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Writing a tale of adventure about living life under extreme conditions
Yusuke Kakuhata
Nonfiction Writer and Explorer

There are all sorts of adventures. Going places no one else has been before. Seeing something for yourself that nobody else has seen before. Flying like a bird in the sky. Sailing across the sea using only the waves and the wind, unaided by man-made devices. Curiosity and a questioning mind have given rise to various forms of adventure. But wait, then there’s a man called Yusuke Kakuhata.

He struggled with words such as “mysterious,” “phantom,” and “the void” to experience their puzzling fascination; he dared sometimes to take on adventures to unravel mysteries, and sometimes to go places never explored before. And he has taken these heroic and grueling experiences and published them as nonfiction narratives. Let’s listen to Kakuhata in his own words. His view of the world leaves us spellbound, and rightly so.

Kakuhata had not always seen himself becoming a professional explorer. “I wasn’t so interested to begin with. I am often asked why I became an explorer, but I didn’t read books by Japanese explorer Naomi Uemura when I was young, nor did I have some other formative experience.
However, and I think this applies to everyone, when you’re young don’t you feel like you want some passion to consume you? But at that age you just don’t know what it is yet. I went through that phase....”

His family ran a supermarket in the city of Ashibetsu in Hokkaido. Kakuhata was the oldest of four children, and his parents had hoped he would take over the family business. As a child, he clearly understood his parents’ unspoken expectations.

The precipitous slopes of the Tsangpo Gorge.
At the campsite in the Tsangpo Gorge.
A snapshot of crossing a mountain pass, while exploring the Tsangpo Gorge, Tibet, December 2009.

“The hope I would continue the business put me under pressure from an early age, and I hated it. I dreaded that my life had already been mapped out for me. At times I felt like running away from a future that I could somehow already see unfolding.”

When the situation regarding his family’s business changed though, he was released from the fate of taking it over. It just goes to show one’s path in life is never absolutely predetermined.

Paralyzed over his future prospects, he happens upon exploration club

Kakuhata went on to attend Waseda University, and was invited by a high-school friend to join the rugby club. Chasing the oval rugby ball brought its own sense of achievement, and post-practice drinking sessions were fun too. At the same time though, a vague hunger stirred in his heart, and slowly began to build. Was he going to continue along this path, pursuing his rugby club activities and getting a part-time job, and then look for a decent job and become a proper member of society? Rather than follow a predetermined course, he wanted to have a life where he could feel really alive without having to consider his future prospects¾a yearning with no real outlet began to build within him.

"While I was consumed by these thoughts, a flyer posted on campus by the Exploration Club caught my eye. Printed on the A3-sized flyer was a Mercator projection of a map in white, with bubble captions indicating the location of past activities. Things like: "Went to the African Congo in search of monsters. Crossed the Taklamakan Desert. Missed out on a Pulitzer Prize…but met generals from the East Timor Liberation Front!" Kakuhata, now a second-year student, joined the Exploration Club along with university freshmen. When he became a third-year student, he was appointed the club's chief secretary.

The first time he visited Tibet was during the summer of his fourth year. He stayed for a month in a village at the foot of the Tsangpo Gorge, one of a five-member team.

Tsangpo Gorge, located deep in the Tibetan interior, has been known as the “river of mystery” since the 18th century, and has attracted the interest and attention of explorers and mountaineers. According to books he browsed occasionally at bookstores, there were roughly five miles or so of unexplored terrain left on the map. He was going to explore every part of the heart of the gorge¾it was clearly the moment that ignited his later passion for exploration.

“Why did I feel so at home in the Exploration Club? The way I see it, the more seriously you tackle exploration or mountaineering, the more you get gradually drawn into it. But it’s really not a job as such, and the more you do it, conversely the more your future prospects decrease. Maybe it was this element of instability that appealed to me.”

He graduated from university after six years, two years later than normally expected, but had no options for employment. Although he had aspirations to become a newspaper reporter, he decided to pursue the dream he had told friends about of "becoming an explorer."

He spent two years repeating a cycle: he would work part time to fund mountain climbing trips. Naturally, Tsangpo Gorge was included in his list of places he simply had to climb.

However, “from the year following that first trip to Tibet, for some reason the Chinese authorities refused to issue a permit” and consequently Kakuhata’s plans were unavoidably put on hold.

His experience of the employment conditions in those part time jobs became an invaluable asset. “Don’t you want to work full time?” he was asked by keen employers. But he couldn’t see himself with a future as a construction worker. Nonetheless, he began to be drawn into a spiral of doubt and anxiety as he continued working part-time to fund his existence. He decided to once again pursue his dream of “becoming a newspaper reporter” which had been abandoned when he graduated. He took entrance exams for a number of newspapers, and decided to join the Asahi Shimbun.

“I thought I’d better visit Tsangpo Gorge one more time before I became a company employee, and I stayed there three months from December 2002. I billeted at local homes, and surveyed the uncharted terrain on three separate outings. I was able to survey basically the entire area.”

