The Daisetuzan Grand Traverse
After spending an amazing 3 months in Tokyo surrounded by millions of people, and endless infrastructure; I was ready for some nature. I had read about Daisetuzan national park while I was lazing in a hostel trying to get over a rough sake hangover. But there was one section of the article that really caught my attention, a challenge: hiking across the biggest national park in Japan. The route started at mount Asahi and would stretch 88km, over dozens of mountains and active volcanoes to the base of Tokachi-dake. My hangover suddenly disappeared as the excitement took over.
Daisetuzan was located in the center of Hokkaido (Japan’s northernmost island/province), so I flew from Tokyo to Sapporo; yes where the beer is from. After landing and getting into the city I had to find some camping gas so I would be able to cook and boil water during my hike. Unfortunately Canadian Tire isn’t too popular in Japan so this simple task took me hours. After lots of persistence I was somehow able to convince a petrol station attendant to break the rules (a very rare thing in Japan) and fill my empty ice coffee bottles with kerosene. I kept coming back to him with recycled containers but he quickly came up with a reason why that wasn't allowed. He was finally so humored by my persistence that he started laughing, lowered the ‘X’ above his forehead he made with arms (the universal Japanese symbol for NO), and filled me up. No matter where in the world you are, people will always appreciate the perseverance of the human spirit, and will usually work with you if you show them that you aren't willing to quit.
Next I had to find a place to sleep before catching a 6am train, the problem was hostels in Japan start at $30. So I decided to find a park near the train station (on google maps) and I threw my hammock in between two baseball fields and proceeded to catch some zzz’s (according to my research this wasn’t illegal). At 4am I was awoken by the sound of people running around, this sound was coming from all directions, I was very confused. I peeked my head out and couldn't believe what I saw, there were baseball games being played on both fields. I layed back down for a second expecting to wake up from a dream. This was no dream, there were 20+ grown men on either field playing organized baseball. This truly was “ The land of the rising sun “, I still cannot fathom why organized sports were happening at this hour. I quickly packed up my hammock and sleeping bag and headed to the train station, it is safe to say they were even more confused than I was. Why is there a white man camping in the outfield?
After spending a few hours on Japan's flawless public transport system I arrived at the base of Mount Asahi, the starting point of my hike. I had met George, a student from Adelaide on the bus and convinced him to join me up on the mountain for a day, I was glad to have english speaking company. I had left Tokyo for good and was carrying everything I needed for the next month of traveling on my back, unfortunately that in combination with food for the next week (ramen, tuna and oats), weighed in at 26kg (57lbs).
We started the +1500m climb to the peak of Mt. Asahi (2290m) just after 9 am in ‘jungle’ like terrain, very humid and very green. I quickly realized how heavy my pack was, I normally hike with around 20kg on my back, this was going to be a challenge. Halfway up Mt. Asahi we broke out of the greenery and were clearly on a volcano, sulphur vents spewing white gas, drastically reducing visibility, the smell of rotten eggs inescapable, grass had turned into volcanic ash.
As the weight barred down on my shoulders and hips, doubts started entering my mind. The terrain was getting looser and looser, steeper and steeper, every step was getting harder. Was it even possible to hike for 5 days with that much weight? Was I in the right shape? Maybe everyone that had tried to warn me off this trail was right. I started to seriously doubt myself, I already felt I had let myself down. I kept climbing despite all the negativity and pain. The peak was nowhere in sight, we could only see about 50m ahead and every time we reached what we thought was the peak, another one appeared in the distance. I wasn't sure I was going to peak the first mountain, how on earth was I going to do this for 5 days. At this point I had fully given up on my goal, the mountain had defeated me and I was devastated. After taking a break and eating the best tasting PB sandwhich I have had to date, I decided to make it to the top of Mt. Asahi and go from there. I was the one that led George up the mountain, I couldn't let him and myself down.
