Climbing Mt. Asahi (Asahidake in Japanese) was one of my most memorable experiences when visiting Hokkaido last summer. There is something that I love about climbing mountains, from the exercise and sweating to the moment you reach the summit. It was about this time last year that I was feeling worn out from working without a long break. Many of my colleagues had left for longer vacations over the summer, but I was holding onto my personal days, and timing them to coincide with school breaks. I was feeling over-worked, and over-heated from the hottest summer I have ever lived through. Luckily I had my trip to Hokkaido to look forward to.
Since my arrival in Japan, I had wanted to explore Hokkaido. It is known for it’s outdoor activities, sushi, beer, and whiskey- all things I enjoy. Those things are just part of why it is great, and, with good reason Lonely Planet has named Hokkaido the top destination in Asia to visit in 2016. If Japan is on your radar, try to make time for a trip to Hokkaido. Even if you only go for the beer or whiskey, you will have a fun adventure, though I suggest taking part in some outdoor activities as well.
Asahidake, in Daisetsuzan National Park, is a very easy way to head outdoors while in Hokkaido. There are several activities to choose from in the area. One option is to head up the ropeway and walk a nice loop trail at the base of the mountain. This is also a great starting point for longer hikes further into the park. Even if hiking isn’t your thing, coming up to the base of Mt. Asahi will allow for great views, fresh mountain air, and even onsen! And if you are looking for smaller hikes that don’t require heading up the ropeway you can find a few smaller trails around the ropeway center. Just off the main road, about 15 minutes from the ropeway center, there is a small set of waterfalls cascading down the mountain. You can also head here in the winter for backcountry camping and cross-country skiing.
Along with beautiful views of the forest from the road, it is possible to do some people watching, especially around sunset when everyone is out for a walk. A set of rainbows appeared one night ending in an amazing sunset, which prompted us to get out of the hostel and take some photos. While we were walking we encountered a large Japanese motorcycle gang with Grateful Dead stickers on their helmets. It appeared that they had rented a cabin a little ways from the hostel for the night after a fun ride up the mountain. They too were out taking photos and we greeted each other with smiles and “konbawa.”
I think that onsen are one of the best parts about traveling in Japan, and Hokkaido does not disappoint in this respect. Almost every hotel I stayed at had a bath, and it’s easy to get away from the city and find them. Part of the allure of this area of Daisetsuzan National Park is the abundance of onsen. The hostel I stayed at had an amazing onsen facility. There were two pools, one outside surrounded by the forest, and one inside with large glass windows looking out onto the forest.
It was one of the nicer onsen I had been to, mainly because of the serenity of the outside pool. Being in the middle of nowhere, it was practically silent, with only the sound of trickling water and wind blowing in the trees. One afternoon I was sitting enjoying the solitude with serenity eyes closed when I heard a loud thud. I opened my eyes to see what the commotion was and spotted a snake on the handrail a few feet from where I was laying! I gathered it must have fallen out of the tree, and because of this it looked agitated and angry. I wanted to escape and leave it, but it was right in the way of the exit. I started to freak out a little because if one dropped from the tree, there could be more. Naked and feeling a little vulnerable, I anxiously watched the snake as it decided what to do. Slowly it closed its mouth and started to move. First towards the water, which made me more anxious, but then towards the building. Eventually it made it’s way under the building and out of sight. Although I’m not a big snake person it was a pretty amazing encounter with nature.
My ascent up Mt. Asahi
The reason for coming to this remote area was to climb Asahidake. Like I said earlier, I love climbing mountains, and I was looking forward to getting back to nature. Something about the energy it takes to climb up, the hard work you put in, the views and the feeling of achievement that you get when you reach the summit is something I just love. I wish I could climb at least one mountain per year. This is something I haven’t made a reality yet but every time I reach the top of one I wonder when can I do it again. Sure it’s tough, but man is it worth it.
After a night of crazy thunderstorms, my husband and I woke to the most beautiful morning, with no clouds in the sky and the sun shining through a perfect day to the summit of the mountain. After eating breakfast and picking up our homemade onagiri (rice balls) for our trail snack we headed to the ropeway. We decided to take the ropeway up to start our climb there. It is possible to start the climb at the entrance to the ropeway, adding another few hours to the hike, but we weren’t sure if the weather would hold out that long, so we opted for the ropeway since I was determined to summit the mountain.
