Hiking, Japan, Mountains
Comments 9

Just a Tiny Bit Lost in the Big Snowy Mountains

“I wasn’t lost; I just didn’t know where I was for a few weeks.” ~ Pioneer mountain man Jim Bridger

This morning I was able to wash my one set of clothes for the first time since I’ve been in Japan — not counting the odd river-rinse or campground-sink cycle. I feel like a million dollars — or should that be 92,026,068.88 yen?

I’m back in Tokyo as of last night, where I bunked down again at the first capsule hotel I stayed in (I’ve since slept in two other pods in Sapporo). Another night there tonight, this time in the mixed dormitory, since the male-only one was full.

I don’t know why so many Japanese businessmen stay there, since the atmosphere is very western youth hostel, though pretty quiet, with European longhairs lying about and piles of crap all over the hallway floor. But it’s cheap. Even with all those transient gaijin, 30 bucks for a night in Tokyo is pretty damned good.

Today’s a rest day — a zero as we’d say on the trail. Well, kinda. As with most zeros, there’ll be lots of walking around doing errands, shopping and getting lost with a fully loaded backpack for company. I migrated like a homing goat to Kichijoji this morning, back to the Starbucks near the park, and after this post I’ll start on my first errand: replacing/ fixing, if possible, a busted tent pole.

Last night I drew the curtain on my plastic pod, fired up the wifi hotspot and laptop, and settled down to enjoy a little, ahem, “video entertainment”. Curious? It was pretty saucy stuff: how to repair tent poles in the field. I needed a cold shower afterwards.

Since we last spoke, I’ve hiked up two classic mountains in the Tōhoku region of northern Honshu. Both are volcanoes, one active, the other sleeping like a baby. I’ll get to them in forthcoming posts.

After the first one, I turned my freestanding tent upside-down to shake out the cheesecake crumbs, dirt, Snickers wrappers and bugs — a trifle too vigorously. There was a nauseating crack; this was no mere fracture. My German tent is over a decade old and I love it, but if I can’t buy a repair sleeve (technical term I learned last night), I might have to send her home and buy a Japanese one-person shelter…

I do have some decisions to make if I’m to head into the South Alps tomorrow. Those are big mountains and tent-less would be asking for trouble. Plus, 50 bucks for the pleasure of a bowl of instant ramen and a sliver of floor space between two snoring Japanese ojisan hikers is not exactly bargain-travelling…

Alright, that’s my status update done. Back to Daisetsuzan and my second day in the Big/Great (dai) Snow/Snowy (setsu) mountains (zan)..

*          *          *          *          *

Japanese hikers rise early, especially in the Summer when you don’t need a headlamp at 5:00am. Around 4:00 I heard them coming to life in the hut. My initial reaction — “Bastards!” — was quickly superseded by a Can’t beat ’em, join ’em response, and I packed, made coffee and hit the trail, breakfast being one of those indescribable “snacks” a sweet old lady hiker gave me.

The book outlined a 10-miler, which in younger, lighter times I would have danced through in a few hours. But it was a long day, again. Luckily the summer daylight is generously lengthy, and I had plenty of time to stop and smell the flowers:




Unfortunately I can’t help you out with many of the flower names as yet. I’ve identified a couple online but will need time and preferably a paper guidebook to do them justice. The variety and their beauty were astonishing — I’ve just learned that Hokkaido has over a thousand indigenous flower species.

A brief stop at a beautiful snowmelt river for a cold drink and a self-portrait…


Rainpants soon to be discarded as the morning warmed…

..before hopping across stepping stones to the far bank, which was ablaze with yet another of the numerous purple-flowered carpets:


A laborious ascent of the valley wall followed. Looking back, I saw a couple from the shelter reach the river, but they never caught me as I rested on top. I realised they’d taken another trail along the opposite bank and were rising as gaily coloured dots up the side of a serious peak.


A narrow side-trail & a beautiful flowery meadow.


You get pretty good at deciphering kanji. But not quite good enough.

I exchanged sparse route intentions with a few hikers who huffed up the slope from my next stretch of trail. There was some boulder-hopping which I enjoyed, and a few of these beauties, many of which had protective rock borders circled round them:


Komakusa, a prized mountain beauty.

I misread, or perhaps didn’t read, my guidebook directions, and kept climbing towards Hakuun-Dake, trailing a middle-aged couple who kept pausing to admire the komakusa. It was easy to be distracted up there:




Another protective rock circle around some komakusa.


The flower-loving couple I blindly followed.

The track eventually descended to a kind of moor — yes, that’s the word I’ll use — skirting a vast, almost-level, boulder-littered expanse before climbing again…


Typical Japanese trail blaze.


A view back from near the summit of Hakuun-Dake.

..to an impressive summit, and incredible views during breaks in the transient cloud cover:


The 2,230m summit of Hakuun-Dake, which means White Snow Mountain.



