Occasionally in the summer and fall, Michiko Aoki, the daughter of a Buddhist priest, hikes eight hours up and over Asahi Dake, crosses a windy ridge, and descends into a secret valley to visit her boyfriend, who helps monitor the park's Hokkaido brown bears.
Early on a warm autumn day, I join her. As we approach Asahi Dake, the hollow breathing of volcanic vents tells us there is a mountain ahead, but, cloud-wrapped, it eludes us. In the mirrored face of a pond called Sugatami-ike, a distant patch of snow mingles with steam; strings of steam tie Asahi Dake to the kamuy, the Ainu spirits that live everywhere.
During the glacial maximum 18,000 years ago, Hokkaido was linked by land bridges to Asia, not Japan, and the ancestors of the Ainu people crossed to Hokkaido. Few indigenous Ainu remain, their forebears having been dispossessed and assimilated by the Japanese. Yet it is impossible to look at these rivers and mountains without thinking of their sacred view of the place.
The Ainu divided their lands into village gathering grounds, or iwor, where they fished for salmon, hunted bear, and gathered wood and berries. The living things that sustained them were gods in disguise, spirits visiting the earthly world. Kamuy came as inanimate objects as well: hunting knives and bamboo houses. To return kamuy to the spirit world, the Ainu performed rituals, with gifts of food and prayer. Their central ceremony honored the bear—provider of food, fur, and bone for tools. They called Asahi Dake peak Nutap-kamui-shir, which means "the god mountain which contains the inside area of the bend of the river."
Asahi Dake used to be a perfect cone, but an eruption long ago blew out its flank. The path skirts a chaotic cleft torn by eight sulfur-collared vents issuing steam. An 80-year-old man coming off the mountain tells us that during World War II people gathered the yellow mineral for gunpowder. Michiko and friends, a more fortunate generation, ski the concavity in winter. Now the path is steep with lingering patches of snow. Above, cloud swallows mountain; volcano swallows cloud. Finally the top of Asahi Dake stands clear.
Weekend hikers crowd the summit. They eat ham sandwiches and rice wrapped in seaweed, drink cold tea, and rest rock-sore feet. Fewer come here than to many of Japan's 29 national parks, far fewer than to Mount Fuji. That iconic peak draws a hundred million visitors a year. Daisetsuzan sees just six million, many of whom arrive by bus to soak in autumn's colors. Others test themselves on the slopes of Asahi Dake.