It had been 25 months since I’d been able to join a Hokkaido Wilds trip, but with borders finally opening and my business visa in hand for some meetings in Japan, I was able to tack some touring into the schedule. Our plan for the Niseko range traverse had come together slowly and then all at once. We’d been really focusing on the Niseko area for a forthcoming project and this was absolutely one that we needed to tick off. We penciled the weekend a few weeks out, started a group chat on Messenger for the logistics, and kept our eye on Windy.com for the weather.
A few days out we made the call to do a Friday-Saturday trip; day one was forecasting bluebird but with winds increasing on the Friday night from the [warm] South-West the second day would be more challenging. Getting to the campsite would be fine and then we’d need to make a call on the second day’s section based on conditions on the ground. We would start early on the Saturday morning to try and get-‘er-done before the forecast rain rolled in.
In the end we were a group of four. Myself and Rob were joined by Ben, who’s a Chisenupuri local, and Timbah, who’d driven down from central Hokkaido on the Friday morning. Strictly speaking the tour should start at Mt Niseko-An’nupuri [Rob: strictly speaking, walking up from the base!] but we decided to forgo the crap-shoot of the ski resort backcountry gates opening and instead started at Goshiki onsen.
Morning Zoom [Chris: Microsoft Teams!] calls notwithstanding, we managed to head off from the car park at about 09:45. We skipped the summit of Iwaonupuri and pushed on to ascend Nitonupuri. There’s a bunch of steep but short ski lines to be had in the terrain between the two peaks and I noted to Rob that they’d be worth a write up sometime, but we carried on, the group were all focused on making camp in plenty of time to ski down to Nimi onsen.
There’d been a solid 30cm of snow on Tuesday afternoon but even the relatively solar-sheltered NE slopes off Nitonupuri couldn’t withstand the warm ambient temperatures and it was a cream-cheesy descent down to route 66. Still, these were undoubtedly the best turns of the trip. Our full post on this zone is here. Once again, we skipped a full summit of Chisenupuri and instead contoured our way around the southern slopes; given our time again we’d probably have stayed a little lower to avoid the steeper slopes which made for slower going on edges rather than ski-bases.
The rest of the first day into camp was broadly uneventful, but offered some inspiring vistas. Far more of a walk-than-a-ski as I am often want to say. We’d made good time and felt happy that we were able to drop down to the old Nimi onsen ruins to pitch camp for the night. It was sad to see Nimi onsen pulled down a few years back as in full Ryokan with dinner + onsen mode it would have made this traverse something special. But, we had high hopes for there to still be flowing hot water and so we skied down for a nosey.
We were in luck… there was hot water… a lot of it…and it was damned hot too. The onsen facility closed in about 2016 and the buildings were fully removed a couple of years later. It’s a bit sad that such a great facility has gone but at least there’s still an opportunity to enjoy some of the warm water that still flows. The Good Hokkaido blog has some great photos of the Nimi onsen facilities before it was removed so you can dream of what once was. Your mileage may vary in terms of water flow and ability to build up a little pool, but, when we visited there was a very steady amount of very hot water.
The hot water vent-pipe that remains flows water into a 1.5m wide concrete drain. We were obviously not the first to have come here and there was an old tarpaulin sitting in the drain that we used to build a make shift dam and pool. The water temperature was a bit hot and so we found ourselves needing to drop snow into the pool to keep the temperature down. At first we shoveled but then after a while we whipped out our Rutschblock cords and worked to cut large chunks out of the snow walls.
The channel that had been cut out by the warm water also made a fantastic area to setup our camp-kitchen for the night. Even though we were pack carrying all of our food for this trip, a single night away meant that we went for the ‘heavy but fresh’ option and we’d be cooking a full backcountry nabe. Such high end cuisine was deserving of a high end backcountry kitchen, and so Rob and I set about construction into the walls with a cooking platform and a food shelf.
For those not familiar with Nabemono (鍋物, なべ物, nabe “cooking pot” + mono “thing”), it’s a Japanese hot-pot dish consisting of simmered broth, vegetables and meat. The great thing is that it runs to about three courses and is dead simple to cook out here in the Hokkaido Wilds:
- Cook the meat/veges/tofu in the hot water, fish them out with chopsticks, and eat. We’d packed cabbage and a tone of awesome mushrooms for extra umami.
- Next add noodles to simmer in the broth. Udon worked really well on this trip.
- Finally, you’re left with a tasty soup.
We even had tare (タレ) dipping sauce. Rob had forgotten this on his first trip to the Rankoshi store the night before. He took-one-for-the-team and drove all the way back for a second trip. He also grabbed a couple of ‘small’ Aquarius drinks and decanted the tare from the relatively heavy and fragile glass bottles into the empty PET bottles. Good thinking that man!
