Bankei-sanso Hut (万計山荘, 917m) is a beautiful two-story mountain hut, built on the edge of a gorgeous mountain tarn in the hills about 20km south southwest from central Sapporo. Management of the hut was transferred to the volunteer Bankei-sanso Friendship Society (万計山荘友の会) in May 1995. One of the bigger jobs that needs to be done each year is the back-breaking task of removing, by hand, the 5 tons or so of snow that accumulates on the roof of the hut, half way through winter. This was my first time taking part, and I would discover a community of people passionate about the outdoors, sharing knowledge, and protecting this valuable resource.
The Bankei-sanso Hut and volunteer Bankei-sanso Friendship Society
Before diving in to the snow-clearing report below, here is some very abbreviated history of the Bankei-sanso Hut and the volunteer group that manages it. This information comes from a short history written by the Bankei-sanso Friendship Society chairman Mr. Yo Nagamizu to commemorate the group’s 20th anniversary in 2014 (available here | copy on my server here).
Mt. Soranuma (1,251m). It’s only a 1-hour drive from central Sapporo plus a 3.5 hour hike via the Mamisu Tarn. It has been known and loved by Sapporo City citizens as an easily-climbed mountain. One of its charms is its forests. It is hard to believe that such a quiet place exists so close to a city with a population of over 2 million people.
Bankei-sanso Hut is located part way up the trail to Mt. Soranuma, and was built in 1965. At the time of the Bankei-sanso hut’s official closure by the Sapporo Forestry Agency in 1992, however, overnight stays at the hut had dropped from over 1,300 people per year in 1986, to only 183 in 1992. Despite this, however, Mt. Soranuma gets up to 15,000 hikers visiting each year, with up to 10,000 of those visitors using the hut’s facilities during the day, such as the toilets and rest areas.
The Bankei-sanso Hut Friendship Society was formed in May 1995, and the hut was re-opened, just three years after the 1992 closure. The friendship society was formed by a number of members from different mountaineering associations in the Sapporo area, who “could not watch silently as Bankei-sanso Hut, loved by Mt. Soranuma hikers for 30 years, rotted away” (Nagamizu, 2014, p. 1).
The management was therefore officially transferred to the friendship society, while the Sapporo Forestry Agency would, officially, continue to own the hut. Despite the forestry agency’s ownership and initial support in vehicular road maintenance (for access to the hut by car in summer), all financial and maintenance issues associated with the hut would be the responsibility of the friendship society. Such an arrangement at the time was a first within Japan.
In addition to regular weekly maintenance during the summer, there have been three instances of major repairs to the hut, facilitated and fund-raised by the friendship society. The first was in 2001 where the hut was straightened. The weight of winter snow over the years had created a pronounced lean towards the Bankei Tarn. To total cost of this work, which included replacing the hut’s foundations, was 9 million yen (US$90,000). This was funded by donations from over 1,000 people from around Japan. In 2006 the roof was replaced at a cost of 2 million yen (US$20,000), and in 2015, an entrance-way porch was added to reduce drafts.
The hut is maintained by volunteers who act as hut wardens on a roster system on weekends from June till October. Duties for the wardens include cleaning the inside of the hut, toilet cleaning, setting up the donation box for passing hikers, pumping water, heating the wood-fired stove, re-supplying wood for the stove, cleaning and clearing the area around the hut, etc.
How to support the Bankei-sanso Friendship Society
- Financial support. You can support the friendship society financially for upkeep of the hut through the following means.
- Direct donation at the hut. A recommended donation of 1,000yen for overnight stays, and as much as you feel you’d like to donate if just using the facilities during the day.
- Donations at Shugakuso Outdoor Store. Donations can be made at either of the Shugakuso Outdoor stores in Sapporo City. There are dedicated donations boxes in store – just ask the staff for directions.
- Physical labour. If you can speak/read/write Japanese, then consider becoming a member of the friendship association and help out for a weekend with one of the hut wardens. See the society’s website here, and you can get in touch by email here: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Annual snow-clearing of the roof happens on the first weekend of February each year. If you are accustomed to snowshoeing or skiing in the Hokkaido winter backcountry, then you might consider getting in touch (in Japanese, preferably) at the email above, to see if they need extra hands (from what I gather, they usually do). If you don’t speak Japanese, then feel free to get in touch with me to see if I’m heading up there to help (email@example.com). Alternatively, just head up there on the first weekend of February yourself (route guide here). If you arrive with shovels in hand, you won’t be turned away. Work generally starts just after lunch at around 12:30pm.
Most mountain huts in Hokkaido, Japan, are heavily dependent on volunteer labor for their very existence. This is in stark contrast to many huts in Honshu, which are privately owned. This means that regardless of the hut you choose to stay in when exploring the hills of Hokkaido, your cosy night’s sleep is thanks to the passion and drive of those volunteers.
Bankei-sanso Hut on the Mt. Soranuma trail, about 20km south southwest of central Sapporo City is no exception. About two years ago I had heard or seen some mention of the volunteer group having to remove the snow from the roof of the hut each winter, and since then I have been keen to drag myself up there to help out. Just a little bit of a pay-back for the privilege of being able to use such a gorgeous hut, deep within the Shikotsu-Toya National Park.
So this year, I finally plucked up the courage to email the volunteer society to ask if it would be OK for me to take part. The response was a resounding “yes, you are very welcome!” Their response was not overly surprising. During the summer, volunteers from the society take turns being hut wardens in the weekends, and one one occasion when I was there, the hut warden told me that the average age of the society was quickly getting older these days. “The annual snow-clearing is back-breaking work, and we need all the young energy we can get,” he said.
