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Backpacker Magazine – November 2013

Best Discovery: Hai Country, Japan

Can you really find true wilderness in the most civilized country on Earth?

by: Ted Alvarez

Sulphur vents steam below 7,516-foot Mt. Asahidake.
Sulphur vents steam below 7,516-foot Mt. Asahidake.
Dwarf Azaleas bloom in the first few weeks of July.
Dwarf Azaleas bloom in the first few weeks of July.
Guest shoes line the entrance to Hakuun Hut.
Guest shoes line the entrance to Hakuun Hut.
A sign warns you're entering bear country near Kogen Onsen.
A sign warns you're entering bear country near Kogen Onsen.

There is no real word for “wilderness” in Japanese. This is, after all, one of the most densely populated countries in the world; certain spots cram more than 11,300 souls into a single square kilometer of towering concrete and blinking neon. There’s a countrywide fetish for futurism and robots, and the people have a reputation for buttoned-up formality. 


Yet mountains, forests, and meadows cover 67 percent of Japan’s landmass. The rhythms of the wild suffuse traditional culture, from the animist Shinto religion to modern doctors who prescribe “forest bathing”—hanging out in the woods—to prevent cancer. But the porous border between man and wild has a downside: Japanese nature often seems civilized and manicured, with networks of teak-floored inns and gondolas spooling up every peak. It means every spring millions of Japanese flock to the mountains for hinami (“flower viewing”)—and some bring tea sets that match their gaiters.

I can’t fault their enthusiasm: Japan’s mountain ranges—kissed by volcanic fire, flushed with endemic flora and fauna—are wholly unique to the islands. And the country’s first-rate infrastructure means you can step into the primeval from the edge of a bullet train platform. I find the contrast irresistible—but more importantly, I’m convinced I’ve found a secret stash of honest-to-god, true wilderness in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost and least-densely populated major island. 

Daisetsuzan National Park is the country’s oldest and biggest preserve. Brutal winters plus some of the deepest snowfalls in the world make the growing season exceptionally short, cultivating swaths of treeless, subarctic tundra at relatively low elevations. The core looks something like Denali with volcanoes in place of glaciers, or a Scottish highlands where all the flowers have gone Seussian.

Hokkaido’s Siberian tinge makes it a bit of a wild enigma even to the Japanese. Japan’s only indigenous tribe, the Ainu, thrived here and conjured up a dense mythology of deities, demons, and lesser spirits who inhabited every stone and stream in Kamuimintara—God’s playground. The corporeal vessels for all those Ainu spirits still haunt the landscape: foxes, Ezo deer, white-tailed sea eagles, a fuzzy-cute raccoon dog called a tanuki, and, most impressively, Ussuri brown bears—biological relics from when Hokkaido was connected to Russia by a now-submerged land bridge. 

My goal: Complete the Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse, a 42-mile, five- to seven-day route rambling over the park’s highest peaks and connecting up to nine high-country huts. Besides serving up the park’s best sights, biggest wildlife, and toughest trails, the middle miles fend off vacation-poor, weekend-warrior salarymen and elderly hikers wary of the area’s lack of signage and intimidating routefinding. If my beta is correct, it’ll be a lot like having five days on a bunch of Fourteeners to myself—but with fewer altitude issues and more authentic ramen.

Before I can journey into the unspoiled stuff, though, I have to navigate urban Japan’s neon-lit crush, which includes robo-toilets with 15 oscillating bidet options. By the time I mistakenly feed my bus ticket into the money slot and fluster even the unfailingly polite Japanese passengers behind me, I’m ready to hide my shame in Hokkaido’s inaka—“the boonies.”

The island’s verdant farmland throws me off at first: On the bus from regional hub Asahikawa to the park, rice fields fly past in parallax and clusters of quaint farmhouses sport cabbages bigger than dogs. It has a bucolic beauty, but with the mountains socked in, I can only hope rising welts of forest on the horizon are a sign of wilder things to come.

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