Friday, August 8, 2014

Japan: Food, Parks, Volcanoes, and Onsens in Hokkaido

Realizing back in the May timeframe that we had taken very little leave and no vacations one-third into the year, we pulled together a short trip over to Hokkaido, the northern most island of Japan.  It had been on our list of places to go for some time, and boy, was it well worth the effort.  Besides being beautiful, the island almost does not feel like Japan.  Having just one major city, Sapporo, there is no crush of people that characterizes much of the rest of Japan.  One could drive for miles on some back roads and see just a handful of cars.  Small villages and towns and prosperous farms abound, and there are many national parks. Widespread volcanic activity, including active volcanoes and an incredible number of onsens (natural hot springs), plus numerous forests and lakes, give the island something of an untamed feel. Our time there was short, so what we managed to see was somewhat limited.  Plus, one day was hampered by bad weather.


Sapporo is the capital of the Hokkaido prefecture, its largest city, and a favorite destination for Japanese skiers.  It is probably best known for hosting the Winter Olympics back in 1972.  While it has a vibrant nightlife and an abundance of great food (plus Sapporo beer!), we were not all that impressed with the city as a tourist destination.  We spent two days and two nights there, but afterwards felt a day and a night would have been adequate to see the city.

Ramen alley.



You read that right; 2 cantaloupes cost about US $55.
Could not resist taking a photo of this old Japanese "western" movie poster hanging above a restaurant urinal.

Daisetsuzan National Park

At almost 800 square miles, Daisetsuzan is Japan's largest national park and a vast wildnerness area filled with rugged mountains, active volcanoes, clear lakes, and a great many onsen.  With only a couple days to explore, we only scratched the surface.

The park and its peaks from afar.  In the valley lies the town of Furano, one of Japan's top ski and snowboard resorts because of the abundance of powdery snow the area receives in the winter.  Outside of the winter months, a mild continental climate makes for prosperous farms, tasty vineyards, and expansive fields of lavender. 
The trail headed towards Tokachi-dake, an active volcano.
That's not mist blocking the view of Tokachi-dake; it's sulphur fumes from one of the many volcanic vents in park.  It made for a rather surreal sight.
One of the really nice things about the park were all the spas and onsens.  They were great places to go after hikes.
Asahi-dake.  The other famous active volcano in the park and a day hike destination.
Sulphur vents.
Bad weather on the way up.
That cleared by the time we got to the top.

 Views from the top:

On the way down:

For our final couple days on Hokkaido, we visited a waterfall in Daisetsuzan and then headed over to the lakes of Akan National Park before returning to Sapporo airport. 

Waterfall in Daisetsuzan.  The trail was closed because a flash flood had washed out much of it, but we went anyway, figuring we would probably not be back.
The best thing about the waterfall trail, however, was the old spa at the trail head.  The spa was a bit rundown, but the onsen waters were great, and we generally had the place to ourselves.  The waters were oh so hot, but oh so good!  In the background was a view of a river gorge and the sounds of roaring water.  What a great way to spend an hour.
Random lake on the road from Daisetsuzan to Akan.
Kussharo-ko (lake) with Naka jima (island). Unfortunately, a few minutes after this photo was taken, we were socked on by heavy fog, so no more photos.
Until we got down to the lake itself.
Short lake-side trail.
Volcanic activity along the lake shore.  The lake shore also had two natural onsens, so you could hike along the lake, swim in its cold waters, then jump in the excruciatingly hot waters of the onsen.

Sapporo airport.  The Japanese love their food.  We did too.

We really enjoyed our 5 days on the island and look forward to going back sometime.

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