My friend Ido* and I kicked off my recent (Autumn 2021) hiking trip to Hokkaido with an ascent of Mt. Tarumae–a 1,041-meter active stratovolcano not far from Tomakomai in southern Hokkaido.
I’d heard Tarumae offered lots of bang for the “hiking buck”–a short ascent, followed by a longer circumambulation of the enormous crater rim–and was looking forward to getting my boots back on the trail after almost 18 months at home. We started our ascent from the 7th station trailhead (basically 70% of the way to the crater rim)–and although initially the views were nonexistent:
We had our first view of the crater rim within minutes. The trail was wide and well-maintained, and so easy that we passed a number of families hiking to the summit with children as young as four or five.
Tarumae sits on the shore of Lake Shikotsu, a crater lake formed by a volcanic eruption many centuries ago. The lack of development around the lake made the already impressive views even more spectacular.
In the photo below, you can see the coastal city of Tomakomai, to the east. Mt. Tarumae sits in Shikotsu-Tōya National Park, which measures almost 1,000 square kilometers in size, and is named for Lake Shikotsu and Lake Tōya–another (larger) crater lake farther north (and the site of another hike I made this trip).
Although the first part of the trail up Mt. Tarumae is forested, it only takes about ten to fifteen minutes to get above the tree line, and for the path to change from reinforced earthen stairs to a gently sloping trail that curls gently upward along the side of the volcano. The views just keep getting better as you go.
About 45 minutes after leaving the trailhead, we reached the crater rim and got our first look at the smoking lava dome that sits at the center of Tarumae’s massive summit crater. Mt. Tarumae last erupted in 1982, and remains quite active. In fact, the “clouds” near the base of the lava dome in the photo below are actually smoke and steam rising from the fumaroles (volcanic vents) near the base of the dome.
From the place where the ascent trail meets the crater rim, we took a right and headed up to the eastern summit–the higher of the two summits that rise from opposite sides of the crater rim.
In the photo above, you can see the lava dome–and also Mt. Yotei, one of the nihon hyakumeizan (100 famous mountains of Japan). I climbed it back in 2018, and hope to climb it again on another trip. I loved the fact that I could see it from Tarumae; it felt like an old friend saying hello from a distance.
Ido and I took the obligatory summit photo atop the east summit. Although I normally hike alone, I love hiking with Ido in Hokkaido–he’s a fabulous mountain guide, and an awesome friend.
Shortly after leaving the summit, we saw an usage (rabbit) – a rare sight, because they’re usually quite shy. We were both surprised when it stuck around to have its picture taken! Ido mentioned that these rabbits turn completely white in winter, to blend in with the snow.
After leaving the high point, we hiked around and headed toward the (slightly) lower west summit, on the far side of the crater. The picture below shows part of the trail–everything to the right of the path on the left side of the frame is part of the crater–and not even half of the crater is visible here. The “cloud” on the far right side of the frame is steam from the fumaroles; the lava dome is just beyond the right side of the image.
The image below is the view from the same location, looking farther to the right. The west summit is the “hill” beyond and to the left of the lava dome.
The lava dome has several active fumaroles, which emit long plumes of steam and volcanic gases. From a distance, they look a lot like low-lying clouds, but in reality they’re a sign that this volcano is very much alive.
Below, you can see the view looking east from the crater rim. If you look closely, you can even see the daily (overnight) ferry that runs between Tomakomai and Oarai (a port about 2 hours north of Tokyo) heading for port. I’d originally hoped to take the ferry to Hokkaido for this trip, but the rooms were sold out by the time I booked my travel arrangements. Hopefully next time!
We hiked south along the crater rim toward the west summit – the peak toward the right side of the frame. Although the clouds look a little bit foreboding, the weather was just about perfect–still warm enough for a short-sleeved shirt, but not at all humid. An excellent autumn day.
As we hiked south, we had periodic views of Mt. Yotei–visible to the right of the west summit massif, toward the right side of the picture below.
The fumaroles on the lava dome became more visible as we approached the west summit, too. In the picture below, you can see a couple of them high on the dome, and another, larger one to the right of the dome–which looks like a low-lying cloud.
The final part of the trail to the west summit was one of the steepest parts of the climb. It wasn’t difficult–as I’d heard, Tarumae is an easy hike–but it felt good to stretch my legs a bit.
The view from the west summit is even more dramatic than the view from the eastern one. Looking northeast, you can see the east summit and the smoking lava dome.
And to the west, there’s an amazing view of Lake Shikotsu, with Mt. Yotei on the horizon.
After taking a short break (and lots of photos) on the second summit, Ido and I headed down around the far side of the crater rim, along the path that runs to the left of the lava dome in the shot below.
Our route took us around the far side of the dome; the grasses and mountain plants had already begun to show off their autumn colors, even though most of the trees at sea level were still green.
Instead of walking all the way around the crater rim and descending along the same trail we’d ascended, we headed down a trail on the opposite side of the crater–giving us a different perspective on the descent. Erosion has worn channels in the side of the volcano, which were even more visible as the sun began its own descent toward the horizon.
The trail–visible in the shot below–ran down and around the side of the mountain, back to the 7th station parking lot.
Although we had plenty of daylight left, the shadows were long and the afternoon mostly spent by the time we got off the trail, because we’d gotten a relatively late start on the day. It was great to get back in the mountains after so much time in Tokyo–and excellent to hike with Ido again, too. We hiked several other mountains during my week in the north, and I’ll get them posted on the Hikes Page and the blog as soon as I can.
Access/Trailhead: Private car (or taxi from the Lake Shikotsu Visitor Center, which apparently takes about 30 minutes, so it’s likely an expensive ride – Hokkaido Nature Tours [link below] provides transportation for clients who book this hike through them).
Elevation Gain/Loss: 400 m ascent / 404 m descent (i.e., “this mountain goes both up and down” – no clue why it’s apparently farther down than up…)
Time Spent: 5 hours (Including a coffee/lunch break and circumambulation of the crater rim. YMMV)
Note to the wise: This is a great hike, and easy enough for young or less-advanced hikers, especially if you take a guide. Transportation is the hitch here, but the hike is definitely worth the effort.
*My friend Ido Gabay, who hikes with me in Hokkaido, is also the owner and founder of Hokkaido Nature Tours – we met in 2018, while I was hiking the 100 summits that form the basis of CLIMB; since then, we’ve become friends, and this trip was actually the result of me asking him to plan “the southern Hokkaido climbing itinerary you’d want to do, if you were doing it on your own.”