Mt. Yotei (1,898 m), also known as Ezo-Fuji for its resemblance to Japan’s most famous peak, is a stratovolcano located in Hokkaido’s Shikotsu-Koya National Park.
I made this hike in September 2018; due to the remote and sometimes dangerous nature of Hokkaido’s mountains, I climbed with a guide from Hokkaido Nature Tours–whose services I highly recommend if you’re thinking about taking on the major (or out-of-the-way) peaks on Japan’s northernmost major island. A lot of Hokkaido’s mountains are hard to reach without a private car, and even though I usually prefer to hike alone, it’s nice to have a fun companion sometimes too.
Yotei can take 9+ hours to hike round trip, so we got an early start. The forecast didn’t call for rain, but it didn’t look like the sky had read the forecast.
We stopped briefly at the Shintō shrine between the parking lot and the trailhead–I didn’t think we’d need divine intervention to make it back safely, but it’s always good to hedge your bets.
We climbed the Makkari Route, which as you can see goes pretty much directly up the mountain. Fortunately, the squiggles equate to switchbacks that keep most of this route from being all that steep.
Like many mountains in Japan, Yotei has a box at the trailhead where hikers are supposed (read: required) to file a hiking form with information about the number of hikers in the party, intended route, starting/estimated return times, and a brief description of what everyone is wearing. Just in case.
Beyond the trailhead, the trail slopes upward briefly before leveling out–until you reach Station 1, it feels more like a lovely, quiet walk in the woods than a mountain climb.
Many Japanese mountains have trail markers set at regular intervals along the trail; these stations, numbered 1 through 10, help hikers gauge their progress (and pace) while climbing.
The walk (still not really a climb) from Station 1 to Station 2 took less than half an hour, and while the hike itself was delightful, it made me underestimate the rest of the climb to come.
Yotei also has a Station 2.5. No idea why.
(In not-really-related news: Mt. Fuji also has a Station 9.5, which is equidistant from Station 9 and the Summit, and just as far from both as Station 9 is from Station 8 – which feels entirely unfair, but there it is.)
Above Station 2, we got our first views through gaps in the trees. It didn’t feel as if we’d gained much altitude, but the view suggested otherwise.
We caught our first view of the summit from the trail near Station 3. You can see the lip of the crater rim between the trees.
Two hours to the minute after leaving the trailhead, we reached Station 4. Once again, the amount of altitude gain surprised me; the trail moved steadily upward, but wasn’t nearly as punishingly steep as I expected based not the trail map.
The trails in Hokkaido are well-maintained. We passed a couple of fallen trees–including the one below, which uprooted part of the trail when it fell. Most of the trees that had fallen across the path itself had been cut, and the trail cleared. Still, fallen trees like this are a good reminder of one reason it’s not smart to climb (anywhere) when the forecast calls for rain.
Today’s geometry lesson: the higher you climb, the better the views become.
Although we were watching for the station signs, we somehow missed Station 5–and I admit to substantial relief when we reached Station 6. The trail was feeling awfully long for a single section. That also made the trip from Station 6 to Station 7 (photo below) feel much shorter.
At Station 7, you get to choose between climbing and limbo–because the signpost tree grows directly over the path.
By the time you reach Station 8, you’re above the tree line and hiking through beautiful alpine terrain with views so startlingly pretty that it’s easy to stop and stare, forgetting you still have quite a bit of trail to hike before you reach the summit.
The Yotei Hut sits in the highlands above Station 8, with a view that makes an overnight stay almost tempting (however, the hut has no heat, toilet, or running water–and since a round-trip can be done in a single day, that makes the hut an “almost, but no thanks” for me).
Even so, this would be a pretty sweet view to wake up to…
When you reach the crater rim, you have a choice to make. The trail to the right is shorter, but takes you over some fairly exposed (and steep) rock formations, requiring some scrambling rather than “just” a hike. The trail to the left is a standard trail, but you have to hike almost all the way around the crater rim to reach the official summit marker.
Autumn hadn’t properly arrived in southern Hokkaido yet, but the crater was starting to show some autumn colors.
Based on the speed and ease of our ascent (under 5.5 hours from trailhead to crater rim), my guide opted for the short-but-rocky route over the ridge in the photo above. Ten minutes after I took this photo, I learned I had a previously-undiscovered phobia of rocky, exposed places. However, going back seemed worse than going onward, so this was also where I learned I’m capable of overcoming my fear of rocky, exposed places.
With my guide–who I called “the Yamabushi” for that beard and his mountain knowledge–on the summit of Mt. Yotei, my first Hokkaido hyakumeizan. (The hyakumeizan, or “100 Famous Mountains of Japan” is a list of 100 Japanese peaks that, when climbed, supposedly give a mountaineer an understanding of the true nature of Japanese Mountains; the list was created by Japanese mountaineer Kyūya Fukada in his 1964 book NIHON HYAKUMEIZAN.)
Given the challenges posed by the ridge, and the fact that the fog and wind had kicked in, we decided to head down via the easier route around the crater rim.
The wind died down when we started our ascent (more accurately, once we got below the altitude where it was blowing hard), but the fog grew more and more dense (and wet) as we descended.
As we hiked toward Station 8, we could see the bottoms of the clouds; although we’d been hiking for just over 7.5 hours at this point, I found myself moving faster, eager to get below the chilly mist.
The reward: below Station 8, we were underneath the clouds again; the mist was gone and the sky even looked as if the clouds were breaking up in places.
The descent solved another mystery too: the marker for Station 5 was on the back side of the tree–clearly visible on the descent, but on the wrong side for us to see on the way up.
At 5:30 p.m. we stopped for a minute or two to enjoy the setting sun breaking through the clouds and sending golden light across the mountain. We didn’t stop for long, though; Hokkaido is bear country, and we didn’t want to get caught too high on the mountain after dark.
We made it as far as Station 2 before we lost the light completely and had to finish the hike wearing head torches. That slowed us down a little, but also gave me a great chance to see some enormous green moths, which nearly tripped me up when they decided to use my face as a disco floor. Fortunately, neither humans nor moths were harmed in the making of this safe and successful climb.
Access/Trailhead: Private car or Donan Bus to 羊蹄自然公園入口 Yotei Nature Park stop (note: bus stop is 1.8 meters from the trailhead, which will add an extra 3.6km to your day).
Elevation Gain/Loss: 1,500 m ascent / 1,500 m descent (i.e., “this mountain goes both up and down”)
Time Spent: 11 hours, 45 minutes (Including lunch break and full circumambulation of the crater rim. YMMV)
Note to the wise: Although this is definitely do-able as a day hike, and not a technically difficult climb, it’s long, and there’s a lot of altitude involved–as well as potentially unstable weather. It’s a great hike, I loved it, and I’ll probably hike it again, but I was glad I didn’t go alone. Definitely take good gear, and know what you’re getting into before you go.