Hiking, Japan, Mountains
Comments 14

The Highest Man in Hokkaido

Hey, folks.

First of all today, would you like to see my Nikkas?

Happy to oblige. First, here’s one of the pair of convenient travel-sized bottles I bought in the gift shop just before boarding the cable car up the side of Asahi-Dake a few days ago. The kind lady even wrapped each one in bubble-wrap without me even asking:


Recovery session after a gruelling exit from the high mountains. A picnic table in the sun next to a roaring river became Club Mountaingoat for a few hours while I washed the mud off everything, dried it all out in the sun, was eaten alive by a vast sampling of the local insect fauna, and waited for the hot spring baths to open. A shot of Nikka in my coffee helped sooth some ragged nerves.

And here’s one I took last night as I walked home from dinner to my third (and best) capsule hotel, here in Sapporo, Hokkaido. This is at the other end of the Nikka size spectrum:


They do enjoy their liquor over here.

I do believe in the responsible consumption of ‘alcohol,’ even in the mountains, just like the authorities in Japan. Me, I like to keep the manner, and I do my best swearing in private:


This sign is in the men’s toilets at the gondola station at Asahi-Dake. I’d be interested to know if there’s another one in the ladies’, but I don’t suppose it would be necessary.

That gondola: I don’t really believe in the things. They’re like bridges to islands — they kinda mess with definitions. If you can fly halfway up the side of a mountain in minutes, is it still a mountain?

But dang, that pack of mine was heavy. It’s like I’ve learned nothing from my years of obsessing over every microgram of pack weight, cutting off labels, sawing toothbrushes in half, only bringing one pair of underwear to Japan. Etc.

Hiking up to the start of my Daisetsuzan traverse would have added a couple of hours and immeasurable suffering to what was already promising to be a cornucopia of suffering.

It’s the cameras, mainly. And the things that charge them and back them up. Only bringing one would have meant some hard choices and lots of debilitating guilt at leaving the others behind.

So I coughed up the yen, dragged the pack-beast aboard, and up we went:


Through the cloud, the landing station appears as a fellow passenger gazes into the white void.

So we’d gained 489m of elevation, which doesn’t seem like much now that I think about it. The highest peak in Hokkaido, Asahi-Dake (the dake is pronounced “dah-keh” and translates as peak) is 2,290.9m/ 7,515ft high. It’s an active volcano, though it hasn’t blown its top in recorded history.

You get an idea of just how active she is as soon as you step out of the gift shop/restaurant and breathe in the sulphurous fumes spewing out of Jigokudani — Hell Valley. Fumaroles venting clouds of rotten-egg gas greet the happy hiker bent under his leviathan of a once-ultralight pack…


Jogokudani, just beyond Sugatami Pond, showing the remnant snow that hangs in there all through Summer.

.. as he starts up the rubble-strewn path with the jeans-clad day-trippers, who will be home in their beds after a nice hot-spring bath tonight while the happy hiker enjoys the first of a planned 4-5 nights in the high peaks beyond Hell Valley…

I was using my third copy of Lonely Planet’s Hiking in Japan as my guide (covers and unneeded chapters excised to save grams) — even this second edition is six years old — and this “Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse” is described as the ultimate long hike in Hokkaido traversing all the major peaks of the range across the roof — with a difficulty rating of demanding.

55km/33m doesn’t sound very far, but hey, that weight, and I’m not getting any younger. But I’d be above 2,000m for most of it, the southern section was notoriously rugged, the weather unpredictable, and most of the smattering of huts unmanned, meaning no meals could be bought en route.

Food wasn’t an issue. I’ve carried 10 days’ or more worth of it many times. I’d brought my little beer-can stove and had found a can of ah-ru-ko-ru — stove alcohol — in Tokyo. Right now the issue was gradient and mass.

It was easy for some…


“I thought you said we were going to the park!”

..and the standard orderly throngs of school-kids descending looked happy enough…


Nice gloves, funny boy.

..or maybe that was relief.

Actually, a lot of them were running/sliding/falling down that sucker:


These kids were from Asahikawa — this mountain is almost in their backyard.

I dug out the wet-weather gear once or twice as the pattern of the next few days revealed itself: hot and clammy, periods of sun, then overcast, then light rain, then clear, then heavier rain, then sunny, then the wind…

There were a couple of menacing thunderclaps but that could have been the mountain gods saying hello. Another hassle with the electronics, of course, is keeping them dry. I had dry-sacks and waterproof liners in excess, plus an ultralight umbrella that looked flimsier than your nana’s silk hanky.

But the rain cleared for now, and in time most of the day-trippers were gone, as I followed the typical crude trail blazes used in Japan…


Yellow-blazin’ to the roof of Hokkaido.

..and the vast, spectacular landscape of Hokkaido’s wild interior opened up around and below me from the summit.

A man and his son who’d been struggling even more than me were my only company up there. When they left soon after, I was, for a few minutes, the highest man in Hokkaido, and possibly the most beat:


That flat-topped peak to the left is, I believe, Kuro Dake, site of the night’s camp. The crater rim is in the foreground. I swung left here to circle the crater.


View from the summit: the way ahead.

I was hiking in sandals, sometimes with socks — but hey, the fashion police seldom venture that far from downtown. Although my footwear and my hiking shorts attract a lot of comment and outright derision from my Japanese brothers and sisters (who are second only to the Koreans in believing More Clothing Equals Better Survival Odds), I have regretted that choice only once so far: on the first down of a very up-and-down few days.