This year, 35 people ended up taking part. Many were Bankei-sanso Friendship Society members, but there were others who were part of other outdoor clubs in Sapporo who were also taking part. I was assigned as an honorary member of the San-Gaku-Kai outdoor club for the weekend. It just so happened that the leader of the club lives in the same area as I do in Sapporo, so he was kind enough to give me a ride.
When we arrived at the trailhead (see the route guide here), there were already at least 10 cars parked up. It was a hive of activity, with people putting on snowshoes or skis.
Just before 9am, the chairman of the Bankei-sanso Friendship Society, Mr. Yo Nagamizu, called everyone together in a circle. He thanked everyone for giving up their time on the weekend to help out, and assured us all that “the snow-clearing will be hard work, but I can assure you that the dinner and social time in the evening at the hut will be more than worth it.”
He also pointed out that the youngest people taking part this weekend were two university students in their 20’s, and the oldest was a gentleman who is 85 years old.
The larger group of 35 split off into smaller groups of up to 10 people. The group I was in – the San-Gaku-Kai – started off up the trail to the hut.
It just so happens that many of the members of the San-Gaku-Kai outdoor club work in the education sector. There were a few tertiary-level instructors, as well as the leader of the club, who is a high school teacher. With this in common, I felt welcomed and part of the team very quickly. The club’s name literally means “The mountains, fun, and relaxation group”, and I felt like the members lived up to that. Easy-going and a good lot of jokes and joviality.
Our group consisted of five women and five men, with eight on snowshoes and two of us on skis.
For the most part, the trail was the usual, straight-forward hike up the summer trail, but everyone was surprised at the amount of relatively fresh windfall near the trail.
At a very leisurely pace and a few stops along the way, it took us just over three hours to get to the hut, a warm oasis in the hills.
After quickly eating the lunch I’d packed from home, I headed out to start helping with clearing the snow off the roof of the hut. The faster groups were already at work. The strategy at this point was to fill sled-like shovels with snow, and move the snow horizontally off the roof, to the sides of the hut.
Take another look at that last photo above. The guy closest to the camera with the grey patterned hat and pompom is 85 years old.
85. Years. Old.
Once most of the surface snow was whittled away, the task became a little more tough. “This is the hardest snow I’ve ever seen up here,” said one of the old-timers who has been coming to this hut for 50 years.
The actual amount of snow was estimated to be about 5 tons in total, which was less than usual. Many were blaming the hard snow nearer the surface of the roof on some un-seasonal rain in December and January. Because of the hard snow, what would usually take around 3 hours in conditions with more snow, took us four hours.
Once all the snow was off the roof, the final task was to clear the snow away from the toilet windows at the back of the first floor of the hut. This required some precision snow-blower skills.
The sense of achievement once the snow blower was turned off was quite phenomenal. Everyone posed for a group photo in front of the nicely cleared roof.
And then the celebrations began. Drinks followed by a massive dinner of Japanese hot-pot, followed by self-introductions (I was invited up to address the group, as the honorary non-Japanese present), hot wine and then music. Wooden pipes, harmonica, sing-a-longs…
Of course, being setsubun (the day before the beginning of spring), there was a symbolic cleansing of the hut of last year’s evil by throwing peanuts at the devil in our midst, shooing him out of the hut.
Being wintertime, with the sunset at around 4:50pm, most people were in bed by 9pm. I had a fitful sleep despite the hard labour of the day, and was up and ready at 6am for a breakfast of udon noodles, also prepared by the volunteer association.
I would need the energy, because the mission for the day was to summit Mt. Soranuma. In total about 15 of us went up for the 2.5 hour hike to the top, half on skis and half on snowshoes.
As I mention in my winter ski tour route guide for Mt. Soranuma (here), the route from the hut to the summit is a bit of a mess of topography, which does not lend well to nice downhill ski lines. But it is a fascinating area, and the summit has some great views on a clear day.
I’ve never been part of a well-established outdoor club before. So one of the things I found inspiring during this half-day trip to the Mt. Soranuma summit and back was the way in which the older members of the outdoor club were nurturing the skills of the younger members.
Today would be one of the youngest member’s first attempt at leading the group up to the summit. She was followed closely by one of the elder members, but was given free reign to choose her own route up – quite the responsibility with 15 others behind her. It wasn’t until about half way up that the chairman of the club started giving suggestions from behind about where she should be headed. We had strayed at little too far to the north.
During a break he calmly and kindly gave some detailed directions.
The weather never cleared up as we climbed, but the summit was much less windy than the forecast had predicted.
The downhill from the summit of Mt. Soranuma is never much of a downhill. More like a downhill, then up , then down-ish, then down, then up-ish…and as usual, the downhill from the hut to the carpark is a roller-coaster, mainly following the narrow up-track. I had hoped that perhaps there was some secret route of endless powder down to the cars, but alas no.
Overall though, this weekend gave me a glimpse into the passion, depth of experience, and hard work of the volunteer mountain groups that keep the Hokkaido outdoors an accessible place. The clearing of the snow from the roof of Bankei-sanso Hut is hardly a scratch on the surface of what the Bankei-sanso Friendship Society does year-round. If you ever find yourself with the opportunity to support groups like this either financially (there’s a donation box at the hut and at Shugakuso Outdoor Store) or with hard manual labor, please consider doing so.