Now that the expressway has been extended past Yoichi it is much easier to get to the Niseko hills from Sapporo, so Jeff and I headed out early one morning in late October. Perhaps it was the early hour, but for some reason we managed to miss the obvious sign to the official trailhead and parked below the ski slope buildings a couple of hundred meters further on. After a false start we located an overgrown track leading up beside an abandoned lift, which joined up with the main trail after about 20 minutes. Jeff noticed some yamabudo wild mountain grapes growing beside the path so we made a note to get some on the way back.
From here it was a steady climb up, passing at one point under another abandoned ski lift terminus, slightly ghostly in the low light. Further up the hill the views behind opened up to the town and the bleak sweep of coastline around to the nuclear power station at Tomari. A cold wind was blowing on the final unsheltered slopes so we hurried on to the summit. After enjoying the view down to the town beneath our feet we dropped down the other side to a different landscape of rolling hills covered in sasa dwarf bamboo. At the junction we decided to go right to Raiden-yama.
It was probably not the best day for it. The path cut like a trench through head high sasa bamboo over gently rolling hills, limiting the views. This was not helped by mist rolling in as we got nearer to Raiden. At one point there was a partly inundated marshy area where I could show off to Jeff my bog hopping skills, perfected by many years walking in the notorious peat hags of the Peak District in northern England. After a short traverse that would have given good views if there had been no mist, we were among the sasa and haimatsu dwarf pines at the flat summit of Raiden-yama. Nothing to see. We turned around.
The cloud had lifted by the time we got back to Iwanai-dake, so we stopped there out of the wind behind the summit rocks to boil some water for some warming instant noodles before descending. Back at the old ski lifts we couldn’t resist exploring, treading carefully on the rotting structures. Nature was steadily reclaiming them. On one lift station a flowering vine had coiled its way around an abandoned seat. Jeff’s inner ski bum drew him into the wrecked operator’s booth where he pressed the buttons with glee (he did grow up in a ski town in Oregon after all.) Fun over, we headed down the path a few more minutes to where we had seen the wild grapes. We tasted a few – deliciously sharp and bursting with grapey fruitiness. Jeff whipped out a plastic bag, and suddenly we realized that they were everywhere around us. Unusual, since the bears love them. We filled the bag to overflowing but didn’t even make a dent in their number.
Finally back at the trailhead, we pulled off our boots and headed to the onsen just down the road, noting the sign to the trailhead that we had missed on the way up. Only the smaller lower building was open. The owner looked at us with a slightly worried expression. ‘It’s very hot,’ he said. ‘No problem,’ we replied. It was hot. One of those baths where you lower yourself in gently then don’t dare move a muscle for as long as you can stand it. There were a couple of locals there, one elderly gentleman sporting extensive yakuza tattoos. He didn’t seem to mind us though. Jeff emerged looking partly boiled and had to slump in the corner to recover. While waiting for him to appear I got chatting to the owner and made friends with his lovely dogs. I admired some of his winter photos on the wall and he showed me some more as Jeff joined us. After a few minutes more pleasant conversation we set off back to Sapporo. Although the weather hadn’t been great it had been a real off the beaten track day out, local Hokkaido at its best.