Daisetsuzan Hikes: Asahidake to Naka Dake Loop Hike

Daisetsuzan National Park (大雪山) is the largest national park in Hokkaido, Japan. The variety of the landscape that the park encompasses and the feeling of endlessness makes Daisetsuzan National Park one of the most rewarding hiking destinations in Japan, if not the most.

Sure, it is a popular destination with easy access, and you will likely share parts of the trails with many other hikers. But the park is big enough to host us all. Although I tend to treasure solitude more than I probably should in my urban life, I never get upset about the idea of other hikers on the trail. As an often solo hiker, the surrounding company gives me comfort and peace of mind. I also had some of my best conservations in Japan with complete strangers whom I met while hiking.

Mountain reflection on pond in Japan

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 think there is a very fine line between raising awareness about responsible travel/hiking and preaching to 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 entail its own less visible but strong class system where using mocking language towards less experienced hikers seems to be a norm, and a rarely challenged one. 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.

After all this rambling, I better get back to the topic and introduce you to two of the most rewarding hiking trails in Daisetsuzan – the loop hike through Asahidake and Naka-Dake Onsen and the traverse hike to Kuro-Dake (in a separate post).

Daisetsuzan National Park: Asahidake to Naka Dake loop hike

Some places on earth make me feel not only happy but also in complete ease. The unthreatening beauty of these places and the gentle trail conditions allow me to let go of everything else.

These are all 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. The time spent on these trails makes me feel 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 number one place where I experience this feeling is the 1-2 hour hike from the cableway station to Murren village in Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland. The other one is the Odashirogahara Marshland in Nikko, and I now have a third one – Susoaidaira Valley in Daisetsuzan National Park in Hokkaido, our topic for the day.

Hiker in Japan

This is a trail that I got to experience during a ten-day trip to Hokkaido when I spent five days in Daisetsuzan National Park. On the second day of my stay at Asahidake Onsen town at wonderful K`s Hostel, I decided to do the loop hike that would take me from Asahidake Ropeway Station to Asahidake and then bring me back to my starting point through Naka-Dake Onsen and Susoaidaira Valley.

After an early start to the day, I took the Asahidake ropeway around 7 am up to the trailhead for the Asahidake (旭岳) hike – the highest mountain in Hokkaido (2,291 meters).

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 by 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. It is a fairly reasonable estimate, even with a leisurely pace with many photo and onsen stops.

Once you leave the ropeway station (where you can do some last-minute water/snack shopping), it feels like walking into a postcard. On a sunny day, you get clear views of Asahidake that are also reflected on several ponds, each located within meters of each other.

On my first day in Asahidake Onsen, I just walked around in this area as I arrived later in the afternoon and did not have time for a full hike. Even if you are not interested in longer hikes taking you to the inner parts of Daisetsuzan National Park, I highly recommend that you still take the ropeway up to the top and enjoy the views there (unfortunately a little too expensive – more about that in the logistics section at the end of this post).

Asahidake is an active volcano. Although it has not erupted since 1739, the fumaroles and, more importantly, the intense growling sounds coming out of the mountain are more than enough to remind you the uniquenes and wildness of the landscape that you are about to explore.

Sugatami Pond to Asahidake: climbing Hokkaido`s highest peak

The trail to Asahidake starts right after Sugatami Pond – a popular view spot. It is not necessarily a strenous trail (I struggled more during the steep hike to Yake Dake in the Northern Japanese Alps), but it is a steep and, more importantly, very slippery terrain due to the loose rocks. I would not want to do this hike on a rainy, windy, and generally low-visibility day. Due to some exposed sections, unfavorable weather conditions would make me feel too nervous to enjoy the hike.

During the entire ascent, you climb next to the fumaroles coming out of the volcano, an aspect that makes this section exceptional. Depending on your pack weight – you can reach the top within approximately 1.5 to 2 hours.

Asahidake is known for its volatile weather, and the visibility at the top is a matter of pure luck. Even though I did the hike on a fully sunny day, there were many moments when the peak was fully covered by clouds only to open up very briefly. 

The scenery down at the ropeway station and the trailhead is reminded me of the picture-perfect mountain/pond/alpine flowers scenery that one commonly gets to experience in Switzerland. On the other hand, the view from the top of Asahidake is wild – allowing one to appreciate the vastness of Daisetsuzan National Park and some of its unforgiving-looking parts such as Jigoku Dani – the Hell Valley. 

Mountain top view in Japan

The peak is large enough to accommodate many hikers. The descent from Asahidake down to Ushiro-asahi Dake (後旭岳) is short but very steep. The first half of the trail was covered by dirt/loose rocks, and the other half was covered by snow. Being equipped with hiking poles would 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 every year. Checking the trail/snow conditions in advance may save one from a lot of trouble.

Once you finish the steep descent, you come across a camping site that seems to be very popular for overnight hikers. Daisetsuzan is a bear (black grizzly bears) territory, and I was nervous about camping out due to the increased bear activity this year in Hokkaido. Also carrying a relatively light pack (limiting my photo equipment to one full-frame DSLR body and just two lenses) helped me enjoy my hikes more. 

Mamiya Dake to Naka Dake Onsen: gentle ascent and descent

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 4 to 5 hours. 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 of Daisetsuzan. 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 several days hiking in Daisetsuzan. 

Alpine Flowers at Daisetsuzan National Park

The section between Mamiya Dake to Naka-Dake Onsen offers one of the best sceneries in the park. You hike 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 of course you have been warned about a recent (just 30-minutes ago) bear sighting in the region. 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.

Daisetsuzan, a grizzly bear country

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

Hikers in Japan

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 also saw 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: possibly the best nature scenery in entire Japan

Susoaidaira Valley is where you get to see various kinds of alpine flowers in a picture-perfect setting of green mountains with perfectly positioned snow patches and small ponds. The hike is not challenging, but it may still feel a little too long after an already long day of hiking starting with a steep ascent to Asahidake. There are a 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 interesting.

There are a couple of short snow patch crossings along the way. These sections did not cause any challenge 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 in July 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 an absolute winner in terms of the effort/reward ratio.

Depending on number of factors including your strength level and appetite for photo stops, the whole route may take you anywhere between 6 to 8 hours and it is important to be mindful of the ropeway schedule. The last cable car down to Asahidake Onsen was at 5:30 pm 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 chose to stick with the ropeway.

Access to Daisetsuzan National Park 

In terms of the logistics, unless you intend to do the overnight hikes – 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 range of accommodation options. I stayed at both towns, which are both accessible by direct bus from Asahikawa City and Asahikawa Airport.

In terms of the transportation between Asahidake Onsen and Sounkyo Onsen, unless you have your own car, you have two options. Taking the bus in 7hours (including obligatory stop at Asahikawa) or doing the famous Asahidake to Kuro Dake hike, which also takes 7 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 20 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.

Accommodation at Asahidake Onsen

I stayed at K`s House Asahidake Onsen Hostel that occupies a rather uninspiring large building, but the immaculateness of the facilities, the great outdoor onsen, and more importantly the kindness of the hostel staff made up for the lack of architectural qualities.

The hostel has a fully equipped and large kitchen. You have very limited outside dining options in Asahidake. Therefore, it is best to do your shopping before arriving at Asahidake Onsen and do your own cooking.

There is a convenience store at Asahikawa Airport (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 5 am every day along with a toast and butter/jam breakfast.

The hostel also has decent onsen facilities, free for the guests guests. The outdoor one is small but it looks over the forest and feels very relaxing after a long day of hiking. The hostel also has a small grocery where you can buy curry or other pre-booked meals. 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 15-minute walk from the ropeway station.