While there was rain forecast for Saturday we’d gone with the ‘travel light’ accommodation option and so the four of us planned to pack into Rob’s ultra lightweight cuben fibre tipi tent… a feat that was surprisingly easy and actually quite comfortable in the end. We slept early and woke early… well some of us woke early… Rob and Timbah were up and at it from about 0400hr while Ben and I *loudly* discouraged such an early start.
I took one last turn in the kitchen to prepare coffee with my new-found-post-pandemic toy; a Wacaco Nanopresso portable Nespresso pod coffee machine. Two stays in Jacinda’s 14 day Managed Isolation and Quarantine detention system had rather refined my DIY coffee system. The Wacaco also provides for a normal coffee basket if you want to bring ground coffee… or a hand-crank coffee mill. Full credit to Niseko regular David Addison for sending me down this path of backcountry luxury.
Dawn was just breaking as we began the second day’s journey. A short skin up the road before we ducked across the creek and climbed directly towards Mekkunai-dake. Your mileage may vary a bit here; as the spring melt kicks in we suspect that the creek crossing will get quite sketchy and you may find yourself climbing further up the road to the saddle before continuing westward.
As well as the most butt-ugly hiking pack any of us had seen in our lives, Timbah had brought his bluetooth boombox along too. The former was excusable on account of the “it’s all my ex-girlfriend left me” sob story we got to hear [several times throughout the trip], the latter was significantly less forgivable; Rob and I had to put it down to inter-generational differences. Ben seemed generally indiferent as to both the pack… and the boombox.
Nevertheless, there was marching to be done and nothing makes a long march better than some marching music. Memorable favorites from the section to Raiden-yama section included The Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymnoceros and Wilhelm Richard Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries.
At least we could say that Timbah would finish the day significantly more cultured than when we had begun.
The march went on. And on. And on.
More of a walk than a ski to be sure and it was getting windy now. Still no rain in sight but we certainly didn’t have the bluebird conditions of day one. Visibility was still reasonable under the slowly thickening layer of altostratus and we could see through to Kariba yama in the south. A trip down there is definitely on our plans for winter 22/23.
The summit of Raiden yama was a much larger plateau than I had anticipated. We found the summit marker, well about 20cm of the summit marker, sticking out from the snow. Visibility had retruned a bit and was good enough for some great views across Hokkaido. The Shakotan peninsula was stunning and is another part of Hokkaido that we’ve got to get out and explore on skis next season.
Typical for Raiden, wind at the summit was howling. Aaron Jamieson reported similar conditions on his traverse a few years back. With nothing hindering it, the winds off the Sea of Japan barrel across unabated.
The ski down the main ridge was the longest descent we’d had on this trip, and mercifully it wasn’t all that bad for the most part. There was a goldilocks zone of about 300m vertical where the porridge was “not too hard, but not too porridgey”.
The woods quickly got woodier below the tree line. Along with it the snow descended into a hot sticky mess. No small amount of survival skiing ensued.
At the terminus of the ridge we were finally bootpacking. But to where we’d need to bootpack, it wasn’t immediately clear. The map suggested a slightly less steep bluff to the descender’s right, but a quick look over the edge suggested it would be quite the scramble.
Then we found the remains of an old house. If someone had managed to live up here on the bluff, then surely there was a path somewhere.
Timbah forged ahead, doing a full circuit of the old decrepit ruins. “There’s an old path down here!” he hollered triumphantly.
The path led us down right to the coast. A short walk had us arrive at a very convenient, deserted-looking old boat ramp. I suspect that it’s probably an active fishing harbour for much of the year. This was cause for great celebration, as we’d originally planned to descend a different route which may not have given us such direct access to the sea. This alternate route meant we truly skied from the eastern end of the range to its terminus here at the Japan Sea.
Timbah and Ben quickly stripped off and committed to a celebratory dive into the sea. While the weather was warm, that water was still not much more than 5 degrees Celcius. I forewent the ceremonial dip, and feel vindicated for the choice after hearing the clearly painful noises coming from Rob as he also went for a dip.
MVP award for the trip went to Haidee for picking us four stinky boys up at the boat ramp.
Following a trip like this to the coast, it only felt right to have sushi. Makoto Sushi 誠寿司 (map) appeared to be one of the few Iwanai such joints open at the time. The owner hid his surprise at five foreigners suddenly turning up well after lunch time, and whipped up some amazing lunch sets for us all.
A fitting end to a great two days out in the Niseko Range.