Author & Photographer: Jonathan Mott
Standing tall in the middle of the Furano-Ashibetsu Prefectural Natural Park, Ashibetsu-dake is a classic Hokkaido mountain. On a clear day, the 1,726-meter peak offers commanding 360-degree views of the surrounding Yubari Range and Furano plain. To the northeast Taisetsuzan National Park’s jagged profile rises from a sea of green into the clouds. Taking into account the shape and accessibility of Ashibetsu-dake, it’s easy to see why it could be a member of Japan’s 100 famous mountains.
I had the pleasure of going up the mountain for the first time just last week. Having accepted the invitation to join my good friends Ido and Anastasia, I was excited to climb something new. Our party was squared to four with the addition of our German friend Ulli, another experienced mountaineer.
We left Sapporo at 7:30am and enjoyed two hours of scenic Hokkaido countryside before arriving in Furano. After stocking up at the grocery store with victuals for the BBQ and beers for the cooler, we drove to the Ashibetsu-dake campground, seated at the foot of the mountain. Hokkaido’s campgrounds are some of the best in the country, and this one was no exception. The groundskeepers had just finished mowing the wide grassy lawns which exuded a fragrance of pure summer. The campsite has two covered wash areas with sinks and tables, as well as bathrooms in the center of the grounds. An enormous fire pit sits in the far corner of the campground, and on this day there was a pile of wood in its center taller than me.
Our hike began with a bit of confusion, as we started not on the actual trail to the peak, but a scenic horseshoe trail unconnected to the main path. After an hour of back and forth along this little woodland walk, we returned to the campground and took the time to find the actual Shindou (新道/new road) trailhead. By the tall wire gate is a registry box for hikers to sign before heading up the mountain. Going through and then locking the gate itself gave the start of our hike a slightly foreboding feeling. The forest is dark and shaded, with ferns lining the pathway. In June the sasa is still short, allowing for views deep into the woods. After seeing bear poop on the horseshoe trail, I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder from time to time.
Although infrequent, encounters between hikers and bears happen every year. Most of these are mere sightings. Just keep in mind that a frightened bear is a dangerous bear and bear bells are a necessary part of any hiker’s kit. Even better is to carry a whistle and blow it intermittently as you proceed on your way. Bears have every incentive to avoid humans, so giving them a heads up that you’re coming through is a good way to prevent accidents.
Having lost Anastasia to the allure of onsens and gourmet jam stores, the three of us powered up the trail at a strong pace. Our false start had robbed us of an hour of sunlight, and we anticipated seven hours of walking round trip. The woods were cool, the trail even and well maintained. The approach runs steadily up the spine of the ridge, without ever becoming taxingly steep or gnarly. It’s a nice trail. One that relatively fit people of all ages can enjoy.
Nature’s perfume permeated the air, filling our noses with vegetal sweetness. Azaleas bloomed in pink bursts to our right and left, while white viburnum bent above us in the breeze. We got our first good views at about the halfway point. Rock outcroppings overlooking the canopy of birch and beech forest gave us a terrific view of the valley basin below. Clouds fit for a Ghibli movie floated like flat-bottomed puffballs across the sky. One’s shadow covered half of Furano. The blue backbone of other ranges undulated like a snake along the horizon.
I should note there’s a trail connecting the new trail to the old trail (Kyuudou/ 旧道). We had originally thought to go up and explore the old trail but were told by the groundskeepers that it was overgrown and eroded. Given our race against the light and our disinterest in meeting Mr. Bear, we stayed on course. A pair of hikers coming down warned us to be careful on the snowy sections, one of them showing us fresh bruises on her arm. Sure enough, we soon came upon several large patches of snow, one of them a good hundred meters long.
After four hours of huffing and puffing, we arrived at the peak at about 4pm. The breeze was welcome as we sat down to have some lunch, snapping pictures and enjoying the beers we’d brought along. The weather was ideal, affording us spectacular views in all directions. We could even make out the smoke roiling out of Tokachi-dake’s fumaroles roughly 50km away. A dead phone battery didn’t stop Ido from showing us his drone piloting skills by flying sans display screen. At one point I was sure the drone wasn’t coming back, but he proved me wrong.
With only two and a half hours of daylight left, we hustled back down the mountain. The snowfields proved trickier than expected to navigate while standing, so we slid down them (somewhat haphazardly) on our butts. The orange evening light gave the forest the soothing, contemplative quality of a Maxfield Parrish painting. We pounded downhill as the woods darkened around us, sometimes in conversation, sometimes quiet. Ido blew the whistle from time to time, and being at the back of the line I was alert to make sure a fourth member wasn’t tagging along.
Our legs were at their limits as we spilled out of the trees and onto pavement. Sweaty and exhausted, we slapped high fives for a mountain well-hiked. Anastasia, knowing full well what tired hikers need at the end of the day, had camp chairs set up and the bbq going. Hot grilled food and cold beers fueled our conversation under the starlit dome of the night sky. Let this be the standard for anyone visiting Ashibetsu-dake. It’s as good as June Hokkaido gets.
