September 13-14, 2018
This photo supplement tracks the events in CLIMB: Leaving Safe and Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. The captions offer “extra features” that didn’t make it into the book.
Due to straining my knee on Tokachidake, I ended up canceling the next day’s scheduled climb of Poroshiri–which meant I absolutely would not be able to complete all 100 Hyakumeizan peaks in a single year. I’d already decided to shift the goalpost, however, and climb 100 historically and culturally important/sacred mountains instead, so the loss meant less to me than it otherwise would have.
After a rest day, which fortunately allowed my knee to recover completely, I met my second Hokkaido Nature Tours guide, Takuto (“Tak” for short) on the morning of September 13, and we made a brief stop in Furano to visit the flower fields (still lovely, despite it being late in the season) and the delightful Furano Jam Company before starting the long drive to Mt. Tomuraushi (2,141 m), a hyakumeizan peak that derives its name from the Ainu word for “place with many flowers.”
En route, we stopped at a michi-no-eki (rest stop) that had a trio of stuffed bears on display. Hokkaido is famous for its brown bears, which are closer to grizzlies than to the small black bears that inhabit Japan’s more southern islands. In fact, my Hokkaido Nature Tours guides all explained that Hokkaido’s wildlife is much closer to that of Sakhalin than to Honshu and the rest of Japan.
We also stopped for lunch at one of Takuto’s favorite restaurants in the area: a little shop that makes its own soba noodles and serves them in a variety of delicious ways. With Takuto there to explain my fish allergy to the owner, I was even able to have a vegetarian version of the popular soba ten-don, or soba-tempura bowl. It was easy to see why this place was one of Tak’s favorites–every bite was fantastic.
The round trip climb of Tomuraushi is almost 20 km, so my itinerary called for a two-night stay at beautiful Tomuraushi Onsen (you’ll never hear me complain about open-air hot spring baths beside a flowing river) with a day-long climb between.
The weather was beautiful, and the forecast for the next day clear, so I spent a relaxing afternoon and evening at the onsen, preparing for the next day’s hike.
The following morning, we woke before dawn and hopped into the HNT van for a fifteen-minute ride to the upper trailhead parking lot. The trail extends all the way to the ryokan, too, but taking the van cut off almost two hours of hiking (to and from the trailhead); more importantly, Takuto told me on the ride that a group of hikers had seen a bear in the woods near the onsen before dawn that morning, and while they thought it had moved away, he didn’t want to risk running into it on the trail.
The sun was just coming up as we began our climb, along a rocky trail that alternated between a gentle incline and fairly steep but manageable rockfalls.
The ascent began in earnest about 15 minutes into the hike, and the slope continued upward fairly steadily from that point. The forest smelled of damp earth and rain–the aftermath of a brief rainstorm that blew through after dark the night before.
After about an hour, the trail flattened out to cross a plateau, and I caught my first glimpses of autumn foliage. The trees were just beginning to turn color, and a heavy mist settled over the trail, making the flashes of autumn leaves even more dramatic.
Wooden walkways not only made the trail clear, but helped to protect the environment on the mountain. These walkways are fairly common in Japan, especially where popular hiking routes cross through delicate ecosystems.
The sun began to burn through the clouds as we hiked through the marsh, and the foliage became more pronounced as we gained altitude.
At 9:30 a.m., we stopped for “lunch” on the bank of the river below, which was almost dry in September but apparently runs so high in the spring and summer months that hikers often have to remove their boots and cross wearing lightweight water shoes. (Technically, you could wear your boots across, but hiking in soaking boots is no fun for anyone, and can be dangerous if the resulting friction causes blisters or sores on your feet and ankles.)
Beyond the river, the trail cut sharply upward through a gully filled with late-summer wildflowers and gigantic, fuzzy bees. The sun moved in and out of the clouds, and the autumn leaves glowed brightly in the sun.
The bees were taking full advantage of the good weather and the flowers–including the flowers that were somewhat past their prime, as you can see in the shot below.
At the top of the gully, the trail followed a massive rockfall across and up the slope; at this point, we began to hear the distinctive, chirping calls of Northern/Japanese Pika–the inspiration for the popular Pokemon character Pikachu–which live on the slopes of Tomuraushi.
The pika was high on my list of animals I hoped to see in Hokkaido, though I knew they were both rare and shy, as well as small and fast, which made seeing one unlikely. Takuto said he had rarely heard so many calling out at once, and that they were clearly alerting one another to our presence. My hopes rose–and at that very moment, I saw a small, brown creature on the rocks ahead. It looked like a cross between a chipmunk, a guinea pig, and a rabbit–and it saw me just as I noticed it. The pika froze just long enough for me to snap the picture below before chirping loudly and disappearing into the rocks.
Moments later, I saw another pika, and then a third. While none stuck around long enough for me to get many photos (or very good ones), we saw almost a dozen of them as we climbed through the rocks toward the top of the slope.
Takuto said he had never seen so many–on a good day, you might hope to see one–and commented that I was very, very fortunate to have had this unusual experience.
The view below was the view in the other direction–back down the slope toward the gully, which is just off the left side of the frame.
At the top of the rockfall, the trail continued up and over rocky hills, and I started getting worried, because I knew we needed to turn around in time to reach the trailhead before dark (mainly due to the presence of bears in the area) and we hadn’t even caught a glimpse of the summit yet. Takuto mentioned that we had at most another hour before we had to turn around, and I began to feel deep doubts about making the summit.
Although the mountain was one of the most visually interesting I had ever climbed, I felt angry at the thought of working so hard, and spending so many hours on a demanding trail, to be denied the summit because of my climbing speed (or lack thereof). The clouds moved in, and the sky grew dark, even though it was only noon–almost as if the mountain sensed my mood.
Our 12:00 turn around time came and went, and still we climbed. We could see the summit, and I didn’t dare ask Takuto about the plan, because I was afraid that if I spoke, he would turn us around. The final push took us up a steep slope dotted with giant boulders covered in spongy moss. Mist blew through the air in visible wisps. The temperature dropped, and although it didn’t feel like rain, I suspected we had seen the last of the sun for that afternoon.
After we had worked our way almost to the top of the difficult slope, Takuto stopped and waved for me to join him.
“This is it,” I thought. “He’s turning me around.”
But instead, he waved me past him. I continued climbing, and about a minute later he called “Welcome to Tomuraushi!” as I stepped onto the small summit plateau.
Shifting clouds gave us glimpses of the land beyond the summit and then closed in again, blocking out the view. We spent only a few minutes on the summit–long enough to take a few pictures and catch our breath, before beginning the long descent–but I didn’t care. We had made the top.
We descended quickly and without much conversation, but that didn’t bother me at all. Takuto was a quieter guide than the Yamabushi overall, but I liked his style too. He had an excellent sense of when to offer explanations about the history, nature, and landscape of the areas we passed through and when to let me enjoy the trail in silence.
And there was a lot of silent beauty to enjoy.
We almost made it to the trailhead by dark, and reached the van without running into any bears. The descent took close to six full hours, without a break (I didn’t need or ask for one, so we just kept moving), and we returned to the ryokan just in time for a large, delicious dinner.
The following day was another rest day–necessary, in part, due to the distance between Tomuraushi and our next target: Mt. Meakan, a live volcano on the shore of Lake Akan. For photos from that climb, I hope you’ll click through and join me for Chapter 29: Lake Akan and Meakan.
* This page is part of the photo companion to CLIMB: Leaving Safe & Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. You can find the story behind these pictures (in hardback and ebook formats, and either in person or online) at your favorite local bookstore or at Amazon or Barnes & Noble (both in the U.S. and internationally).