The dawn had brought calmness to the land. There was nothing to hold us back as we stared up the cinder flank of Tokachi, white gas spewing forth from a crater. But the forecast was grim once again, and even at 4 am, the clouds were rolling in and the sky darkened as we ascended, putting speed into our legs. Up over the first crater rim, and beyond us stretched a narrow ridge separating two other craters, leading the way across a black lava field up to the summit. This was paradise – an almost flat cinder track! But the rain began to gather strength, so we did not loiter. No summit picnic, no snacks for Hana. We were back at the car just 2 hours 20 after leaving it.
While the ever-selfless Kin drove, I slept most of the long route to the southern trailhead of Tomuraushi. What a name! It sounds nothing like Japanese, and conjures up images of mystical spirits inhabiting untamed mountains. Today, Tomuraushi felt untamed. There were few people on it, and I saw several shima-risu and a wild fox. But the foxes are dangerous, carrying the fatal Echinococcus parasite. It was prowling near a magnificent lookout toward the peak, unafraid of humans, suggesting that it had been fed by hikers. I picked up Hana and carried her for a few hundred meters until out of danger.
By the time we descended, the rain was coming down hard and the path was a mud-bath. I have never hiked in such disgusting conditions. The mud was unavoidable and up to a foot deep, slopping above the gaiters and running down the calves into the boots. Of the 10 kilometre descent, 5 were mud. The dog was not happy.
I returned to the car, where Kin had patiently waited (and studied) for almost 5 hours, unable even to go for a walk. We quickly abandoned thoughts of a 5-hour drive to Poroshiri, and sought refuge in Tomuraushi kokumin-shukusha onsen. We presented our grubby selves at the reception, on a Sunday evening, in peak holiday season, at 10 minutes to 6 pm. Not only did they have a spare room, but they welcomed us warmly, could feed us a full evening meal at 6, and had a huge onsen. I cannot imagine such exquisite service and meal happening in England.
The signs were not good. A deserted carpark, almost no one else going up in the cable car, and gale warnings. The rain was starting to spatter the windows of the cable car and the mountain was bleak, not in the slightest resembling any of the photographs of sun-drenched mountains and flowers adorning the upper terminal building. But having driven 300km, there was no turning back.
While Kin stayed in the cafe and studied, Hana and I trotted out into the storm. A handful of hikers wrapped up in Goretex descended past us in silence, perhaps thinking I was cruel to be taking the dog – and perhaps they were right. For the relentless wind and driving rain forced Hana to take shelter on my leeward side. The rain pellets slapped us about the face, and the wind threatened to throw us off the crater rim toward the fumeroles below. The wind became so fierce as we approached the summit that I put Hana on the lead to stop her being blown off. And when we turned around to descend, at first I could not. The wind pushed me back a step. I crouched low and ran with momentum to escape that screaming summit storm.
We made it back to the cablecar just as the entire station was packing up early for the day. It was only 3 pm. Kin said that after we had come up, the lift had stopped running due to the wind. It was now about to leave for the last time today, with only the shop staff, lift workers, rangers and us. The car swung violently from the cables above, and side-swiped the first supporting pillar as we passed it, juddering horribly and putting a momentary look of panic on all of our faces.
That was enough for one day. Tokachi would have to wait until tomorrow. And as for Poroshiri, I have visions of being swept away in swollen river crossings.
It was nice to be travelling as a family, for the dog certainly counts as a member. Nine nights in Hokkaido, nine peaks to knock off. But we almost failed at the first gate, when Nippon rentacar refused to lend us the car we had booked because we had brought a dog. Even with our dog crate, they would only rent us an old donkey of a vehicle.
The weather was equally uncooperative. With rain forecast for the next morning, I set off up Yoteizan immediately after finishing the evening meal at the pension, to the owner’s disbelief. Climbing into the cloud and gathering wind in the darkness, leaving the lights of Niseko far below, I felt very alone and vulnerable. As always at such times of weakness, I felt a strong love and need for Kin, and a responsibility to return in one piece. 3.5 hours later, I was back with her, just as the pension owner was setting off for his evening jog.