Hiking in grizzly bear country: Daisetsuzan national park, Hokkaido

Japan, Walking

 “Remain calm and ready your bear spray,” I read on the Bear Smart website as we go up up up in a cable car.

“BEAR SPRAY? What bear spray?” I moan at Chris. “No-one told us to carry bear spray! Do they sell it in the tourist information shop down there? WE NEED BEAR SPRAY!”

But it’s too late. The cable car is already taking us up through thick clouds, leading us to the trailhead of our hike in Daisetsuzan national park. My phone loses signal as I frantically search online for what to do if you don’t have bear spray.

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In the cable car

In Sounkyo Onsen, I’d asked the tourist information office how we should prepare for hiking in these mountains which are home to grizzly bears. “Buy a bear bell,” they’d said. This will, in theory, let the grizzly bears know that we’re coming, and they’ll leave us alone. But Chris and I were being tight with money, and we bought the piddliest little bell in the shop. “Tinkle tinkle tinkle,” the bell says pathetically as I test it out in the cable car. Shit. Bears are never going to hear this.

The lovely tourist information people at Sounkyo Onsen did, however, give us the most amazing hiking map the world has ever seen, so at least we won’t get lost.

We hike for three days. The weather in Daisetsuzan is insanely unpredictable. We walk through rain, sun, high humidity, freezing cold wind, and we trudge through snow. If you’re planning a hike in these mountains, prepare for rain. Even if the forecast says it’s going to be sunny, it will rain on you. In July, the flowers are in full bloom all over the mountains.

Day 1: Sounkyo Onsen > Kurodake hut

We leave Sounkyo Onsen in the late afternoon and it’s a quick one hour climb through the clouds and cold to the campsite at the hut. The rangers are kind and let us prepare our food in the communal space inside.

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At the start of the hike we are thankful for the bilingual signs, which are rare on the trail

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Summer in Hokkaido!

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A small shrine on Kurodake peak

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It’s difficult to get lost on this route!

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Day one’s campsite – the grey patch between the hut and the snow is where we pitch our tent

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Day one’s map…zoom in if needed!

Day 2: Kurodake hut > Nakadake > Nakadake Onsen > Mamiyadake > Ura-asahi campsite

Day two sees us hiking through landscape that is sulphuric and alien, then lush and green. It’s cold and wet. Very wet.

We stop at one Nakadake peak for lunch. The wind howls all around and thick fog envelopes us.  We meet friendly Japanese hikers, kitted out in the most expensive rainproof, windproof and snowproof gear. Hikers in Japan always look like they’re climbing Everest. At least they’re warm.

When the fog clears, we hike onwards and take a detour to visit Nakadake onsen, a hotspring in the middle of nowhere with a perfect mountain view… if we weren’t in the rain clouds! We peel off our wet clothes and jump in the steaming hot water. The icy cold rain buckets down on us as we sit in our own little bath. More Japanese hikers walk past us.

“You’re not going in the onsen?” I ask them, my teeth chattering with the cold as I change back into my sopping wet clothes.

They look at me like I’m mad.

With my hair soaking wet and sticking to my face, I moan about how freezing I am as we continue our hike up through the mountains. We make it to our designated campsite at the foot of Asahidake mountain. There’s other hikers here already. We set up the tent and get into our nice warm sleeping bags. Hopefully tomorrow will bring better weather.

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First we’re hiking through lush green landscape with flowers all around…

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…then it’s volcanic

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…and extremely beautiful in an alien way

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…then we’re hiking through thick snow

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…with views of more volanic landscape

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Nakadake onsen. This hotspring is much more beautiful than it looks in this photo, which is taken hurriedly as the rain lashes down

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Camp! We wake the next morning to bright sunshine

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Camp

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Day two’s map…zoom in if needed!

Day 3: Ura-Asahi campsite > Asahidake > Asahidake Onsen

We wake to bright sunshine and a crow stealing the rubbish bag from the porch of our tent. I spend the first hour chasing after the cheeky bird as she continually outwits us and steals our stuff. “KAAAAA, KAAAAAA!” she says from far-off rocks, taunting me with my rubbish bag at her feet.

From our camping spot we lazily watch as hikers trudge up the steep snow-covered Asahidake peak.

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Drying out our clothes from the day before, we have a slow start. Hikers climb and descend the mountain as we lazily watch.

Slowly, we take down our tent and begin the ascent.

Day hikers come from the opposite direction, and a middle-aged woman sits on a plastic bag and slides down the snowy mountain on her bum, giggling as she goes.

The peak is full of smiling people and I mention to Chris how friendly hikers in Japan are compared to those in Europe.

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Level with the clouds as we go up

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Chris is carrying ten books in his bag but smiles as he climbs

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What a view!

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At the top of Asahidake

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A friendly person offers to take a photo of us at the peak

As we descend the mountain, the weather changes and we are engulfed in clouds again. The slopes of Asahidake volcanically hiss and steam and the air is filled with the stench of sulphur.

Most hikers are taking the cable car down to Asahidake Onsen town, but we opt to hike the whole way.

As we leave the crowds and hike through pine forest all alone, I think to myself, “bears love pine forests…”

The bear bell tinkles too quietly, so I yell, “BEARS, WE’RE COMING!” again and again.

It’s with some relief and some sadness that we reach town without having seen what must be the most magnificent of all creatures.

