It was Day Three of our Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse hike, and we collectively made the call to pull the plug. Personally, I’d been very excited to finally do this iconic traverse of the Roof of Hokkaido, but with plummeting temperatures, high winds, and rain (even possibly snow) forecast, making a hasty escape was the right thing to do. As it turned out, the escape route down through Numa-no-hara (沼ノ原) – a trail only opened this summer after being closed for six years – was a very pleasant surprise. Acres of wetland-like mountain tarns awaited, beautiful even in the wet murk of the three-day stormy weather.
But let’s back up four days. Haidee and I had been invited to join in on a fully guided tour (with porters, no less!) along with two other outdoor-related writers (Francesco and Mara), as part of a tourism product development project funded by the Hokkaido Tourism Organization. The project itself was being run by Nomad (a well-established Hokkaido travel agency) and the Hokkaido Development Engineering Center. Heading up the actual guiding portion of the trip was Michiko Aoki, a.k.a. Mountain Flow, an accredited JMGA mountain guide.
We all met at Asahikawa Airport the day before (26th August), and transferred to Asahidake Onsen, via Higashikawa Town. Not only would we have two porters on the trip with us, but there’d also be a mini-bus on call. The target market for this Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse ‘product’ was quite clear – those who were time-poor (i.e., time for planning and logistics) but money-rich. This was a very early-days ‘research’ trip, so precise targeting etc. is still a ways away, but the flexibility a tour like this gave to the operators was quite extraordinary. The whole five days we were with them was completely seamless, despite the eventual weather-induced change of plans. We could definitely see the appeal of a tour like this for the right sort of client.
DAY 1 – Asahidake to Hakuun-dake Hut (8hr 30min on the trail)
With the Hakuun-dake Hut and campsite officially off-limits this 2020 summer season due to hut rebuild work (open again in 2021), the original plan for today was to hammer out a mammoth 12hr 20km push to Chubetsu-dake Hut. With temperatures of 28°C at the summit of Asahidake (2,291m) and relentless sun, however, progress was a little slower than expected. Upon arriving at Hakuun-dake campsite, we settled in for the night.
The day started off cool enough though. Our group was one of the first on the ropeway to the upper station. It was a rare blue-bird day at Hokkaido’s highest peak.
Haidee and I had skied off the back of Asahidake before, down towards the Uraasahi Campsite, but this would be our first time to walk this part of Daisetsuzan. The descent off the back of Asahidake to the Uraasahi Campsite was a gravely, slippery sort of affair, but the distance is relatively short. Unusual for this time of year, there was still a decent snow patch just above the campsite, where we could refill our bottles with ice-cold filtered water.
It was hot.
It was almost 30 degrees Celsius. I was an idiot and didn’t put sunscreen on my legs. In less than 3 hours, my legs were sunburned enough for me to suffer for the next 10 days. Rookie mistake.
Despite not having to carry my own cooker and food (this was a plush porter-assisted hike), and despite the relative lack of climbing involved, my feet weren’t used to walking with a heavy pack on. Haidee and I had spent the entire spring and summer focusing on getting in as much canoeing as possible. This was at the detriment of the legs, it seemed. 8.5 hours walking on this first day felt like a long way.
The vistas, however, were breath-taking. Just on this first day of the hike, I was grabbed by the scruff of the neck by the grandeur of the Daisetsuzan National Park, and shaken into the realization (or perhaps reminder) that such a jewel of nature exists on this island that is Hokkaido.
Hokkaido Wilds author Rick knows this range well, but for Haidee and I, we were being re-introduced to this dramatic range in a jarring way.
At around 3:30pm, we arrived at the Hakuun-dake campsite. This year, the hut is undergoing a full re-build, so it was interesting to see the progress. Half of the campsite was taken up with prefab workers buildings. A generator hummed the entire time we were there.
Ah the serenity.
The guides, by some amazing wizardry, whipped up an impressive dinner of teriaki chicken, rice, and vegetables. Delicious. Someone had also schlepped copious amounts of wine up with them. By 7pm I was sound asleep in our tent.
DAY 2 – Hakuun-dake Hut to Hisagonuma Hut via Takanegahara Plateau (11hrs on the trail)
Looking back on my GPS trace, I am surprised we were on the trail for 11 hours. But it didn’t feel that long. We left the Hakuundake Refuge Hut campsite just after sunrise, and the day was just a blur of spectacular scenery the whole way.
We were now crossing the vast alpine spine of the Daisetsuzan Range – the Takanegahara Plateau. Like yesterday, as the day wore on, the heat returned.
“I feel a bit cheated,” mused Michiko, the lead guide. “Usually, coming to the mountains is an escape from the summer heat down below. Today that’s not the case.”
