The opening words of Fukuda’s essay on Rausu-dake provide good example of how dated the information in his book has become, speaking as he does of the Japanese loss of the Kuril Islands to Russia at the end of World War II as though it only happened recently. I even wonder whether or not many if any Japanese of my age even remember that those islands were once a possession of their country. As you read, keep in mind that more than sixty years have passed since it’s publication, and instead allow yourself to be immersed in a time now passed.
When we lost the Kuril Islands Japan’s northeastern tip became Shiretoko (知床). Stretching out lengthily towards the Okhotsk Sea, this peninsula still leaves behind dreams for people who yearn for desolate hinterlands. Raising Rausu-dake (羅臼岳) as Shiretoko’s representative mountain is most certainly not unreasonable.
The Shiretoko Peninsula is a long and narrow protrusion of a mountain range with practically no level ground — the mountains press up to the edge of the sea. When you count its chief peaks from the direction of the peninsula’s base, you have Unabetsu-dake (海別岳), Onnebetsu-dake (遠音別岳), Rausu-dake, Iô-yama (Sulfur Mountain, 硫黄山), and Shiretoko-dake (知床岳), with Rausu-dake being the tallest. The entire range is volcanic, but they’re nearly all dead volcanoes — the only one currently active is Iô-yama.
The point when Shiretoko’s mountains started becoming a target for mountain climbing was not that long ago: even in Hokkado, these remote mountains were left behind until the very last. They were first climbed by the mountain-loving students of Hokkaido University; the fact that many of those ascents occurred during the snowy season was probably because winter was even better for walking the mountain than summer. This is because the mountain range is covered with vast numbers of creeping pines. When you try to approach any of the mountains, excepting Unabetsu-dake or Rausu-dake, you must prepare yourself for a hard fight with them.
The reason why Rausu-dake is also called Shiretoko Fuji is probably because from Rausu Village (羅臼村) it looks like a well-shaped cone peak towering right before your eyes. The mountain must be an imposing sight: from the village, located as it is on the sea’s edge, you look up to its 1661 meter summit from a distance of only eight kilometers. I say “must be” because though I stayed four nights in a village inn waiting for the weather to clear in order to climb Rausu-dake, in the end I never got the chance to look up at it — I’ve only guessed from photographs.
Rausu Village, the Shiretoko Peninsula’s sole city, has a movie theater, some permanent shops, and some bars along its one main road. The bars are apparently for the seasonal workers who gather here in the fishing season. A place lying outside the village has been made into a port, with crows swarming indiscriminately. Kunashir Island, which has now become Soviet territory, stretches out in the sea directly ahead.
I heard that in the Ainu language rausu means “a place where there are entrails and bones because the remains deer and bears that were caught were always interred there.” “Ra” apparently means “animal entrails” and “ushi” means “a place with many.” It would thus be proper to call it Raushi, and even on the old maps it is written with characters that read that way (良牛).
In the village there’s a temple called Jôtaiji (誠諦寺) whose chief priest Master Nishii Jôtai (西井誠諦師) put in much effort to develop Rausu-dake. It was also his efforts that led to the opening of the hiking trail from the village, which was completed in the year Shôwa 29 (1954).
Until then, those who set their hearts on Rausu-dake climbed from Utoro (宇登呂) on the north shore of the peninsula, passing through Iwaobetsu (岩尾別) on the way. If you follow the Iwaubetsu River from Iwaobetsu, you’ll find a hot spring; that place had become a good foothold mountain climbing in those days. Since Iwaobetsu is the closest to the summit in terms of distance, it’s probably why this was the first way to be opened.
I climbed from Rausu. If you follow along the Rausu River from the village for about an hour you’ll find a hot spring. There was a municipal inn built there, but their facilities included neither food nor bedding. From there you take to the mountain. Winding along the spine of a ridge covered in a coniferous forest, you eventually descend towards a valley turned yellow on one side by sulfur, and from there you ascend a steep slope following the base of the great, long rock wall they call Byôbu-iwa (Folding Screen Rock, 屏風岩), upon which you arrive at the great slope called Rausu-daira (Rausu Plain, ラウス平).
One side of Rausu-daira is a mattress of creeping pines, a rich expanse both carefree and beautiful. In season it becomes a field of flowers. Three Peaks (Mitsu-Mine, 三ツ峰) stands facing this plain; if you go further north beyond that, you’ll find a new trail has been opened in recent years that passes through Sashirui and Okkabake up to the active volcano Iô-yama. I hear that the cliffs forming the outer ring around that mountain make for a fierce spectacle.
I did stand at the summit of Rausu-dake, but it was wrapped in mist so nothing was visible. I only heard the fierce sound of the wind blowing up from the Okhotsk side.
Consequently, we shall judge that expanse based on an article written by the Rausu-dake Association (Rausu-dake Kai, 羅臼岳会). First, when you gaze east Kunashir Island floats below your feet, and beyond that the Pacific Ocean stretches outward; far off, you can see the Kurile Archipelago. When you look south there is No Name Lake (Mumei-ko, 無名湖; there are also people who call it Rausu Lake) reaching 5 kilometers in circumference nearby the watershed of the Chinishi-betsu River’s (知西別川) upper reaches; scattered around there are seven marshes of varying sizes. I’ve read that since the lake is obstructed by a jungle of creeping pines and Veitch’s bamboo, up until now very few people have reached that far. If you look west Utoro Harbor lies below, and beyond that is the wide expanse of the Okhotsk Sea. To the north, as I’ve already mentioned, the Sekiryô Range (脊梁山脈) stretches out from Mitsu-Mine towards Iô-yama.
Rausu-dake remains deep in my memory as a mountain at the furthest extremity of the country, and as a mountain wearing a northern look. Since a magnificent travel lodge has been built at Rausu Hot Spring in recent years, it seems that even here the number hikers has drastically increased.
© Brian N. Heise
All photos belong to Wikicommons