Hiking in Daisetsuzan National Park

Trip Start Jun 30, 2010
Trip End Jun 01, 2011

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Tokiya Ryokan, Asahikawa

Flag of Japan  , Hokkaido,
Friday, August 13, 2010

Asahikawa and the Tokiya Ryokan, conveniently situated near the train and bus station, made a great base for a few days as we waited out a typhoon that had been wreaking havoc in Korea and Japan, and prepared for our trek in Daisetsuzan. Asahikawa is a typical Japanese city with modern, clean, wide streets, tall tower blocks housing restaurants, shops, hairdressers, with delis and supermarkets in the basements, drink vending machines and convenience stores (Lawsons or Seven-Eleven) on most corners. The radio was played through street-side speakers, which we found quite intrusive, but seems the norm in Japan, and the pedestrian crossings beeped and twittered away, each crossing with its distinctive noise. With only four months a year without snow it felt like a city just waiting for the first snowfall when it would show its true personality.

Leaving over half our belongings at our ryokan we headed by bus to the Daisetsuzan National Park and the start of our short trek at Asahi-dake Onsen. We popped in the talk to the warden at the National Park Visitor Centre and upon his advice we altered our plan to miss out the first busy lodge at Kuro-dake. Saving ourselves a grueling initial climb we took the cable-car up to Sugatami-ike and joined the many day-trippers to marvel at the active volcanic vents belching their sulphurous gases at the foot of Asahi-dake, Hokkaido’s highest peak. Delighting in our light packs we ascended the mountain, the smell of rotten eggs in our nostrils, passing troupes of Japanese hikers kitted out as if making an Everest summit bid, and families in jeans and trainers. The peak was covered in mist and a strong, cold wind prevented any hanging around so we rounded the peak and descended smartly down a steep, slippy scree slope. Beside an old snow field we ate rice cakes wrapped in seaweed for lunch and the mist cleared to reveal a green valley basin surrounded by peaks. For the rest of the trek we had great weather, despite the BBC Weather forecasting heavy rain! The landscape on this first day from Asahi-dake to Hakuun-Dake was really dramatic. We walked over volcanic rock of black, pink, orange, purple and red, and a fine yellow pumice covering gave one mountain slope the appearance of a rolling sand-dune. We skirted around a huge caldera with what looked like bubbling mud in the centre, climbed Mamiya-dake (2185m) for incredible views over the National Park. With easy terrain underfoot and weathered wooden signs pointing the way (playing a game of ‘match the Kanji symbols with those on your map‘) we were able to set a good pace and enjoy the scenery. Down to our left we passed a distinctive green ridge littered with granite grey tors and sharp rock pinnacles. We traversed an old snow field and passed a hanging glacier and boulder field. Steep sided valleys fell away to give views of distant mountains. We stopped to watch a vixen, completely unperturbed by our presence, hunting in a wildflower meadow, her cubs were barking hungrily somewhere nearby.

Hakuun-dake (White Cloud) Lodge is set on a promontory half way up a wide snow-filled valley and its lovely smooth camping ground is surrounded by melt water streams from another snowfield above, providing a good source of fresh water. Now very conscious of the presence of foxes and aware they can carry a fatal-to-human parasite which can end up in water sources, we were pleased we’d invested in a good water filter - the MSR Sweetwater. It was a windy night and it was hard not to let the imagination run wild in the pitch black when negotiating the bolder-strewn path to the toilet, a tiny flashing light on the side of the lodge for a guide.

