In the Eastern Daisetsuzan stands a pair of mountains at the headwaters of the Ishikari-gawa (石狩川) and Otofuke-gawa (音更川) Rivers. At nearly 2000 meters each, both mountains together present an imposing massif. The name of the first, Mt. Otofuke-yama (音更山, Otofuke-yama), likely comes from the Ainu word otopke, although the precise meaning of the word isn’t clear. The second. Mt. Ishikari-dake (石狩岳, Ishikari-dake), is named for the river that starts on its slopes. The name for the river is generally attributed to the Ainu i-sikar-pet, meaning 'greatly meandering river', in reference to the former plentiful oxbows in the river's lower reaches. Unfortunately, industrial canalling and agriculture, particularly in the mid 20th-century, ironed out much of the river's meandering course.
(Another interesting side effect of this shortening of the river was its downgrading from the longest river in Japan to the third-longest. It's claimed that almost 100 km were knocked off the total length.)
There are three main hiking trails on the Ishikari-Otofuke massif: two start at a trailhead at the end of the Otofuke-gawa River forest road, while one starts on the Sounkyo (層雲峡) side of the mountain and follows the gully of the Yuni-Ishikari-gawa River (由仁石狩川, Yuni-Ishikari-gawa). In this guide you’ll climb up to Jukkoku-toge Pass (十石峠, Jukkoku-toge), summit Mt. Otofuke-yama, traverse to the summit of Mt. Ishikari-dake, and then descend the Schneider Trail (シュナイダーコース, Shunaidaa kousu) to return to the trailhead you started at.
To get to the trailhead, follow the Otofuke-gawa River forest road from a place called Tokachi-mitsumata (十勝三股). The trailhead is 1.5 km past the Otofuke-bashi Bridge (音更橋, Otofuke-bashi). It's a bit of a rough trip to the trailhead, so don't expect a taxi to make it out there; you're better off making your own way up by car.
Heading out from the trailhead, you’ll follow an old industrial road through the quiet forest. In the fall the Jezo spruce and Erman’s birch along the road are particularly lovely. At a small stream around 1100 meters above sea level you can fill up on water.
You’ll eventually come to a steep climb, at the top of which you’ll arrive at Jukkoku-toge Pass, where the views will open up over the mountains. This is the point where the old provinces of Tokachi (十勝) and Ishikari (石狩) met—the first character of each of the province's names gives the pass it's modern nomenclature. Nearby, you'll also arrive at the trail coming up the Yuni-Ishikari-gawa river gully to the north. From here to the summit of nearby Mt. Yuni-Ishikari-dake (ユニ石狩岳, Yuni-Ishikari-dake) is only an hour, round trip, so if you have the time and energy to spare, it’s a recommended detour. From the summit you can just see the peaks of the northern Daisetsuzan in the west.
The trail to the evening’s campsite is lined with dwarf stone pine and follows a sharp ridgeline. Just before you reach a small secondary peak, you’ll hit Buyo-numa Marsh (ブヨ沼, Buyo-numa), where you’ll find a small campsite surrounded by trees. The campsite can only fit three or four tents and is generally used by groups of only two or three people. You can collect water from the nearby Buyo-sawa Stream (ブヨ沢, Buyo-sawa), a little ways below the campsite.
In the morning you’ll climb over the small peak near Buyo-numa Marsh, and, keeping Mt. Ishikari-dake in your sights to the left, start the climb up to Mt. Otofuke-yama. You might distract yourself from your weariness by counting the many flowers you’ll pass by: yellow-flowered rhododendron, blue heath, and wedgeleaf primrose all grow in profusion here.
The climb follows the steep shoulder of Otofuke before coming to a sloping alpine plateau. Arriving here, the mountains of the main body of the Daisetsuzan will leap into view. A little further along you’ll arrive at the summit of Mt. Otofuke-yama, covered in pincushion plant and lingonberry; and across the way, Mt. Ishikari-dake beckons.
On the way to Ishikari you’ll descend a large field of boulders to a level ridgeline. Soon you’ll come to the Schneider Trail junction (シュナイダーコース分岐, Shunaidaa kousu bunki). The area around the junction is an established feeding ground for Ezo bears (ヒグマ, higuma), so if you decide to leave your packs behind for the climb up to Ishikari’s summit, make sure to secure your food and trash. The mountain's flank is quite steep but the climb up the razor's edge ridgeline should be thrilling enough to distract you.
From the summit you can see the whole of the Daisetsuzan on a clear day, from Mt. Kuro-dake (黒岳, Kuro-dake) in the north, to Mt. Furano-dake (富良野岳, Furano-dake) in the south, which makes this one of the best viewpoints in the Daisetsuzan. In the early spring, the luxuriant forest below and the striped valleys of snow across will turn the view into a veritable abstract painting. Consider as well that the rain that falls on the slopes here is just starting its long, 270 km journey down to where the Ishikari meets the Sea of Japan near Sapporo.
If you continue past the summit towards the perilous-looking Mt. Kawakami-dake (川上岳, Kawakami-dake), you’ll find yourself on a trail that stretches all the way to Numa-no-hara Marsh (沼ノ原, Numa-no-hara). It's a serious traverse and not particularly well-travelled, which makes it a great option if you're looking to spend a whole weekend away from it all.
For the descent, you’ll return to the Schneider Trail junction and start making your way down the steep Schneider Trail. Near the junction you’ll probably see a good deal of yellow-flowered rhododendron and Narcissus-flowered anemone. You’ll walk a long way to the end of the spur ridge, but if you’re hiking in the fall, the beauty of the changing leaves should mitigate your exhaustion. At the end of the spur ridge (尾根末端, one mattan), you’ll reach the No. 21 Stream Right Branch (二十一ノ沢右股, nijuu-ichi-no-sawa migimata), where you can grab a quick drink of delicious mountain water (yum). From there you’ll head along the stream through a quiet forest, coming finally to the No. 21 Stream Junction (二十一ノ沢出合, nijuu-ichi-no-sawa deai), where you’ll join a forest road. To the trailhead where you started is about 2 km and should take half an hour or so.
As the snow arrives slightly later in here than it does in the main part of the Daisetsuzan, if you climb in the late fall you can make the loop looking across at the snow-capped mountains without having to trek through snow yourself. It’s a real treat.
In early July the pincushion plant and yellow-flowered rhododendron will be in bloom, shining alongside the snowy valleys. Until mid-July the ridgeline will be quite windy and a good amount of snow will remain. The leaves change in mid-September, and the first snows follow shortly after. As the part of the trail that follows the ridgeline is quite long, if you’re hiking the later fall you’ll want to bring warm clothing.