Asahidake (旭岳, 2291m) is a reasonably popular mountain for new hikers in Hokkaido, due to its ease of access, short(ish) climb, and stunning views from the summit. Kurodake (黒岳, 1984 m) tends to attract the same sort of person: nature-lovers looking for a taste of the big alpine. In between the two are the vast rolling massifs of the Daisetsuzan, the huge mountain range that can be seen from almost anywhere in Hokkaido, given a clear enough day. And for a great sense of what the Daisetsuzan as a whole has to offer, the hike around the massive crater of Ohachi-daira is without equal.
The loop is connected to Asahidake on one end and to Kurodake on the other, so it’s easily accessible from either side—although the climb up Asahidake is somewhat longer, at 2 hours, than the 1-hour, 20-minute Kurodake. The other week, I went up Kurodake with Sam and walked the long clockwise walk—though the counter-clockwise trip is generally more popular.
The hike started at Kurodake. We took the ropeway first (put times and prices here) and then the small chairlift (times and prices) up to the 7th station marker. It was Sunday, so the trailhead was relatively quiet—but ‘relatively quiet’ at Kurodake still means you’ll meet twenty people or so on the way up. Be on the lookout for long trains of old ladies who will foist cold oranges and slices of banana on you.
There’s not much to say about the climb. Keep an eye on the flowers—they change pretty dramatically on the way up. See if you can spot the violet, aptly-named monkshood, and contemplate distilling the poison from its flowers.
We were greeted at the summit by a stiff wind blowing across from the higher mountains ahead. We decided to take advantage of the wind and sat around for ten minutes or so, watching various older folks do yoga-esque movements all around us.
After the break, we headed down the back of Kurodake, passing the Ishimuro, an old stone mountain lodge where you can stay the night, after ten minutes or so. The wind had calmed down and we continued on towards Hokkai-dake (北海岳, 2149 m).
We descended into a bit of a ravine and crossed the Akaishi River, which runs out of Ohachi-daira. The main bowl of Ohachi-daira is strictly off-limits due to poison gases, so I’ve never felt quite comfortable collecting water from the stream there. I guess it comes down to how lucky you feel. After climbing over a bit of a low ridge we dipped into the ravine of the Hokkai Stream on the far side. Another river crossing. This stream doesn’t run out of Ohachi-daira, so maybe it’s safer to drink? Past here the trail followed the stream up towards the broad flank of Hokkai-dake.
The climb up to Hokkai-dake was long but not as arduous as the climb up Kurodake. We wandered among pine scrub and immature lingonberry. If you’re hiking in the fall, you can probably eat the little berries that grow along hte path. Or at any rate, I have, and have never suffered any ill effects. After crossing a couple of scree fields we came onto a bit of a rocky traverse before heading up the last shallow slope to the round summit of Hokkai-dake.
We took a good long break before meandering down into the saddle beyond. From the col it was another trudge up to the summit of Mamiya-dake (間宮岳, 2185 m). Near the summit, where the ground is covered with ripples of grassy clods, we found the spot where the trail breaks off towards Asahi-dake. Shortly beyond we came to the summit itself.
From there it was a long, rocky descent towards Naka-dake Junction at the col below. The ground was uneven and steep enough that we had to take serious care, but at length we made it to the bottom. The trail that breaks off here heads down towards Susoai-daira, the big plateau at the foot of Asahi-dake itself—stopping along the way at Naka-dake Onsen, a small volcanically heated pool alongside the trail, maybe half an hour below. It’s a cool little spot, but I’ve found that it’s pretty tough to divert just enough cool water into the pool so as not to either burn yourself or find your feet sitting in a tepid stream. Don’t expect Fukiage Onsen-style leisure there.
Then it was time for the last climb of the hike. Halfway up, we crossed the little lump that marked the summit of Naka-dake (中岳, 2113 m) itself. The trail dipped just a little bit and continued climbing. The trail up to the Hokuchin-dake Junction was gradual and littered with volcanic ejecta and fantastic warped boulders, big sedimentary monstrosities in oranges and reds and whites. Off to the left, we saw the big Stegosaurus peaks surrounding Pippu-dake (比布岳, 2197 m); to the right, the vast dish of Ohachi-daira continued to loom.
A good stiff wind had built up near the little hump where the junction was, so we clambered down over the gnarled orange rocks on the far side and took a short break there in a little flower-strewn crook. Ahead lay the 2-km walk back to the Ishimuro, all laid out before us like a little piece of twine sitting on the landscape. At the far end of it, the pointed, tiered peak of Kurodake, like a diving board over the drop into Sounkyo. The whites, yellows, blues, and even purples of the many-armed Akaishi River in Ohachi-daira sat distantly shushing. It was a beautiful spot for a break.
First, however, we had to navigate a big field of crusty old snow. It had more or less consolidated into a mass of ice, but hundreds of hikers before us had carved footholds into the side which made the descent a little easier. The lower reaches were quite steep so we whipped out the poles and made like an old Japanese dude. If you’ve got poles and are considering climbing anytime before late July, I’d advise bringing them.
The walk back to the Ishimuro was brisk and easy. We passed a rocky outlook over Ohachi-daira and cut back through a few patches of scrub pine as we made the shallow descent. Eventually the trail leveled out and packed-down mud replaced the sand and rock we’d be hiking on. It only took half an hour or so to reach the Ishimuro.
We had plenty of time here, so we stopped at the Ishimuro a while. For once, I wasn’t driving, so I bought a couple of beers, which worked their golden magic on me at double-time after the long, mostly foodless trek. We also cooked up a couple of curries and some rice, eaten out of a pair of mugs. It tasted divine, but I think that might also have had something to do with the fact that we hadn’t really consumed anything more substantial than Snickers all day.
By and by a group of bewildered-looking Germans wandered into camp, and serially attempted to throw away garbage in the water-collection bucket. The Ishimuro manager, whose English was middling but whose enthusiasm was unmatched, kept running over yelling, “No, no! Take it, take it!” When the Germans eventually made their way off somewhere, he saw them off with an ‘Ich liebe dich!’ which I thought was very charming.
After we’d finished the curries and beer, we packed up all of our stuff and headed out. The manager called after us, “See you later!” in English, and we smiled and waved back. The short climb back up to the summit of Kurodake felt a lot longer than it was this morning. I’d been sucking on my Camelbak all day but somehow my backpack felt heavier. Weird.
The summit was deserted, the light low, and the shadows long. The wind had died down and all was quiet. Below us, the mountain cast a big triangle of shadow on the plateau above Sounkyo. We started back down.
The trek down Kurodake at the end of the day is always a quiet one, getting darker and darker as you descend. Near the bottom we ran into a couple of suzumebachi—the huge, specifically Asian variety of hornet—which chased us in fast-mo down to the lift. We had only paid for the trip up, and the little store at the top of the lift was closed, so we had to ride first and pay at the hut at the bottom of the lift. We made the short walk back to the lodge at the top of the gondola, bought our tickets at the little shop there, and rode back down to dim Sounkyo and the haven of Sam’s Impreza’s A/C.