Day 3: Mt. Asahidake Campsite to Hakuun Hut via Nakadake Natural Hot Springs.
The second day held a considerable detour down Mt. Nakadake to visit the naturally occurring hot springs there, before doubling back on ourselves a considerable amount to continue on to Hakuun Hut for the night. But, hey, naturally occuring hot springs! As planned, it was a full day of hiking, allowing us to arrive at the campsite between 4 and 5pm. Rising at 6am after an extremely cold night with little sleep, we found ourselves among the last three tents left at the site, most having departed before 4a.m.
Packing up quickly and fitting in some stretches beforehand, we followed the path as it ascended sharply before levelling out for our walk around a monumental caldera, around which all routes forward bent. The base was split by the yellow tendrils of a poisonous sulphuric river. Bright, yet natural, hues echoed from the base and, kaleidoscopic, reached up over the walls of the valley. Each peak surrounding it was capped with glistening snow as if huge dollops of cream had been dropped there.
The path was volcanic rock again; light and easy to lose your balance on. Peeling away from the caldera we dipped off the path ,to descend Mt. Nakadake, on to a path that looked like the muddy remains of a snowmelt river. We had made good time to this checkpoint, beating the estimate of 1 hour and twenty minutes.
The route downwards was the most beautiful we walked throughout the Traverse and showed us why there is such a popular appeal to only hiking the northern end of the park. Swathes of green bush, deep and fresh from rain and snowmelt, clashed against the white snow drifts, with alpine flowers littering the landscape in large numbers and in all kinds of colours. Every now and again we would see a bush tinged red, signalling the onset of autumn in Daisetsuzan.
As we descended the fairly easy track we could hear the rush of snow melt growing louder, until the path turned sharply back on itself into a small gorge, at the bottom of which was the natural hot spring. Tucked in between the rock bed of the gorge several sulphuric pools babbled away alongside a snowmelt river. They were clear to the point of looking like rippled glass. The pools were surrounded by wooden planks so that you could whip off your shoes and socks and dip your feet into the waters, and the silky silt beneath it.
Doubling back up the path we’d descended we passed the Mt. Nakadake checkpoint and continued on around the caldera, the paths much busier this time. The grand scale of the caldera had us fooled as to how long it would take to walk around a relatively small section of it. It took us one hour (estimated 50 minutes) to reach the next checkpoint which regretfully had us peeling away from the sweeping volcano mouth permanently. But the going became much easier for it. The path became a firm mud one through gently rolling hills, along which we made very good time.
Approaching in the distance, just after the next checkpoint, the landscape seemed to morph from bushland into boulders, building in size until a seemingly random pile dropped by a titan created our next summit; Mount Hakuun. The bouldered route was also punctuated by a long, slippery snow drift spanned by a rope that wasn’t tied down on the other end. And, I noticed as I maneuvered over the compacted snow, the drift was overhanging the mountain it was on, where huge slices of it had fallen away in a straight drop.
At the top it seemed quite a few hikers had dropped their packs to make the final push to the summit of Hakuun, before making the descent into the gorge to reach the hut. After an exhausting day, we chose to descend the winding, stony path immediately. It wasn’t long before we saw a squat burgundy box appear, strangely stark against the enormous valley that spread out behind it. A little ways behind it was a tiny campsite, teeming with tents. It was 3:30pm. Worried, we finished our descent and looked for a place to set up our two-man tent, relying on the kindness of strangers to adjust their guy ropes a little to let us in. And we still found ourselves awkwardly close to another tent’s entrance.
Hakuun Hut provided okay facilities, for a price. It’s the only hut and campsite on the Traverse that charges. It was 400¥ per person to camp and 1000¥ per person to sleep inside the hut. The water source was reliable, and had been set up with a funnel and scoop to help you filter water. The toilets were two wooden cubicles, worn and smelly, with graffiti dating back to the 80s. Each had an Asian squat toilet, with an open drop onto a concrete slab beneath. For an additional price the hut will also sell you beer, which you can chill in the snow melt.
Despite how crowded and stressful our arrival was, I warmed to the campsite. Perhaps it was because of the eerie, expansive evening view I was treated with as I waited for the toilet. The rolling valley spreading out in front of me as cold mists oozed off the snow and through the crevasses, reaching through the lower plains of the valley. Or perhaps it was the beer.