I was going to Hokkaido to climb a volcano. I’d already been in Japan for a while with my girlfriend, mostly travelling around the Kansai and Tokyo regions looking at Shinto shrines, eating noodles, drinking sake and staring at Mount Fuji. After two weeks she returned to Australia for university, while I had another 10 days there by myself. With no real plans, and having gorged myself on the lights of the cities and the sight of ancient temples, I decided to head north. I’d heard about some national parks with volcanoes.
At a hostel in Sapporo I was doing my best to avoid being an Awful Australian Abroad (tip: drink less than usual), and I got talking to a French guy named Ruben. He was a photographer who’d spent the last 18 months travelling around the world trying to finish his latest project, which involved taking photos of naked people set against backdrops of dramatic natural beauty. I was intrigued; he seemed like a friendly guy, relaxed and not at all creepy. He showed me a scuffed book in which his last collection of photos had been published.
I know nearly nothing about photography as art (or photography in general – I always press the wrong button) but I was quietly moved by his work. In each picture the subject was miniscule, hunched over or curled up on the ground, dwarfed by whatever ice floe, torrential river, precipitous cliff or cloud-drenched mountain they were transposed against. Peru, Israel, China, even Afghanistan; Ruben had been everywhere. He seemed genuinely chuffed when I told him that I liked his photos. He had to leave the next morning, so we shook hands and said goodbye. [ ]
I spent the next two days aimlessly wandering about Sapporo, eating ramen and checking out an old brewery that was eerily similar to the Boags factory in the town where I grew up in Tasmania.
It took three trains and a bus to get to Mount Kurodake. The last train was an old local express, rocking slowly away from the city of Asahikawa and deep into the forests of the national park. Other passengers had closed their eyes as soon as the train took off, apparently asleep, only stirring when we stopped at each station. I was wide-eyed and jittery, stretching my neck to see each town and landmark we passed. I was the only person to get off at the second last stop, a tiny village framed by a backdrop of snow-covered mountains. It was busy during the ski season, I’d been told, but now it was barren in a noiseless, ghost-town kind of way.
I wasn’t feeling much like the intrepid, adventurous traveller I’d imagined myself to be. I quickly became keenly aware of how alone and out of place I was – what business did I really have in the mountains of Hokkaido?
The bus arrived on time (of course) and an hour later I was standing outside a hostel that lay in a dent of the mountain range, mist collecting around my shoulders as I tried to peer through the fog at the peaks above me.
The hostel was exclusively occupied by elderly Japanese men, save for one person: Ruben. I hadn’t realised how much I’d become starved of friendly company until I saw his face open into a wide smile when he saw me. The disconcerting feeling of being an unwelcome intruder disappeared as we chatted over some bitter green tea, laughing that neither of us had mentioned our planned destinations earlier. Ruben, of course, had come to climb the volcano for different reasons. He was aiming to add another picture to his project. ‘I just want to see what will happen up there,’ I told him.
The next morning, we took a cable car together from the hostel to the base of the climb – it dragged us smoothly up the sheer face of the mountain in a transparent cube oddly reminiscent of Charlie’s Great Glass Elevator. By the time we got off, we were already 1700 metres above sea level. From there we started the final ascent towards the large plateau and crater that lay at the top.
I had been expecting Ruben to ask me to pose for one of his photos, but when he did I was surprised by the way he went about it. He stammered, talked in circles, fumbled for words. He was shy, I realised, and he also understood how strange and invasive it could seem. This made me feel more comfortable about the situation: hiking in the deep wilderness of a foreign country with a French guy who wanted to take nude photos of me. ‘I’ll have to think about it,’ I said, ‘but I’ve got to say that it’s just not the sort of thing I’m in to.’
The summit was the most stunning place I’d ever seen. A muted kaleidoscope of texture and colour stretched out in front of me, volcanic rock pushed apart by bubbling geysers, snowdrifts dotted with lichen-covered boulders, a river of ash and sulphur running through a small green valley. Ruben and I didn’t say anything for a while, eating our lunch and staring at the view in front of us.
