I have developed a special liking for clouds. I realized this while examining several white spheres floating above the Hokkaido coastline as my airplane approached from the south. My recent excursions to the mountains have taught me that much of the allure of an alpine setting comes from the effect of the clouds. At close range they glide, twirl and race by in ways that can be mesmerizing; they seem to reflect the moods of a sentient atmosphere–sometimes playful, sometimes sinister (or anything in between), but always deserving of more than just a whimsical observation. Anywhere in the world we need only look up to be reminded how in the grand scheme of things we are so small and insignificant, how as time passes we may revert to dust and nothingness but clouds will always roam over the planet as they have from the very beginning, untroubled by the affairs of mortals below. This awareness is magnified in the mountains, where one senses a great, mystical drama is being played out in the skies above.
For my last foray into the mountains before another semester began, I chose Hokkaido because incessant rain was forecast for the Japan Alps while Hokkaido was supposed to be dry. The Hokkaido forecast was, in fact, for sunny skies, but instead it turned rather cloudy; this did not have a disappointing effect on my hike in Daisetsuzan National Park, which included a two day, 13km traverse covering Mt Kuro in the northeast and Mt Asahi in the northwest. The weather and the open expanse of the Daisetsuzan gave me the impression of walking through an amphitheater for the clouds.
It took me a few hours to get to the small resort town of Sounkyo, where I camped nearby. I enjoyed a dip in the hot spring followed by a delicious dinner of grilled rainbow trout–this was a perfect prelude to my hike the next day. At daybreak I paid a visit to the Ginga waterfall in the nearby gorge, where a soft, morning mist rolled off the ridges. I then climbed Mt Kuro where, at 1984 metres elevation, the Daisetsuzan mountain range unfolded before me. I gasped at the sight of a windswept terrain bereft of any trees but spotted with bits of red, green and yellow brush. I was looking at what the Ainu called the playground of the gods.
I followed a series of trails up and down several mountains to the base of Mt Asahi, where I camped the second night. Alongside the trails were red and green mountain flora, brush tinged in autumn colours, and the ubiquitous dwarf stone pine. The land is entirely exposed and at times barren with only a few boulders and shrubs dotting the landscape. The gentle, dome-shaped mountains which make up the range serve as a backdrop to an otherworldly landscape that is both eerie and awesome, and enhanced by strong winds and wild cloud formations which threatened to burst with rain.
Mt Naka, which is halfway between Mt Kuro and Mt Asahi, overlooks a huge basin of ochre coloured soil, dried up riverbeds and spotted snowfields. Further on is Mt Mamiya and then a series of short, adjacent peaks dwarfed by Mt Asahi to the west. After setting camp at the base of Mt Asahi, I headed back to one of the peaks to watch the sunset. The wind had died and it was eerily quiet–I heard no birds, no insects, no cascading water, no other souls for miles around. All I could discern was my heartbeat as I perched myself on some craggy rocks and watched the late afternoon clouds drift in. They enveloped Mt Asahi as twilight fell and the moon rose from behind.
It turned into a cold night, especially since I suffered through the frigid midnight air to do some time lapse photography of the stars behind Mt Asahi. It took a while before I could get warm again in my tent–I marveled at how during the day the temperature was in the mid twenties but now at night it was surely only just above zero.
For sunrise, I headed east for half a kilometre onto a ridge near Mt Mamiya. The wind was very strong and cold. The clouds, which had been prominent in all my picture-taking up to this point, were again demanding attention, as they crowned the sun before it could rise above them.
By mid morning I had trudged up the moon like slope of Mt Asahi, Hokkaido’s tallest mountain at 2291 metres. It was my tenth hyakumeizan climb and I was rewarded with an expansive view looking down the canyon-like western side of the mountain and over the lush greenery of forests beyond. Below I could see white plumes of smoke billowing from the sulfur vents at the base of the mountain. Further afar was the gondola station from which I would descend to Asahi-dake Onsen, and then soak in a relaxing hot spring. I paused before heading down from the summit, relishing the view and playing spectator to the show of clouds one more time.