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:
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:
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:
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:
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…
.. 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…
..and the standard orderly throngs of school-kids descending looked happy enough…
..or maybe that was relief.
Actually, a lot of them were running/sliding/falling down that sucker:
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…
..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:
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…
..and was climbing again:
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:
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:
At last I arrived at the delightfully ramshackle Kuro-Dake Ishimuro hut:
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…
..and a technicolor sunset erupted:
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