Among the many ski resorts in Hokkaido, we choose Furano as our favorite family winter vacation destination. Having just spent the New Year holiday with our families there and contemplating on the resorts around the island, we have realized why we love it so much. Mostly, we love it for the balance of a top ski resort with great value deals in an idyllic atmosphere of the snowy Japanese inaka, or countryside. Let’s look closely at the Top 6 reasons why we think Furano is so good:
Furano is conveniently located in the foothills of Daisetsuzan National Park, Japan’s largest, and within an hour or two you can reach some of Hokkaido’s best nature sightseeing spots:
- The stunning Shirahige Falls, with panoramic views over the Daistesuzan mountain range and hot springs sources directly from the belly of Hokkaido’s deadliest volcano, Mt. Tokachidake
- The wild natural hot spring of Fukiage, perched in a cleft in the mountains surrounded by lush forest
- Asahidake – Hokkaido’s highest peak - with its impressive collection of steaming sulfur fumaroles
- The breathtaking frozen waterfalls of Sounkyo Gorge, where shy Ezo spotted deer graze below the gorge’s ice walls
- If you want to interact with animals, head to Asahiyama Zoo and see the famous penguin parade, pack of wolves or resident Blakiston’s Fish Owl, one of the world’s rarest birds
It might be easy to communicate in English in Niseko, with the majority of crowd being young and loud and the reputation of a party spot. For a more peaceful, family centered and kid-friendly environment, we recommend heading to Furano. On top of that, Furano Ski Resort’s amazing ski deals for families await. Did you know that kids 12 years or under don’t need lift passes to ski or snowboard at Furano?! They go absolutely free of charge! Having to pay $250 USD for a kid’s 7-day ski pass in Niseko can really add up.
Furano also has a plethora of DIY workshops to keep the kids busy off the slopes, including ice cream, butter, cheese or bread making DIY workshops at Furano Cheese Factory (the wood-fired brick oven pizza shouldn’t be missed either!), glass-blowing or gel-candle making workshops at Furano Glass Forest, and wood-craft making at the Ningle Terrace.
Furano also has a plethora of DIY workshops to keep the kids busy off the slopes, including ice cream, butter, cheese or bread making DIY workshops at Furano Cheese Factory (the wood-fired brick oven pizza shouldn’t be missed either!), glass-blowing or gel-candle making workshops at Furano Glass Forest, and wood-craft making at the Ningle Terrace.
Furano Ski Resort has a surprising variety of terrain. When you get off the Kitanomine Gondola you can see people hiking up a steep, side-country ridge above the lift, an attraction for advanced riders who look for more challenging slopes. Beginner to intermediate riders can stick to the green or red slopes and enjoy powder ski conditions with way less crowds than in Niseko. No wasting precious time waiting in lines! The same goes for Furano’s many local restaurants, ski rental shops, shuttle busses, hot springs and other facilities. Unlike at Niseko, you won’t have to fight the crowds at every turn. At my hotel during the New Year holidays, after a long day of non-stop snowboarding, I soaked in an outdoor bath at my hotel overlooking the tranquil snowy fields. The best part was that I had the bath all to myself. What a treat! That’s something that just doesn’t happen in Niseko.
With the surprisingly large number of Australian developers and tour operators in Niseko, when you finally get there you can actually forget you’re even in Japan! Among the Western faces everywhere, you may ask yourself: “What happened to all the Japanese people?” Furano, even though very touristic, has maintained its Japanese spirit. From observing locals during morning cross country skiing routine, to shoveling the snow after a big dump, to learning how to make a forest themed craft at our DIY workshop at Ningle Terrace, taught by the owner himself. Since Furano is far more affordable than Niseko, the town attracts many more Japanese families. All of that ensures a more authentic Japanese cultural experience in Furano.
Yes, Furano is more affordable. As I mentioned before, Furano Resort has an unprecedented offer in hand: it’s one of the rare places where kids up to 12 years old get free of charge lift passes. Not only are there better hotel, ski lesson and rental rates, but advanced riders will find cat-ski backcountry experiences at half the price of Niseko! Add to that affordable outdoor snow activities like snow tubing, snowmobiling, snow rafting, ice fishing and dog sledding and you’ll see why Furano is a refreshing change from Niseko, where it often feels like everything costs a small fortune.
Admittedly, this activity is not so much about a family holiday, but if you have the skills, the knowledge and the wheels (and maybe the babysitter!), Daisetsuzan National Park boasts Hokkaido’s best backcountry skiing & snowboarding terrain. Personally, I don’t have experience in backcountry riding, but it’s on my to-do list this winter. I guess I’m mentally resisting the challenge of snowshoeing for hours with my snowboard strapped onto my back to the top of a mountain, but I promise one day I’ll get there and tell you all about it. Located literally in the center-point of Hokkaido, Furano has amazing backcountry in every direction! I do know some people who go to the backcountry on their own, with topographical maps and hike descriptions, but it can be very dangerous due to unstable weather conditions, avalanches, or the risk of getting lost. So hiring a professional guide is highly recommended. You could literally be based in Furano and ride the top 5 backcountry destinations on day trips if you were so inclined.
Furano truly offers something for everyone on a winter trip. Whether you’re after a quality ski resort with no lines at reasonable prices, top nature sightseeing, affordable snow activities, DIY workshops, Japanese cultural immersion, backcountry skiing & snowboarding or the real Japan inaka experience, Furano will provide.
Imagine the sky filled with thousands of squawking geese, their wings flapping furiously, as they enjoy a mini-vacation on their epic 4,000 kilometer bi-annual migration. You probably thought about the great expanses of Canada, or perhaps the steppe of Central Asia.
For a two week period each spring and fall, the white-fronted geese arrive just outside Sapporo at Miyajima-numa, a relatively small wetlands on the outskirts of Bibai City. They come all the way from Russia, where they spend summers breeding and fattening up off the rich taiga, with few predators or people around.
Every fall, they undertake a long journey south to Miyagi Prefecture, where they survive the short but freezing winter. Along their migration route lies Hokkaido, Bibai to be specific, where rice left over from the harvest of hardworking local farmers provides excellent nutrition for their journey. The young chicks, on their first and most perilous journey south, receive much needed rest. And among the bogs, standing in a small cluster, are nature lovers in the know, observing perhaps what is Hokkaido’s least-known natural wonder. Indeed, this small and humble Miyajima-numa was listed by the UNESCO Ramsar Convention as a protected site in 2002, alongside some of the world’s most incredible wetlands.