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Descending Asahidake

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Asahidake’s sulphuric fumeroles

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The mountain is alive

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At the bottom of Asahidake

 

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Day three’s map

***We hiked in Daisetsuzan in July, not in October as the post might lead you to believe. 

Hiking the Dewa Sanzan in Honshu, Japan

Japan, Walking

Japan is a hiker’s paradise, and the Dewa Sanzan (the three mountains of Dewa) is a  pilgrimage route of the aesthetic Shugendo religion. Shugendo pilgrims and Japanese hikers can walk all three mountains – Haguro San, Gas San and Yudono San – although many non-religious hikers choose to walk just one or two of the mountains. Each mountain has a Shugendo shrine perched on the top.

The first mountain of the pilgrimage, Haguro San, is an easy walk, involving hundreds of beautiful stone steps.

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Walking the hundreds of steps between Japanese cedar trees up Haguro San

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Shrines at the bottom of Haguro San. These shrines weirdly worship the deities of mining, nation-building, fisheries, and national prosperity, to name a few. To me and Chris, this is contradictory to the little we have learned about Shugendo

Hitchhiking Honshu, Japan

Hitchhiking, Japan

Tokyo is surely the most capitalist, consumerist city in the world, and is not a good introduction to beautiful Japan. Billboards and lights scream at people to buy stuff. Trains are crammed with adverts whilst people are transfixed with smartphones. Everywhere I turn, there are women who  look like film stars. Looking perfect is seemingly important in Tokyo.

The gaudy lights of central Tokyo make no sense to me. They seem out of place in a culture with such beautiful ornate art, shrines and intricate wooden buildings.

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Tokyo

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One advert says “life is beautiful.” Not in central Tokyo.

Hikes on New Zealand’s south island

New Zealand, Walking

We spent our last couple of weeks in Aotearoa (New Zealand) hiking some astoundingly beautiful routes in the regions of Mount Aspiring, Fiordland and Aoraki.

The hiking trails that we did can be linked up (via a bit of road walking or hitching) to make a longer trail. At the bottom of this blog post is a hand-drawn map of the routes showing this.

Here’s a brief review of the trails we hiked.

Hiking the Te Araroa Part 5: Reflections on the hike

New Zealand, Walking

I have been walking the Te Araroa hiking trail in New Zealand. This post covers the section between Lake Tekapo and Lake Ohau. After this we decided to quit the Te Araroa two-thirds of the way down the south island. Below I talk about our reasons why we quit, and I reflect on my time on the Te Araroa and whether it was a good hike to do.

You can also read part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4 of our hike.

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Hiking the Te Araroa in Aotearoa (New Zealand): part 4

New Zealand, Walking

I am hiking the Te Araroa, a long distance hiking trail which spans the length of Aotearoa (New Zealand).

This blog post covers the following sections of the trail on the south island: Rakaia river to Rangitata river; Rangitata river crossing;  Two Thumb Track. (We did not attempt to cross the Rakaia river on foot, and we met no other hikers who did this). You can also read part 1, part 2 & part 3.

Rakaia river to Rangitata river

Rivers rivers rivers. I can’t remember when we weren’t walking through rivers, streams or creeks, and today I’m sick and tired of it. When was the last time I had dry shoes? I can’t remember.

Hiking the Te Araroa in New Zealand: part 3

New Zealand, Walking

This blog post covers the following sections of the trail on the south island:

Waiau Pass; Boyle Village to Arthur’s Pass; Arthur’s Pass to the Rakaia river.

You can also read part 1 & part 2 of the hike.

1) Waiau Pass trail in the Nelson Lakes: 115.5km, 8 days:

It’s raining. The river hurls water downstream and the track becomes part of the river. We huddle in hikers’ huts until the weather clears.

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The river bursts its banks and the way becomes engulfed by strong water

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The trail is here somewhere…

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I can’t remember when I last had dry feet…

And then, when the sun comes out and we start to climb away from the valley, the Waiau Pass section becomes spectacular. If you’re choosing just a few sections of the Te Araroa, pick this one! Snow-capped mountains surround us as we climb higher.

Hiking the Te Araroa trail in New Zealand: Part 2

New Zealand, Walking

This blog post covers the first 230km of the Te Araroa on the south island: the Queen Charlotte Track, the Pelorus river trail and the Richmond Ranges. You can also read part 1 of the trail.

This is not a trail,” I splutter at Chris breathlessly as I huff and puff my way up, terrified of falling. “It’s a scramble up a cliff face.

We’re back on the trail! After a two month knee injury (which still hasn’t fully recovered) Chris and I rejoin the Te Araroa at the start of New Zealand’s south island.

Hobbling and hobbits on New Zealand’s north island

New Zealand

“You can’t hike any more. You have to change your plans,”  the doctor says sympathetically. “Was it your dream to tramp across New Zealand? Had you been planning it for years?”

“Well, no,” I reply, “but it’s really disappointing. How long will I take to heal?”

“Three more months, maybe…or keyhole surgery.”

I have torn a cartilage in my knee just 160km into the Te Araroa hike across New Zealand. It’s now very clear that I won’t be able to hike the whole trail. But because I can stay in the country for six months, it’s possible that I’ll recover in time to walk half of it.

Hiking the Te Araroa trail, New Zealand: Part 1

New Zealand, Walking

Chris and I spontaneously decide that we’re going to walk a hiking trail which spans the length of New Zealand – or Aotearoa in Māori – some 3,000km. The trail is called the Te Araroa. One month later, we arrive in Auckland.

I don’t know that much about New Zealand, except that my favourite comedy duo, Bret and Jermaine of Flight of the Conchords, are from there. And that Lord of the Rings was filmed there. And that my favourite computer game of the 80s, New Zealand Story, was based there. And that it was colonised and screwed over by the British.

“My god, it’s like we’re in Liverpool,” I say as we reach the centre of Auckland. After months of travelling through Asia, it seems absurd that we’re the furthest from home we’ve ever been, and yet we find ourselves in a slightly different version of England.