November and early December is a restless time for backcountry skiers in Hokkaido. Often times, there’s not enough base to ski the wild slopes of the backcountry. At the same time, who wants to jostle and sit in traffic to get to the ultra-crowded, just-opened ski resorts? So, I decided to run away from the snow, down to the southern coast where it doesn’t get really snowy until much later than further north, for some late-season hiking.
It was a long weekend (Friday, Saturday, Sunday), but a backlog of marking and other work had be desk-bound on the Friday. At the last minute, perhaps in a moment of terror that life was slipping be by, I messaged a few friends to see if they’d be interested in dropping everything and join me the next day for an overnight trip to Mt. Muroran’s Hakucho Hut. It had been on my to-do lists for much too long, and it is really quite suited to a last-minute trip. Only 15 minutes from the carpark, it would be perfect for a late start for the drive from Sapporo. We’d do the hike early the next morning, and be back in Sapporo by late afternoon on the Sunday.
The other nudge was from a cyclist from the Czech Republic who was currently in Hokkaido. Zuzi (@wildbikesoul on Instagram) had just got back from cycling up to Wakkanai (in the snow, no less), and has contacted me, wondering if we’d be able to meet up. So I invited her on the last-minute hike too.
We arrived at the carpark next to the Danpora Ski Field at around 4pm, just as the last light was fading from the day. There was a heavy dusting of snow on the ground. Just enough to make us to wonder just how much snow would be at the summit of Mt. Muroran the next day. It didn’t take long to walk the 700 meters to the hut.
As we were arriving at the hut, the setting sun pierced through the clouds on the horizon, giving the hut one last bathe in its rays, before moving on for the day. We bundled into the hut, hoping for some warm respite from the quickly cooling off evening.
We knew there was a hutkeeper at the hut, so we were subconsciously expecting the hut to be warm when we arrived. However, the hutkeeper’s quarters and the guest quarters are quite separate, both with their own stoves. There was warm air wafting from the hutkeeper’s quarters, but inside the main area of the hut, it was frigidly cold. I wasted no time in getting the fire going – an easy task given the ample supply of white birch bark and dry kindling.
It was a cute little stove, originally designed for burning coke. However, hut guests are provided with coal for burning, since coal is much easier to get burning. A coke fire requires much closer attention to keep it burning, whereas coal will happily take light again even with only a few embers left.
That evening consisted of food, lounging about around the stove, and some Japanese lessons for Zuzi. The first challenge for Hayate was to explain to Zuzi why “Hokkaido University” is shortened to “Hokudai”. Not the easiest of tasks.
On the menu that night was Japanese hotpot nabe – a bit of a mainstay for hut meals. It is warming, filling, and inherently social. And, the leftover soup makes for a great breakfast in the morning. We used the stove in the morning to heat up the soup, adding the extra shabushabu pork we’d not eaten the night before.
We also followed the hutkeeper’s advice, to keep the stove stoked such that the flue was red hot up to about 1.5 meters above the stove. “That is about right,” he explained to us. “Sometimes people put too much coal in the stove, and the flue ends up red hot all the way from the stove to the wall. That’s a bit scary!” he explained.
Before we headed out to the hiking trial, Zuzi did some much-needed repairs to her fingerless gloves, and wrote down some more words to her growing list of Japanese vocabulary – taberu (eat), gambaru (try one’s best).
We were on the trail by just after 9am. We’d already seen at least two or three parties walk past the hut during the time we were getting ready. It seemed to be a popular mountain.
The hutkeeper was a little less upbeat though. “There’s this boom right now in kenko-tozan (hiking for one’s health). So not as many people come to the hut to stay over and enjoy the hills like they used to. They just walk past the hut. I guess this is why there aren’t as many people using the hut thee days. Up till about 10 year ago, the hut would be completely full on a weekend like last night.”
Indeed, we’d been the only ones using the hut last night.
There are two hiking trails from the hut – the Western Ridge Track or the Summer Trail. We opted to take the Summer Trail up to the summit, and then traverse across to the Western Ridge for the descent. The Summer Trail has a couple of relatively steep sections, but they are short with long gentle uphill sections in between. There was well-packed snow on the trail when we were there on the 26th of November, so Hayate, in his smooth-sole boots, was slipping a bit.
Towards the summit, the low-lying trees had white frostings on the branches. Mt. Muroran certainly lived up to its name as a relatively easy peak to climb – we were at the top before I knew it; about an hour after we set off. There was hardly a breath of wind at the top. We met a local who told us it was his 70th birthday. He had a rule that on each birthday he climbs the Mt. Muroran. From the peak we had views across Lake Toya and of course the Pacific Ocean.
For those keen on piercing the quiet of the summit, there’s a bell ready and waiting for a vigorous ringing, right next to the colossal summit sign. The sign, as it happens, isn’t actually at the summit proper. The summit (or trig point) is about 15m before the sign.
The way down from the summit, via the ridge track and Western Ridge Track, is really quite stunning. At around 855m, there’s a lookout point back along the ridge, and the descent down the Western Ridge has sustained panoramic views across Muroran City.
Zuzi was clearly enjoying the break from the bike. She’d just spent the last 9 days cycling from Sapporo up to Wakkanai, Hokkaido’s northern most point. Naturally, she’d encountered snow along the way – which didn’t seem to faze her. Now she was back amongst the snow, albeit on the ground rather than flying in her face. I had to rush to keep up with her as she flew along the trail, almost at a run.
Back at the hut, we ate a makeshift lunch of left over bacon, sausages, and eggs. Two other guests arrived while we were packing up – they were planning on staying the night. “Hiking and a drinking party,” they explained, when I asked what they were here for.
We swept up and made our arrangements for heading out.
On the way back to the car, we walked via the Danpora Ski Field. The hutkeeper said to us that the ski field is also slated for be mothballed around the time that the hut is closed down (in 2021). I haven’t confirmed this, but if it is true, then this upper part of Muroran City will certainly become even quieter than it is now.
The ever-energetic Zuzi kept us entertained.
On the way home, back to Sapporo, we stopped in for a rushed tour around Noboribetsu Onsen (here). Ideally, we would have had the time to do the 1 hour loop hike around the area, but time was getting on . We had a wander along the tourist-infested boardwalks in the ‘Hell Valley’ area, and drove to the large steaming lakes. We then had the compulsory onsen (at the expensive but beautiful Grand Hotel), and then made the drive back to Sapporo.
Overall, it was a great way to spend a weekend waiting for the snow. Fingers crossed for some snow in the hills soon, so that we can get out on skis.