A huge crack wakes me up in the middle of the night. I jump from the bed and open my eyes widely to see a bright light illuminating the Japanese-style room. About 5 seconds later another loud thunder resonates, covering the noise of the heavy rainfalls. I am relieved and worried at the same time: relieved as we should have been spending our first night into the wild Daisetsuzan national park at Kuro-dake that was postponed by a day because of an angina and the weather forecast; worried because in a few hours we will start our 5-day hike and I really don’t feel like experiencing such a thunderstorm in the mountains, especially in the Southern section of the Grand Traverse where there are no shelters.
We carefully checked the local weather: our best bet is to start this morning as a typhoon is moving away from Hokkaido, while a second one is lingering around. We are supposed to have a bit of rain the first 2 days, and then the weather should clear up.
After a hearty and delicious breakfast, we warmly thank the owners of our ryokan and head out with our 16-kg backpacks half filled with instant ramens and water, plus my 2-kg Canon camera, and the welcome angina pills kindly given by a worried host.
The Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse may be only 55km, but it is a very demanding hike.
First, the weather! Even if August is the warmest month and the average altitude about 2000m (compared to the Alps “only”), we packed waterproof bags, rain covers, gloves and down jackets.
Second, the terrain: the trail follows mountain ridges with quite a bit of elevation to overcome.
Third, the difficulty of preparing it: the “hiking in Japan” by the Lonely Planet is renowned to be inaccurate for that hike. I spent a lot of time reading hikers’ blogs and at the visitor’s centre of Asahidake onsen (a waste as they can advise day-trippers, but when you ask questions about what lies 30 minutes past the rope way station, they start laughing: Japanese translation for “I have no idea, but I don’t want to loose face”!).
Then, the wilderness of Hokkaido: the park is very minimalist and we must bring a warm tent as there is a long section with no shelters; most huts are unmanned making it mandatory to carry enough food; water is mostly found in snow patches that are scarce by mid-August and it must be boiled because of a potential parasite, implying that 2 gas tanks are in the bags; last but not least, the bears! They represent a real threat in Hokkaido. We isolated the smelly goods from food to toothpaste in zip-lock bags. The instant ramen being individually packed in plastics shouldn’t attract the bears. Hanging the smelly bag in a tree with a rope and carabiner will not work, as there are no trees! We will have to count on our very annoying bear bell to keep them at a distance.
To save some energy and as it is highly recommended even by the die-hard hikers, we ride the gondola up to start the hike from its top at 1600m. We circle around the ponds to observe the fumes of the active volcano, and begin the ascent to 2291m. The way up is steep along the mountain ridge with fantastic views on the fumaroles and colourful stones: red, orange, yellow, pink, black, grey, white, green moss,…
After 2 hours, we reach the summit of Asahi-dake, the highest peak of Hokkaido, roughly at the same time as the clouds and the very impressive thunderstorm. “One, two, three, four,… Oh, it’s ok, it’s more than 1km away!” “One… Ah, it’s getting closer!!” We are not in a safe spot, especially on a mountain ridge, nor high up. So after a few close-by and very loud cracks, and a hissing sound on a metal trail marker next to us making us feel warmth on our faces for a split second, we rush down the very steep slope on the other side of Asahi-dake towards the first campsite, with the rain covers on and the Canon firmly locked up in a waterproof bag bouncing around my neck. Once a bit lower, we drop the back packs containing metal and hiking poles and stay low to the ground for about one hour in a violent rain turning into hail. Our rain jackets seem useless and now, I understand all the recommendations about bringing gloves, as well as the scuba-diving-like suits of the few Japanese people who start to move again as soon as the thunderstorm seems to be a bit further away.
It is decision time: either we keep going to Kuro-dake as it was planned, or we turn back now, giving up our 5-day adventure. After hesitating a bit and hiking in both directions to the sound of thunder, seeing beautiful vistas on the mountain range, my hair starts standing up in the storm. This is a bad sign: positive electrical charges are rising through me and attracting the negative ones accumulating at the bottom of the storm, creating all the conditions for an electrical transfer to happen: lightning. The only way out is to find an indoor shelter: Kuro-dake being another four hours away, quickly, we decide to head back.
The weather proved to be very unstable with the looming typhoons and crazy thunderstorms. The Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse will not be for this time, as the forces of nature were stronger than our will and determination, and our calendar to tight, despite our buffer day.