The Ainu called it kamui mintara: the “playground of the gods”. The Daisetsuzan mountain range: a group of volcanoes, lava domes, plateaus and peaks that soar from Hokkaido's central highlands like a bridge to the sky.
They are young, dating back only about 30,000 years, but it is easy to see what the Ainu were getting at. Far from the mortal realms below, freezing atop the clouds, these mountains carry their own climates and rich ecologies far removed from anything else in Japan; indeed, their conditions are said to compare to northern Alaska.
To tread these realms, where the only lords are the sun and the wind and all human authority must prostrate itself before the supremacy of the earth, was the apex of my voyage. And parts of them are surprisingly accessible: like the 1984-metre high Kurodake (“black peak”), a magnificent pointed lava dome that towers over the Sounkyo gorge and hot springs. Click the expander below the pictures to see more.
A ropeway (cable car) and chairlift get you started, offering a gentle ride up to the 7th station, about 1,500m above sea level. As you rise ever higher, you get a clear first impression of what character of wilderness you submit to enter the presence of.
By now there is a pervading tranquility; all you hear are the gentle creaks of the chairs and the whispers of the dense vegetation. This slope is a sheltered, hallowed place, a cathedral of nature instilling hushed reverence and awe.
A rigorous hike over lush and rocky terrain awaits, if you seek to climb the 500m remaining to reach the peak. Over your shoulder you can already take in the vastness of the surrounding mountains and valley, and watch them recede ever further into the realms below.
These slopes are bursting with life. Over 300 species of plants make their home here, many sporting colourful or eccentric flowers. The insects, like most I found in Hokkaido, all seemed cute and peaceful. Once more the swarms of red and orange dragonflies follow your progress with innocent curiosity, while little bees and colourful butterflies are hard at work from flower to flower. Through much of the year there may be bears nearby, requiring respect and caution, but none made themselves known on this occasion, unfortunately. And then there are the fuzziest little creatures.
These heights are home to a great population of Ezo Asiatic Chipmunks, with their distinctive five stripes and soft fluffy tails. If you are patient and respectful, they won't mind your presence and will come out to say hello, letting you get really close to watch them nosing around in the shrubbery and munching.
Along with the pikas, of which I only caught the back end of one as it scurried into the bushes, these animals are popular and adorable. However they also have a serious story to tell, one which attests most potently to Hokkaido's distinct journey. For these are northern creatures, who crossed from the chilly expanses of northern Asia on the land bridge during the glacial period. As sea levels rose and cut Hokkaido off, rising temperatures led them to take refuge in the higher, cooler mountain regions. Thus Hokkaido's highlands are the only place you will find them in Japan: like a secluded and cute fuzzy time capsule, still securing the island's heart to the core of its ancient origins.
In due course you climb into view of the maneki-iwa, or “beckoning rocks”. They tell you that you've nearly reached the peak. From here the photos really do not do it justice: make sure to click for the largest possible view.
And as the summit appears...
...a whole new world, entirely unlike the one you've just ascended, unfurls before you. At once its mighty winds come battering forth, to inspect your resolve before the gateway to immortal realms.
It is as though the summit of Kurodake stands at a wall between dimensions. The southwest slope, downwind towards Daisetsuzan's interior, is utterly unlike the thriving greens of the ascent. Here it is cold, dry, harsh, beneath the never-ending sweep of the mountain winds: a landscape of hardy shrubs, lingering patches of snow and lakes of ice, and further in, the natural hot springs and sulphurous fumaroles towards the Ohachidaira caldera.
Suddenly everything behind you seems so far away, drawn to the reaches of space and time.
The only way now is forward. The “playground of the gods” feel a lot more accessible when you remember that the Ainu kamui don't hide their personhood and fallibility (unlike certain other gods I could name!). So long as you do your best as an ethical citizen of the planet, they probably have no problem with you trekking about in their realm, and even if they did, could be open to a reasoned debate about the right to roam and so forth.
A yamagoya (mountain hut) provides a rest point further into this land. It is said that no light from the ground can reach here at night, whereupon the universe opens out before you in all its magnificence: so close you can touch it, as though it is from here that an engineer of the cosmos is best positioned to tinker with the stars. This is also a rest point for those with the boldness (and time) to venture further, most popularly beyond the caldera to Hokkaido's highest peak of Asahiyama. On this occasion these adventures were sadly beyond my resources, but if ever the remotest possibility presents itself, I shall return.
And perhaps the kamui would approve that just sometimes, human creativity can pull off some fascinating things. Yes, that's the flush in the second picture.
But this is only one snapshot of Kurodake and the Daisetsuzan mountains; more to the point, one cross-section in the seasonal cycle. For the seasons mean more in Hokkaido than even in the rest of season-conscious Japan, and it is said that every segment of the year on these mountains offers radically different experiences. In the minus ten degrees of winter, Kurodake becomes a wonderland of powder snow and a paradise for snowshoe hikers and advanced skiers; while in spring the cherry blossoms burst from the slopes, succeeded by the vibrant flowers of early summer and the autumn oceans of golds and reds. To return once is not enough: one must return a thousand times.
Greetings and salutations to Sora-san (空さん), glassmaker of Asahikawa and my mountain-hiking companion that day! Together we walked upon the skies of the north, and found them glorious.
Next, back to the surface in Asahikawa for Japan's most popular zoo.
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