We arrived just before sunset at the start of their two-week visit to witness 32,000 geese streaking through the sky, flying in classic ”V” formations before descending sharply into the bog. There was magic in the air and the feeling of the world as it should be: healthy, balanced and interconnected. These visitors from the far north brought with them far more than just a brood of chikcs - they brought hope, vitality and inspiration - that in spite of all the changes facing our planet there still remains mystery and magic, a hope for living alongside nature and not just destroying it, a glimmer of a paradise lost.
The bi-annual migration typically occurs from the end of September to mid-October, and again for two weeks in mid-April, both at sunrise when they leave the bog in unison to fill their bellies, and at dusk when they return to take rest. For the simplicity of their story, and the fleeting time they visit, it’s an inspiring and off-the-beaten-track adventure just one hour from Sapporo. Enjoy Nature, Be Happy!
Day 1 : Biei & Furano
Sometimes, in spite of all the planning, preparations and best intentions, the weather has its own plans. Nevertheless, at HNT we always manage to have fun in the beautiful bounty of Hokkaido’s nature. Here is the latest story about how we dodged the year’s worst typhoon on a private, custom-made 3-day tour in Daisetsuzan National Park.
We set off on a sunny morning in late August with Aiteng and James, a married couple from Australia, for a 3-day tour in Daisetsuzan National Park, Japan’s largest conservation area. It happened to be the morning of the Sapporo Marathon, so getting out of the city center proved to be a challenge, one of the many up ahead. Our favourite route to Furano goes via country roads, away from highway traffic. There are lots of natural features, including the gorgeous Sandantaki waterfall, where a sign informed us that recently a mamushi, Hokkaido’s deadliest snake, was spotted.
A huge typhoon just landed on Hokkaido the previous week and another one was expected in couple of days. The weather promised to be good for the first day, but would deteriorate on days 2 and 3 of the tour. With that in mind, we headed to Furano and Biei on Day 1 for the famous flower fields and local gourmet experiences. The hills of Furano and Biei were covered in a rainbow palette of late summer flowers. Gold-winning Furano melons were on sale, and we sampled slices of the orange and green fruit. By the way, a 10kg box of melons cost about 10 000 yen and can be delivered from the store right to the customer’s door, just make sure your home country is included in the door-to-door delivery system.
A 40-minute drive from Furano is Biei, an agricultural town famous for its picturesque landscape and gourmet restaurants. We reached Shikisai-no-Oka, an iconic flower farm with views over the hills, which our guests loved.
The gourmet scene in Biei varies from cheap local eateries to Michelin Star restaurants. For lunch, we headed to a midrange restaurant we like, only to have discovered a long que out the door. Not keen on wasting time in a que, we went further afield to a cute restaurant in a wooden house named Birch, after the birch trees which surround it. It made us consider how being on a private, custom-made tour allows for such flexibility. Potato pizza, cold corn soup, shrimp curry, salads – everything was great!
From here the road leads to the famous Biei Blue Pond and Shirahige Falls. The previously little-known pond became a big tourist hit in part because of Apple, who used its image as default desktop picture on the iMac. The color of the pond is ever-changing, depending on the light that hits it. To our shock, the Blue Pond was closed! A friendly road worker stood at the entrance, showing us a picture of what became the “Brown Pond.” Heavy run-off from the typhoon just a couple of days earlier had destroyed the embankment and flooded with pond with mud. It now seems that the Blue Pond may be no longer, although efforts are underway to try a salvage operation. Nevertheless, the Shirahige Waterfall was beautiful as ever, and the milky-blue waters of the Biei Gawa unchanged.
Higher up a winding road, above the pond and falls, a wild hot spring is nestled into a mountain nook. A cement platform holds 2 manmade pools, a couple of benches and a changing area, all that on a mountain slope with the gushing stream surrounded by the pristine forest. Our guests couldn’t resist the temptation of the best onsen on their trip, and shyly changed into their bathing suits and eased themselves into the 42 degree onsen. Bathing in a wild onsen is a real cultural experience: a chance to observe local people’s easy going, shame-free attitude towards public bathing and nudity, obviously very different from other Asian countries. The two local men chuckled at our guests, who did everything they could to stay hidden behind the rocks.
After the soothing hot spring, we continued driving along the Tokachi-dake mountain loop road, one of my favorite roads in Hokkaido. There are stunning views of the Tokachi mountain range, all the way down to the Furano plains below. Up here, far removed from the tourist bustle int he valley, the quite road draws out the wildlife. Sure enough, we stumbled upon a young fox, obviously a veteran of begging for his meals roadside! He gave us a chance to take few wonderful shots. Domo!
After the last rays of the sun slipped over the Biei mountains across the valley, we finally arrived at the hotel where we dropped our guests off for the night donning happy faces that should never be taken for granted!
Day 2: Hiking in the patchwork fields of Biei
Morning came with dark clouds gathering around the peaks of Daisetsuzan. Our original plan was to hike up Asahidake – the highest mountain in Hokkaido. Ai Teng and James met us after breakfast in hiking outfits, hiking poles in hand. We loved their enthusiastic attitude but the Asahidake Ropeway which was supposed to bring us to the base of the mountain was suspended due to strong winds. Another typhoon was approaching offshore and expected to hit Hokkaido that night which was pretty disappointing. Ido analyzed the situation and made the only right decision: to find another hiking route. At first we decided to hike a well-known nearby mountain, the great hike of Ashibetsu Dake, and drove towards it. However, the rain soon began and the sky turned darkish grey. Nobody objected when we made a U-turn and headed in the opposite direction, to Biei, where the sky remained clear.