Fifteen minutes later we were hiking around the crater, which was far more immense than I’d predicted. At first we passed dense packs of Japanese hikers, always greeting them with ‘Konichiwa’, always receiving smiles and slight bows in response, but as we progressed there were fewer people around. We were now over 2000 metres higher than the ocean and the furthest away from home I’d ever been.
After three hours we were both feeling the effects of the initial climb and hike, the muscles in our legs aching. We chose a spot to rest at a point on the near horizon, the place we figured was the halfway mark of the trip. When we got there we perched on the edge of the precipice, exhausted, breathing steam into the thin air. Where we were sitting provided an unbroken view in all directions. There was no sign of any other people; not even birds seemed to come this high. I breathed deeply and listened hard for any discernible noise. Other than the wind, there was nothing.
Ruben inhaled slowly and hesitantly asked me again, trying to be nonchalant, and the question hung in the clouds between us. I looked down at the centre of the crater. He waited for my answer patiently, unmoving, as if he had all the time in the world.
We were lucky to make it back before dusk. The cable car was shutting down as we arrived, scrambling down the side of the mountain. It took all of the pidgin Japanese we could muster to convince the operator to send one more car down the slope.
My chest and knees were stinging; a quick glance down my shirt revealed broad patches of red flesh. The snow I’d been lying on had turned my skin numb for a while, but it was now regaining feeling in waves of smarting heat. I reminded myself that it could have been much worse.
Once I had sucked in a lungful of cold air and agreed to do it, Ruben had directed me to climb down the rock face and lie, chest down, on a broad strip of snow that was bordered by banks of crumbling shale. My back was to face him, as he perched high above me behind his collapsible tripod, and my arms were to stretch above my head while my legs were splayed out beneath me.
The first part had gone smoothly enough – a quick strip, ungainly scramble into the crater, careful prostration against the snow. But from there things had gotten a bit more awkward. I hadn’t anticipated just how cold the snow would be; after only a few seconds my skin started to burn and go numb. I hoarsely yelled up at him that I was losing feeling in my fingers, but he only said ‘A little longer, nearly done.’ He repeated this several times before he finally, mercifully, bade me to return.
For a few moments I was stuck on the shale-lined banks of the sulphurous stream, my hands and toes scrabbling for grip as I tried to make my way out of the crater. The absurdity of the situation was swiftly overtaken by a few moments of purified terror. I didn’t want to be stranded, naked, in the centre of a dormant Japanese volcano.
Luckily I was able to extract a firm hold from the gravel and escape, and our weary trudge back began. Ruben was whistling and clapping his hands in excitement at having another photo as I stood shivering, asking myself over and over again why I had done it.
The next morning I exchanged contact information with Ruben and wished him good luck with the rest of his travels, before saying goodbye for a second time. He had another five months left on his trip. His next destination was Sakhalin Island, in Russia.
I caught a bus back to the train station with some of the old Japanese men who had been at the hostel. I started to wonder: how would I describe the photo to my friends and family? To my girlfriend? I pictured grooves of wary confusion forming in the skin around her eyes, and felt something close to panic prickle beneath my skin. I doubted that I’d ever be able to effectively communicate what had happened.
In each of the versions I retold in my head, Ruben sounded slightly predatory, no matter how casual or off-handed I tried to make the situation seem. I wanted the story to sound carefree and unworried, pencilling it down as nothing more than an interesting adventure, the sort that only happen to the young and reckless. But that wasn’t what had happened. I’d posed in the photo because, sitting on the edge of the crater, I’d realised that the only reasons I had for saying no were modesty, paranoia, and an in-built sense of what was appropriate amongst strangers. Somehow I managed to let go of these feelings – not without a degree of effort – and let something happen to me that was largely out of my control.
When the train finally pulled in, I kicked my pack onto the carriage and took my seat near the window. I watched Kurodake slowly recede into the middle distance.
Robbie Arnott is a bookseller and writer living in Tasmania.