Hakodate Death March (…or Hike’o-date)

Years ago I lived in Japan and traveled with friends in the Navy. We typically would spend a couple months in home port (Yokosuka, Japan) and then a couple months port hopping. On one of these trips we pulled into Hakodate, Japan (Ha-koh-dah-tay) (on Hokkaido) for a couple of days. Founded in the 1400s this was the first port in Japan that was opened up to foreign trade. During WWII there were a few prisoner of war camps established here. Hakodate has a long history of foreign servicemen suffering… this little adventure was just another data point in that history.

Most of you will only know Hokkaido because of a certain kind of popular beer which is made in one of the larger towns on this island. Sapporo anyone? We did happen into the Sapporo beer festival one year as well…but that is another story.

Hakodate was a sleepy little fishing town with not a lot going on back then. Not sure it has changed much. So our decision to find our own entertainment led us to acquire some libations, collect our fishing gear, and make the hike out around the horn.

We had intended to hike out to a beach then back. What we found was a long cliff in our path. Luckily there was a rope! We climbed down and fished part of the day.

As the afternoon started getting later, and we were out of Sake one Cups, we decided to head back. Only one issue… no one wants to climb the huge cliff rope again. As a group, none of us are as dumb as all of us, we decided to follow the beach around the other way back to the city. We knew it was longer, ‘but if all one had to do was wander down the beach ….’ How hard could that be?!

Hakodate
A map of our path.

Incredibly hard as it turns out. Dangerous and potentially deadly. The small stone beach turned into a larger stone beach, then into a boulder beach, and finally into cliffs that plunged straight into the ocean with waves crashing onto them.Without the benefit of smartphones (or cell phones at all) we had no way of knowing what lay ahead of us.

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A view from the top. We would later hike around that point and much more.

We kept good morale on the stone beach. Even were fairly positive and objective about our stupid decision as we hopped from boulder to boulder when the stones got much bigger. When the cliff blocked our progress; nearly everyone’s’ shoulders dropped.  Two options 1) into the cold water and hope it is passable but not knowing how far or deep around the corner one would have to wade or 2) up the beach cliff and over the mountain saddle. ‘Well we’ve come this far!’  We opted for the up and over approach and climbed the beach cliff till we got into some grass and shrubs. The hill was steep. Too steep to walk. Rather we would kick our feet into the soft dirt and side step the nearly vertical hill while holding, with white knuckles, onto grass or odd brittle shrub branch to move horizontally across the hill. It took nearly an hour and half to navigate around this one obstacle.

As we traversed the hills trying to find our way back into town we found long abandoned WWII gun mounts and temples. At the time these sites seemed to be long forgotten. Today it looks like trails and parks have sprung up around them. Certain proof that some other fools have followed and improved our footsteps.

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We were tired of carrying so much gear and had been in need of both hands at many points when we crossed the temple trail. We left some of our more useless gear and fishing poles as an offering to any deity that might help us find our way back without needing helicopter rescue (we did seriously discuss signaling). We did think about the possibility of it being considered a desecration but hoped that anyone maintaining the temple would appreciate the near new fishing gear in trade for forgiveness.

Eventually, and sometime after sundown, we stumbled over the hill and onto a small footpath. It should be nearly impossible to get lost out in this area but the terrain is still not easy and might get you killed. Our sense of direction had been dead on. The small footpath lead down the hill into Hakodate (Hey, just like we planned, HA!). As we walked into the quiet Japanese neighborhood we started to realize that we looked like we had really been through it… and felt like we had as well, because we had. Clothes ripped, filthy, wet, smelly….

Something needed to be done. We could not return to the ship like this. Too many questions would be asked and there was no guarantee that we were actually allowed to be

Image result for Hakodate Onsen
About how we felt.

out in the area that we had traversed. We hatched a plan to find a Japanese onsen (public bath house) to clean up. One of the guys, the one who spoke the best Japanese, took all our clothes to be laundered.

After nearly three hours our clothes returned. This was plenty of time to discuss how much we really trusted the guy who could decide to pull an ultimate prank. Fortunately he did return….finally.

Sore but clean, and after a few triumphant recaps of the story over beers, we returned home very late. The story was told like a legend to the crew by the characters that joined me on this Hakodate Death March as all good sea stories are swapped after a successful port visit.

The brotherhood of those on this trip made a nearly impossible day survivable. A fun to tell story even. There was always an out reached hand to help the next guy over an obstacle. Without the guys none of us would have attempted such a fool hearty journey with spirits in tact. Special thanks this Memorial Day to all the shipmates I served with.

Do you have any fun stories to share about Hakodate or other similar death marches? Post or link on your blog or in the comments! I’d love to hear them.

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