Is it OK to backcountry ski in national parks in Hokkaido?

Posted on May 24, 2019
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Posted on May 24, 2019

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Yes, you can ski (or walk or snowshoe or snowboard) almost anywhere you want in national parks in Hokkaido when there's snow on the ground. But there are provisions made in some national parks for spring skiing. In this post, we dive into some of the nuances of national parks in Hokkaido, their "Special Protection Zones" and what you can and can't do when there's snow on the ground.

Recently, we received this Twitter reply below from our friend Markus Hauser, the creator of the amazing English-language Asahi-dake hiking map (see it on Amazon here – it is as much a work of art as it is an excellent navigation guide).

Great tour and views! I always thought in Japanese NP you are only allowed to follow official paths (at least in summer) and not go cross-country. Is it different in winter times or in general?

— Markus Hauser (@hausibek) May 23, 2019

This tweet was in reply to a recent post we made about ski touring Shiretoko-dake, in far eastern Hokkaido. There’s no summer trail to Shiretoko-dake’s peak.

I thought the answer warranted a dedicated post, because although the the answer is “yes, it is different in winter”, there’s a little bit more to it than that. And this is a query we’ve had before. Most recently, we were skiing with our friends from the Polish freeriding magazine Pure Powder, and they too were amazed at the seeming lack of access restrictions in Hokkaido.

Rules about SKIING in national parks in Hokkaido

The long story short is that during winter, when undergrowth is completely covered by snow, one can travel freely by human power anywhere one wants in national parks in Hokkaido. There are some very limited exceptions to this rule; we know of two places in the Shiretoko National Park where a) entry is only permitted in winter with a guide (the Five Lakes area) and b) entry regardless of season is only allowed after application from the Ministry of the Environment (the Rusha Area near the mouth of the Rusha River). There may be other off-limits areas like this, but they’re very few and far between.

The National Park Management Plan for Daisetsuzan National Park, however, does make provisions for ‘summer skiing’. On the 24th page of this gargantuan 100-page PDF document (see it all here), it states:

(original Japanese)

夏スキーの規制
・ 旭岳、裾合平、赤岳、凌雲岳等で行われているが、一部で雪解け時に植生の踏み荒らしの問題が生じている。
・ 山岳関係行政機関は、歩道から雪渓に直接到達できなくなった時点で、その雪渓上でのスキーの禁止を周知徹底するよう、監視員による指導の強化やロープウェイ会社の協力を求める。

(my translation)

Summer skiing restrictions

  • Summer skiing is practised on Asahi-dake, the Susoai-daira Plateau, Aka-dake, Ryoun-dake etc., however a problem has arisen whereby in some places during the snowmelt season, vegetation is being trampled.
  • Alpine-related administrative institutions are calling on national park monitors and ropeway staff to instruct national park users that at the point where an area of snow cannot be accessed directly from a trail, skiing becomes prohibited on that area of snow.

So, this entry tells us two things:

  1. Essentially, you can ski on snow anywhere in the Daisetsuzan National Park, even if you’re not on a trail.
  2. If the only way to access a patch of snow is on bare ground that’s not an official trail, then too bad, that patch of snow is off-limits. 

I called the Kamikawa Park Ranger’s Office (上川自然保護官事務所, a department of the Ministry of the Environment) to double check my understanding, and they confirmed that indeed, when there is sufficient snow cover, there is no particular restrictions on access within the Daisetsuzan National Park.

Rules about HIKING off-trail in national parks in Hokkaido

The tricky thing is that each national park has its own National Park Management Plan. The Daisetuzan National Park Management Plan, for example, is very clear that in the non-snow months, park visitors must stick to trails, in order to protect alpine vegatation. The Shiretoko National Park Management Plan, however, makes no such provisions, and a follow-up call to the Shiretoko Nature Center confirmed this – beyond the Rusha Area, visitors are welcome to walk where they please (probably because doing so is almost impossible anyway – it would require a great deal of wading through impenetrable haimatsu low pines). This is despite both national parks having “Special Protection Areas” (特別保護地区). What you can and can’t do in those Special Protection Areas differs from park to park.

It should be obvious, of course, that regardless of the rules, hikers should always stick to hiking trails when they are present, for obvious reasons; preventing damage to surrounding vegetation, keeping erosion to a minimum etc.

Rules about CAMPING in Hokkaido national parks in winter

The one thing that is crystal clear in ALL national parks in Hokkaido is that setting up a tent (or tarp or any other sort of structure) is only allowed in designated areas, even in winter. I called the Kamikawa Park Ranger’s Office to double check this, and they were quite clear. “In order to pitch a tent outside of designated areas in a national park, even in winter, you need to have special permission from the Ministry of the Environment” was the answer. I mentioned to the ranger on the phone that a couple of weeks ago we’d camped at Nakadake Onsen, and he said that technically that was illegal. Oops.

What about a snow-cave? “A snow cave is OK,” he replied. A snowcave is not legally classed as a structure. Unfortunately I forgot to ask about an igloo…

Any queries?

If you have any other queries about any particular national parks or access to areas for backcountry skiing in Hokkaido, drop a comment below and we’ll look it up!

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