Waking up in Waya was perfect, I haven’t slept that well in a long time. No nightmares, no dark thoughts…just peace. After a quick shower it was into the two rented cars and onto the road! Yianna and I went with Eri and Pincham who were fast becoming good friends and with the sun shining, music playing and laughter filling the car we left the urban sprawl of Sapporo and entered the untamed wilderness of central Hokkaido.
The further we got from Sapporo the less cars there were, the trees seemed to grow taller and greener and the mountains slowly began to rise on the horizon. Long before the Japanese came to Hokkaido it was inhabited by the the Ainu people, an ethnically distinct group who are thought to to have migrating from Siberia thousands of years ago. Although they were heavily discriminated against during the 20th century they are now seeing a resurgence, especially in the wilder parts of Hokkaido. As we drove through the forests and with the mountains beginning to rise around us it was easy to imagine the primeval forests teeming with wildlife that must have confronted the first Ainu to come to this magical island.
After three hours on the road we arrived at Asahikawa, the town at the foot of the Daisetsuzan mountains. Stopping here for a bite to eat we soon found ourselves in a local family run restaurant whose name I sadly cannot recall. Within minutes of ordering our food we were presented with a large bowl of the most glorious ramen I’ve ever seen. The noodles were spiced with ginger while the rich brown broth was strong with the taste of soy, atop this delightful bowl of noodles was a single piece of perfectly cooked pork. Unlike the delicate tastes of Tokyo the food in Hokkaido is hearty and filling, with strong bold flavours and lots of heat to keep you warm in temperatures as low as -40’C in the depths of winter.
From lunch we drove out of Asahikawa and into the mountains of the Daisetsuzan National Park. As the road wound through the forests the green sycamores gradually gave way to lighter trees with their leaves in all the shades of brown and red as autumn took hold. Still we climbed, and soon we saw our first glimpse of the snowy peaked Asahi-Dake bathed in glorious sunlight against the blue sky.
It soon became clear that our trip to see the autumn leaves would in fact be a trip to see the snow, by the time we reached the lodge at the base of Asahi-Dake every inch of the ground was covered in snow. It was at this point that our choice of clothing came into question, I had opted for a slightly warmer bomber jacket, jeans, tshirt and trainers…Yianna however had chosen what looked like pyjamas consisting of her only jumper, a pair of pink corduroys and a pair of doc martins.
Stepping out of the car brought to mind the film ‘Everest’. With a single glance all four of us burst into laughter, once again our excellent planning skills had eluded us. Since our arrival in the park the clouds had closed in and the peak of the mountain was no longer visible, so rather than ascending to the camp at the base of the peak we decided to hike one of the trails at the lodge.
Within seconds my feet were soaked and I couldn’t feel my hands but the beauty of Asahi-Dake numbed the pain. The trail itself was a raised wooden platform resembling a train track (with a big bloody gap in the middle). What happened next was about 90 minutes of people falling into snow drifts, puddles and mud patches while the rest of us laughed, this was interspersed with incredible views of the park and the occasional snow ball fight.
By the time we reached the end of the trail the clouds had cleared and once again the magnificent white peak of Asahi-Dake stood as a beacon against the blue sky. So we decided to take the cable car up to the base of the peak and try to get a better feeling of just how high this mountain really was.
The ride up to the peak was incredible, looking back down the valley the view was so clear you could see all the way to Asahikawa. The white slopes of Asahi-Dake were bordered by snowed covered forests that appeared blue in the afternoon sun, below them the leaves appeared gold and then green as the valley floor reached a series of beautiful lakes.
Upon reaching the end of the cable car we were confronted by just how cold it was up there, -10’C with a wind chill that made it feel closer to -20’C. Instant regret was plastered across our faces, until we walked out onto the slopes of Asahi-Dake’s peak. White and silver covered the ground as the sun burst through the clouds to reveal foliage that had been frozen before it could shed its fruit.
As we slipped and slid our way further up the mountain our clothing choice again came into question, who would have thought we would be 2361m above see level at -10’C mountain climbing in pyjamas…not us that’s for sure!
However any feeling of pain or regret were soon washed away when we reached the plateau just below the peak of the mountain. Dotted with ponds frozen by the cold, they resembled mirrors of silver, there was a sudden wave of tranquility that swept over us. The Ainu call this place ‘The Playground of the Gods’ and it was easy to see why. From atop this mountain it is easy to imagine the spirits dancing across the ice, ruling their wild and windswept kingdom from atop this mammoth mountain.
The way back down the mountain was made all the better by Yianna’s frequent slips and slides as well as the lovely old man who Eri appeared to be helping down the slope…until it became clear it was the other way around.
The journey back to Sapporo was a blur as was the whole evening. It was only when I got into bed that I could make sense of the day, I have never been much of a spiritual person but there was something indescribable about Asahi-Dake that has made me feel changed. I was sad to be leaving Sapporo the next day but I knew that Asahi-Dake and that experience would remain with me for a long a time.
See you soon,