Exploring Japan's wild places: a north to south tour
From the snow capped peaks of Hokkaido to the deserted white beaches of the Okinawa Prefecture, Jonathan Cook samples a little bit of everything during his tour of Japan.
Once closed to the outside world for centuries, Japan, commonly known as the Land of the Rising Sun, is one of the few modern countries left which still manages to hold a mysterious and remote authenticity. It’s where the modern and ancient world collide, forming a fascinating mix which leave you feeling like you've landed on another planet. Often without realising, we all use a little bit of Japan on a daily basis, whether that be driving a Japanese car, taking a lift or using a piece of electronic equipment whose origin undoubtedly has a piece of Japan inside. Despite this Japan still feels detached from the rest of the modern world conjuring up images of ancient temples, Samurai and colourful Geisha.
When one first thinks of Japan one might think of crowded cities, sky scrapers and the famous neon lights of Tokyo, but doing a little more research I was intrigued to learn that Japan is an archipelago formed of some 6800 Islands, although the majority of the country is made up of the four largest islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku commonly referred to as the 'Home Islands'. These four islands are made up of around 70% forests and mountains including a large number of national parks. From dramatic landscapes and volcanoes to the country's much loved and celebrated hot springs I was learning that there is ample opportunity for exploring the outdoors, making Japan one of the best kept secrets of the hiking world. In 2016 they even introduced a national holiday, aptly named 'Mountain Day' to celebrate this much cherished terrain.
We had chosen to begin our three week journey around Japan in Hokkaido – Japan’s northernmost island and home to some of Japan's oldest and most beautiful national parks. After a long flight to Tokyo we flew straight to New Chitose Airport on Hokkaido, which serves the Sapporo metropolitan area and is the biggest airport on the island. Despite Japan being famous for its efficient high-speed rail system, the network is limited on Hokkaido, with the famous Shinkansen bullet train only recently reaching as far as Hokodate. Combined with Hokkaido's remote nature – being home to only 5% of Japan's population – means the island lends itself well to being explored by car.
After nearly 30 hours of travelling, bleary eyed and extremely tired we picked up our small yellow box car which would serve us for the next seven days and were waved off by an extremely friendly assistant, with his last words being 'be careful, this car has no snow chains'. I thought to myself ‘what is he talking about?’ as it was only the beginning of October. How right he would later turn out to be.
Sapporo – Japan's fifth largest city and the island's capital – is the only place on the island that feels truly urban on account of its western grid layout which was designed by American architects. A trip to Sapporo wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Sapporo Beer Garden and Museum and a walk around the picturesque Odori Koen Park, which is where the famous Sapporo Snow Festival is held every year in February, attracting over two million visitors.
The following morning, feeling relatively fresh, we set off into the interior of Hokkaido in our little car. Driving in Hokkaido is a pleasure: there are few other cars, empty roads and they also drive on the left. What immediately struck me was the wide open expanse of the island making it obvious to see why this is the wildest part of the country. We were heading for the Daisetsuzan National Park which is the biggest national park in Japan, covering a whopping 2300 square kilometres: a vast wilderness of forests, active volcanoes and snow capped mountains, not to mention offering the genuine prospect of coming face to face with a Hokkaido brown bear. Arriving late in the afternoon I could immediately see why the indigenous people of Hokkaido and original settlers of Japan’s far north, The Ainu, called Daisetsuzan ‘Kamuimintara’ – the Playground of the Gods. The marvelous autumnal colours and the sheer scale were truly spectacular.
We based ourselves in the small hot spring resort of Asahi-dake Onsen on the periphery of the park, and planned to spend three or four days taking advantage of the numerous trekking opportunities and heading into the interior of the park, hoping to summit the highest peak in the park and on the island, Asahi-dake (2291m). With minimal tourism the small village consists of around a dozen buildings; with no shops or banks you need to be prepared, particularly if you plan to embark on multi-day hikes. We stayed in the very pleasant Asahi-dake Onsen Hotel Deer Valley and the following day to our surprise we woke to a fresh covering of snow – stepping outside there was a distinct chill in the air. As more snow began to fall we made our way to the Asahi-dake Visitor Centre where we bought a map of the park and spoke to one of the park rangers, who suggested in broken English that it probably wasn't a good idea to go very far as heavy snowfall was expected for the rest of the week.
Surprisingly, the ropeway (the Japanese term for a cablecar) which takes visitors to within one hour of the summit of Asahi-dake was running. Not to be deterred, we took the train up to Sugatami at 1600m where we had a stroll before returning. I'm told on a good day the views are truly magnificent but today we had zero visibility. However we did pass several pleasant hours walking the network of lower footpaths between the ropeway and our hotel, enjoying the autumnal colours and solitude; I think we may have been the only two hikers in the whole of Daisetsuzan that day. A cold day's hiking in Japan wouldn't be complete without relaxing in one of the famous Japanese Onsen hot springs which are said to contain healing powers; unfortunately they couldn't help with the weather.
Day two in Daisetsuzan saw us take advantage of the snow and do some snowshoeing, again on the low level network of footpaths. We also paid a visit to the brown bear information centre, which was established in 1994 to provide mandatory courses on how to handle encounters with bears should you stumble across one in the wild. Thankfully we didn't need to put what we learnt into action out on the trail, although it definitely felt like bear country.
