Hokkaido Backcountry Hut Etiquette: A 12-point guide

Posted on Sep 11, 2020
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Posted on Sep 11, 2020

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Reading time: 7 min
Hokkaido is dotted with a number of rustic backcountry huts (see our list here). Many have been standing for generations. Unlike huts in other parts of Japan (and other developed countries), most Hokkaido huts are not commercial operations. Local mountain clubs pour their souls (and money and time) into keeping these backcountry oases standing. Here, we overview some common Hokkaido hut norms and customs, to keep interactions with locals in these huts happy and smooth.

Last updated Sep 13, 2020

PREAMBLE

For a few of us here at Hokkaido Wilds, Hokkaido’s mountain huts are a huge point of charm in the hills here. This is particularly so in the winter. Arrive by ski with a heavy backpack, get the wood stove going, and ease into a quiet night, surrounded by the calm sounds of winter.

Believe it or not, Hokkaido has over 100 years of ski touring history (see some of it in this post). The huts that have been a backbone of that history – and the clubs that manage them – have developed a somewhat common way of doing things when it comes to hut use etiquette. Most are pure common sense, regardless of what country you’re from. Some, however, are unique to the Japan and Hokkaido hut experience. 

If you’re looking for more general Hokkaido ski touring etiquette, see the post here

One-point advice

If you’re not a member of the hut’s mountain club, treat the hut like you’re a guest in someone’s home. Wear the correct slippers 🙂 If there’s a donation box of some sort, consider adding a little bit extra over and above – Hokkaido huts need all the support they can get. Keep the gear-sprawl to a minimum – only use enough table space for your party. Use the wood stove, but use wood fuel sparinglyAlways sign the guestbook (even if in English).

GOLDEN RULE: Be a gracious guest

If you’re not a member of the hut’s mountain club, treat the hut like you’re a guest in someone’s home. Tread lightly, be sensitive and observe other users’ actions. If in doubt, ask someone what you should do. Staying in a Hokkaido backcountry hut is as much a cultural experience as it is a utilitarian one. Your fellow Japanese hut users and the Japanese mountain clubs that maintain the huts share the same passion for the mountains as us foreigners do. But it’s up to us foreigners to adapt to Hokkaido’s unique hut culture, which has some distinct differences to hut culture outside of Japan.

1. Always leave a hut cleaner than you found it

This is Boy Scout 101, elementary-school, human-universal common sense. If you use a hut in Hokkaido, give it a really good cleaning, wiping, sweeping etc before you leave.

IMPORTANT: In winter, make sure all windows and doors are shut when you leave – a hut in Hokkaido can fill with snow quickly even if a door or window is slightly ajar.

2. Keep gear explosions contained

For much of the year, Hokkaido huts don’t see much overnight use, so you’ll probably be the only group using the hut. Regardless of how many people are in the hut , however, keep your group’s gear and food neatly contained to one spot. Don’t spread out too much. The Japanese are experts at only claiming the bare minimum of space they need in a hut, and expect others to do the same.

TOP TIP: Many huts are also home to mice – keep food stowed away tightly overnight to avoid vermin getting into your food!

3. Footwear: Observe inside/outside/toilet/sleeping area distinctions

This can be one of the most bewildering aspects of Hokkaido hut life – there’s a clear distinction between ‘outside’ footwear and ‘inside’ footwear; as a rule, it’s not proper to walk outside onto the balcony in your ski boot liners, and then wear them back inside. ‘Inside slippers’, ‘outside slippers’, and ‘toilet slippers’ might be provided. Again, keep distinctions clear.

 Some huts allow boots to be worn inside, but not everywhere inside. Some basic rules:

  • If in doubt, take your boots off when entering a hut. If there’s someone present at the hut, and it’s not obvious what to do, ask what you should do. Being sensitive to this very important point will win you friends immediately.
  • Don’t wear the same footwear (socks, boot liners etc) from common areas into toilets and then return to common areas. If a hut toilet is accessed from inside the hut, there’ll usually be toilet-only slippers available.
  • In some huts, if common-area slippers are available, don’t wear the same footwear from common areas onto sleeping platforms. 
  • In winter, it’s often OK to wear ski boot liners inside, but these should be taken off on sleeping platforms, if sleeping platforms are available.
  • Boots can usually be placed next to the fireplace in winter to dry out, but brush off any snow first, so they don’t leave puddles on the floor.

4. Only use as much firewood as you need to keep warm

Many Hokkaido huts have wood stoves available for use, with plenty of firewood stacked inside or outside the hut. This goes for huts that are free to stay, too. Only use enough firewood to keep yourself warm around the fire – the vast majority of huts in Hokkaido are not well insulated, so in general, you’ll never be able to get the entire hut warm, no matter how much wood or coal you burn.

5. Re-stock the interior firewood stack (if applicable)

Many winter-use huts will have a main wood stack outside, and a smaller stack inside. Before you leave, replace any wood you use from the inside wood stack with wood from the outside wood stack.

6. Pack out trash (don’t burn it)

As a rule, pack out any trash, and don’t burn it. There’s nothing worse than turning up to a hut and finding a fireplace full of half-melted plastic (or even beer can) remnants of the last users’ stay.

7. Pack out your own toilet paper

If a hut has a toilet, it’s OK to use it. However, most huts prefer that users pack out their own used toilet paper, in order to prolong the period between costly septic tank emptying, and to protect bio-matter in the toilet used to break down human waste.

IMPORTANT: Particularly in the Daisetsuzan Range, if a hut (or campground) doesn’t have a toilet, you must pack out your own poop – see our advice here. If there are temporary toilet tents present in summer, these are for privacy while using your portable toilet, not for pooping on the ground under the tent (as some unfortunate park staff have discovered some people doing).

8. Brush off snow before entering the hut

In winter, make sure to brush off as much snow as possible from your person (pack, boots, skis, jacket, etc) before entering the hut. With a warm fire roaring, puddles can form pretty quickly, for people in socks to step in.

9. Keep in contact with hutkeepers

There’s only a few huts in Hokkaido that have hut-keepers, and even fewer with hut-keepers in winter. But they’re a passionate bunch, with utmost concern for their guests.

If the hut requires a booking (regardless of whether there’s a hut keeper or not), make sure to book in advance. If you need to cancel a booking, make changes to numbers, or if before setting off it looks like your arrival will be later than your stated time, contact must be made with the university or organization that manages the hut to let them know of the changes.

Search and rescue operations have been launched for parties that haven’t shown up at huts on the day they booked for.

10. Always sign the guestbook

Yes, mountain club members like to know who are using their hut. But more importantly, hut funding decisions are often made by people who care not for the quaint wonder of a backcountry hut (i.e., not mountain club members), but care only for numbers on a spreadsheet (i.e., university accounting departments and stale city officials). Signing the guestbook is the single-most significant thing you can do to keep Hokkaido huts standing.

11. Pay your hut fees

While many Hokkaido huts are free to use, some huts have donation boxes where users can make a donation for overnight stays. Depending on the hut, suggested donations range from around 500yen to 1000yen. Be generous. With dwindling club memberships and dwindling local populations in rural Hokkaido, many backcountry huts need support more than ever.

12. If you’re local, look for opportunities to contribute labor

Many mountain clubs welcome extra help with working bees and hut maintenance events. We really enjoyed taking part in the Soranuma-dake Bankei Sanso (空沼岳万計山荘) snow clearing event a couple of years ago. The passion for these places is strong.

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