Writes tale of adventure travelling through the Tsangpo Gorge, wins three literary prizes.

Kakuhata joined the Asahi Shimbun in April 2003, and was assigned to their bureau in Toyama. Three years later he transferred to the Kumagai bureau, where he stayed two years.

The work of a reporter probably should have suited him. A series of reports he wrote at the Toyama bureau covering the environmental disaster caused by successive releases of sediment into the pristine Kurobe river, was published as a collection of articles in book format, entitled "The River Sighs, The Sea Breathes Out: A Report on Kurobe River Polluted by Successive Releases of Sediment." The book successfully demonstrated how one could "write articles using steady investigation to uncover the truth."

Kakuhata’s books “The Five Mile Gap” and “The Yeti is Coming!” (Both were published by Shueisha.)

“I got used to working at the Kumagai bureau, and because I wasn’t that busy, I went to Mount Tanigawa every weekend. Before long, I began to feel that ‘this is where I belong.’ If I continue as a newspaper reporter, I’ll definitely regret it. I want to go to Tsangpo.” He became consumed with the thought that he had “to live a life where I feel truly alive,” and Kakuhata again changed his path in life.

He resigned from the Asahi Shimbun in 2008, and that same year a senior colleague at the paper asked why he didn’t go in search of the Yeti. Kakuhata promptly joined an expedition to Nepal.

In November 2009 he set out for Tsangpo Gorge, making this his third visit.

In November 2010, a book of his experiences exploring the Tsangpo Gorge was published under the title “The Five Mile Gap.” In August 2011, a separate volume detailing his expedition to Nepal was published entitled “The Yeti is Coming!”

"The Five Mile Gap" has been triple crowned: it won the 8th Takeshi Kaiko nonfiction award in 2010; the 42nd Soichi Oya nonfiction award in 2011; and the inaugural Tadao Umesao literary prize for mountains and exploration. Also, "The Yeti is Coming!" made the Takeshi Kaiko nonfiction award shortlist last year, and won the 31st Jiro Arata literary prize in 2012.

Kakuhata’s sophisticated penmanship vividly brings to life an all-consuming sense of realism based on actual experience. The reader is unexpectedly drawn into an impossible landscape as if watching a motion picture.

“I put myself in unpredictable situations, I want to take risks and live life to the fullest.”

I decided to ask Kakuhata what adventure meant to him. “First of all it’s danger. Yet there’s a sense of independence. It also means not having a rigid system, not following a manual. For instance, it would be no exaggeration to say that climbing Mount Everest, for me, would not be an adventure. There is now a standard routine for climbing there. By not deviating from the established procedure, your chance of success is increased. It seems to me that’s not really taking on an adventure.”

In which case, what does he think having a real adventure means. “Go some place where you don’t know beforehand what’s going to happen. In the past, adventure meant going to places that weren’t even on the map, so that’s really adventurous. There’s a lot of trial and error when you get there, and you feel hesitant in many ways because you don’t know what to expect. I think this aspect is adventurous. In that sense, having a clear idea of what’s coming, and being adventurous, are two different things, I guess. Challenging the system and the establishment, or coming from a place beyond the confines of common sense and shaking up that sensible view of the world¾to me, that’s what adventure means.”

Looking back over his life so far, these ambitious words certainly seem to ring true. Kakuhata is the sort of man who would choose a dark and dangerous path over a brightly lit paved road.

“For example, when I went to Tibet I didn’t have any contingency plans. On a normal expedition, typically you would pack for instance a satellite phone. I think what I expect from my own behavior is to stress the way I do things. I don’t mean you should eliminate your backups merely for the sake of it; I just want to commune more deeply with nature. I think taking backup precautions would mean not achieving that goal. If you attain something by relying on your mental ability, somehow you become more connected with the rest of humanity. I think taking these precautions becomes an obstacle to truly immersing yourself in nature."

Magnificent antlers found while crossing the continent, towards the end of his Arctic adventure.
A number of books on the Franklin Expedition, said to be the greatest mystery in the history of Arctic exploration. Kakuhata read these original versions.

That’s not to say he completely abandons contingency plans and established practice to avoid potential problems. Kakuhata believes that “if the main objective of the adventure is to get to some destination, then its okay to take along communications devices.” However, Kakuhata’s adventures are not about “going” some place but are about “being immersed in the nature” of that place, so he chooses not to take backups.

“I want to put myself in situations where I don’t know what’s going to happen. The more remote the location, the more uncertain the circumstances I find myself in. This brings an unpredictability you can’t experience in urban life. I want to feel the keen sense of being alive that is brought about by that unpredictability. When you’re alone with nature you realize how very insignificant your own existence is, and you understand on a fundamental level how menacing nature can be, among other things. So being the first person in the world to do something, or achieving world records in distance or other fields doesn’t interest me at all.”

To write tale of adventure rediscovering the Franklin Expedition, he walks 1,600 km in the Arctic.

