Daisetsuzan Hikes: Asahidake to Naka Dake Loop Hike
Daisetsuzan National Park (大雪山) is the largest national park in Hokkaido, Japan. Although those kind of qualifications rarely mean anything to me when it comes to picking my travel/hiking destinations, the size of Daisetsuzan was the one thing that made my hiking days in the park truly exceptional. The variety of the landscape that the park encompasses and the feeling of endlessness which surrounds you makes Daisetsuzan National Park one of the most rewarding hiking destinations in Japan, if not the most. It allows one to experience the feeling of true disconnection. Sure, it is a very popular destination with relatively easier access and you will see many other hikers around but the park is big enough to host us all and regardless of the day and season – if you engage in one of the long day or overnight hikes, you will likely experience the complete solitude on the trail in regular intervals. Although I tend to treasure solitude more than I probably should in my urban life, I am for one not someone getting upset about the idea of other hikers on the trail as the surrounding company gives me comfort and peace of mind as I mostly hike solo. I also had some of my best conservations in Japan with complete strangers along the trails.
Speaking of other hikers on the trail, I have been lately feeling a little repulsed by the non-inclusive language used in many hiking blogs about Japan where the authors seem to think that they have every right to be on those trails whereas the others, the so-called “tourists” or “day-hikers” are there just to hurt the mountains and trails. I feel like there is a very fine line between raising awareness about responsible travel/hiking and preaching others and engaging in constant virtue signaling. I hope we can all, including myself, adopt a healthier approach towards inclusiveness in the hiking and nature travel community, which seems to include its own less visible but as strong class system where using a mocking language towards less experienced hikers seems to be a norm, which is rarely challenged. There is a lot of talk about mass tourism and destructive interest in nature destinations but I think the dividing language one commonly comes across on the web hurts the causes of responsible hiking and responsible travel more than it helps. Maybe more about this later.
After all this rambling, I better get back to the main topic and introduce you to two of the most rewarding and therefore most popular hiking trails in Daisetsuzan – the loop hike through Asahidake and Naka-Dake Onsen and the traverse to Kuro-Dake (in a separate post).
Daisetsuzan National Park: Asahidake to Naka Dake Loop Hike
There are some places on Earth that make me feel not only satisfied and happy but also completely at ease and truly in the moment. The unthreatening beauty of these places and the gentle trail conditions allows me to let go of everything else for a short moment. These are beautiful places in a non-showy way – nothing monumental trying hard to get your undivided attention, just greenery, flowers, mountains and a very flat trail. My times on these trails get me probably as close as I can get to the feeling of living in the moment and thinking of nothing else by letting the surrounding scenery embrace me. The top place where I experience this feeling is the 1-2 hours hike from the cableway station to Murren village in Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland. The other one is the Odashirogahara Marshland in Nikko and now I have a third one – Susoaidaira Valley in Daisetsuzan National Park in Hokkaido – the topic of todays post on the loop hike from Asahidake to Naka Dake Onsen.
On a recent ten days trip to Hokkaido, I spent five days in Daisetsuzan National Park in Hokkaido. On the second day of my stay at Asahidake Onsen town at wonderful K`s Hostel, I decided to do the loop hike and saved the traverse to Kuro Dake for the weekend. After an early start to the day, I took the Asahidake ropeway around 7am taking many hikers up to the trailhead for Asahidake (旭岳) Hike – the highest mountain in Hokkaido, which is still relatively short (2,291m). The plan for the day was to hike up to Asahi-dake and then make it back to Asahi-dake trailhead not by descending the mountain but taking a longer detour via Mamiya-Dake, Naka-Dake Onsen and then the beautiful Susoaidaira Valley (裾合平) – commonly referred to as Naka Dake Onsen loop hike. The average time estimate for the complete loop is around 7-8 hours and it is achievable during this time frame even with a leisurely pace with onsen and many photo stops like I did.