This is the exact moment when my trip took a 180 degree turn. After resting and enjoying our achievement, it was time to get back down the other side of the mountain, to a stream where we could get water and make lunch. The way down was much easier than the way up, the back of the mountain was covered in an ice field which I slid down the whole way on my back. It was cold, but exhilarating; my spirt was lifted.
All the water in the park came from melting ice fields, and had to be boiled or treated because of contamination from fox feces. After boiling water and eating lunch I decided that these mountains weren’t going to get the best of me. I was going for it, I wanted to go beyond camp 1, 10km further to another campsite. I said my goodbyes to George and was off, there weren’t many hours of sun left so I put a skip in my step and enjoyed the scenery. The weight of my pack was negligible at this point, it was apart of me. I was alone for the next few hours and couldn't believe what I was seeing. I was understanding why the region's indigenous people called this “The playground of the god’s”.
I found a good cruising pace and stuck with it, climbing up and down various terrain, from ice/snow to rocks and volcanic ash. A few hours later, just as the sun was starting to set I reached my camp for the night. I can’t explain the feeling of seeing tents in the distance. I had gone from completely giving up on myself to getting further up the trail than I had planned for the day, what a feeling.
I had heard horror stories of people being trapped on the mountain for days stuck in heavy rain and wind. Fortunately I awoke to clear skies, I could certainly feel all the hiking I had done the day before.
I had another big day ahead of me, I had now taken a chunk out of day two, but my new goal was to reach camp 3 by the end of the second day. It was a bit crazy but I couldn’t help but push myself, especially after surpassing my expectations the day before. I wanted to see what I was capable of, both mentally and physically. I filled up my water bottle, took a quick selfie at the request of some middle aged Japanese hikers, and headed out on the trail between the outhouse and the shelter.
I was isolated for the entire day, only seeing 4 hikers, all of which I made a point of passing. By lunch time I had reached where I was supposed to stay for the night, but I pushed on.
The scenery was sublime, I felt completly at peace with myself and my surroundings, a rare feeling in the bustling streets of Tokyo. I followed the warnings given by the Japanese hikers and strapped on my bear bell as to not startle any bears. The bell become my only company, and as long as it was chiming I knew I was moving forward and progressing towards my goal.
Although the start of this day wasn’t over strenuous, I knew I had one last mountain to climb before I reached camp 3. The Japanese called it the mountain of 1000’s of stones, and I quickly realized why.
Eventually it turned into full on boulder hopping, with boulders reaching several meters in diameter. This was increasingly difficult considering I had walked over 30km with 26kg on my back. Every time a cloud rolled in I lost all of my visibility and had no choice but to rest and wait for it to blow over. I tried not to think about the reality of my situation, I was alone, on top of a mountain, in Japan, with three hours of sunlight left and another 10km to go to camp. The only thing standing between me and camp was a mountain made of thousands of boulders.
After climbing over endless rocks I reached a lake and could see the peak of Tomuraushi-Yama.
I now had a choice. Over or around. And of course I went… Over
I had to stop multiple times to stretch my cramping legs, but nothing was stopping me from reaching the peak. Waiting for me was a very rewarding and worthwhile view, I think my face says it all.
With sunlight quickly fading, I hurried my struggling body down the mountain to camp. I had made it to the 3rd campsite in 2 days, it was certainly a struggle but every moment was worth it. I’m not sure I have every had a better feeling, I had surprised myself and completely outdone the high expectations I had set.
That night as I layed in my tent, trying to find position where none of my muscles spasmed, I heard something trying to get at my food. Now this was bear country and there were no trees to hang my food in, so I opted to leave my food 20m from my tent under a pile of rocks to avoid unwanted guests. I peeked out my tent and saw the reflection of two eyes peering back at me. It was a fox. Certain that I wasn't in any danger, I proceeded to try and scare it off, I needed the food way more than the fox did. I started throwing small rocks at it, but there wasn't even a flinch. Finally a lob shot landed right on the tip of the foxes nose, in an instant all four of its legs were 2ft off the ground, it’s fur and tail puffed up, and the fox was gone. Although I felt bad, I had nice laugh to myself, isolated in the valley between two mountains. The temperature rapidly fell that night, even in the summer it was real cold at 2100m. I had to put on every piece of clothing I had, 3 pairs of socks, and a towel before I fell asleep. I awoke at 7am because of how hot it got in my tent, I could certainly feel all the work I had done in the days prior, but I was ready to keep going.