What about the balance between being a nonfiction writer and an adventurer. Ultimately, is the adventure itself the primary goal? Or does he go on an adventure in order to write about it. Kakuhata broached the subject gingerly, and prefaced his comments by saying “that’s hard to answer.”

“I want my writing to manifest the experiences I put my body through, so the two aspects work closely together. Adventure is a form of self-expression, and my writing can communicate that to a wider audience. Because I love to write.” From February through July 2011, Kakuhata took on the challenge of travelling 1,600 km across the Arctic Circle. It was an adventure to research the mid-19th century expedition by Englishman Sir John Franklin in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. Franklin led a complement of 129 men who disappeared without a trace. Kakuhata travelled with Arctic adventurer and friend Yasunaga Ogita, and together they struggled against the frozen lands for more than 100 days.

“Physically, it was grueling. There was a vast expanse of ice floes, which meant taking a significant detour, and pulling a baggage-laden sled for close to 100 km. Sometimes we encountered polar bears, or were tormented by unbearable hunger. Even consuming 5000 kilocalories per day, I still lost weight over time. I lost about 10 kg. However this time we had GPS, so no matter which direction we went or how many kilometers, we could always know where we were with the touch of a button. We could execute our plans independent of local conditions. Conditions like thick fog, powerful winds, or even poor visibility would have made progress impossible in the past, when there was no such technology. But nowadays, GPS can show the way, even in these adverse conditions. I couldn’t help thinking how much better it would have been without GPS.”

In any case, he successfully achieved the goal of searching for evidence of the Franklin Expedition. When asked whether there was anything worth writing, considering he had followed a carefully pre-determined route, he set me straight quickly and with a positive and forceful attitude: “Yes, I wrote a lot.” He said an agreement for a series of articles had already been reached with the literary journal “Subaru” (published by Shueisha), on the understanding that these articles would be collated and published as a one-off bound edition.

"Despite exhaustive research by ourselves and others, it is still not known how the Franklin Expedition met its untimely end. We travelled at the same time of year they met their demise, and we encountered almost precisely the terrain they saw, so based on this I was able to write my own interpretation. After all, I didn't actually want to clarify how they met their end. I wanted to know what sort of landscape they travelled through, and what sort of terrain they had to reach to survive. There's a vast body of literature related to the Franklin Expedition, but basically much of it is by researchers who merely use old reference materials. In my case, I base my writing on my own real-world experiences, so in that sense I think I can put forward my own perspective."

His first trip to the Arctic involved a novel objective. When I asked him what the theme of his next adventure would be, Kakuhata responded without the slightest hesitation.

“This trip to the Arctic had its beginnings in the idea that it was the place most suited to the way I am now. Naturally, I had read the classic references on the Arctic experience, and that reading gave me a solid grounding. I went there with my own individual ideas about of the Arctic, but having seen it for myself now, I wonder if next time it will still seem like the ends of the earth. I’d like to go to the North Pole, on my own, in the middle of winter. The sun doesn’t emerge in the pitch black of night, and it’s like the ends of the earth at the literal end of the earth. It might last two or three months, who knows. But I’d like to write about travelling to the North Pole in mid-winter, and what it looks like at the exact moment the sun rises. What must it be like to see the sun again for the first time after two or three months?”

Academic advances in various fields, such as the natural and applied sciences, geosciences, physics and biology, now allow us to take the most advanced technology to the four corners of the earth. Arguably, this is due to the demands of the times, but also because of humanity’s thirst for knowledge. However, Kakuhata continues his own unique style of adventure, eliminating as much convenience and comfort as he can. “I’ll probably only be able to continue doing this sort of thing for another three, or at most, five years,” he says in a self-deprecating way, but the determination and ambition to be an explorer probably courses strongly through his veins. Kakuhata had one last quick thing to add: “I have the feeling there’s still much I need to do. I feel there’s still lots to see if I just explore a little beyond the next horizon."


Traversing the Arctic Circle, pulling a 100 kg sled loaded with baggage containing equipment and food among other things.
Top photo: February through July 2011, traversing 1,600 km across the Arctic, following in the footsteps of the Franklin Expedition.




Yusuke Kakuhata

Nonfiction Writer and Explorer

Nonfiction writer and explorer. 1976, born in Ashibetsu City, Hokkaido. 1995, enrolled at Waseda University in the politics and economics department, and joined the Explorers Club while a second year student. Upon graduation, spent two years pursuing exploration activities, before joining the Asahi Shimbun in April 2003. Left the paper in March 2008, to take up activities as a fully-fledged nonfiction writer and explorer. His book "The Five Mile Gap" (Shueisha) has been triple crowned, winning the 8th Takeshi Kaiko nonfiction award in 2010; the 42nd Soichi Oya nonfiction award in 2011; and the inaugural Tadao Umesao literary prize for mountains and exploration. "The Yeti is Coming!" (Shueisha, 2011) won the 31st Jiro Arata literary prize. His latest work "The Melancholy Explorer, Age 36" was published by Bungei Shunju in July 2012.

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