edges off wild-camping and overlanding. Please allow me to indulge on one of Japan’s singular phenomenon: michi-no-eki (an all-inclusive service station with toilet, water source, often gourmet restaurants, local markets and souvenirs etc. at your disposal, does not quite describe the magic of these places) exist all over the country. They became our safe haven for our stay in Japan. It gives service stations a whole different meaning and standard, that is so far matched by no other.

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