Over breakfast tea we watched two teams of Japanese youngsters pack up their camps, do group stretches and don their backpacks in unison, all chanting, and set off up the valley. In comparison our packing up camp was a complete shambles! Day two’s hiking was through bear country. Like the Japanese people, Japanese bears don’t like surprises, so we were glad for our bear bell and we chatted extra loudly, enabling any nearby bears to amble away unseen. Well, that was the hope anyway! We hiked down the Hakuun-dake valley and along a wide exposed ridge with a steep 300m drop-off to the left. Down below were a series of circular lakes surrounded by thick forest with wisps of steam curling up through the canopy and in the distance mountains in hues of blue. To the right of the path was just the kind of vegetation bears might lurk in. Here we became aware that the air overhead was thick with dragonflies and they were all heading east as if for some important engagement. Next we negotiated head-level scrub and ankle deep mud, then out into the open again, over a peak and down around a beautiful glacial lake edged with cotton grass, hawk-eyed Phil spotting large deer prints in the mud. At one peak we watched dragonflies and swallow-tail butterflies fly to the mountain edge, get shot high up into the air by the strong updraft before descending and doing it again, adrenaline junkies.

We lunched alone at the unmanned A-frame lodge at Chubetsu-dake-hinan-goya, 10 minutes from the main path. With its own snow-field water source, grass awash with pink flowers and its very cute resident chipmunk/stripped squirrel, it was idyllic, and fun to imagine skiing to this isolated retreat in the height of a Hokkaido winter. Full of pot-noodle we climbed up onto another ridge for views of more valleys and mountains, and then had the pleasure of walking along a smooth solid boardwalk over a colourful wet-meadow for over 2km. In one metre-square we counted 18 feeding butterflies. Grasshoppers and crickets, sunning themselves on the warm wooden boards, were springing off in all directions before us, one even hitched a ride on Phil’s boot lace. The mountains were reflected in the dark peaty pools and there was not a soul to be seen.

With aching feet we plodded into camp at Hisago-numa-Goya, a lovely lake-side lodge surrounded by peaks, which, to our delight we found was unmanned and therefore free to sleep in. Japanese lodges are really expensive and a fee of 60 quid a night, with food, is not uncommon. We commandeered the dusty attic space above eight snoring Japanese trekkers, hanging out our tent to dry, airing our clothes and cooking up our pretty bland but calorific rice meals. We went to bed at sundown (7pm) and slept like babies.

Day three we were up at 5:30am and on the trail by 6:30am and climbing up through cold mist to our final peak, Ka-un-dake. A lovely Japanese guy, who we’d come across at various points on the trail, and who clearly wasn't taking any chances with bears - he had 8 bells attached to his rucksack, was waiting for us at the top fearing we’d take the wrong path in the mist. He guided us down and noting Phil had a bus time written on the back of his hand offered to give us a lift at the end of our hike to our campsite, on the condition that we got back in 4 hours so he could collect his son from Sapporo. It was such a kind offer and it'd be rude not to accept, so we upped our usually relaxed pace, jumping, sliding and squelching through mud and scrub, scrambling along a flood channel full of pools and dead branches. Our guide, a fit PE teacher at a secondary school in Sapporo, pointed out flowers, fungi, footprints and mountain peaks along the way.

We crossed another smooth boardwalk, this time through a ‘cloud meadow’ full of orchids, then along a dense wooded ridge rich in fungi and caught a view of the waterfall at Tenninkyo, the Hagoromo-no-taki or Angel’s Robe Waterfall. Finally it was an almost vertical descent, with 33 switch-backs to the end point of our trek and we popped out next to a hut, an interpretation board, and in true Japanese style, a well stocked fizzy-drink vending machine.

After filling out the trekkers log book in the National Park booth we hopped into our teacher's car and were whisked off to our campsite back at Asahi-dake Onsen, taking him 40 minutes out of his way. Although he spoke very little English and we no Japanese we had shared a really fun day and our trek had been wholly enriched by the encounter. He epitomized the Japanese hospitality, friendliness and consideration that we had experienced many times on our travels through Japan.

After we'd pitched our tent we went immediately to the beautiful mountain lodge YHA across the road to relax in their onsen - any British coyness about stripping off naked in front of strangers had been replaced by a desperation to get clean and pamper sore feet and shoulders. Drinking beer in the common room afterwards we befriended a couple of Japanese trekkers who wanted to practice their English and share their sake with us. What a great end to a fantastic trek.
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