Daisetsuzan National Park (大雪山国立公園 Daisetsuzan-kokuritsukōen, also pronounced Taisetsuzan) is in the mountainous center of the island of Hokkaido. Formed by a large number of volcanoes which get mostly covered in snow during the winter, the Daisetsuzan is truly a land of ice and fire, with some of the most amazing landscapes of Hokkaido and also of the entire Japan.
At 2267.64 km², Daisetsuzan is the largest national park in Japan. The name means Great Snowy Mountains, an apt description of these peaks — 15 of them over 2000 meters — that offer some of the most rugged hiking in Japan. The Ainu name for Daisetsuzan, kamui-mintara, translates to "playground of the gods".
Other than multi-day hikes, the national park offers a plethora of activities for different styles of traveller, including day hikes, leisurely walks, flower- and autumn foliage-viewing and skiing.
It is common to confuse the Daisetsuzan National Park with the "Daisetsuzan Mountains", which are actually the north-most of the three groups of volcanoes that compose the Daisetsuzan National Park, although undoubtedly the most famous and most visited. The southwestern group are the Tokachi Mountains and the southeastern group are the Shikaribetsu mountains.
At high elevations, there is varied vegetation which is excellent for autumn leaves viewing by the second half of September, picturesque ponds and sulphur springs. At lower elevations there is lush forest, lakes, waterfalls and the autumn leaves are best viewed in the first half of October.
Flora and fauna
At the base of the mountains you are likely to see several birds, deers and foxes, and bears also roam the forests of the national park, especially the Daisetsu Kogen trail. Naturally, as you go up in the mountains the number of animals decreases.
The mean annual temperature observed on the top of Mt. Kurodake (1,984 m) from October 1989 to September 1990 was -2.3°C. The lowest temperature was -21.8°C in January, and the highest one was 18.7°C in July. From October to June is a harsh season, with severe cold and snowfall. The monthly mean temperature was below zero from October 1989 to April 1990, and the study area was completely under snow until early May in 1990. Winter snow usually starts disappearing in May with some snow patches remaining year round.
There are no train lines within the park. The nearest stations are Asahikawa (west), Furano (south) and Rubeshibe (east). The best way to get to the park is the 09:10 bus from the front of the Asahikawa Station to the Asahidake Ropeway (¥1300) or to Sounkyo Onsen. There is also a bus from the Kami-Furano Station to the trailheads of Tokachi-dake and Furano-dake. If you plan to stay at one of the onsens, enquire before travelling since some of them offer a discount for the bus, or they may even provide a shuttle bus from Asahikawa Station to the onset.
Unless you are going for multi-day hikes, it's generally better to visit the national park by car if you plan to do multiple activities during your stay there. Many attractions of the park are inaccessible by public transport (such as Ginseidai), or buses are only available during peak visitations period (such as Daisetsu Kogen). A car would also give you far more flexibility due to the low frequency of buses.
Fees and permits
There is no park entry fee. Free parking is available. Some parking lots are not free, but they are obvious and can be easily avoided.
Basically there are only two effective ways to get around the national park: by car or by hiking. There are a few buses that go to certain attractions during peak visitation periods, and some onsen hotels are also to provide bus transfers. If you don't plan to neither drive or to do multi-days hikes, it is perhaps best to base yourself in Sounkyo, which has direct access to the Kurodake, convenience stores, and a number of good walking trails.
Note that the roads basically circle the national park, rather than crossing it, which means that driving distances can be quite long for places that look relatively near in a map, for example Asahidake and Kurodake.
The Daisetsuzan Mountains are the most impressive and famous volcanic group of the national park, and for that reason, often confused with the national park itself.
They can be described by a circle of volcanoes surrounding a vast caldera, the Ohachi caldera. A typical multi-day hike consists of climbing one of the mountains, circling the Ohachi caldera, and descending via another mountain of the park. The mountains are surrounded by hills covered in lush forest which offer more leisurely walks.
- Sounkyo Onsen. Famed hot spring resort on the far north park of the park close to Kuro-Dake. See Sounkyo Onsen.
- 1 Kuro-dake (黒岳). The most accessible of the Daisetsu Mountains (the ropeway is just inside Sounkyo) and the easiest hike as a combination of ropeway and chair lift will leave you at about 1-2 hours from the top. Not surprisingly, it's also a quite popular hike and can be quite crowded during peak seasons. If you are not interested in hiking to the top, there are also quite a few easy walking trails and observation platforms.
- 2 Asahi-dake (旭岳). The tallest mountain in Hokkaido (2,290 m) and one of its main attractions. The easiest way to reach Asahidake is by bus from the city of Asahikawa. Catch a Chuo bus from outside Asahikawa JR station to Minamikawa, and catch a coach from there into the park. The coach runs twice a day in the off season (about November to May) and three times a day in the on season (about May to October). Chuo buses to Minamikawa run every hour. The bus will take you to the beginning of a cable car ("ropeway", ¥2000 return). The top of the cable car leads to a plateau with a short scenic walk to a set of fumaroles, and a longer walk (1.5-3 hours each way) to the summit of Asahidake.
- 3 Daisetsu Kogen Onsen (大雪高原温泉), 〒078-1701 北海道上川郡上川町字層雲峡. The Daisetsu Kogen Onsen is a nature area containing the onsen hotel of the same name, and two trails: one 5-hour circular trail across several pounds in the area, and the hike to the Midori-dake. The area is extremely popular during autumn, when the leaves turn red by the second half of September, providing some really fantastic views. At the time access by car is closed but shuttle buses are available from a parking lot in the Taisetsu Lake.
