Jeff and I did this route in early September 2016, after an unprecedented August in which Hokkaido was battered by successive typhoons. Until then, it had been a rare event for a typhoon to pass directly over the island; that summer saw about five hit us square on or pass close by in a two-week period. Many forest roads in the centre of the island remain completely destroyed and unlikely ever to be repaired, affecting access to a number of popular trailheads. By early September, though, the weather had cleared up.
With the prospect of three clear days we park the car in one of the free car parks below the Asahi-dake ropeway. The first day’s walk is over familiar ground, up and over Asahi-dake and round the southern rim of Ohachidaira to the path south from Hokkai-dake to the Hakkun-dake Refuge. On the climb up Asahi-dake we pass a university club group laden down with massive rucksacks, the girls in the group dwarfed by their loads. Probably first-years, we chuckle; in the hierarchical world of Japanese university mountaineering clubs they always get to carry the most. The campsite by the Refuge is quiet, perhaps a combination of the previous weather and being later in the season.
The next day dawns beautifully clear and after the usual only-slightly-burned-porridge we set off south along the broad ridge of Takanegahara. Nobody else is around and with clear air and high mountain views in all directions it feels like we are on top of the world. After Jeff threatens to feed me to a bear if I hum The Carpenters one more time, we reach the top of Chubetsu-dake as the mist comes in. It soon clears again to show us the surprisingly big drop off the west side of the summit. We continue on up though dwarf juniper to Goshiki-dake. Here the main ridge turns west to Kaun-dake and the trail runs on a wooden boardwalk through a high marshy area rich in flowers. Bears like flowers and wild herbs too, and we see plenty of evidence of their presence in fresh droppings and paw prints in the mud beside the trail.
After a scramble up the rocky summit tor of Kaun-dake we head off down to the lake at Hisagonuma. The hut near the eastern end of the lake is empty so we decide to stay inside rather than on the boggy looking campsite. It appears that the water source has dried up so we grab all our containers and head to the opposite end of the lake to where a big stream flows into it from a large snowfield. It is about twenty minutes in each direction and by the time we return a few more people have turned up to stay. After a pleasant evening and some hot food we turn in for a good night’s sleep.
It is misty when we wake up. We know this will be a long day, so we are on our way early. After stopping to refill our water bottles again we head back up to Kaun-dake. The mist is clearing now and we can see the mountains north to Asahi-dake poking out of the sea of clouds. At the summit we meet up again with the university club members, who have stayed the previous night at the Chubetsu-dake hut. We chat with one of the first-year girls who tells us they are from Keio University and have come up from Tokyo to do the full north-south traverse of the range, another two or three days’ trek. That partially explains the size of their packs. I nearly put my back out lifting hers to get an idea of the weight.
We leave them to head down the long ridge to Tenninkyo. This is a beautiful walk, high and airy, a mostly gentle descent through fields of flowers that must have been spectacular early in the season. Asahi-dake looms in front of us as we get further down. The trail passes through another marshy area on duckboards then enters the forest. We have seen nobody for hours since leaving Kaun-dake.
Suddenly we encounter massive paw prints on the trail. Massive, fresh paw prints. Going in our direction. No problem, we reassure ourselves, after a few metres the beast will have wandered off into the forest again. But it hasn’t. For the next half hour, hearts in our mouths and sweaty palms poised to grab bear spray canisters, we follow the tracks down the trail, shouting loudly around every blind corner. We have no way of knowing if they are a few hours old, or only a few minutes. Every so often they seem to disappear, only to show up again around another corner.
Eventually the bear tracks run out just before the lookout over to the scenic series of cascades on the other side of the gorge that make up Hokkaido’s highest waterfall. We breathe a sigh of relief, enjoy the view, then take the steep switchback trail down to Tenninkyo Onsen at the bottom of the gorge. We expect it to be deserted as we know the recent typhoons have destroyed the access road, so we are surprised to see a car making its way towards us. The driver jumps out and tells us he is supervising the repair crew who have just this moment reopened the road. He offers us a lift out and back to Asahi-dake Onsen. I am momentarily tempted, but Jeff is made of sterner stuff and firmly declares that we will walk another few hours on the connecting trail up the steep side of the gorge and through the forest. Just after we set off we hear a shout and turn to see our new friend running after us with three bottles of icy cold water he’s just bought from a vending machine. An unsolicited moment of kindness that we appreciate very much.
The trail out of Tenninkyo is rough and does not appear to get much use. After a steep climb up and over some small areas of landslip we enter the forest. The trail is generally easier from here though there are occasional fallen trees and swarms of hungry mosquitoes to contend with. For some reason they all want to eat me. Low on energy, we finally slog into Asahi-dake Onsen around late afternoon. With all the excitement of the bear tracks and then not wanting to stop because of mosquitoes I haven’t eaten since mid-morning and am about ready to hit the wall. The first priority is washing off three days’ grime in the local onsen, then it is down to the big city of Asahikawa for some ramen before the drive back to Sapporo.