Published: August 2008
Big Snow Mountain.
By Gretel Ehrlich

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.

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.

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.