- 4 Midori-dake (緑岳). With 2,019 m, Midori-dake is shorter than Asahi-dake, but the hike to the summit is longer (2-4 hours) since it starts from a lower altitude, the Daisetsu Kogen Onsen. It is a popular place to see alpine flowers during July-August and autumn colors during mid September. From the summit of Asahi-dake, you may hike another 2 hours to the top of Hakuun-dake.
- 5 Ginsendai (銀泉台), 〒078-1701 北海道上川郡上川町字層雲峡. Gindensai is an extremely popular spot for viewing autumn colours and other terrific views of the Daisetsuzan Mountains, via the hike to the 2,078-m-high Aka-dake, which takes about 3 hours, followed by an easy 30-minute hike to Koizumi-dake. From there, another 50 minutes hike takes you to Hakuun-dake.
The Tokachi Mountains can be better described s a long line of volcanoes that extend from the Daisetsuzan Mountains in Kamikawa all the way to Furano. They can be explored by either a multi-day transverse or by day hikes to individual mountains, which can be done as sidetrips from Biel or Furano. 6 Tokachi-dake (十勝岳).
- 7 Furano-dake (富良野岳).
The Shikaribetsu mountains are the least visited volcanic group of the national park. They are more spread out than the other volcanic groups, and only practically accessible via multi-day hiking, although they can be viewed from a distance at the Mikuni pass. At the southern end of the mountains lies is the Shikaribetsu lake which is a popular attraction and relatively close to Obihiro.
Furano, on the southern side of the park, is a popular ski resort. Asahidake and Sounkyo Onsen also have ski slopes. Asahidake is particularly popular for snowboarding.
If you want to try something different, join a guided tour to walk down from the top of the Asahidake cable car using snow shoes. You will have time to enjoy the breathtaking scenery and walk on deep powdered snow. You can enquire at the visitor center in Asahikawa.
Summer and Autumn
Summer is the top hiking season, where you can view alpine flowers and where the weather is more suitable for multi-day hikes. Second half of September is the top autumn leaves viewing season for the mountains, while first half of October is top autumn leaves viewing season for the base of the mountains. Day hikes are also extremely popular in this season, but multi-days hikes are more common among experienced hikers as the weather in the mountain top can be unpredictable at this time.
Small eateries and snack bars can be found at the top of the Asahidake and Kurodake ropeways. There is a Seicomart and a 7-Eleven in Sounkyo with the usual assorted lunch boxes (bento). Sounkyo has also some restaurants, mostly curry or ramen shops. Most hotels inside the park provide breakfast and dinner.
There is no food for sale in the hiking paths themselves, so bring your food with you. You will have to keep your trash until you come back to a city. Do not eat in forested areas in order to not attract bears.
The main bases inside the national park are Sounkyo Onsen at the base of the Kuro-dake, and Asahidake Onsen at the base of the Asahi-dake. For long stays, Sounkyo is generally preferable as it gives easier access to more parts of the park, and has a much larger range of accommodation, as well as a few restaurants and supply stores. At Asahidake Onsen, note that hotels need to be booked way in advance for the autumn leaves viewing peak season.
There are a few onsen hotels scattered through the national park, including Aizankei Onsen, Daisetsu Kogen Onsen (at the base of Midori-dake), Tenninkyo Onsen, Tokachidake Onsen (at the base of Tokachi-dake) and Tomarauchi Onsen (at the base of Tomarauchi-yama). Try to book them far in advance.
If you are on a budget or couldn't find a hotel in peak season, an alternative is to stay outside the national park. A convenient base to visit the western Daisetsuzan Mountains is Asahikawa, which is about 1 hour by car from the Asahidake and Tenninkyo Onsen. Furano, Kamifurano and Biel can be used as a base to explore the Tokachi Mountains.
- 1 Hakuginsō, Tokachidake, Kamifurano, Hokkaido 071-05 (non-drivers should take the train to Kamifurano Station and take a bus (09:22, 13:19, 16:29, 30 min, ¥500 — ask the driver to let you know when to get off)), ☏ , fax: . This hostel has dormitory style rooms with bunk beds and 2 private Japanese-style rooms for 4. It also has a huge tatami room for large groups. Camping is available in summer. There are onsen and rotemburo (outdoor baths) — men, women, and mixed (swimsuit required) — and saunas. It is located at one of the trail heads for hiking Mt. Tokachidake in the summer, or for a backcountry ski ascent in the winter — they also rent snow-shoes. Shared kitchen facilities are available, with pots, pans, microwaves, rice cookers and gas hobs (¥50 for 20 minutes of gas). There is a small shop with chocolate, drinks, and microwavable rice. Not much English is spoken. ¥2,600-2750.
- Hokkaido brown bears (Ezo-higuma). These bears roam the park, although in smaller numbers than in Shiretoko. You are very unlikely to be attacked, but it's wise to take the usual precautions: don't keep any food in or near your tent, and wear a small bell to warn the bears about your presence.
- Echinococcus. This is a dangerous and sometimes fatal parasite that can be found in streams and lakes in Hokkaido. The parasite shows symptoms only after many years, and at that point not much can be done. Boil your water.
- Mountain awareness. The mountain range can be busy in summer and there are decent trails and several signposts (in Japanese), but plan your hike properly. The terrain is steep in places and substrate varies as well. Remember to take water, a snack, and a decent map. There are mountain huts available but these can get full early in summer so plan ahead if you wish to use them. In winter the mountains can be especially dangerous due to the amount of snowfall (although this is also why it is so beautiful) so be careful of avalanches, etc. — one ridge route is closed because a group of winter hikers died there.