Haidee and I had been asked by the Ministry of the Environment to come on a four day ‘monitor tour’ in the Daisetsuzan National Park. They were keen to get our feedback on some activities they were going to be recommending as examples of what one might do on a visit to the national park. One of those activities was a five-hour trek around the mountain tarns next to the Daisetsu Kogen Onsen – the famous Numa-meguri (literally “tarn visiting”). Haidee and I had never seen a bear in the wild in Hokkaido – despite living and exploring in the outdoors for 10 years – so we were excited that this was one of the most likely places in Hokkaido that one would see a bear in the wild.
We stayed the night before in the cosy Daisetsu Kogen Lodge. Great food, great onsen, amazing sub-alpine atmosphere, and well set up for hordes of hikers.
We started off early in the morning, getting to the Bear Information Center right at opening at 7am. The Ministry of the Environment had arranged a guide for us on this walk, so he went through the guidelines and requirements for when we were on the trail. They were doing the lecture in Japanese, but apparently they can also do it in English.
Armed with cameras for us to take photos of interesting points along the way (for consideration by the Ministry afterwards), we set off in toe behind the guide. He was wearing his signature straw conical hat.
The forest in the morning was cool and calm. Along the way, bridges and staircases were all made with locally sourced windfall. Our guide was Hiroshi Sakuma, an active member of a number of NPOs working to improve trails in the Daisetsuzan National Park. Along with Tetsuo Okazaki, members and volunteers from a number of NPOs have undertaken big projects, supported with the sparse budgets the Ministry of the Environment can provide. It’s somewhat of a challenge regarding funding for national parks in Hokkaido. On the one hand the Japan government is pushing hard to get an increase in foreign visitors to national parks in Japan (see their Visit National Parks project here). On the other hand, there’s currently no system of collecting revenue from those visitors in the vast majority of national parks, including those in Hokkaido. So NPOs in Hokkaido do incredible work, largely through the sweat and passion of volunteers.
It wasn’t long before we started weaving our way through the high plateau of sub-alpine tarns. Each had a name, and each had their own character. Our guide, Sakuma-san, stopped every now and then to tell us about plants, topographical features, and other tidbits. We’d never had a guide on a hiking trip before, so it was a refreshing experience to get some first-hand on the ground insight.
We made a small climb up to Daigaku-numa Tarn, and suddenly Sakuma-san called out to us to hurry up the trail to him. “There’s a bear on the other side of the tarn,” he exclaimed excitedly, in a hushed tone.
Sure enough, about 150m away across the tarn, there was a young brown bear, nervously watching us. He didn’t stay watching long, however. He soon scampered off into the bush.
“That’s very typical of the bears here,” said Sakuma-san. “They’re extremely timid creatures. They really want to avoid encounters with humans.”
Of course, in the excitement of seeing my first bear in the wild ever, I somehow forgot that I could zoom my 300mm lens. A small speck in the distance is all I managed to capture.
The scenery was now much more dramatic, with the towering cliffs of Takanegahara above us. We were right at the treeline now, with broad meadows stretching out in front of us.
Not very far past Kogen-numa, we saw some more bears. Further away this time, there was a cub with its mother, and a large male some distance away from them.
It was the summer of 2019, and the trail from Kara-numa onward was still officially closed to the public. It had been damaged considerably by unseasonable heavy rain a few years back, and volunteers were in the final stages of repairing it. Upon special request from the Ministry of the Environment, the Bear Information Center allowed us to continue on along the trail, considering it would be open to the public for summer 2020.
We were now on the highest section of the trail, walking through sub-alpine meadows and the last of the mountain tarns in the area. Crystal clear water flowed from nowhere out of rocks.
The final hour or so of the hike took us deep into a creek gully, with the stream gaining strength the further we descended. Great large boulders dotted the creek-bed. At one point, Sakuma-san pointed to some heavy-duty metal wire slings, chain, pulleys, and huge person-sized winches. “Here, they’re trying to move that big boulder to connect the track up across the creek,” he explained. “They’ve been working on this crux point for the last month. We’ll get there eventually.”
The terrain here was very inaccessible. Any track maintenance was, by necessity, all human powered.
Eventually we emerged out of the gully into a large clearing. down below we had a good view of the geothermal mud pools and boiling water pools on the floor of the valley. Further down was a sea of forest, for as far as the eye could see.
The rest of the hike was returning along the access path to the Bear Information Center. We had a quick lunch of rice balls and snacks, and were soon whisked away for the next activity the Ministry of the Environment had organized for us.