The challenge was to find an easy 2-3 hour hike in an area not famous for short routes. Ido poured over topographical maps to locate an accessible mountain with a trail and some sun. We took a dirt road along farmlands that brought us to a rather steep, logging mountain, with the sun shining bright. We found our piece of calm amid the approaching storm. I lead a short stretching warm-up that Ai Teng and James seemed to enjoy: stretch your feet, legs and hips, roll your shoulders, shake your arms, a few squats and we were ready to hike
The mountain itself wasn’t a very spectacular one, but finding some natural inspiration is always easy in Hokkaido: Trees and plants ripened with seeds and fruits, the constant presence of sansai - edible mountain plants and roots that have been picked since olden times - fresh deer prints in the soil, birds and butterflies, gorgeous vistas of the Biei Valley just before the rice harvest - all of that cheered us up, even as we stared at the approaching dark clouds of another typhoon.
Our next stop was Asahidake Onsen Resort just 90 minutes away. We drove in a light rain, enjoying picturesque landscapes, stopping to take pictures of yellowish rice paddies ready for the harvest. Yet, the most amazing photos of the day awaited us at the end of the road where a huge rainbow, hanging low and flat and almost touching the tree tops, delighted everybody. To get a good shot, with the composition not interrupted by electric poles and wires, I had to climb over the road fence and balance myself at the top of an old wooden pole sticking out from the side of the road. And, Viola! Here is my super psychedelic rainbow.
It was windy and the ropeway was still closed, so we decided to check out Tenninkyo about 40 minutes away. Here again, the previous typhoon caused massive damage. An entire 300 meter sections of the road had buckled, collapsed, and been washed away. The day ended with an early check-in at the hotel, letting James and Ai Teng have some free time to unwind and enjoy the serene nature and a hot springs bath.
Day 3: Daisetsu - land of Rainbows
The rain and wind got stronger overnight, but the forecast was unclear about when and where the typhoon was to hit. One cannot help but adjust oneself to the weather, so we pulled on our raingear, put on happy faces, and headed off to start the day.
We drove around the northern end of the national park, to Sounkyo Gorge, where remains one of the best kept secrets of Hokkaido – the 8 Waterfalls Trail. A path follows an abandoned road, which has been closed for traffic for over 15 years. Visitors need to hop over a low fence to earn the right to gape at the awe inspiring scenery of pinnacle rock formations, 100 meter tall cliff walls, a succession of waterfalls of various forms and sizes, Ezo spotted-deer and white-tailed eagles, eerily abandoned tunnels, landslides spilled out over retaining walls and not a soul around. Needless to say it’s one of my favorite spots for nature photography and wildlife spotting.
We then returned for lunch at the Beer Grill Canyon, honestly the best restaurant in Sounkyo. It serves Italian-Japanese fusion cuisine: with locally-sourced vegetables, fish and meat. I love the venison curry and grilled trout with vegetables, but this time Ido & I split baked stuffed pumpkin gratin - a hearty dish enough for 2 people. Here it is: fresh cream, cheese, bacon, bread chunks, slices of potato, bell peppers and eggplant in a half pumpkin. Oiishi-so ne!
After lunch we took our guests to the Mori no Garden in Kamikawa as a complimentary side-trip activity. The rain got stronger and then, inexplicably, stopped. A beautiful rainbow appeared, this time visible from one pot of gold to the other.
We stopped to take pictures only to discover that we pulled over right next to a small watermelon farm! There they were, famous Hokkaido melons, double the excitement for me since I’ve only seen watermelons at supermarkets and farmer’s stands before. An old woman came out from an adjoining house, pushing a wheelbarrow out to collect the ripened watermelons before the next typhoon hit. Super excited, I asked her if we could buy one, but she refused to accept any money and gave me one for free. What a surprise that was! To exchange the favor, I grabbed a couple of cans of beer from the car – all we had available for the exchange – and placed them in her wheelbarrow. Her genuine laughter was even better than the melon, which itself was delectable. And then she plodded off, pushing her wheelbarrow back home, filled with ripe watermelons and two lovely beers.
Our next stop was Mori no Garden, an English-style garden with massive views of the Daisetsuzan mountains. The highlight was a quaint flower sculpture, a signature of the garden. It’s called Garden Dress Kante. Great idea, isn’t it!? And with the wind tearing through the umbrella it looks even more like a fairy-tale.
The time in the wonderful garden went by fast and we all enjoyed it. On the road back to Sapporo, we watched massive clouds gathering all around us, and saw rivers almost spilling out over their banks. Can you imagine: another amazing rainbow appeared and was lasting for almost an hour! I have never seen such rainbows! Of course, being unable to reach our desired destinations was upsetting, but in spite of that, we had a great time amidst the wonderful nature and spontaneous encounters of life on the road in Hokkaido.
A big thank you to Ai Teng and James for being wonderful guests, ever-happy to explore the unknown and visit the unplanned. Until next time. . . Enjoy Nature, Be Happy!
I love Hokkaido in every season, but there are a number of good reasons why spring here feels so unique. In Japan, the season of changing winds and pink petals comes last to Hokkaido. Whereas Tokyoites and Osakans are already sweating in the heat of the southern summer, Dosanko (Hokkaidoans) are basking in a wide-array of blossoms, a resurgent sun and in the freshness of the spring air. Cherry blossom, pink phlox, yellow mustard, rapeseed, tulip and lilac festivals, to name a few, make ideal destinations for family sightseeing, a local gourmet experience, or a spring photoshoot. You can combine the gorgeous and constantly blooming landscapes with a number of fun and adventurous activities to make the best out of your spring visit to Hokkaido. Here is our selection of the top 10 things to do in Hokkaido that you don’t want to miss this spring.
