Hokkaido Travel Adventures / Experience ‘Living Volcanoes’ in Tokachidake Mountain Range

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Noriko Aono talks about the Ansei crater using a photograph in Kamifurano, Hokkaido, on Aug. 1.

This is the fifth and final installment in a series exploring the charms of Hokkaido, an area rapidly garnering attention as an ideal holiday destination.

The highest hot spring resort in Hokkaido is Yumoto Ryounkaku, which is located near the start of the climbing trail for the Tokachidake mountain range.

Kyuzaemon Aita (1905-74) developed the hotel in Kamifurano, Hokkaido, at an altitude of 1,280 meters in 1963, three years after he discovered a hot spring at the Ansei crater, officially called the Nukkakushi crater.

I recently visited the area after learning that I could experience “living volcanoes” by climbing from the hotel to the crater on a guided tour.

As I looked west from Ryounkaku at 9 a.m., a sea of clouds spread out below me. To the east were mountains mantled in green, including Mt. Kami-Horokamettoku. In the foreground was the Ansei crater with its brown bedrock spouting white steam. This was the destination of the tour.

We departed from the trailhead at the Tokachidake Onsen resort area and headed for the crater about 900 meters away with our guide Noriko Aono, 57, the granddaughter of Aita and the third-generation owner of Ryounkaku. She is also the head of the Kamifurano Tokachidake Tourist Association.

Aono explained how the mountains look different depending on the season and sometimes showed us photographs.

We walked the trail for about 30 minutes. In a dry river valley, I heard the cry of an animal. According to Aono, it was a mammal called a Japanese pika, which lives in the alpine areas of Hokkaido, calling from the shade of a rock. Although I could not see it, the sound alone made me feel close to the animal.

About 40 minutes after starting out, we arrived at the Ansei crater at an altitude of about 1,400 meters. The rugged rock was covered with sulfur, which was once mined there, and steam hissed from holes in the ground.

Aono put raw eggs in a small pan and put them in one of the holes. Several minutes later, the steamed eggs were cooked. I enjoyed one of them sitting on the warm bedrock; in fact, the natural “rock bed sauna” made me sweat.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Aono cooks steamed eggs on the warm bedrock.

At least three phreatic explosions have occurred at the Ansei crater over the past 3,000 years. “There is no guarantee that the view in front of us will be the same in five or ten years,” Aono said.

According to Aono, her grandfather Aita began surveying mountains with his eldest son shortly after World War II while running a signboard business. He thought it was necessary to build climbing trails and create accurate maps in order for people to enjoy climbing mountains, including the 2,077-meter-tall Mt. Tokachi.

In 1960, Aita discovered a hot spring at the Ansei crater. He opened Ryounkaku hotel three years later after installing 1.6 kilometers of pipes and manually transporting building materials. Eleven years later, he collapsed at the crater while making his rounds at the hot spring and died.

A monument to Aita erected by local volunteers stands at the entrance to the crater. Aono also hopes to tell tourists about the man who lived with the mountain.

After descending the mountain, I headed toward the center of Kamifurano. There are geological formations in the town showing that farmland was restored by piling soil on top of volcanic mudflows. A facility to help prevent damage caused by eruptions has also been established. The entire area serves as a place for education as Tokachidake Geopark.

From the hilltop of Hinode Park where lavender blooms in summer, I looked out over the countryside with the Tokachidake mountain range in the background. The spectacular view was created not only by volcanoes but also by the efforts of people who overcame disasters and other hardships. The trip was full of discovery, excitement and learning.