Perched on the shores of a stellar volcanic lake, Mt. Mashu offers a chance to experience a taste of the Hokkaido backcountry without a huge climb to get there. It may also offer your best opportunity to spot the elusive Japanese brown bear.
The hike: The trail starts at the end of the massive parking lot, just beyond the toilets. Look for the sign that says 摩周岳登山口. Don’t forget to write your details in the trail register located just below the signpost. The trail starts with a long descent to a saddle, with outstanding views of Lake Mashu on your left, framed nicely in the foreground by some photogenic wildflowers. From here, the trail starts a series of gentle climbs, followed by some long, gradual descents. There are signposts spaced evenly throughout the entire hike showing distances, which you can used to judge your pace. The trail really doesn’t fully pop out of the treeline until around the halfway point. When you see the signpost that reads “摩周岳3.3km”, the trail will start to open up a bit. Be careful on this next section, because at the crest of the next hill is where I saw two bears, right in the middle of the trail! Luckily it was on the return trip, so I could spot them from a very long way away. Fortunately, they escaped into the forest when they heard my bell, so please make sure you carry one. If you don’t have one, then the hostel owner will probably let you borrow his. Your next landmark will be a trail junction for Mt. Nishibetsu (西別岳). This is a good place for a break, because the steepest part of the hike now awaits. Ignore this junction and continue to the left for the final 1.9km push to the summit. The trail will start to become quite steep as you climb towards the crater rim. Keep climbing, and after an hour or so you’ll find yourself sitting on top of the bald, rocky top of Mt. Mashu. The highest point on the ridge is directly in front of you, but the ridge is much too treacherous to proceed any further. You’ll have an awe-inspiring panoramic view of the entire lake, as well as nearby Mt. Nishibetsu. If visibility is really good, you should also be able to see Mt. Shari and the peaks of Shiretoko National Park. After admiring the views, retrace your steps all the way back to the trailhead, and drop by the visitor’s center to eat some ice cream or warm noodles. It should take anywhere from 4 to 6 hours to complete the hike, depending on how many breaks you take. Bring plenty of water in the summer, because there are no water sources on the entire trail.
When to go: This hike can be done from late April to mid-October, when the buses to Lake Mashu are running. If going early or late in the season, be prepared for a lot of snow and perhaps some hungry bears. Be careful of horseflies if hiking in August and whatever you do, don’t forget your bear bell!
Access: From Mashu station (摩周駅), take a bus bound for Mashu Daiichi Tenboudai (摩周湖第１展望台) and get off at the last stop. Please note that between July 16th and October 10th you’ll need to buy a 1-day bus pass just to get on the bus. It’ll set you back 1500 yen, even if you’re only going up to the lake and back. It’s a good value if you plan on seeing other sites, but if not, then consider staying at Mashu Youth Hostel and just hitching up and back from the lake like I did. Catching a ride should be easy, since there’s only 1 road to the top. Another option would be just to take the regular non-tourist bus between April 23rd and July 15th. Click here for the bus schedule.
Live web cam: Click here
Level of difficulty: 2 out of 5 (elevation change 320m)
Distance: 14.4km (4 to 6 hours)