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