High above the fog, the domed top gives a 360-degree view of the park: mountains and rivers as numberless as dragonflies. One of the rivers is the Ishikari, which a local mayor, Ryutaro Ota, explored in 1910. He begged the government to set aside these mountains and forests lest they be sold to private buyers. Because of Ota's passionate entreaty, in 1934 Daisetsuzan became one of Japan's first eight national parks. No other had wildlife to match Daisetsuzan's, nor backcountry more remote.
The way down is red dust and weathered rock. But soon dappled sun reveals thickets of blue and red berries, flowering white tiger tails, and purple, belled blossoms that the Ainu once used to make poison for their arrows. A river flows alongside the trail, past basho (thread banana) and fuki (sweet coltsfoot). Beyond lies the hidden heart of these mountains.
The trail opens into a clearing. A hiker's lodge appears, and then Michiko's boyfriend, Tomohisa Matsuno. "There's one female bear with two cubs up there," he says, pointing to a far revetment.
Early the next morning we hike up toward the bear pastures. Beyond a last pitch lies an open bowl where the bear has just gone over the mountain. Waiting for her return, we sit all day at the edge of a drying pond, living in Daisetsuzan's trance, brought on by the sweet intimacy of this place. Bears are like mountains—they cannot always be seen. But their presence can be felt. Hours go by. The bear does not appear. Water bugs skate the pond. Time unspools: Preparations for the Ainu's reverential bear-sending ceremony took three years.
A cool breeze spins pond water into spirals, a reminder of typhoons to come. Splotches of red and orange appear in the trees. It is getting too late in the season to call this time summer, and too late in the day to stay.