The Hike

Mt. Kariba-yama (狩場山, Kariba-yama) is the highest mountain in the southern part of Hokkaido. It’s name comes from the Ainu karinba-ush-nupuri, meaning ‘mountain where there are cherry (sakura) trees’. It makes you wonder if there were more cherry trees around here in the past. The mountain gets a lot of snow in winter, so the two rivers that make their headwaters here, the Chihase-gawa (千走川) and the Sukki-gawa (須築川), are among the clearest in Hokkaido. The mountain is surrounded by other peaks above 1000 meters--Mt. Higashikariba-yama (東狩場山 Higashi-kariba-yama), Mt. Fumonnai-dake (フモンナイ岳, Fumonnai-dake), and Mt. Okotsunai-dake (オコツナイ岳, Okotsunai-dake), to name a few--so the whole area feels like a single huge massif covered all over by Japanese beech.

There are five trails up the mountain, but the Baba-gawa Trail (馬場川コース, Baba-gawa-kousu) has been closed, and the Chihase Old Trail (千走旧道, Chihase-kyuudou) is also falling into disrepair. In this guide you’ll climb the shortest trail, the Chihase New Trail (千走新道, Chihase-kyuudou).

From Shimamaki (島牧) district you’ll head up a forest road following the Chihase-gawa River, through the Garo Marsh (賀老高原, Garou-kogen) campsite, and find the trailhead at the end of the road. On Kariba-yama the Japanese beech treeline is at about 750 meters above sea level, so shortly after you start climbing, the beech will disappear and be replaced by forests of Erman’s birch.

Slowly the trail will make its way west and then north as you begin to climb up the steep slope atop a ridge. Where the eastern slope seems to rise diagonally above you, you’ll find a small field where snow may remain as late as August; as the snow melts, though, flowers will bloom in its place.

In a snowy valley a little ways above here, you’ll come to the Makomanai Trail junction (真駒内コース分岐, Makomanai-kousu bunki). In the grassy fields here you’ll see unbroken clusters of Aleutian mountainheath, as well as meadow buttercup, short-stipule violet, and Kamchatkan St. John’s wort, among other flowers.

You’ll soon come to the narrow top of the ridgeine around Minamikariba (南狩場), a small secondary peak; shortly thereafter you'll find yourself in the vicinity of the summit. Along the gently-sloped ridgetop you’ll pass across more fields and a small pond where deer cabbage have laid down roots. Just past the point where the Chihase-Old Trail merges with your trail, you’ll arrive at the summit of Mt. Kariba-yama.

At the summit your eyes will be drawn down into the huge deep valley to the southwest. This is the Sukki-gawa gully, a river known for its difficulty in navigating upstream. It's thickly laid with forests of deep green Japanese beech, a typical sight in the mountains of Southern Hokkaido.

You’ll head back down the trail you came up.

The Chihase Old Trail is quite a different beast, starting near the Garo Marsh campsite and wending endlessly through beautiful forests of Japanese beech. As the years go by and hikers elect more and more to hike the shorter Chihase New Trail, the Old Trail is being overgrown by sasa bamboo. If you choose to climb this Old Trail, make sure to bring map and compass to navigate if need be.

From the summit as well a long trail stretches out to the west, towards the Motsuta-misaki Cape (茂津多岬, Motsuke-misaki). Walking all the way from the mountain to the Sea of Japan is a worthwhile, if arduous, pursuit.

One Point Advice

  • From Oshamanbe Station (長万部駅, Oshamambe-eki) or Kuromatsunai Station (黒松内駅, Kuromatsunai-eki), you can take a Niseko Bus (ニセコバス) to Suttsu Town (寿都), where you’ll change buses and head to Shimamaki Village (島牧村, Shimamaki-mura). From Shimamaki Village you’ll have to take a taxi to the trailhead.
  • Along the trail there’s nowhere to fill up on water--you’ll have to bring your own.
  • At Garo Marsh there’s a campsite. There’s also a nature trail near Garo Falls (賀老ノ滝, Garou-no-taki). On the main road just before Garo Marsh you’ll also find Chihase Onsen (千走温泉)--make sure to enjoy the hot springs here before heading home after the hike.
  • You’ll likely see a lot of evidence of bear activity on the mountain, so be sure not to leave any trash or food behind.
  • Chihase Old Trail starts at the back of Garo Marsh and takes about 3 hours, 40 minutes along the eastern ridge to reach the summit. The descent should take about 2 hours, 30 minutes. The trail, especially at the traverse along the south face of Mt. Higashikariba-yama (東狩場山, Higashi-kariba-yama), can be quite overgrown.
  • The Makomanai trail (真駒内コース, Makomanai-kousu) takes 4 hours, 20 minutes to climb, and 3 hours, 30 minute to descend. The forest of beech for the first half of the trail is particularly beautiful. At the trailhead at the top of the Makomanai-gawa River (真駒内川, Makomanai-gawa) you’ll find the Kariba-yama Lodge (狩場山山小屋, Kariba-yama yama-koya), a small mountain hut.
  • In the west, the Motsuta trail (茂津多コース, Motsuta-kousu) starts at Motsuta Cape (茂津多岬, Motsuta-misaki) and climbs the western ridge. The climb takes about 6 hours, and the descent takes about 5 hours. It’s recommended for experienced hikers only.

Season

The Japanese beech will bloom at the end of June, but along the ridgelines at this point there will still be a lot of snow; so if you’re hiking in June make sure you have some experience with hiking on snow. Through July and August the snow will melt and the flowers will bloom one by one. The best time for viewing the changing leaves on the beech trees is in mid-October.