A youngster hiking in a climbing helmet found my sandals hilarious. Dude, you’re hiking in a helmet. It was around then that I realised I was on a mountain I wasn’t meant to be on. Flower Man had enough English to offer to lead me back to the junction and point me the right way, though I’d already realised where I’d screwed up.

“Please wait 10 minutes. You can follow us, as you will be much faster.”

I used the time productively, to take a self-portrait…


Stop laughing at my sandals, asshole.

..and soon we were back at the junction, where I noted the tiny English translation stapled under the Japanese name: Hakuun-Dake Hinan Goya, a cramped red-brown hut with an outhouse perched on a hill, and my chosen lunch spot.

An hour later, maybe less, I was there, smearing Vegemite on a cheddar-cheese pita sandwich, as a hiking couple donned layers of rain protection before departing in the opposite direction. “Oishii sou!” the man proclaimed/lied: That looks delicious.

10 minutes later they were back, stripping off the rain gear. The weather was like that the whole trip. When I left I had to use the umbrella a few times, but mostly it was hot and clammy.

This looks like, and is, bear country, warned my book, so take heed of the warning signs.

That would be excellent advice if you could actually read them. I came to this sign, in which I could make out the words course (hiking trail) and bear. Combined with the colour scheme, I guessed that I should keep my eyes and ears open…


..but the only sign of bears was of the physical type: this very impressive deposit of scat right in the middle of the trail:


Either a bear has come through here recently, or one very sick hiker.

Walking through dense, head-high thickets of sasa — bamboo grass — is never pleasant. Adding some bear paranoia doesn’t improve things, but I wasn’t that nervous, just forced to sing loudly since I don’t use a bear bell (“It’s just a dinner bell for the bears,” my friend Andrew used to joke to students years back, and probably still does).

The only song I could think of was a ribald version of Molly Malone. It was the first cretive thing I’d done all day.

At last, Chuubetsu-Dake came into view, beyond another lovely stretch of moor. My night’s campsite was on the other side:

rocky moors hokkaido

Chuubetsu-Dake, distant right. Note the trail skirting the pond.

Daylillies and other beauties thrived in the marshy ground surrounding the pond…



..and after another spell of rock-hopping…


..I was on the 1,963m summit of Chuubetsu-Dake, 19th-highest in Hokkaido and 221st in Japan.

She may be a relative dwarf, but the drop a few metres from the summit sign is one of the scariest and most perilous I’ve ever seen, made all the more dramatic by the drifts of cloud racing past:


I was tired, again, and keen to set up my tent at the A-frame shelter not too far ahead. Across this summit plain (I just made that term up)…


..and then a tiresome half-hour descent towards the hut, visible beside a stretch of frozen river, through some more woods…


..with a dramatic view back towards Chuubetsu, basking in the late-afternoon sun…


..and I was almost there:


Two Japanese hikers stood in the sun outside the A-frame. I offered them whisky; both declined. Inside, two women sat on their Therma-Rests cooking noodles.

“Is the manager here?”

They shook their heads, silently.

“No manager?”

“No manager.”

I really need to read the guidebook more carefully — but why ruin the surprise? One of the women, it turned out, had studied (but obviously not hard) at the Sydney branch of my old school the year before. She had just enough English to tell me she didn’t like Vegemite.

Tears stinging my eyes, I went back outside. “Weather will become rain tonight,” one of the men said — he carried a radio. “Maybe you should sleep inside.”

“Maybe I will…since it’s free.”

Then I told them about the bear shit I’d seen.

“We also saw the bear shit. Very big shit!”

We stood there talking shit a little while, then I went down to top up on snowmelt, and spread out a sleeping spot in the dusty hut. I slept badly all night, my air mattress migrating in random trajectories on the wooden floor while snoring punctuated the grim stretches of wakefulness.

Not a drop of rain fell all night…

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote


  1. Just a quick correction, Hakuundake (白雲岳) translates as “white cloud peak”.
    I used to dream of using a week or so in summer to go up through the Daisetsu range, you lucky boy.

    And yes, I still do joke about “dinner bells for bears”!

    • I don’t doubt it! Thanks for the correction, I’ll get onto it ASAP! Perhaps you can help, by the way, with Tomuraushiyama. If you can’t, nobody can!

  2. What a wonder place the Daisetsu range looks like for hiking! The rock-hopping and the rocky tops remind me of Tasmania, but the lunch valleys and moors remind me more of places in New Zealand – too green for Tasmanian alpine areas. Never had to worry about bears and bells here, but then I’ve never climbed an active volcano, either! 🙂

    • “Lunch valleys”?! Is that a predictive text error or the real term?

      Great points. It’s not a landscape I’ve had very much experience in at all. Wouldn’t want to face it in really bad weather or a colder season. The flowers are such a contrast to the eerie atmosphere of their surrounds.

  3. I forget how your blog post found its way into my Facebook feed, but I got quite a shock when I saw the photos — this is where my wife and I went walking as part of our honeymoon trip around Hokkaido. Thanks for the jogging a few memories 🙂

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