1. Matsumae’s Month-long Hanami Matsuri
Gentle pink petals dancing in the air, masses of laughs and happy faces, smoky barbecues tantalizing the taste buds: hanami matsuri, or cherry blossom viewing festival, is the main spring event all over the country. At the southern tip of Hokkaido is Matsumae town, which not only houses the northernmost castle in Japan, but also has one of the longest hanami matsuris. The traditional atmosphere of the 17th century castle town offers the most authentic hanami matsuri experience in Hokkaido and ranked as one of the top 100 sites for sakura viewing in Japan. There are over 10,000 cherry trees of 250 different varieties, which makes Matsumae’s festival uncharacteristically long, with blooms lasting from late April to late May. Come here with your botany book to see how many kinds of cherry trees you can find.
2. Whale & Dolphin Watching
Would you like to try your luck at spotting marine wildlife in Hokkaido? If so, quickly finish your shopping in Sapporo and endeavor on a great nature tour to the remote eastern part of the island which is blessed with an abundance of nature. Off the coasts of Nemuro, Shiretoko and Abashiri, boats ply the waters from early April to October, providing opportunities for dolphin and whale watching. You’ll have the chance to see Pacific white-sided dolphins, Dall's porpoises, minke and orca whales. Experience the atmosphere of the northern sea with its unique marine life, great seafood and beautiful warm-hearted people. While on the way to your destination, enjoy the pure nature of eastern Hokkaido with its numerous lakes, rivers, waterfalls and hot springs.
3. Scenic flights over Blooming Flower Fields
They say that the large is best seen from a distance, so take the opportunity to go on a scenic flight over the picturesque Hokkaido landscape! A glider, a helicopter or a Cessna, which one do you prefer? As a beautiful technical wonder, a glider travels across the sky only by the force of wind. The gliders’ sky park is located In Takikawa city, half way from Sapporo to Asahikawa. Takikawa is also one of the largest producers of canola in Japan, where large fields are covered in brilliant yellow flowers from late May until early June. If you prefer pink, better take a scenic flight at Takinoue or Higashomokoto Pink Moss Festival for all the pink you can imagine. The two venues are very similar as they both offer pretty hills of bright pink blossoms, little carts that take visitors around the parks, pink phlox ice cream and other locally produced delicacies. Moreover, if you have some extra money and courage to spare, I recommend taking a memorable scenic flights over the parks. You can choose between a helicopter at Takinoue or a Cessna over Higashimokoto. These one of a kind experiences guarantee memories that will last a lifetime.
4. Spring Whitewater Rafting
Rivers in Hokkaido are mostly timid. They are nice for relaxing eco-rafting for families with young kids. All that changes for a short time in the spring, when copious amounts of melting snow dramatically increase water levels of the mountain-fed rivers, and Hokkaido’s rapids become the real deal. April rafting is definitely worth trying if you happen to be in Hokkaido at this time of year, like adrenaline and are in good physical condition. You won’t forget the excitement of being flushed down a surging river, adjusting and balancing the raft with the ever-changing element of water, and navigating your way down with the help of a professional instructor.
5. Horseback Riding beneath Cherry Blossoms
Did you know that the Hidaka region in Hokkaido is Japan’s largest breeding grounds of thoroughbred horses? If you love horses, to visit Hidaka and learn about the region’s famous breeds & brands is a must. The most exciting time to visit Hidaka is spring, all because of Japan’s beloved sakura blossom. Shinhidaka, a town famous for horse farms, organic horse-oil beauty and health products, and thoroughbred ranches, is also one of the best cherry blossom locations in Hokkaido. There are many spots in Hidaka for cherry blossom viewing, the most famous being the Nijukkan Road, with 3 000 trees blooming altogether in mid-May. With this late date, Hidaka takes the prize for the latest cherry blossom viewing region in Japan. Now imagine yourself riding an award-winning pure bred horse beneath the fluttering cherry blossoms. It’s almost a dream, isn’t it?
6. Abashiri Crab Competitions - Gourmet Paradise
The city of Abashiri, in the east of Hokkaido, is known for drift ice, delicious seafood and the notorious Abashiri prison. The severe winters guaranteed strict punishment for political prisoners, who were forced to survive by the rough and cold waters of the Sea of Okhotsk. In mid-winter, the sea is awash with drift ice from the northern Pacific, making it the world’s southernmost location for drift ice and a perfect opportunity for great wildlife viewing. Steller’s sea eagles and seals hunt for fish from the drift ice as crabs, living at the bottom of the sea, feed off high-quality plankton that give their meat a rich flavor. Japan’s best crabs come from the Sea of Okhotsk, none more so than the blue king crab found only in these waters. As spring arrives and the drift ice retreats, crabs become an easy catch. In late May, the town holds a special "Spring Crab Battle" with chefs from more than 30 restaurants trying to outdo each other in their mastery and originality of crab preparation. Arrive early at the Abashiri Port for a peak at the morning catch and put yourself on a strict crab diet: crab fried rice, crab rice bowl, crab egg rolls, crab risotto, miso crab, grilled crab, crab crab crab! There is no end to it!
7. Spot Tancho Red-Crested Cranes and Grey Heron Offspring in Kushiro
Kushiro Shitsugen Wetland is Japan’s largest wetland in Hokkaido with 170 kinds of birds appearing here throughout the year. Spring is breeding time for the tancho red-crested crane and grey heron which reside here. Take a walking tour or canoe trip with a nature guide and try your luck with wildlife spotting. Or just enjoy the spectacular natural environment of the rehabilitated wetlands, one of the most successful conservation projects in Japan. Another way to enjoy bird watching is by visiting Kushiro Zoo, one of the largest in Japan. The zoo is mainly devoted to the conservation of red-crested cranes through the Protection and Breeding Center. From spring to summer, the zoo also comes alive with a grey heron colony of over 100 nests. The zoo’s setting is unique in that it breaks the separation between wildlife within and outside its boundaries.
