Mt. Esan (恵山)
Mt. Esan is an active volcano located due east of Hakodate city on the tip of Kameda Peninsula. The panoramic views and sulfur-spewing steam vents are not to be missed.
The hike: From the bus stop, head up the road (with the ocean on your right) for about 50 meters until you see a blue road sign pointing the way to Mt. Esan. Turn left here and follow the road all the way to the trailhead. There used to be a path that ran through the bush here, but it’s been discontinued. There’s a chance it’s still there, but there are no signs pointing the way, so you’ll need to spend some time exploring small back roads to try to find it. Anyway, the road will soon pass by an abandoned elementary school on the right side, and the road curves toward the right around the school. Stay on the road and feel free to try to thumb a ride if the road walking becomes monotonous. Your next landmark will be a giant gold-colored kannon statue on the right. It’s worth a quick walk down there to see it, as it towers over everything. After that, the main road heads left, past a hot spring and up towards the start of the hike. You’ll soon pass by a gate that should be open for you to pass through (the gate is closed at night to prevent people from loitering after hours.) The road goes through a series of switchbacks, with a generous amount of jizo statues, as well as views of the sea and of the volcano itself. About a quarter of the way up, you’ll find a road on the right with a sign posted for C course (C コース ７８７m). Ignore this sign and continue straight on. After 30 minutes of switchback climbing, you’ll reach the top of the rise and actually descend a short distance to the parking lot and trailhead. If you’re a brisk walker then it should take about an hour from the bus stop to the trailhead. From here, things start to get interesting. Take the paved trail that leaves next to the toilets towards the smoldering volcano. Soon you’ll see a sign pointing for the Esan Tenboudai Course (恵山展望台コース). Take that path a short ways past a concrete dam until reaching a junction. A trail branches off to the right marked 噴気孔コース. Ignore this trail and continue straight, following a small sign marked Esan Sanchou (恵山山頂). The route skirts the left edge of the mountain before meeting up with another trail marked 権現堂登山コース 1979m. Turn right here and follow the easy path all the way to the summit. It’s a vertical elevation gain of about 200 meters spread out over 2km and it’s a really pleasant path except for the poisonous gases that may be wafting your way. The route is incredibly well-marked, with signposts every couple of hundred meters or so. Still, it can get tricky to find in poor visibility, so take care not to wander off course and end up in a volcanic steam vent! It should take about 45 minutes of steady climbing to reach the summit, where you’ll have incredible panoramic views all around. On a clear day you can even see parts of Aomori Prefecture across the Tsugaru Strait. After admiring the scenery, retrace your steps all the way back to the bus stop, or consider traversing down the northern face of the volcano to Mizunashi Kaihin hot spring, a free outdoor bath set right on the ocean shore. To get to the bath, when you retrace your steps back to the 権現堂 junction, but instead of turning left to head back to the parking lot, continue straight towards the volcanic flatlands in front of you, and you should see a trail branching off towards your right. If you head that way be warned that there’s no public transport from the hot spring, so you’ll have to rely on hitching to get back to Hakodate.
When to go: As this is an active volcano, aim to go during periods of clear weather so you can see which direction the volcanic gases are blowing. If the wind is coming from the east, then the noxious fumes will blow directly over the hiking path, and you’ll find yourself gasping for breath. Aside from this, you can pretty much do this hike year round, though you’ll need to be prepared for snow in the winter.
Access: If you’ve got your own transport, you can save a lot of road walking by driving directly to the trailhead. Otherwise, from bus stop #6 at Hakodate station, take a bus bound for Esan Misaki (恵山岬) and get off at Esan Tozanguchi (恵山登山口). The bus takes about 2 hours and costs 1480 yen one-way. Click here for the bus schedule.
Level of difficulty: 2 out of 5 (elevation change 618m)
Distance: 10km ( 4 to 6 hours)