The last three days would be a lot lighter because of how fast I moved in the first two. I would reach the peak of 7 mountains on the third day, each one more tiring than the last. But my goal was in sight for most of the day, I could see Oputakeshike-yama peaking through the clouds at me every so often.
Water was a really big issue on this section of the trek, a few ice fields en-route had melted and dried up. My map was no longer reliable and I had to take a few big risks. After hiking without water for 3 hours in 30 degree heat, I wandered off of the trail and found some sceptical looking snow. I packed as much of it into my water bottle as I could, threw in a treatment tablet and continued on. Two hours later and the snow had melted into 500ml of water. I realized I probably wouldn't find any more water for the day and I still had 8km of tough terrain to go. My self control was really tested, I had to seriously ration my water, only allowing my parched throat a sip of water every time I made it to a peak. Dehydration was now starting to set in, cramps became more frequent and my head got wonkier.
The final stretch to the campsite was really rough, thick bamboo brush make it impossible to see the roots of trees so I was constantly tripping.
By the time I got to the base of the beast I had been staring at all day, I was the thirstiest I’ve ever been in my life. I had made it to what looked like the campsite, but there was no water in sight. A real sense of panic started to set in. I left my pack and started running through bamboo grass, hoping I was still on the trail. I was starting to think I was going to have to climb up the mountain to one of the snow fields to get water. After about 10 minutes I could hear running water, I was so relieved. I found a stream that ran off of the mountain and filled up my bottle. Unfortunately I still couldn't quench my thirst, I had to wait half an hour for the tablets to sanitize the water.
Day 4 was my easiest day, after a 3 hour climb up Oputakeshike-yama there was only 6km to the final camp site. It was a beautiful 6km though, along the ridgeline with a great vantage point of the entire park. Some points required all of my concentration, climbing over rocks and roots, certain death on either side of the ridge, one misplaced step would have been it.
I spent the final night in the mountains in a wooden shelter setup by Japan’s park services, for free. This would turn out to be a huge blessing because the weather turned really nasty that night. After 4 days of sunshine and blue skies I woke up to this.
A few meters of visibility, winds exceeding 100km/h, and ice cold rain. I had to rethink my route, it was simply too dangerous to try and get to an exposed peak in this weather.
Instead of going over this time, I went around. And it was a very good decision, the weather got worse and worse as the morning progressed, it literally felt like the mountain was trying to blow me off of it. These were by far the strongest winds I had ever experienced, it took every bit of core strength to stay upright. With my shoulder into the wind I managed to keep moving forward, but at a snails pace. Any changes in the direction of the wind caused me to loose balance and fall. This was the one time I was happy I had 26kg on my back, it would have been impossible without it. Bits of volcanic ash got caught up in the gusts and by the end it felt like my eyes were filled with sand. I contemplated stopping a few times, but there was nowhere to take shelter, and it was only getting worse. After a strenuous 6 hours of battling what felt like hurricane force winds, I made it to the base.
I had done it, the Daisetuzan Grand Traverse was complete. It had exceeded all of my expectations, for the hike and myself. I had never seen a more naturally diverse and beautiful landscape before. The trail made me dig deep and find gears I didn’t know I had. It was much more than 88km and dozens of peaks, it was a personal journey. It was in that isolated state, surrounded by nothing but nature, being pushed to my limits, that I was able to learn some very valuable things about myself. It was never a battle between me and the terrain or the mountains, but a constant battle against myself, one that will continue for the rest of my life. The greatest challenge I will ever face is me, that voice inside that says that's enough, you can’t go anymore, you can’t do that. I proved myself wrong countless times in those five days, that voice means nothing.