8. Flower Marshlands
There are plenty of marshlands in Hokkaido which are carefully protected and studied, giving visitors the opportunity to learn about these unique ecosystems. Kiritappu-shitsugen Wetlands extend along the east coast of Hokkaido beside the Pacific Ocean. At high tide, seawater flows in along rivers, inundating the central parts of the wetland. Hare’s-tail cotton grass, day lilies and a variety of other colorful flowers compete for space within the wetlands, giving the marsh its charming name. Visitors can enjoy leisurely boardwalk strolls among the flowers and birds or take a guided tour if they are interested in learning about wetlands’ flowers, birds and insects. If you are lucky, you’ll be able to spot red-crested cranes and ezo-shika, Hokkaido deer. If you want to leave your mark here, you can volunteer to help locals maintain and repair the boardwalks, all of which have been built and preserved by local residents and past volunteers.
9. Sansai Hunting
The unmistakable flavor of spring is fresh vegetables. In Japanese supermarkets, among freshly grown asparagus and spinach, you can encounter a surprising variety of stems, leaves, roots and sprouts that maybe you have never seen before, yet alone eaten. They are universally called sansai, mountain vegetables, which derive from the traditional lifestyle of an agrarian past and appear on supermarket shelves for a short time in spring. Seri, tsukushi, fuki, tara no me, yama udo and other wild edibles don’t always have specific names in English, which in a way makes them even more enticing to try in a seasonal spring tempura. If you’re feeling adventurous, head out on a sansai hunt tour to the mountains with a nature guide, who will teach you about the edible wild vegetables, and how to harvest and cook them for a traditional Japanese meal.
10. The End of Skiing & Snowboarding Season
In late April, with the powder long gone, you can head out to Hokkaido’s mountains wearing only a T-shirt and shorts and see adventurous kids strapped into their snowboards perfecting their selections of jumps and tricks in spring “hit” parks. The end of the season is also marked by a Costume Parade, where you can encounter cosplay and manga heroes right on the slopes. If you are fond of mountains and people-watching, Niseko is your best bet. Here you may forget you are actually in Japan as blond Aussies & Kiwis, reluctant to bid farewell to another spectacular winter, loiter among Hirafus many choice restaurants and spirited bars. Here you can have the best pizza in Hokkaido, dine at Michelin rated restaurants and sample a large variety of excellent international cuisine.
Wherever your adventures in Hokkaido take you this spring, get out there, enjoy nature and be happy!
Beyond the poetry (see The Heart of an Onsen: Part 1), there are a few essential rules for how to behave properly in an onsen, better known as yarikata – the way something is done. So, throw your earthly possessions in a basket in the dressing room, lock up your valuables in a lockbox (jewelry & watches are not recommended in the hot springs), summon your courage along with a small onsen towel, and let’s bathe!
The Naked Truth
Many foreigners who visit Japan feel uneasy about public nudity at onsens. Back home, bathing is done in private and away from the leering eyes of others. For most people, that discomfort lasts for just a few minutes once they realize that everyone else is naked too! Japan is an egalitarian society, and that is epitomized at an onsen. While bathing, it no longer matters what position one holds at a company, what car one drives or in which neighborhood one lives. Everyone is truly, nakedly, equal. That said, don’t be surprised if you get a few stares at your nether regions. After all, in Japan it’s the foreigners who are exotic! If that doesn’t work, just remember that Japan actually has a festival that honors the “slippery serpent” - not quite the image most people have of Japan, right?
The Onsen Towel
The only object that is permitted past the dressing room is the small, conspicuous, barely-there white towel. The towel is used both as a wash cloth and to (somewhat) cover your nakedness while walking between baths. While in the hot springs, it is considered impure to dip towels in the water, which is why you should either place the towel at the edge of the bath, or fold in a square and rest it on top of your head.
Wash Before You Bathe
It is essential to completely wash your body before going into a hot spring pool since hot springs are common spaces in Japan. More so than in nearly any other country, Japanese people show respect to others in common spaces such as subways, parks, shops and of course, at the onsen. While we’re at it: Don’t talk loudly while bathing, it’s also considered rude.
Next to the shower you'll see a little chair and a bucket. Sit in the chair and soak your onsen towel in the bucket. Almost always there are body soaps & shampoos provided, and most Japanese people prefer to lather up their onsen towels to scrub every centimeter of their bodies. I have seen people spend over a half hour just scrubbing themselves, to the point where their skin turns red, before they ever enter the baths. Going to a hot springs is probably the most accessible form of a Japanese purification ritual that foreigners can witness.
You can lounge around the bathing area and enter the baths as many times as you like. The real old-timers stay in for at least an hour. Once you’ve had enough, you can either rinse off at the washing stations or head straight back to the dressing room. One last rule: Don’t enter the dressing room dripping wet. Use the onsen towel to dry yourself a little, then enter the dressing room and grab your full-length towel from your basket, or simply air-dry. At bigger onsens you can find various beauty products invitingly set in the dressing room: Hilauronic acid, collagen, placenta, royal jelly and other well-branded cosmetic giveaways always make me happy to spend extra time taking good care of myself. If you want to finish off your bath in a truly Japanese way, head for the vending machines and grab yourself a small bottle of milk. There is the belief that milk rejuvenates the body after bathing.
In some onsens you can still find signs at the entrance informing visitors that tattoos are not allowed. It is an anachronistic custom of a bygone era when tattoos were attributed to yakuzas (mafia), the dominant criminal group of post-war Japan. If you are the bearer of tattoos, small ones can be covered up with your onsen towel, and larger ones, well…either hope the staff doesn’t say anything, or avoid the cleaning ladies at all cost – your hot springs may depend on it. If you are asked to leave, there is really no point in arguing. Obviously, as a foreigner, you could never be a yakuza; but after all, this is still Japan, where yarikata is bigger than any of us.
At least you are now aware of the essential yarikata of taking an onsen. But there is one rule we neglected to tell you so far: leaving Japan without visiting at least one onsen is, well, criminal!
