Akan-Mashu National Park. It’s a rather hard nut to crack in winter. One would naturally be drawn to the big names of Meakan-dake or Oakan-dake. But snow cover is not guaranteed there, especially up high. We were keen to get back out east this season, however, so settled on ticking off another couple of routes from the venerable Hokkaido Yukiyama Guidebook. Those two routes were located on the southern end of the Lake Kussharo caldera, so would at least give us a good feel for the snow conditions closer to the Akan volcanoes, without being too committing.
Another big drawcard to get out east was to visit our friend Gerry. In Kitami City since part way through 2020, we were keen share a bit of adventure with her in her new back yard.
We arranged to meet Gerry early at the trailhead for Kotoninupuri, and were away from the trailhead just before 8am. Despite the early start, the Tsubetsu Onsen carpark was almost full though, giving a glimpse of how well-loved this area is, tucked away in a quiet valley here in eastern Hokkaido.
For almost an hour, we skinned along the slightly ascending forestry road next to the river. Ahead of us were a set of ski tracks and it was clear some snowshoers were up ahead of us too. There was plenty of snow, which was somewhat of a surprise. On the drive into the valley, the surrounding farmland and hills seemed to be worryingly devoid of snow. But up here, it was another world. It wasn’t cold. Soon we were shedding layers.
We soon caught up to the showshoers – an older couple. They were tentatively planning on heading all the way up to the Kotoninupuri summit.
“We got a late start though,” the gentleman said. “And we’re not confident of the weather, so we’ll probably call it a day here. We’ll take a break and decide.”
We carried on and were soon at the 570m altitude mark on the map, so started scouting out a good spot to cross the river and start climbing in earnest towards the caldera rim. We’re not 100% sure if what we crossed was indeed the “broken bridge” mentioned in the guidebook. But what ever it was, it was solid, and made for easy crossing, albeit a bit of a side-step down and up again.
The forest was quintessential Akan-Mashu National Park. While we weren’t actually within the park boundaries at this point, this forest seems to have been spared logging in the past. Grand old trees towered above us as we made our way up the narrow spur and then wide slope towards the saddle between Osappenupuri and Kotoninupuri.
The long climbing traverse up to the saddle wasn’t steep. This loop route via both peaks was clearly more of a walk than a ski. Already it was clear that if it was more the skiing one was after, a quick up-and-back to Kotoninupuri would be the way to go.
But we were in no hurry, and once we were on the saddle, the forest was again quite spectacular. All the trees were coated in a hard ice layer. Clearly a few days ago there’d been freezing rain in the area, encasing bark and pine needles in clear ice.
High above us, a white-tailed eagle soared on up-currents.
From the saddle, it wasn’t far to the Osappenupuri summit. Once there, however, we didn’t hang around very long. There was an icy wind blowing, and there wasn’t any view, apart from a vague view of the next objective, Kotoninupuri. We returned down to the saddle, and skinned up towards Kotoninupuri through gorgeous old forest, now just within the Akan-Mashu National Park border.
Just before the Kotoninupuri summit, I noticed that there was a small clearing just below it. I shuffled down to the clearing, and sure enough, this gave us an unobstructed view of the southern end of Lake Kussharo. It was frozen, covered with a layer of white snow. Haidee and I had seen Lake Kussharo in the winter from the northern end (from Makoto-yama) before, but this was the first time we’d seen it from up high at the southern end.
Indeed, the Kotoninupuri summit itself didn’t really lend itself to great views of the lake – the large trees surrounding the summit blocked things out a bit. Skirting along the summit ridge however, we found spaces in the trees allowing more views, including of the island in the middle of the lake.
After skinning a ways down from the summit on the mellow summit plateau, we ripped off our skins and prepared for the descent.
The descent from the summit plateau to the forestry road was unexpectedly good. With suitably well spaced trees and a good gradient, the skiing was very good. The snow was a strange sort of only-just-breakable crust with a decent layer of fresh snow on top. While we were not forced into survival skiing, it wasn’t brain-dead skiing either. We need to get back to this area in early or mid-February to sample some decent eastern Hokkaido powder.
Once back on the forestry road, it was a mix of easy poling and a bit of skating on the hard-packed surface. We weren’t tempted to put the skins back on, but that may have been a different story had the snow been fresher and deeper.
Once back at the onsen, we did, of course, avail ourselves of the facilities. It was one of the better onsen I’d been to out this way in eastern Hokkaido – lovely forest surrounds and wonderfully quiet.