One you leave the ropeway station (where you can do some last minute water/snack shopping if you need to), you are already in a very rewarding nature environment with Asahidake looking straight at you if on a sunny day and also sharing its reflection with numerous ponds that are located within minutes of walking of each other. On my first day in Asahidake Onsen, I just hanged out in this area as I arrived later in the noon and did not have time for a full hike. Even if you are not interested in longer the hikes taking you to the inner parts of Daisetsuzan National Park, I highly recommend that you still take the (unfortunately a little too expensive – more about that in the logistics section at the end of this post) ropeway up to top and enjoy the views there. Asahidake is an active volcano. Although it has not erupted since 1739, the fumaroles but the more importantly the intense growling sounds coming out of the mountain are more than enough the remind one of the wild surroundings that they are about to explore.
Sugatami Pond to Asahidake
The trail to Asahidake starts right after Sugatami Pond – a popular view spot. In terms of strength, it is not necessarily a difficult trail (I struggled much more during the steep hike to Yake Dake in Northern Japanese Alps) but it is steep and more importantly very slippery terrain due to the loose rocks. I would definitely not want to do this hike on a rainy, windy and generally low visibility day. Those weather conditions would make me too nervous to enjoy the trail as the trail is quite exposed in some parts. You climb next to the fumaroles coming out of the volcano the whole time adding a very unique visual aspect to the trail. Depending on your pack weight – you can reach the top within approximately two hours. Asahidake is known with its volatile weather and it is up to pure luck whether you get any visibility when you reach the top. Even though I did the hike on a fully sunny day – there were many moments when the peak was fully covered by clouds for ten minutes at a time to just clear up briefly to allow to enjoy and photograph the beautiful scenery around. The scenery down at the ropeway station and the trailhead is pretty just like picture perfect mountain/pond/alpine flowers scenery that one commonly get to experience in Switzerland. The view from the top of Asahidake on the other hand is wild – allowing one to appreciate the vastness of Daisetsuzan National Park and some of its very unforgiving looking parts such as Jigoku Dani – the Hell Valley.
The peak is large enough to accommodate many hikers at the same time and although it is a little early on the day – I saw many people enjoying their first meal at the peak. The descent from Asahidake down to Ushiro-asahi Dake (後旭岳) is short but very steep. The half of the trail is covered by dirt/loose rocks whereas the other half is covered by snow. Being equipped with hiking poles would definitely help during the steep descent (also in the ascent). While the snow conditions did not warrant me to use spikes at the end of July, the conditions change very year and one is highly advised to throughly check the trail/snow conditions in advance. Once you finish the steep descent, you come across a camping site which seems to very popular for overnight hikers. Daisetsuzan is a bear territory and I was nervous about camping out given the increased bear activity this year in Hokkaido. Also being able to hike with a relatively light pack (limiting my photo equipment to one full frame DSLR body and just two lenses) really helped me to enjoy my hikes more.
Mamiya Dake to Naka Dake Onsen
Once you finish the descent, you are pretty much over with the more difficult part of the trail for the remainder of your hike – which would take somewhere around four to five hears. So feel free to relax and enjoy the scenery. The climb up to Mamiya Dake (間宮岳) feels quite gentle after the steep and slippery ascent to Asahidake. Once you reach Mamiya Dake, follow the signs to Naka Dake Bunki and not the trail to Hokkai Dake unless you want to give up the loop hike and do the traverse to Kuro Dake or other Western peaks. There are many signs along the trail but one needs to get themselves familiar with the kanji version of the milestones along the trail to make use of those signs. There is a very good map of Daietsuzan National Park in English, which also includes the kanji version of the milestones. At 2,000 Yen (no affiliate links) – it is a little too expensive for a map but well worth it if you plan to spend some days hiking in Daisetsuzan.
The section between Mamiya Dake to Naka-Dake Onsen offers one of the best sceneries in the park. You go next to the Ohachi-daira Valley hosting a poisonous onsen. It offers a very otherworldly scenery inviting you to take as many photos as you can – unless you are warned by a bear sighting in the region just a mere 30 minutes ago. That is what happened to me and two fellow hikers – who happened to stay at the same hostel as me – making us limiting our photo stops in the area. As I mentioned, like most places in Hokkaido – Daisetsuzan is a bear country hosting many black grizzly bears. Although no fatal incident has happened in the park since its official opening decades ago, one cannot stop worrying and trying to be as careful as possible. While it may not be a bullet proof approach – if you are a solo hiker like me – teaming up as fellow hikers and at least minimizing the emotional threat can help. It is reported that bears will get out of your way if you let them know that you are in the area and talking with other hikers is a good way to do that. I am also always very grateful for nice talks that I get to have with fellow hikers on the trails, always being amazed with their welcoming and protective approach towards a foreigner with the added bonus of the opportunity to practice my Japanese. Although it is ironic, I seem to get more opportunities on hiking trails to practice my Japanese than in the giant metropole that I live in – Tokyo.
