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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.

But I’m not done with my quest to subjugate Daisetsuzan’s raw core just yet. On day three, Michiko leads the way back up the spur trail to the traverse and the fire engine-red Hakuun hut, where I’ll depart solo for the empty part of Daisetsuzan. We’ve been dodging pelting rain for hours, but when rumbles of thunder kick in, I start to wonder about spending three days on a ridge.


“If you wait for good weather to go in Daisetsuzan, you will never go,” Michiko says.

“No risk, no reward, eh?” I laugh.

“There is no risk, if you observe and adjust properly.”

I can’t always decode Michiko’s hiking koans. Sometimes I think she just wants to get rid of me as fast as possible.

“To get a sense for a real backpacker in Daisetsuzan, you have to go by yourself,” she adds.

So during a lull in the storm, I strike out into Daisetsuzan’s empty quarter. Michiko calls the Asahidake-Kurodake-Hakuundake triangle “urban Daisetsuzan”—which is funny, because we almost went entire days without seeing anyone. But when I go out on my own, I see what she means. This section offers the kind of isolation and solitude that leads to talking to yourself. It’s also prime bear habitat, often shrouded in fog. Unless you want to adopt the tinkly bear bells favored by the Japanese, better brush up on your karaoke. I start belting my way through the Led Zeppelin catalog and practice my limited, hacksawed Japanese as I strike out onto the 3-mile tundra bench leading to Chubetsudake, a 6,439-foot peak where stunted vegetation breaks over blocky cliffs in a cresting wave. 

The yellow blazes disappear, and the fading trail follows a cliff edge that drops into a misty abyss. Ancient, faded stone trail markers lean next to the shattered wood and twisted metal of more recent trail signs.

After a few hours, the curtains part, and to my left, beyond the cliff, green mountain valleys radiate out like veins, rimmed by distant crags. To my right, disintegrating fog opens windows onto huge volcanoes striped with snow. It’s a high-country feast, with an always-morphing view. I’ll have it entirely to myself for two days. My pace quickens, and I start bounding across the tundra bench. It’s all I can do to hold back a Sound of Music-twirl. I had started to doubt this land existed. It does.

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