With the words of the hire car assistant now ringing in my ears and the distinct prospect of being stranded in Japan's largest national park, with heavy hearts we decided to leave Daisetsuzan a day early on account of the unprecedented snowfall which had fallen about a month early. This was turning into a real adventure.
We decided to head to the interesting looking Shikotsu-Toya National Park to the south-west of Sapporo and conveniently located on the coast on the way to Hakodate at the southern tip of the island which was our final destination. Taking our chance with the snow we returned via the picturesque mountain villages of Biei – famous for beautiful wildflower fields and country lanes, and the more famous ski resort of Furano, where we paid a visit to Furano Cheese Factory which allows visitors to observe the production process of the local Camembert-type cheese.
Shikotsu-Toya National Park is much smaller than Daisetsuzan but by no means less impressive – another largely mountainous wilderness, it is notable for its caldera lakes, the active volcano Mount Usu-zan and proximity to the coastline. We arrived in Toya-ko Onsen on the shore of Lake Toya and stayed in the Granvillage Toya Daiwa Ryokan Annex, with a lakeside view. It was our first experience of staying in a Japanese-style inn. More than just a place to sleep, Ryokan provided an opportunity to experience the traditional Japanese lifestyle and hospitality incorporating elements such as futon beds and local cuisine. After hunting out the 12 small hand and foot baths in the pretty village we later enjoyed the fireworks display, which takes place every evening over the lake.
In bright sunshine the following day we took the boat out to Naka-jima which is a large island in the middle of Lake Toya. We walked the well signposted eight kilometre path around the charming island, with its beautiful red autumnal colours – although it was evident to see many fallen trees and the damage caused by a hurricane earlier in the year. We also paid a visit to the interesting forest museum before sitting on the gravel beach in the sun waiting for the return boat home.
We hiked up the small active volcano Mount Usu-zan which erupted as recently as March 2000. There is a ropeway running up to the volcano crater but we decided to walk the ten kilometre round trip. After locating the trailhead (which was no easy task with our Japanese tourist map) we enjoyed the walk up through dense woodland, singing and clapping to minimise the risk of any bear related encounters. We passed two other walkers, a couple of elderly Japanese gentlemen who stopped to offer us a handful of sweets: we found this friendliness a common theme with the Japanese people throughout our entire trip. Once up on the volcano rim, the views were spectacular: out to sea in one direction and over Lake Toya in the other, with the notable Yotei-zan – known as Little Fuji because of its striking similarity to Mount Fuji – looming in the background. The stroll around the rim also offered panoramic views of the volcano's large crater which is constantly steaming, filling the air with the smell of sulphur and reminding visitors she is simply sleeping for now.
After our climb of Usu-zan, we set off to Hokodate, which would be our final destination on Hokkaido. A journey of around three hours by car, the route hugs the forlorn coastline passing many a remote fishing town before arriving at the urban lights of Hokodate, the Hokkaido’s southernmost port and gateway to Honshu. After the solitude of the last few days we enjoyed exploring the Motomachi district, a hillside which is sprinkled with wooden buildings and a number of churches. It reminded me of a smaller San Francisco with its proximity to the sea and the continuous rumble of trams throughout the organised network of streets. We also enjoyed wandering around the redbrick warehouse district which was built in the early 1900s. The buildings now house cafes, galleries and interesting shops. Finally a trip to Hokodate wouldn't be complete without visiting the morning fish market, the interesting Museum of Northern Peoples and sampling the wonderful night view from the top of Hokodate-yama.
The following day while sitting on the recently opened Shinkansen (travelling at 330kph and making the trip to Tokyo in a staggering four hours) my mind drifted back to the wild coastlines and snow capped peaks of Hokkaido. We had only really scratched the surface of the island and I hoped one day I might be able to return to take on the spectacular Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse: a seven day serious hike covering the complete length of the park. Or I might explore the Shiretoko National Park in the northern reaches of the island, a peninsula in the shadow of Siberia known by the Ainu as 'the end of the world'.
The next ten days we spent sightseeing in the giant metropolis of Tokyo, before heading to ancient Kyoto and Nara, both former capitals of the country, via the overcrowded Mount Fuji and Hakone Lake, and then on to Kinosaki Onsen, a beautiful tranquil hot spring town located on the rugged northern coast. We certainly made good use of our Japan rail passes before returning to Tokyo to embark on the last leg of our tour.
Another little known fact is that Japan is one of the most underrated beach destinations in all of Asia. The Okinawa Prefecture, at the southern-most extremity of the Japanese Archipelago is home to around 150 islands, many of which are uninhabited. These form a chain stretching around 400km towards Taiwan at the same latitude as Hawaii, meaning the climate is also tropical in nature. We flew from Tokyo to Naha on Okinawa where we then travelled on to the tiny island of Zamami by high speed ferry.
We had reached the Kerama Islands, reminiscent of a villain's scene from a James Bond movie. The Kerama Islands are a group of 22 islands located around 30 kilometres southwest of Okinawa. With deserted white beaches and turquoise crystal-clear water we enjoyed nearly a week of island hopping between Zamami, Aka and later Tokashiki where we enjoyed the warmth and solitude of this tropical paradise.
Returning to Tokyo for the final time I reflected that we had experienced many contrasts on our travels, from ancient temples to snow capped stunning national parks and historic sites, alongside gadget-mad cities, followed by warm tropical islands, always welcomed by the polite and friendly people of this nation, making Japan a destination for every season.
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