Reaching Naka Dake Onsen requires a very short steep descent which takes you down to a narrow valley where there are couple of small pools with natural onsen water. It is a great place to stop for lunch and also soak your feet in the water. I have also seen some people taking full body bath in one of the pools. You can truly relax in this junction knowing that the next 2-3 hours ahead of you will take you though a beautiful valley surrounded by mountains and alpine flowers where the hiking requires not much effort.
Susoaidaira Valley is where you get to experience various kind of alpine flowers in a picture perfect setting of green mountains with perfectly positioned snow patches – almost feeling as decoration – and small ponds. The hike is not challenging at all but it may still feel long after a long hiking day starting with a steep ascent to Asahidake. There are couple of sitting areas along the trail allowing one to enjoy the scenery and also listen to the bear encounter stories of other hikers to make things a little more intense.
There are couple of short snow patch crossings along the way and there were not much of a threat during my end of July hike. However, fellow hikers from Asahikawa whom I hiked with the next day told me that the snow patches were a lot more difficult to cross at around the same time the previous year requiring one to have spikes.
This loop hike allows one to experience some of the best scenery that Daisetsuzan has to offer and is a great option in terms of effort/reward ratio. Depending on number of factors, the whole route may take you somewhere between six to eight hours and it is important to be mindful of the ropeway schedule. The last one down to Asahidake Onsen was at 5.30pm during the second half of July. On the alternative, you can hike down to the onsen town and avoid the hefty price of the ropeway but since it is a bear territory and there are not many hikers on the trail – I did not consider the option of hiking down and skipping the ropeway.
Access to Daisetsuzan National Park
In terms of the logistics, unless you intend to do the overnight hikes (in that case there is an amazing write up about Daisetsuzan grand traverse by Mapping Lanes) – Asahidake Onsen on the East side of the park and Sounkyo Onsen on the west side of the park are two ideal bases with good rande of accommodation options. I stayed at both and they are both accessible by direct bus from Asahikawa City as well as Asahikawa Airport.
In terms of the transportation between Asahidake Onsen and Sounkyo Onsen, you have two options unless you have your own car. Taking the bus in seven hours (including stop at Asahikawa) or doing the famous Asahidake to Kuro Dake hike again in seven hours. I chose the hiking option and shipped my bigger luggage between the two onsen towns using the TA-Q-BIN. I will write about the traverse taking you down to Sounkyo Onsen in the next post.
As for the infamous Asahidake ropeway (beautiful but pricey) – the roundtrip costs 3,200 Yen whereas the one way ticket costs 2,000 Yen. It departs every twenty minutes and the schedule varies based on the season and day of the week. You can find more info on the official Asahidake Ropeway site including a real time view of Asahidake and the weather conditions.
I stayed at K`s House Asahidake Onsen Hostel which occupied a rather uninspiring large building but the immaculateness of the facilities, the great outdoor onsen but more importantly the kindness of the hostel staff made up for it. The hostel has a fully equipped and very large kitchen. You have very limited outside dining options in Asahidake so it is best to do your shopping even before arriving at Asahidake Onsen and do your own cooking. There is a convenience store at Asahikawa Airport but important alert – they did not carry drip coffee pockets when I was there. No worries though – K`s House offers free filtered coffee starting at 5am every day to its guests along with a toast and butter/jam breakfast. Hotel also has a decent onsen facilities, which is free to its guests. The outdoor one is small but it is looking over the forest and feels so relaxing after a long day of hiking. The hostel also has a small grocery where you can buy some curry or other pre-booked meals if you have not done food shopping. If you take the bus from Asahikawa or Asahikawa Airport, the bus drops you right in front of the hostel which is located at the entrance of Asahidake Onsen – a fifteen minutes walk from the ropeway station.