Daisetsuzan climb: Kurodake (1984m) & Hokkaidake (2149m) - Hokkaido
- Dubious weather reports, and an unusual breakfast
- Cable car and chairlift rides
- The path to Kurodake summit and an icy paddle
- Hokkaidake summit
- Amazing colours and rocks around the crater rim
- An icy descent then back to the chairlift
This walk goes through the high volcanic mountains at the heart of the Daisetsuzan National Park, the largest of Japan's national parks, established in 1934. It provides superb hiking possibilities, both for day trips and long-distance treks using mountain refuges. The flora and fauna are particularly rich. It makes use of the cable car to reduce the amount of climbing and descent.
Catriona and I had spent much of Thursday travelling from Sapporo to Sounkyo, arriving there at 3.30 pm, 4 hours after setting out. After an "interesting" meal we saw a weather forecast indicating poor weather on Friday, but due to improve after that. However, when we woke on Friday it was bright and dry, and we decided to make for the high mountains. The highest peak on Hokkaido, Asahidake (2290m) seemed a possibility, but we'd been told there were closer peaks with a lot of colourful mountain flora!
It wasn't easy to hurry a breakfast of green tea, soup, fried egg and chopped lettuce with orange dressing, some gooey brown strong-tasting stuff, gherkins, a bit of ham, dried seaweed and lots of sticky rice. Catriona got her flask filled with hot water to add to pot noodles for lunch (which I thought strange at first, but it made sense on a chilly mountain top at 1 p.m.)
We stocked up with snacks at the general store, including some with strange flavours to try. The familiar Kit-Kat was available in melon and forest fruit flavours! It was a short walk up to the cable car (ropeway) station which we reached around 8.45 a.m. The view over the valley and the mountains opened up quickly as the cable car rose up the mountainside. We emerged onto a beautiful wooded terrace high above the valley, with a good footpath leading up to a chairlift which took us through a wide break in the forest to the upper station (1510m). There were lots of birds singing in the trees, and several workmen tidying up little flowerbeds below the line of the chairlift! We called out "ohayo gozaimasu" (good morning) to the people who were already coming down in the other direction (and wondered what time they had set out). The summit of Kurodake could be seen clearly up ahead.
About 9.20 we set out in the sunshine on a distinct path which zig-zagged up through birch trees and shrubs. Soon there were no more trees, apart from a few dwarf pines, but this still put the tree line at about 1600 m or 5200 feet - above the height of Ben Nevis! The dense shrubs provided a display of many familiar-looking summer flowers (spiraea, crysanthemum, wysteria etc). We passed several other walkers in twos and threes, climbing over large rocks on the path and eventually a few patches of snow. As we approached the top the mist closed in and drizzle began. We reached the summit of Kurodake (1984m) at 10.30, and received a warm welcome from a group of Japanese walkers on the top, before they set off down.
After a break we set off down an easy but stony slope to the west, with the route bounded by rope fences. There was a belt of snow to cross, before we reached the Kurodake refuge. This and other refuges are used to stop over during the 5-day traverse of the Daisetsuzan plateau.
We filled up with water and left the refuge around 11.00 as the rain came on more heavily. The track headed SSW carving out a channel in the loose volcanic earth, between dwarf pines. It crossed some patches of snow, then reached a fast-flowing stream emerging from under a large area of hard-packed snow. We had to remove our shoes and socks to cross the stream, and it was, of course, FREEZING!! And the stones were SHARP. We were feeling a bit miserable as we put our socks and boots back on, and were close to giving up. Fortunately Catriona had one of the little towels from the onsen to dry our feet, and we walked on in the rain. There was an ice bridge to cross the next stream, then a gradual climb up the valley side.
The rain eased and we took a break, suddenly noticing the carpet of beautiful pink and yellow flowers beside the path. From then on, we began to feel a lot more positive.
We reached the top at about 12.30, ready for some lunch. An older couple were there, with enormous packs, heading across to a camping place. They took a picture of us on the top with the height indicator - the summit name and height were carved in a vertical wooden post (Mt Hokkaidake, 2149m).
The mist was clearing, and we suddenly had a view beneath the clouds to the north and NW, and realised that we were looking down on a wide volcanic crater surrounded by several peaks. Over the next few days we became used to volcanic scenery, but it was my first such view and I was awe-struck. Beyond the crater, Kurodake was just appearing through the cloud, and we began to see the ring of peaks around the rim.
(Catriona had produced her flask, and on this cold damp mountain top the rehydrated pot noodles didn't seem such a daft idea any more.)
We realised that the highest peak, Asahidake, was probably just beyond our reach to the west, overlooking a neighbouring crater. If we restricted the walk to the rim of the caldera it looked pretty straightforward yet could be spectacular. We certainly didn't relish the idea of turning back the way we had come, across the icy stream, and the weather was much better now.
So we set off at 1.15 along a beautiful easy ridge, heading west, walking quickly. We speeded up to pass a fast-walking woman who then seemed to vanish! As the ridge rose to the next summit, we stopped in amazement at the marvellous range of colours in the rocks around us - purple, orange, yellow, pink, brown, black - and collected a few small stones as souvenirs. It was an easy climb up to the highest point on the rim at 2185m, at 2 pm.
Unfortunately we were back into the mist, preventing us seeing across the 2 miles to the top of Asahidake, beyond a small intervening crater. We were only 105m below the highest summit in Hokkaido. It would have involved a 200m climb in each direction - and should have been do-able in the day if we'd had an early start and less lingering!
We pushed on round the crater, down a stony and muddy track - marked again by ropes on poles - then up past a series of strange wind-sculpted orange rocks, with hard black nobbly rocks nearby. The orange ones were softer and more easily eroded. It was a weird scene as the shapes emerged from the mist. On the inner side of the rim we paused to inspect some strange clay-like orange and white mud, at the edge of an ice patch. Surrounded by cloud, it felt like a different world.
It was 2.50 when we got to the next top, and we considered a 400m detour to the left to a summit over 2200m, but decided against it. We were tiring, and time was running out to get back to the chairlift. On our descent, we suddenly reached the edge of a snowfield, and began descending after checking the compass. But it got steeper and trickier than expected, and we didn't have an ice axe. We moved across to solid ground, but couldn't avoid crossing the snowfield. We followed a steep way down in the snow where others had climbed. It was hard going and quite scary - one slip to the right and we could have ended up way down in the caldera.
After reaching solid rocks and recovering our composure, we headed back to the Kurodake hut,. Back below the mist, we stopped for views of the caldera and the amazing multicoloured valley cut by the river that had drained it. Around us were Japanese rowans and dwarf pine trees. We didn't stop at the hut, but pushed on, over the top of Kurodake and into the cloud again for the descent. It was a bit of a hurried descent. We reached the chairlift at 5.15 and after a spooky ride on the chairlift through the trees in the mist we got back to our guest house at 5.50. There was no time for a soak in the onsen at the nearby hotel before our meal, but we enjoyed it afterwards.
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