Last September, I headed up to southern Hokkaido for a week of traveling and mountain climbing with my friend Ido Gabay (the owner and founder of Hokkaido Nature Tours). I’m a big believer in supporting friends’ businesses–especially when I get to spend time hanging out with them in the process. Ido knows Hokkaido far better than I do, so when he was extra excited about our overnight climb of Mt. Muine, near Sapporo, I knew to expect something special . . . and as you’ll see, Muine delivered.
Mt. Muine has two parking lots, and two “trailheads” – the first of which sits near the closest asphalt road, several kilometers (apparently, more than a two hour walk) from the “upper parking lot,” which isn’t paved and is accessible via a long dirt track that also serves as the hiking trail from the lower parking lot on days when the gate at the road is closed.
We got lucky the day we hiked; the gate at the road was open, and we were able to park at the upper lot, which saved us several hours of hiking time.
Beyond the parking lot, the dirt access road continues through the forest to the official trailhead.
The trailhead sign (above). Many of the trail signs in Japan are bilingual (Japanese and English), especially on the more famous mountains, but Muine’s signage is almost all in Japanese.
Not far past the trailhead, we started seeing colorful foliage. The leaves start changing in northern Hokkaido’s higher elevations in mid to late September, but Muine lies much farther south (near Sapporo), and neither Ido nor I was sure whether we’d see any pretty leaves this trip. Surprise!
The marshy areas on the route have boardwalks, which were particularly nice this trip, because the forecast called for rain, and the sky was threatening as we started out. We saw only one other hiker the entire trip–a man who was descending to the parking lot as we arrived, who warned us that it was going to rain.
We’d seen the forecast, but since our schedule didn’t allow for a rain delay, and it wasn’t supposed to rain too hard, we packed our rain gear, and decided to go for it anyway.
The foliage got better and better as we climbed.
About halfway to the hut where we had reservations to spend the night, we crossed a river over a “bridge” made of two ladders lashed together. I’d read about this technique (which is also used to cross crevasses on large mountains in the Himalaya) but had never seen or walked on one myself. It was great fun–but I doubt I would have liked it had there been a yawning, icy crevasse beneath me rather than a shallow stream.
The ridgeline in the background of the picture above is the upper portion of Mt. Muine – the trail leads through a high altitude meadow before continuing to ascend toward the summit.
Above: the high altitude meadow, with a boardwalk to show the trail. According to Ido, this trail, and the guide posts, are completely submerged in snow in the winter months, obscuring the trail and making navigation tricky. People do climb Muine in winter, in snowshoes and on ski tours, but the trail is easy to lose, so it’s a good idea to go with an experienced guide unless you know the area or are really good at navigating in the snow.
The Muine Hutte (above) sits at 1,020 meters, and is owned and operated by Hokkaido University. Reservations are required, and it apparently can get quite crowded in the winter, when it’s used for ski and snowshoe tours. The snow can get so deep that you can walk directly in through the upstairs window!
Since it hadn’t started raining, Ido and I dropped most of our gear at the Muine Hutte and continued to the summit that afternoon. About twenty minutes past the hut, the views began to open up, and a little while after that, we caught our first view of the summit (below).
The foliage closed in again as we continued up – but we still had lovely views of the autumn colors along the trail.
At one point, we passed a tree that looked like the snout of a dragon (below), or possibly the angry face (eyes, and gaping mouth) of a mountain demon.
The trail up Mt. Muine is quite gentle. Better yet, the clouds began to part as we ascended, giving us glimpses of blue sky.
The “true summit” of Muine has no view, and sits on a short spur off the trail; it would be easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. (In fact, I only saw it because I checked my Yamap hiking map to see how close we were to the top, and saw it off to the side.)
Below: with Ido, on the summit of my 140th mountain in Japan.
Beyond the “true summit” the foliage opens up as you approach the view point at the end of the trail. The views are more than worth the effort it takes to get there.
We arrived about an hour before sunset, when the shadows were growing long and the light had begun to take on the lovely, late-afternoon quality that makes the best pictures. Best of all, the clouds had broken up, and the threat of rain had passed.
We even saw Mt. Yotei, rising above the clouds and doing its best impression of its famous cousin, Fuji.
I climbed Mt. Yotei in 2018–and seeing it again this way made me long to climb it again. Maybe next year!
We spent a few minutes enjoying the amazing views and then headed down–aware that we had less than an hour of daylight left, and that it would take about that long to reach the hut. We lost the light about ten minutes above the hut, and finished the hike with head torches on. Back at the hut, we lit a fire in the wood burning stove, cooked dinner, and settled in for a good night’s sleep.
We were the only ones at the hut that night, so we had the entire place to ourselves.
In the morning, we had coffee and breakfast as we enjoyed the beautiful show nature was putting on outside the window. After cleaning up the hut and re-packing our gear, we headed back down the mountain.
Below: the foliage outside the Muine Hutte.
As we crossed back over the ladder bridge, a few sprinkles of rain began to fall. They stopped again almost at once, but started up again in earnest within minutes of us reaching the parking lot – we couldn’t have timed it better if we tried.
I didn’t realize this was a “big number” hike (140!) until after I was home and added it to my list–but Mt. Muine was definitely a great mountain to fill the slot. If you have a car, or a way to access the trailhead, and you like to hike, it’s absolutely worth the effort, especially in the autumn, when the forest is putting on its yearly show.
Access/Trailhead: Private Car (Hokkaido Nature Tours offers guided hikes of this mountain that include transportation and reservations at the mountain hut).
Elevation Gain/Loss: 820 m ascent / 820 m descent (The hut is about 250m below the summit.)
Distance: 14.0 km
Time Spent: Overnight (Ascent to summit on the afternoon of day 1, overnight at Muine Hutte, descent the following morning – if you get an early start, this is doable as a single, full day hike.)