That whole slope was nasty, marble-sized scree, moist and mingled with remnant snow. Nothing was firm. I half-slid down the slope, with bucket-loads of geology working their way under my soles and between my toes.

After that things improved. I was walking rather than sliding, and after filling up my water bag at some icy snow-melt, passed this primitive campsite where a second camper was putting up his tent…


That orange speck is a tent. Too early for me though.

..and was climbing again:


Trail maintenance in Japan is hit & miss.

There was an unfortunate craving for a Snickers that filled me with foreboding: I’d bought the entire stock from a convenience store but still dreaded that I hadn’t brought enough of Nature’s Miracle Food, the poor man’s Power Bar.

Anyway I soldiered on, the capricious weather changing its mind every few minutes as I entered a fantastic landscape of meadows, ghostly hills and sprees of alpine wildflowers:


How fast the visibility can change up there: check this view…


..and this, 11 seconds later.

On Naka-Dake — Inner Peak — bad weather moved in and I had to forget about tracking down Japan’s highest (and quite well-hidden) “wild” hot spring, as I raced on through stinging wind and rain — which soon blew on, and I was on the home stretch for Day 1:


The track is roped or almost-roped in many areas to protect the wild flora.


Is that skunk cabbage? Just guessin’.


A very Japanese slant on muddy-trail improvement.


Golden Hour approaches.

At last I arrived at the delightfully ramshackle Kuro-Dake Ishimuro hut:


Ishimuro hut, in the shadow of Kuro-Dake.

Floor space and not much more will set you back $30-$50 at many of these yamagoya or sanso. Tenting is usually only around 500 yen (around five bucks). You can guess what I do.

I always enjoy the huts. The (mostly middle-aged or older) hikers are invariably relaxed and jolly. It’s a very social experience for Japanese hikers — in fact several of these guests, male and female, were already half-tanked, sharing whisky at the tables outside while the sky cleared, a rainbow hovered above…


Several of the guests attempted conversation, perhaps lubricated by a Nikka or two.


A generator within supplied power.


That’s my tent on the left…

..and a technicolor sunset erupted:


View from camp — worth the effort.

There would be peace in the valley that night…

*          *          *          *          *

I’m leaving Sapporo tonight, back onto the “mainland” of Honshu, but only as far as Aomori, where I aim to do a hike or two in northern Tohoku, an area I’ve never hiked. I’ll continue my Daisetsuzan saga as time & wifi and battery life permit! Thanks for reading!

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote


  1. Someone said that beauty walks a razor’s edge. What a fierce, wild, and beautiful place. Amazing light. Some serious walking.

  2. WOW!, I feel exhausted looking at your photographs, to think you actually braved everything to get further, is truly amazing. I enjoyed reading your descriptive post. You certainly are in very good shape. 🙂

  3. Beautiful images of incredible scenery, Goat. Vastly different conditions to flat Sandgate walks! I was there again on Sunday and had a coffee at Mugshots for you. Sandals and socks are the ultimate fashion statement I reckon. You and Hiking Fiasco Greg are leaders in that department. I hope you manage to ration your Snickers bars… 🙂

    • It’s hard with Snickers as if you buy extra, you just eat extra so don’t really come out ahead. I’ll keep experimenting!

      Yes, quite different to sleepy Sandgate! I needed an invigorating/exhausting change of scenery!

  4. Chris G says

    Hi Goat,

    I think the last time I commented on your blog you were teaching in South Korea. I’ve spent a couple of holidays in the last 2 years in Japan. While you are in Hokkaido have you any plans to revisit Rishiri Island? It takes some getting to but from the ferry on a clear day it looks like the Matterhorn rising out of the ocean! At the other end of the country was Yakushima Island which is well worth a visit. Enjoy your 3 months in Japan. I’m really looking forward to your posts as the subject matter covers areas I would like to hike in on future trips!

    • Hey Chris, great to her from you again. Unfortunately I couldn’t do much more than scratch the surface up there. Yakushima was also on my “possible” list as my friend Chris (another one) raved about it. I’m using a three-week JR Pass though, and it’s a challenge trying to get the most value out of it. It’s possible I’ll get to visit Yakushima at least following Shikoku, since I’ll be a lot closer to it than I am right now. Hope you enjoy my posts, this trip is really turning out great.

  5. Chris G says

    Great to hear you are enjoying it. Make you get to the onsen next to the ocean on Yakushima. Great views of the mountains from there!

    • Yeah, mate, Hokkaido blew my mind but it’s all been going great. The Minami Alps trip was a ball-breaker but absolutely sublime, everything I was hoping for on my first return visit in 14 years (well, wasn’t hoping for so much pain). Just returning from Yatsu-ga-Take, unfortunately when I summited this morning I could see precisely 0% of the much-lauded panoramas due to yet another white-out. Nice and eerie though. Now it’s hot and sweaty and yechhhy. On my way into town (two hrs away by local Chuo train!) and eventually to yet another hotel room, this time in Ueno! Resting tomorrow and then Kyoto-bound…

  6. That’s a great traverse. But you missed nothing by taking the Asahi ropeway, as that particular section of trail below is in pretty bad shape. And thar be bears.

    How’d you like the bicycle toilets at the Kuro-dake hut?


    • There is some truly cutting-edge technology being employed in some of those high-country huts these days! Things have definitely improved in terms of waste management etc. They still haven’t eliminated the odour issues completely, but I noticed a distinct improvement while in the Sth Alps over my last visit in around 2001. With the human traffic up there in Summer, they had an obligation I guess to deal with the issue.

      Still haven’t seen me a live bear up there in Hokkaido though!

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