In the very center of Hokkaido lies a landscape so far removed from the urban sprawl of much of lowland Japan that you might be forgiven for asking: “Is this really Japan?” Far more reminiscent of the higher latitudes of Kamchatka and Chukotka (northeastern Russia) or of northern central Alaska (United States) than of Kanto or Kansai, the volcanic ranges that span the core of Japan’s northern island present to the eye an astoundingly un-Japanese landscape: expansive, even vast, powerful, and providing a sense of true wilderness. For some “marooned” urbanites with a yen for wildness, this might be the very place you have been seeking to “get away from it all.”
The heart of Hokkaido is an icy one, celebrated in the name Daisetsu (sometimes transliterated as Taisetsu), which means “Great Snows.” Much of this beautiful region makes up Japan’s largest national park, Daisetsuzan Kokuritsu Koen, a park established in 1934 and spanning a staggering extent — some 230,000 hectares.
The name Daisetsu could hardly be more apt, as for much of the year this is a cold, snow- and ice-dominated heart that welcomes only the brave and well equipped, or the foolhardy. Even in mid-summer, when lowland Hokkaido presents a milder, gentler face, Daisetsu retains extensive snow fields — and not only in narrow shady gullies, but in broader high-altitude valleys too, bringing delightful patterns of white and green to the landscape.
By September, a great month for a visit to Daisetsu, the autumn colors begin on the mountain tops and steadily creep downslope. Cool autumnal weather commences and is pleasant after the sweltering heat of summer, and access remains easy.
Daisetsu presents some of the most beautifully rugged scenery to be found anywhere in Japan, and for part of the year it is easily accessible. For a brief spell during the summer months of June, July and August Daisetsu provides a warmer welcome, and during September a cooler one, which is especially attractive this year. Although its many peaks of 2,000 meters or more are really only for fit hikers, two gateways offer access to even the most casual of mountain visitors.
Those in search of spectacular scenic views and a taste of the “other Japan,” but not wishing for any unnecessary exertion, need only travel to the gondola stations below towering Mount Asahi, at Asahidake Onsen, or below more modest Mount Kuro at Sounkyo — the northern gateway to the national park.
For those living in Honshu, which has a number of peaks rising to more than 3,000 meters in altitude, the mountains of Hokkaido may sound lowly in comparison, but bear in mind that they are approximately 1,000 km further north and so equivalent in climatic and ecological terms. For the inexperienced hiker, reaching a 3,000 meter peak in Honshu is almost impossible, but reaching its equivalent in Hokkaido is a breeze from Sounkyo.
This fantastic region consists of a rough stack of stratovolcanoes heaped and piled in three contiguous groups of peaks: those of Daisetsu itself, of Tokachi and of Shikaribetsu. Among these, you could wander a lifetime and not get to know all of the trails, but laid out below you in miniature when seen from the air, in relief when seen from the plain that bounds the town of Furano, or in profile from high vantage points such as the slopes or peaks to which the gondolas provide access is a landscape to soak up.
And if soaking is your style, then there are onsen (spa resorts) too, at Asahidake, Fukiage, Sounkyo and Tenninkyo, where you can luxuriate in piping-hot spring water.
While the gondola at Asahidake Onsen offers access on to the western flank of Hokkaido’s highest peak (Asahidake at 2,290 meters), with its alpine flower meadows and views south towards Mount Tomuraushi (2,141 meters) and out across the plain below to the west, the gondola at Sounkyo offers more options, and is the one I prefer.
Given the price of ¥1,850 (return), it seems a rather short ride from the hot-spring resort of Sounkyo up on to the northern flank of Mount Kuro, but even during the ride the views are of mountains and forests all around. Below lies the spectacular Sounkyo gorge, down which the Ishikari River cuts its way through the mountains from southeast to northwest before flowing round the range and southwest toward distant Sapporo.
Leaving Sounkyo, at 670 meters, on a relatively hot and humid Hokkaido summer’s day, it should come as no surprise that the temperature at the higher elevations may be 10 or more degrees cooler, yet this seems to catch many visitors out. Be prepared for great views but also cooler weather up high, and don’t forget a fleece and a windbreaker.
Disembarking the gondola at the Kurodake Station, you are already at a cooler 1,300 meters, and in boreal forest. A short walk away (about 200 meters) is the Kurodake chairlift (the area is not only a powder-snow ski resort in winter, but the very first in Japan to open each year), which for ¥600 (return) takes you up to 1,520 meters.
