Mt. Shokanbetsu (暑寒別岳)
Mt. Shokanbetsu is one of Hokkaido’s best kept secrets. The long approach turns off all but the most hardcore of hikers, and the alpine scenery and panoramic views make the effort worthwhile.
Note: There are three different routes up the mountain. The most popular route is called the Uryū route (雨竜ルート) which traverses through the Uryū marshlands and over Mt. Minami Shokanbetsu before reaching the summit. It’s a one-way 12km hike that isn’t too steep but really long. There’s a great description here if you’re interested. The second most popular route is called the Shokan route (署寒ルート) and it starts from a forest road that is well-signposted in Mashike town (you’ll see a signpost at the 7-11 along the main road through town). This route is an 11km hike to the top that follows the northern ridge of the peak. The third route (and the one described here) is called the Hashibetsu route (箸別ルート) and it traverses the northeastern ridge through an area teeming with alpine wildflowers. It’s the shortest trail up the mountain (9km one-way) and offers a taste of alpine scenery without the crowds of the marshlands to the south. There is a free emergency hut each trailhead, which means you could easily traverse up and over the mountain, staying at one of the huts at either end. This is a long but relatively easy way to experience the beauty that the Shokanbetsu range has to offer.
The hike: From the parking lot, take the trail that starts next to the emergency hut. There’s a box here where you can register your hiking intentions. The path immediately dives into a beautiful pristine forest alive with insects and the sounds of nature. Bring some insect repellent if you don’t want to get eaten alive by mosquitos. Also, keep an eye out for bears, as the animals like to use the hiking trails to travel. The first few kilometers of the hike are relatively flat, and the route, like most big hikes in Japan, is divided into 10 stage points which can help you with the pacing. It should take about 30 minutes or so to reach the first stage point (一合目), which will likely have you gazing in disbelief that the hiking has only just begun. After an hour or so you should reach the 3rd stage point (三合目), where the real climb begins. It’s a gentle climb at first, which become steeper the higher you go. Once you reach the 5th stage point (五合目) the views will start to open up a bit and the path will become much rockier. In rainy weather the route will turn into a creek, so make sure you bring some rain protection or a change of clothes to help keep you dry. At the 7th stage point (七合目), the trail will finally break out of the treeline and will traverse through an area of splendid wildflowers. The views towards the Uryū marshlands will also open up, and you can see Mt. Minami Shokanbetsu off in the distance, a deep valley between your present position and the mountain. In good weather the path is easy to pick up, but in fog make sure you stick to the paint marks on the rocks. Just past the 8th stage point (八合目) you’ll top out on your first summit, and the path will drop steeply to a saddle at the 9th stage point before climbing a long peak directly in front of you. At the top of this long rise you’ll reach a junction where the Shokan route meets up with this route. The two paths will merge into one, so turn left at this junction and follow the signs to the summit (署寒別岳山頂). It should take about 15 minutes from this point to reach the high point, which is marked by several signposts. If the weather is good you’ll be staring down at the Sea of Japan directly below you, and behind you the Daisetsuzan mountain will soar off in the distance. From here a decision will have to be made. If you came by car, simply retrace your steps all the way back to the trailhead. If you want to do the full traverse, then follow the signs to Mt. Minami Shokanbetsu (南署寒別岳). It’s a long drop to a broad saddle, followed by a long climb to the summit. From there, follow the signs to Uryū numa (雨竜沼), which will take several more hours of long but easy hiking to reach. Allow around 10 hours to complete the full traverse, and bring enough gear and food to overnight at the emergency hut at the trailhead. If you need a place to stay in Mashike, I recommend the guesthouse Bochibochi Ikouka Mashikekan (ぼちぼちいこか増毛館), run by a friendly family from Osaka. It costs 4900 yen with two meals and the traditional structure dates from 1933. The owner can give you climbing advice and also has a free map of the mountain.
When to go: This hike can be done from July to early October, when most of the snow is gone. The peak is popular with cross-country skiers in late spring. A winter ascent is for experts only, as the deep snow drifts and unforgiving weather cause a few fatalities every year.
Access: You really do need your own transport to complete this hike. From Mashike town, take route 231 out of town to the north. Just before crossing Hashibetsu Overbridge (箸別跨線橋) turn right (you’ll see an old folks home on your right). There’s no signpost here so it’s really easy to miss. If you reach Hashibetsu station then you’ve gone too far. As soon as you turn right you’ll see a signpost pointing to the right for the Hashibetsu route of Shokanbetsu (署寒別岳箸別ルート). Turn right here and follow the signs to the trailhead. The road will climb via a few switchbacks before reaching the terminus, which is marked by a free emergency hut and small parking lot. You could take a taxi there from Mashike station if you don’t have your own transport, traversing down the other side of the mountain through Uryū marshlands (雨竜沼湿原), where you could possibly hitch a ride from there. Be warned that it’s a grueling 25km hike, so get an early start if you want to do the full traverse.
Level of difficulty: 4 out of 5 (elevation change ~1000m)
Total round-trip distance: 18km (6 to 8 hours)