Enjoy Nature, Be Happy!
Anastasia at HNT
Every traveler who sets their mind on writing about Japan inevitably and wholeheartedly comes to talk about onsens - Japanese hot springs. There are many reasons why. First of all, Japan is an archipelago, located in the ring of fire, where two massive tectonic plates collide to create incessant volcanic activity. The fertile volcanic soil and multi-hued water are rich in minerals of all kinds: Iron, magnesium, calcium and sulfur to name a few. According to Wikipedia, “The legal definition of an onsen includes that its water must contain at least one of 19 designated chemical elements and be 25 °C or warmer before being reheated.”
There are more than 3000 established onsens in Japan and in every guide book an onsen visit is recommended as a must-do. Towns and prefectures compete with each other for the title of "the best". It might disappoint you to hear it, but there is no such thing as the “best onsen in Japan”. There is too large a variety for such a label to apply. There is the largest, the oldest, the most modern or traditional; child-free, mixed, geisha approved, yakuza welcomed; at the lake shore, by the sea, at the foot of a volcano, wild onsen, onsen with hot rocks, mud baths, mineral-rich, medicinal, and even fruit-scented, coffee-suffused and tea-drawn pools. One could spend a lifetime soaking in them all.
Onsens are not only touted for their natural beauty and health-restoring benefits, but they are perhaps the quintessential Japanese cultural experience. Indeed, for every Japanese person, going to an onsen is an indispensable ritual. The very creation myths of the Yamato race reflect the disgust of polluting the body and spirit, and the bliss of undertaking rites of purification. This obsession with cleanliness and purity is displayed in full-force at an onsen – and even eclipses the otherwise prude Japanese culture through ritualized group nudity - and we’ll soon reveal how that process unfolds.
For someone like me who grew up in the northern climate of the far east of Russia, public baths, called banya, are a common fAeature of everyday life. Alternatively, many of my non-Russian western friends feel ashamed at showing their bodies in public. In the US for example, there isn't such a thing as public bathing. Bathing is something very private that is done at home, locked away from other family members. In Finland, at the other extreme, public bathing is usually mixed-sex, so bathing with the other gender is completely accepted. Historically in Japan as well, men and women bathed together, but gender separation has been enforced since the opening of Japan to the West during the Meiji Restoration 150 years ago. Nowadays, mixed-bathing, or konyoku, is only found in out-of-the-way rural communities.
Let's take a closer look at the Japanese ritual of an onsen. Every onsen has common features, such as changing rooms, showers and baths: it is of course the latter that gives an onsen its reputation. An outdoor bath, called rotenburo, is the heart and soul of an onsen. Here, in a beautiful natural setting, you can let go of all the stress of day to day life to reunite yourself with nature, nourish your body, and purify your mind with beauty and peace. Not every onsen has a rotenburo, and not every rotenburo is beautiful; but those that are provide a true contemplative and meditative experience.
Japanese people can sit in a rotenburo for hours when the feeling is just right. The setting of a rotenburo is the most crucial element in an onsen’s success: overlooking a rocky cliff with a flowing river below; a gushing geyser with mineral-colored soil; a placid lake at sunset, shading the water purple and pink; a valley with a mountainous backdrop in full autumn colors; or a yukimiburo, or snow viewing bath, at the edge of a forest. Such moments, when you're sitting in a rotenburo amid the falling snow, watching it land on your shoulders and disappearing in the steaming hot springs water – those moments and impressions help define Japan. Such experiences are pure ecstasy for the poetry-prone Japanese heart; but you certainly don't have to be Japanese to feel such bliss.
Read about the etiquette of visiting an onsen - from well-known to esoteric rules and rituals - so you’ll know exactly what to do, and more importantly, what not to do, on your next visit to an onsen, in part 2 of this blog entry.
While the Eskimos may have 50 words for snow, someone living in Hokkaido has a thousand feelings. At Mt. Teine since the start of the season 3 weeks ago, I've seen childish grins on hedonistic middle-aged men, screams of fear from first-time visitors from the south, contentment from old-timers who remember when the resort was built, and love between a rider and the elements in a reunion with the timeless snowy mountains.
At times during the warm months there is a voice in us all that questions the joys of powdery winters. After all, we are often cold, homebound and in the dark. And then the first powder day arrives like the messiah on a white horse. The coldness turns to freshness, the darkness a mere break from the light, and the homeboundedness a rest for the weary legs between powder days. For us shredders, no time in the year passes as smoothly as winter!
Sunday morning, up at 6am. The body vibrates with excitement when I put on my snow gear. The hearty breakfast of a sandwich with goat cheese and smoked salmon and a cup of Earl Grey tea fortifies me for the day. We are heading to the mountain at this early hour to steal the first tracks – to be the first ones to cut through virgin heaps of untouched snow after the night’s snowfall. We packed the snowboards, gear and ourselves in our warm car, driving through the sleepy city in the misty and frosty morning with Bob Marley singing about Positive Vibrations. At this point, happy as one can be.
We couldn’t miss Ulli and Mia with their skis sticking out above their heads, waiting for us at one of the exits of Maruyama Station to be picked up. They have just started skiing a couple of seasons ago. Even though we tried to convince them to learn snowboarding, they chose skiing. It’s as bad as it sounds. Like losing someone to idolatry. But we must accept and move on.
When I tried skiing for the first time at 12 years old, nobody ever heard of a snowboard. But the moment I strapped that single board onto my feet, I never dreamed of going back to skiing. Why is that? I guess different styles attract different types of people. Skiing gives you more control and speed, whereas snowboarding is more about flexibility and freedom.
The side road to Teine along residential areas skirting the mountains allows us to avoid the city traffic. Driving on the icy Hokkaido roads is an adventure in itself. For those not used to winter driving, we highly recommend to ride in a car with an experienced driver. The steep and sharp turns on ice-covered roads are not for the inexperienced, and may ruin your day.