Reaching the top of the ropeway brings great views of the mountain, and the steam vents rising out of the base of the mountain will remind you that you are in a very geologically active part of the world. From the observation deck area it’s a short hike around some small lakes to get to where you start the climb. If you don’t want to summit, the loop trail at the base of the mountain allows for great views. Unlike some mountain trails that use switchbacks, this trail heads straight up. Since it was a perfect morning for hiking there were many people decked out in their hiking attire heading up the trail. I was hiking in my Chaco sandals, which created quite the commotion with people, as my husband and I always look a little out of place in our non-hiking attire and strange, casual footwear. But I didn’t have a problem with my feet the whole way. Got to do what works for you! And Chacos are technically hiking sandals, and my favorite pair of travel shoes.
It took a few hours to reach the top, and the closer we got, the more the clouds were rolling in. First there was just a little fog on the top, making it impossible to see the nice views. Eventually we started to hear cracks of thunder in the distance with the accompanying lightning. We moved a little faster to make the summit, but didn’t linger very long as we wanted to avoid being caught in the storm.
Down we went, not really fast at first, since the storm was still in the distance, but soon it was moving closer and at a pretty fast pace. We both started to move as quickly as we could. Strangely, there were still people heading up, even with the storm approaching. Finally we made it to the shelter at the bottom of the steep ascent and the rain had just started to fall, but lightly. We looked at each other and decided to run for it. No problem, it’s just a kilometer or so. But then it started raining harder so we were running faster in the pouring rain. We could see our destination- the observation area- in the distance so we ran even faster. By the time we made it to shelter we were soaked and we couldn’t see the mountain anymore. In true Terra fashion, I start to laugh.
Did any of that damper the situation? No, like I said, I was laughing. We just waited it out, had a soda and a snack and waited for the ropeway to start operating again. Once we arrived at the bottom we had some coffee and headed to the onsen to soak our muscles. It was a little rushed at the end, and we weren’t really able to see the best of views from the top, but I loved every moment, and would do it again in a heartbeat. Although next time I would add more to the hike and start with the ascent of Mt. Asahi, as well as add a few nights in the backcountry.
How to Get to Mt Asahidake
Getting to the Daisetsuzan National Park and the Asahidake Ropeway is really quite easy, and doesn’t require a car, but will take about half a day of travel. Make sure you time your train so you don’t have to wait at the train station for the bus that will take you up to Asahidake Ropeway.
From Sapporo take one of the many JR trains to Asahikawa. This will take around 80 minutes. If you don’t have a JR Pass it will cost 4,810 yen one way.
From the train station you take a bus up to Asahidake. The bus leaves at 9:30, 12:30, and 2:30, and the ticket costs 1430 yen. The trip takes about 1.5 hours, but you get to see some beautiful scenery along the way. You can also catch the bus at the Asahikawa airport for 1000 yen at 10:05, 1:05, and 3:05, and takes about and hour.
Where to Stay
There are a few different accommodations near the ropeway, but I highly recommend Daisetsuzan Shirakabaso YH. Even though it’s called a hostel, it’s more like a ryokan, so don’t be put off by the price. The private rooms and dorms are really clean, the onsen is amazing, and the food they prepare is some of the best I had while in Japan. You must email to make a reservation, and they are even open in the winter!
Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns, usually with onsen, and offering dinner and breakfast. This hostel, like a ryokan, has the option of having dinner and breakfast for an extra fee. Since there aren’t many places to get food aside from snacks at the ropeway, it’s really a good deal. Along with the food being really fresh, it was also very creative. They never served the same thing more than once, aside from the melon and cabbage salad, and of course rice. Every night there was a different desert as well, making for a little excitement about what we would have that night! All I can say is that everything was delicious, or as they say in Japan, “ōishi!”
- If you are in moderately good shape, you can make it to the summit from the top of the ropeway.
- JR trains service all of Japan, so you can use your Japan Rail Pass to get around.
- Make sure to be prepared when climbing the mountain. The weather can change rapidly, so make sure to have rain gear, good shoes, and a warm layer for the summit. And I think snacks are always good to have to keep your energy up while climbing.
- You can extend the hike even further and head into the backcountry for a few days and nights. This of course will require more planning and preparation. If you want to explore more, but would rather have a guide, Daisetsuzan Shirakabaso YH can arrange a guide for you, and you can also store your excess baggage there.
- When you are finished you can enjoy a nice cup of coffee, a local beer, or a local chu-hi at the bottom of the ropeway to reward yourself for a job well done!
- The Ropeway costs 2900 yen round trip from June-October, and 1800 yen from October-May.
- If you want to know more about hiking in Daisetsuzan National Park and the Asahidake area check out this link.
- More on winter activities in the park check out this link.
Do you enjoy climbing mountains or have you climbed Mt Asahidake? What was your favorite experience?