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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.

The next day, better things come quickly: My route begins on the Asahidake Ropeway, a Chamonix-style gondola that coasts 1,640 feet above the firs and birch to deposit riders at the treeline base of 7,516-foot Asahidake, Hokkaido’s tallest mountain and the traverse’s start. Local guide Michiko Aoki, 36, agrees to join me for the first two days of my journey, hunching a pack that dwarfs her tiny frame.

 “There is too much snow,” she warns as we crunch into a snowbank mere feet beyond the gondola deck—an unusually large amount for midsummer. 

“It is possible you will not finish the route.”  

Michiko’s offhand prediction carries a dark cast: Only the day before, a woman died careening off the edge of a snowfield near here. I’m wary but determined—and prepared with microspikes (though I wish I had crampons and an ice axe). The caution-and-courtesy-above-all is beginning to chafe a little; back in Asahikawa, my concerned handlers forced about 5 extra pounds of food on me, so concerned were they about my “lethal” choice of route. Plus, I can’t help it—I’m an occasionally brash American who sometimes suffers from bouts of summit fever. What’s a little late-season snow?  

For now, solitude seems far-fetched. As we switchback up Asahidake through fast-changing fog, we run into packs of peakbaggers—most of them 60 and older. The Japanese know and love their mountains: Centuries ago, they might have been the first recreational peakbaggers, and even today, they communicate a mountain route’s altitude and difficulty in go meh—the amount of oil a bronze lantern consumes for any given section. Kyuya Fukada’s 1964 book, 100 Famous Mountains, serves as only the latest peakbagging bible. Asahidake and a few others in Daisetsuzan are on this popular list; most of the park’s peaks—and the sprawling backcountry in between—are largely ignored.  

Michiko explains that for the Japanese, summiting goes beyond pastime into pilgrimage; hikers seek something like grace. The natural high puts everyone in a good mood, and softens my irritation with having to share Daisetsuzan. In the city it was easy to feel “other,” even with the overbearing politeness. Not on the trail: Everyone chirps a singsong “Konichiwa!” as they pass. I practice the one word I know and try to say more, but intricate rules of respect and attribution intimidate me into letting Michiko take the lead. My neck hurts from the bowing. 

Asahidake’s summit is crowned in thick fog, so we schuss down a quarter-mile-long snowfield on its backside to the rim of the mile-wide Ohachi-daira Caldera. At the bottom of the crater, 500 feet below, hot ground keeps the area snow-free year-round and spews invisible poison gases. After another two hours stepping over fragile pillows of moss and crossing heat-tempered bands of red, purple, and yellow gravel, I spot a roof in the distance. When we reach the Kurodake hut, a cluster of windowless buildings with corrugated metal walls, Makoto Takeishi, the summer hut keeper, greets us with a giant grin and invites us into his kitchen after we pitch tents. Despite the July high season, only two people are staying in the 80 or so bunks. Inside, we fire up the stoves and I pour boiling water into the colorful bag that holds my camp meal. 

“You know that is only plain rice, right?” Michiko says. 

Famous Japanese hospitality saves dinner: In addition to sharing tea and boxed wine, Makoto stir-fries fragrant curry chicken with jasmine. I gratefully add it to my lame dinner. Score one for civility.

The following morning, we set out early following spattered red lines across remnant snowfields: Michiko explains that in this “busy” part of Daisetsuzan, rangers sometimes paint the way across tricky snowfields for visitors. The late April snowfall supposedly pushed the flower season weeks back, but I’m getting lucky: electric-fuchsia dwarf azaleas and sparkling white mountain heath fringe the rocky ledges leading up the gentle dome of 7,051-foot Mt. Hokkaidake. 

We press on through fog and wind to the Kogen Onsen backcountry resort, following yellow circle blazes on a rocky scramble over and down 6,627-foot Mt. Midori. At treeline, we encounter a printed-out sign I can’t read, but the pixelated photo gets the idea across: We’re in bear country. The forested ridges in the bowl above Kogen Onsen alone host 30 or so brown bears—some of the densest populations on Hokkaido.  

No bruins interrupt the descent down a spur trail to the rustic inn, and after an elaborate ritual of boot removal and washing, we experience the rare pleasure of an upscale break on a backpacking trip: beds, fresh-cooked meals culled from nearby gardens and rivers, and a hot bath. But the traditional accommodations mean the only way I’m getting clean is in the no-clothing, sex-segregated onsen

I’m nervous. For one, some onsen forbid people with tattoos (I’ve got three). For two, onsen require special, ritualized etiquette. I’m not used to dealing with social anxiety in the backcountry—normally I head out there to escape problems like that. I’m also thrown by downshifting back into society just as I’d started to get my hands dirty.

“This place is relaxed onsen,” Michiko says, laughing her way through my
questions. “Just act Japanese.” 

I give the poor guys next to me the side-eye to figure out in what order to sit down, scrub, fill up a bowl, dump it over my head, and repeat. I try my best not to stare. Of course, none of the anxiety matters the minute I go neck-deep in a scalding vat of 104°F mineral water. The rigors of my hike vaporize with my skin cells. I’m sure I botched the ritual, but none of the silver-haired gentlemen I’m basking with let on that they know. We all sit with wet towels folded in neat triangles over our heads to keep cool, unraveling in silence except for the occasional contented sigh. Later, buzzing off a family-size beer I just bought from a vending machine, I start to really feel the upside of civilized wilderness.

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