Published: August 2008

Between Volcanoes

Asahi Dake


Big Snow Mountain.

By Gretel Ehrlich
Photograph by Michael Yamashita

Fire and water collide in Daisetsuzan. Two massive volcanoes pin the national park at the center of Japan's northernmost island, Hokkaido, their steaming peaks dropping off into forested, snow-pillowed, river-washed slopes—half a million acres churned green, orange, red, and white by the seasons.

Japan rose from the sea in seismic violence. Tectonic plates slid and were subducted, mantle rock melted and pooled underground, volcanoes erupted. Quiet for centuries, Asahi Dake, the highest peak in Hokkaido, rises to the north. Tokachi Dake, to the south, last erupted in 2004. In the cold, wet climate of Hokkaido, summits built by Earth’s internal fires draw snow, and snow turns to rushing water, forest, moss, and flower. Daisetsuzan means "big snow mountain."

Thick ground cover makes much of Daisetsuzan impenetrable, a self-preserving preserve, untrammeled except for the few specified trails. In a crowded island country—one of the most indus­trialized and densely populated in the world—the park offers rare open space, its peaks and forests bounded by neatly cultivated fields. The park is a haven for deer, birds, hares, and bears as well as trees, shrubs, and flowers. Japanese backpackers move in silent respect through the massif.

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