“Excuse me, are you with UNESCO?”, inquired the middle-aged hiker, the third such person to pose such a question on my climb through the unspoiled forests alive with vibrant greenery. Apparently there were some UN officials in the area, but for reasons I had yet to discern.
The train chugged south from Tomakomai city, passing abandoned train stations and fields of corn, soy, buckwheat, and other grains of unidentifiable origin. I rode the Hidaka line to the terminus of Samani station, where a shuttle bus whisked me to Apoi Lodge, my accommodation for the evening. After dropping off my excess gear, I peered out over the valley and towards the summit of Mt. Apoi, capped by a dense wall of cloud. With the weather forecast to worsen, this was perhaps my only chance to investigate one of Japan’s more peculiar geological anomalies.
Bear warning signs marked the entrance to the otherwise nondescript trail, but I seriously doubted the validity of those warning signs. The peak juts right up against the coast, and with the rest of the Hidaka mountains providing ample stomping ground for Japan’s grizzly cousins, I cruised through the forest with relative ease. At one point in the trail, a large bell sat off the right edge of the well-worn path. Its use was apparent, so I rang the metallic device, which sent an ear-splitting drone deep into every corner of the forest. I’ve heard temple bells with less firepower than this monstrosity. While I’m sure it would send every bear scurrying for cover, it has the added drawback of sending every animal into hiding. That’s the main reason why I never use bear bells: you’ll end up scaring the deer, boar, martens, foxes, and other relatively harmless creatures away.
As the trail meandered through a series of switchbacks, I ran into the first crowds of the day, and the first inquiries into my affiliations. Once reaching the 5th stage point (and psychological halfway point), I took my first break, resting on a small rock formation sitting directly adjacent the small emergency hut. All of a sudden, the clouds covering the summit plateau began to break up, as if on cue from Masaaki Suzuki himself. The early bird hikers had summited too early, but my mid-afternoon timing seemed impeccable. I quickened the pace lest the fog return for an encore.
At the 7th stage point the trail broke past the tree line and onto a plateau bursting with wildflowers of every imaginable color. Apoi is home to quite a few species of rare endemic flora, but in my botanical incapacity I could not identify them without a guidebook. My altimeter read 500 vertical meters, such a low altitude to be above the forest canopy, I pondered. The views opened up towards the cold waters of Pacific as the path navigated through the creeping pine and along a rocky, knife-edge ridge for the final push to the top.
Just before the high point the trail shot back into a grove of Erman’s birch trees, concealing the panoramic views you would expect to find normally associated with alpine vegetation. How can this be? This geological enigma continues to baffle scientists. Normally Erman’s birch (known in Japanese as dakekanba), sit on the edge of the tree line, with creeping pine (haimatsu) above, but here on Apoi the dakekanba appears above the haimatsu zone, as illustrated in the following diagram:
Eager for a vista, I dropped halfway down towards the saddle below the summit of Mt. Yoshida, which offered a glimpse of the remainder of the Hidaka mountains stretching out to the north. Forget Daisetsuzan. If you want to experience Japan’s only true remaining wilderness area, then the Hidaka’s are the way to go.
After retracing my steps to the summit, I continued south through patches of wildflowers before looping back on a shortcut spur back to the 7th stage point, where the clouds once again moved in. Retreating to the sheltered canopy of the tree line at the emergency hut, I ran into a trail maintenance volunteer. “Are you with UNESCO?”, he asks, my fourth such inquiry in as many hours. He explains: “Mt. Apoi is up for consideration by UNESCO to become a World Geopark site. Committee members are due for a surprise site visit at any moment.” Ah, now that explains the wide-eyed looks and inquisitory behavior.
Now that I had found someone familiar with the peak, I rattled off a series of questions in a machine gun manner. Affirmative was my initial suspicions about the lack of bears, as even the trail worker was not carrying a bell. The two of us descended together, he interested as much in my mountain pursuits as much as I was in his floral knowledge. At the trailhead I stopped by the visitor’s center to check out the informative displays before returning to the lodge for dinner. The next morning the mountain was hit with torrential rain and violent thunder, leaving me thanking my lucky stars that I had chosen to summit the previous day. If the weather is good, then you should seize the opportunity to climb, even if it’s not on your agenda for the day, as delaying an attempt may just cost you.