Another important topic is winter gear: My fingers tend to get really cold, even in down mittens. After trying different things, I discovered that it doesn't happen if I wear an under layer. Even thin gloves will do. For those with sensitive skin, my piece of advice would be to use a face mask, even if it’s not -15c, you still want to protect your skin from the snow, ice and cold air. If it’s sunny, use sunscreen. Long heat preserving underwear, sport socks, goggles, a helmet, and before you start your morning on the slopes, stretching. OK, all points checked. Let's begin.
Powder is magical substance. It's soft yet firm enough to hold you up. Riding in powder snow is amazing. You can jump, spin, do a back flip, or literally anything, and if you fall it’s fine, because 30 centimeters of powder forgives every mistake. You wouldn’t think a hardened world like ours would offer such forgiving conditions to throw oneself off cliffs, fallen trees and teetering cornices.
How to float above the powder and feel the softness of the paradox that is nothing more than frozen water? Have you ever considered how to get off your first lift on a snowboard and progress to the off-piste powder runs? Everyone starts from the desire to explore and the courage to expose one’s body to danger. Every turn, weather on skis or a snowboard, must be made in balance, in a slow natural rhythm. As if it were yesterday I still remember my first day on the mountain. The snow felt like concrete, the edges of my snowboard like knives, my legs like two foreign appendages. The other people on the mountain were fleshy obstacles on the move, and I couldn't imagine getting to their level of “mastery”. Everyone skid like James Bond while I alone was simply trying to survive. Thanks to my instructor I got better with each and every turn. By lunch, I was already linking my turns. By the afternoon, I could practice on my own with confidence. My instructor knew exactly what I needed to work on at each moment and that made all the difference. He broke it down to a science – a logical sequence of steps. At the end of the day I couldn't wait to try again on the morrow.
Now into my 6th season in Hokkaido, I take others on the best runs of their life. It’s what we have come to expect, yet never take for granted. It’s the JaPOW, and it might just bring you back to Hokkaido winter after winter after winter after winter. We’ll be here, waiting to show you the next step. Until then,
Enjoy Nature, Be Happy!
The HNT Team
A cold November day, waiting for the snow, with a couple of hours to burn. The world burns as well - in Paris, Beirut, Damascus, Sinai, Kenya, Congo - burning in a fire of revenge and retributions. We took this as an opportunity to think and be peace, and went on a short pilgrimage to the Sapporo Peace Pagoda.
Halfway up Mount Moiwa, the bulbous white stupa can be seen from almost any place in the city. It was built in 1959 to commemorate peace after World War II, and supposedly contains some of the ashes of the Buddha that were presented to the Emperor of Japan by Prime Minister Nehru in 1954. With this in mind, it is a holy place, worthy of a short walk from the bottom of Mt. Moiwa.
This Pagoda is not the only one of its kind: By 2000, eighty Peace Pagodas had been built around the world in Europe, Asia, and the United States. The original idea belonged to a Japanese buddhist monk, Nichidatsu Fujii (1885–1985), who was greatly inspired by his meeting with Mahatma Gandhi in 1931 and decided to devote his life to promoting non-violence. In 1947, he began constructing Peace Pagodas as shrines to world peace.
The first Peace Pagoda that Fujii-san built sits in Hiroshima. Our first peace pagoda that we visited was in Pokhara, Nepal. That visit turned out to be a beautiful full-day hike through winding mountain roads, villages and trails. The atmosphere of rural living, women bathing at the river, lazy boats at the bucolic lake, cobbled stones leading up the hill, Buddhist flags draping the trees, and the blooming Christmas Stars.
Our next Peace Pagoda was in Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautama the Buddha, in the lowlands of Nepal near the Indian border. The same white dome structure, the same peaceful atmosphere in a wonderful setting. Lumbini is a collection of temples and monasteries from every Buddhist country in the world, each representing a different culture and teaching, often from different schools of Buddhism. On a cool and mistly morning, we went temple hopping on old and rusty bikes. The Vietnamese monastery, looking like an abandoned amusement park, amused us. The caretaker was a big white crane living in the garden. The Burmese Golden Pagoda with daedal metal work looked like a puzzle to be solved. The gates of the Vippasana meditation center were locked with a note saying that there was a course in-progress. Eventually, we reached the Peace Pagoda. There we met a barefoot pilgrim repeating his mantra, "Bhagavan!", which means God in Hindi.
Lastly, visiting the Peace Pagoda in Ladakh, in the northern region of India, on the border with Tibet, was another unforgettable experience. All those traveling days become bright and lively and surge back to life every time I look at the Peace Pagoda in Sapporo. The stupas in Pokhara, Lumbini and Ladakh look very much like Sapporo's, creating an invisible bond between our past and present moments, making this place here, in Sapporo, even more special to our eyes and our hearts.
Perhaps the peace activist Fujii-san meant that just as we have to carry ourselves to visit his Peace Pagodas around the world, so we must carry ourselves to reach peace within. Here's to our journey, all of our journeys - may they be ever peaceful.
Love and Peace from Sapporo, Japan
Anastasia and the HNT family
There are many reasons why autumn is our favorite season, but the greatest one being that autumn is the beauty of departure, the romance of leaving, the matured emotion and drama of life. When leaving, everything in this world tries to share its best, so we can enjoy it to the fullest.The eye-pleasing colors, the tantalizing flavors of the harvest, the goodness of the forest with its mushrooms, nuts & berries; birds and animals with their young offspring in the warm sunny days of Indian summer. Then, the change of the weather, the first snow, the ice glazed puddles - but that's later - for now everything inspires, and we want to take it all in for one last time. Let's share this magical time and be grateful for the present moment.
Peace and Love ***
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