Trains and flights make Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital, eminently accessible, and from there it is an easy journey by train and bus or by rental car to either Asahidake Onsen or to Sounkyo to reach the gondolas. There are direct buses to Sounkyo from both Asahikawa and Kamikawa stations, making this one of the most easily accessible mountain areas of Hokkaido.
Souvenirs to buy include delightful postcards, photographic books of the area, and the local Sika Deer sembei crackers.
From there the view is breathtaking, if you aren’t distracted by the cute and confident Siberian chipmunks begging for tidbits, and there is a short hiking trail providing more views and an insight into the forest at this altitude.
For the hale and hearty it is a 75- to 90-minute hike up the rugged trail ahead, beyond the treeline and passing the oddly out-of-place vertical fingers of the Maneki-iwa (Beckoning Rocks) to the 1,984 meter summit of Mount Kuro.
If you reach the top of the chairlift on a clear day then this hike up to the mountaintop is certainly not to be missed, as from there you can see south across the volcanic landscape of the Ohachidaira caldera, flanked by Mount Hokuchin and Mount Hokkai, and in the distance to Mount Asahi.
Despite its altitude, Kurodake bears an uncanny resemblance to northern central Alaska, sharing a similar annual average temperature (-3 degrees Celsius) and similar vegetation. On my most recent summer visit it was a cool 5 C at the top, though it felt much warmer in the bright sunshine.
Reach this point atop Kurodake, though, and beware of serious temptations — a trail heads off southward and it could entice you away on an easy day’s ramble among alpine flowers, on a hard day’s hike around several of the closer peaks, or on a weeklong traverse of the national park.
Visit here in summer and the alpine flora is not merely excitingly diverse, but overwhelmingly profuse. I have hiked across many tens of kilometers of tundra in the Arctic, the landscape that ecologically most closely represents that in Daisetsu, and never have I encountered such a dense abundance of alpine flowers as here. In Daisetsu there are meadows of Kamchatka globeflowers, purple spires of orchids, swathes of pink and pale green bell-flowered heathers, deep blue gentians, and creamy white carpets of Aleutian avens.
Visit in early autumn (late August and September) and the tops and the slopes are likely to be ablaze with autumn foliage; the avens will have long since gone to seed, the crowberry will have put out its purplish-black berries, and the leaves of the Alpine bearberry will be deep wine red, and during late September the peaks may already have been dusted by the first snows of winter.
For those for whom hiking is anathema, but for whom views are an allure, then merely ride the Sounkyo gondola and then the chairlift and devote your energies elsewhere, perhaps taking a therapeutic stroll through the forest beside the chairlift before descending the gondola once more for a soak at an onsen.
The two gondola cars are named after the two creatures most likely to be seen in the park: Nakki, after Nakki-usagi, the northern pika; and Shima, after Shima-risu, the Siberian chipmunk. The former animal is shy and likes the jumbled rock piles on the higher slopes of the mountains, so is only likely to be seen by dedicated hikers, but the chipmunks are common at the lower altitudes of the gondolas and chairlift stations and have become confiding. You might even be lucky and spot a red fox trotting by.
Within easy walking distance of the Sounkyo gondola station are the many onsen hotels of the Sounkyo hot spring area, an educational national-park visitor center and a superb photographic gallery (Sounkyo Mt. Daisetsu Photo Museum, open from May 1 to Oct. 31, entry ¥300) showcasing the inspiring landscape photographs of Koetsu Ichinei, whose works portray Daisetsu throughout the year, allowing even the one-time visitor to see the park in all its glory. Ichinei’s works also grace the interiors of the gondola stations.
In winter Sounkyo boasts an ice festival beside the Ishikari River, and during late July the Gorge Fire Festival combines both modern firework displays and traditional Ainu festivities.
The heart of Hokkaido is not only represented by the chilly hub of Daisetsu, but also by the rarefied and divine atmosphere of the Kamuy Mintara — the Playground of the Gods. For Japan’s indigenous Ainu, who first ventured into this vast region, Kamuy Mintara is where their pantheon of gods, ranging from the “god of the mountains” (the awe-inspiring Brown Bear) to the diminutive “slippers of the gods” (the friendly chipmunks), are at home. And home is, after all, where your heart is.
Mark Brazil is a British travel and natural history writer, a photographer and an eco-tourism consultant, whose home base is in Ebetsu, Hokkaido. His travels take him worldwide, though he returns most frequently to South Asia and South America. You can find out more at: www.japannatureguides.com. He has been a contributor to The Japan Times since 1982.