The sunburn on my legs was switched on full today. Especially behind my knees. I cursed my short-sightedness the day before. Chubetsu Tarn was a sweet relief when we arrived there for an early lunch. I sneaked down to the tarn and submerged my lower legs in the cool pond. Pure bliss.
I’m not usually the type to go on guided tours, but I could get used to this sort of treatment.
“Would you like some more filtered water?” Porter Nagaya asked.
The easy life!
Just on from Chubetsu Tarn was the hulking, cliff-faced Chubetsu-dake. Gorgeous. Massive. Huge views beyond to the south. I flew the drone – with all the pre-trip permissions sorted – but it hardly approached doing the scale of things justice.
We had a longer break at the summit of Chubetsu-dake. The guides had conferred, and a decision had been made to call the trip off tomorrow. The weather forecast was predicting a drop in temperature to below 15 degrees Celsius for the day after tomorrow, along with high winds and rain. This was not a surprise. The forecast had predicted this since the beginning of the trip. While we’d all hoped the forecast would change, our hopes would not be fulfilled this time around.
We made the final few hours walk to Hisagonuma Tarn Hut via Kaun-dake, happy nonetheless that we’d had two days of absolutely stunning weather – a relative rarity up high in the Daisetsuzan National Park.
Along with Francesco and Mara, Haidee and I opted to camp instead of stay in the slightly musty hut. The wind grew overnight, blowing dust up under our tent fly and into our tent inner. I tried pegging things down closer to the ground. This helped, but it wasn’t ideal. I knew the weather was supposed to pack it in, so I should have just pegged the tent flush with the ground to start with. Lesson learned.
DAY 3 – Hisagonuma Hut to Numa-no-hara Trailhead (6hrs 30mins on the trail)
We left the hut in thick fog. “Daisetsuzan has returned!” I quipped to one of the porters. He smiled in knowing agreement. Clear, fine days are rare up here.
It was a relatively benevolent murk though. We were rained on a few times, but for the most part escaped any great downpours.
The escape route that Michiko had chosen was a recently re-opened trail down through the alpine Numa-no-hara mountain tarn area. “This is surprisingly spectacular,” I mentioned to Michiko.
“If you think it’s nice in this weather, you’ll love it when you can see Tomuraushi-yama and other mountains reflected in the ponds,” she gushed.
The descent from Numa-no-hara was steep and rocky. Six years of disuse had taken its toll, it seems. The reason for the trail being closed was the access road to the trailhead was washed out in a bag typhoon six years ago. It was only re-opened in summer this year (2020).
“See this freshly cut bamboo grass?” asked Michiko. “I did all this,” she said, pointing to a long section of trail.
No sooner had we arrived at the trailhead did the skies open and it started to rain properly. If guides can arrange the rain with such precision, then perhaps I should sign up for only guided trips for the rest of my life 🙂
DAY 4-5 – Post hike activities
This was a five-day guided tour. The original plan had us spending four days hiking, but due to the weather, this was cut short to 3 days. The last day was always going to have rafting on the itinerary, but the extra non-hiking day was unexpected. Lead guide Michiko launched into alternative plans mode, and we spent the extra unplanned low-altitude night at the gorgeous Aizankei Onsen Eco Lodge, and the extra day sight-seeing around Asahikawa and Kami-Furano.
First up on the extra day (after speeding down from Aizankei Onsen due to flooding warnings) was the Otokoyama Japanese sake brewery (location).
“I never really appreciated sake,” said Haidee after the trip. “But after seeing how it is made, I do have an appreciation of it now,” she said.
In the afternoon we visited the Goto Sumio art gallery (location).
I’m not an art gallery type of person. The whole first 80% of the gallery was nice enough. Goto’s known for his huge, wall-sized paintings. So they were impressive enough. But I was bored.
It was the last 20% of the gallery that really got my attention, however, and boredom changed to awe. Goto’s paintings of the Daisetsuzan Range are utterly mesmerizing. “We skied that line,” I excitedly pointed out to Haidee. Goto’s depictions of the Tokachi Range are stylized to some degree, but you can still make out Tokachi-dake, Sandan-yama, and Furano-dake, among others.
That night, we stayed at the upmarket Kamihoro-so onsen hotel. We’d visited the onsen before, and this time were reminded how awesome it is, over-looking the Furano plains below.
Day Five of this five-day all-inclusive guided central Hokkaido hiking tour was not hiking, but rafting. To Haidee and my delight, the plan was to raft the Shisorapuchi River – the same one we’d canoed only a few months ago (detailed route overview here).
To our even bigger delight, the river was running high. Had it been at the level we canoed it a few months ago, the rafting would have been not much more than a float down a river. With water this high, it was great fun.