Ah, Daisetsuzan National Park. The holy grail for Japan’s long trail community. Japan’s largest national park affords vistas like no other place. After an aborted trip last year, it was time to give the mountains their proper christening. As I stood on the edge of Sapporo city, thumb outstretched, I looked towards the plains of the east, hoping to catch a glimpse of their unhindered heights. An ash gray, 4-door Toyota sedan pulled up in front of my roadside perch. “Can you take me to Asahidake?” I inquired, using my best puppy-dog eyes. The driver, a father in his mid-40s, accompanied by his button smily 7-year old, willfully obliged. It turned out he was just out for a drive, but offered to take me all the way to the trailhead mostly out of kindness, but partly out of curiosity since they had never been to an active volcano.
My initial plan was to camp, but the volcanic plateau was in a fierce battle with the elements when we arrived. Torrential rain fell from the skies as if to taunt me. “Are you sure you want to camp?”, ask my chauffeur. I definitely did not want to camp, and the sparkling youth hostel directly across the street from the campground made the decision for me. I booked a room while the driver bid me farewell, repeatedly refusing my offers to pay for gas. “We’ve just opened,” explained the manager of Shirakabaso, who gave me a quick tour of the grounds. This was hands-down the best hostel I’ve ever seen in Japan, at a true bargain at only 3000 yen a night. (it is now double the price) There was a Canadian log cabin annex out back, where a few other guests were browsing through magazines. During dinner, I got to know the other guests and we spend the rest of the evening solving riddles and telling stories, which helped me forget about the foul weather outside and my imminent engagement with the mountains the following day.
The morning dawned overcast but dry, so I shouldered a week’s worth of gear and marched off to the start of the trail, which was marked by a stop-sign sized drawing of a cannibalistic brown bear with red Chinese characters warning visitors of their approaching doom. My stomach pushed tightly against my diaphragm as I bit my lip and swallowed awkwardly. What was I getting myself into?
Since I wasn’t carrying a bell, I belted out some acapella in the loudest and most annoying tone I could think of. It was as if Eminem were teamed up with The Offspring, but much worse. Not only did I not see any of the caniforms, but my murderous bellowing most likely sent the other hikers scurrying to the hills as well. Actually, the first part of the hike was in absolute solitude, as 99% of hikers opt for the speed and luxury of the nearby gondola, which shaves 500 vertical meters off the climb.
After skipping through some marshlands, I followed a narrow gully towards the ridge, topping out after about an hour of steady climbing. At the ridge, I met the trail coming in from the gondola on the left, where the crowds increased 10fold. Asahi-dake’s conical massif was hidden behind a thick layer of cloud. Further down the left side of the flank, a small caldera lake framed a canyon of steam vents which rose to meet the cloud layer. I skirted the outer edge of the lake before heading to the shoulder of the volcano on the right. It was tough going in the scree, but the path was easy to pick up thanks to the conservative placement of yellow paint marks every few meters or so. I reached the high point in high winds and zero visibility, taking off my pack in order to catch my breath and refuel.
I headed down the eastern side of Asahi. The slippery scree gave way to even slipperier slush, as I did my best impression of a drunk ice skater. I somehow managed to stay on my feet through the maze of terror. I reached a small campground nestled on the edge of the snowfield, but I decided to make the most of the day by continuing on to Kurodake, which was home to a larger camp space with more amenities. Before me lay a vast igneous battlefield scarred with sulfur-stained gullies and hissing fields of steam. Imagine the Lake District sprinkled with a generous coating of volcanic seasoning. Since I had dropped back out of the cloud line, the route was easy to find. Signage warned of the dire consequences of veering too far off the trail, so I kept my wits about me, reaching the medium-sized hut at the base of Kuro’s summit plateau shortly before dusk. It was a long first day, but I knew that each successive day would require more milage if I wanted to make it to Tokachi by the end of the week.