Mt. Rausu is the highest point on the Shiretoko peninsula, a World Heritage site renowned for its striking beauty, abundant wildlife, and pristine nature. It also happens to be one of the most notorious places in Japan for brown bear encounters.
The hike: From the parking lot at Iwaobetsu Hot Spring, walk on the paved road that goes next to the large hotel until you come to a mountain hut and toilet. The trailhead starts here. The path climbs through a breathtakingly beautiful forest before reaching a rocky area with nice views out to the Sea of Okhotsk. There are warning signs written in Japanese about bear encounters in this area, so make sure your bell is working. The trail is very easy to follow, and you should reach the only reliable water source in about 90 minutes or so. You’ll see it on your left via a very short spur trail. The water is safe to drink and there’s also room for 2 or 3 tents in the vicinity. Make sure you buy a “poop bag” at the trailhead so you can (literally) pack out your shit. After the water source, the path flattens out, passing through a marshland called Gokuraku-daira (極楽平). The place is definitely bear territory, so make plenty of noise in order not to startle any bears in the vicinity, Once you’re past this point, the trail starts climbing again with a series of switchbacks. You’ll pass by another water source, but it’s not very reliable. Shortly beyond that the trail enters a rocky gully, where you’ll start the final climb up to Rausu-daira. In early summer this gully is one long, continuous snowfield, but everything should be melted by August. Keep climbing up and eventually you’ll reach a flat area with room for about 5 or 6 tents. This is Rausu-daira, and you can see the rocky summit of Mt. Rausu rising majestically off to your right. It looks so close, but it’ll take you the better part of an hour to reach the top. Most hikers reach Rausu-daira 4 to 5 hours after starting the hike. Continue hiking straight ahead, and soon you’ll reach a 3-way junction. The trail on the left climbs up towards Mitsumine and Io-zan, while the path straight ahead will take you down to Kuma-no-yu hot spring. Ignore both of these trails and turn right for the summit climb. Shortly after passing the junction you’ll find some water dripping from moss-covered rocks. While marked as a water source on the map, I can’t vouch for its quality (although I did see plenty of Japanese hikers indulging themselves). The path meanders through a rocky playground, with plenty of places to refine your boulder scrambling techniques. It’s quite easy to follow in fine weather (thanks to the paint marks), but is definitely gets tricky just below the summit. The scenery is very reminiscent of the Japan Alps, and if the cloud is in then you’ll definitely swear that you’re in Nagano! Anyway, on a clear day the views are outstanding, so bring a camera and admire the vistas. The trail dead-ends at the summit, so retrace your steps back to the junction. You can either set up camp, return back to Iwaobetsu hot spring, or consider traversing down to Kuma-no-yu. I’ve heard the latter trail is rather long, but rewarding with much fewer hikers (and more chances to see bears). While at Iwaobetsu, don’t forget to check out the free outdoor bath, located in front of the hotel at the end of the parking lot. Cross over the small footbridge and you’ll soon find 3 pools cascading down the side of the hill.
Special Note: Bear sightings are common on this hike, so please be prepared. You can rent bear spray from the mountain hut, but it’s not really necessary unless there have been sightings recently. Just bring a bell and make plenty of noise and you should be ok. Also, as of August 2008, it’s not possible to do the full Shiretoko traverse up and over Io-zan because the trail down to Kamuiwakka-yu-no-taki is currently closed for repairs. You can, however, camp at Rausu-daira and do a long up-and-back ascent of Io-zan, which will take anywhere from 6 to 8 hours.
When to go: This hike can be done from early June to early October, though you’ll want to be prepared for a lot of snow if hiking before July. The hike is 12km return, so make sure you get an early start. I’d recommend staying at Kinoshita Hut (木下小屋), a lovely lodge located at the trailhead. It only costs 2000 yen to stay (bring your own food) and it has a wonderful outdoor bath.
Access: From Shiretoko-Shari (知床-斜里) station, walk across the street to the Shari Bus Terminal and catch a bus to Utoro Hot Spring (ウトロ温泉ターミナル). From there, change to a shuttle bus bound for Iwaobetsu Hot Spring (岩尾別温泉). There’s only one bus a day (leaving Utoro at 8:50am), so it’ll probably be better to board the shuttle bus bound for Shiretoko Goko (知床五湖), disembarking at Iwaobetsu (岩尾別) and either walking or hitching the 4km to the trailhead. Alternatively, you can take a taxi from Utoro for a money-fleecing 7000 yen! This has to be one of the most expensive taxi rides in all of Japan. Click here for the complete bus schedule. If you’re coming from Sapporo, it makes more sense to take the overnight bus directly to Utoro. Click here for information (in Japanese) on that option.
Map: Click here
Level of difficulty: 4 out of 5 (elevation change 1431m).