5.2.4: Hokkaido

Day 214: Matsumoto to Hakodate

Today I made the long journey up to Hokkaido. The hostel owner in Matsumoto was very kind and gave me a lift to the train station. First I got a train to Nagano and then a shinkansen to Umiya just north of Tokyo. I then boarded another shinkansen to Hachinohe in the north east of Honshu. The last train journey from Hachinohe was the longest of all, another 3 ½ hours. After a brief stop at Aomori we went through the Seikan tunnel, which links Honshu with Hokkaido. It is the longest underwater transport link in the world and it took almost an hour to get through it. On the other side, my first views of Hokkaido were as very impressive, with forested hills rising up straight from the coast and snowy mountains not far in the distance. It looked as wild as I’d imagined. I arrived in Hakodate at around 18:00 and walked to my hotel which wasn’t far from the station. It was cold here but not as cold as I’d feared. In fact it was warmer than when I first arrived in Kyoto. After I checked in I went for a walk around town. It was nice to walk around in the night though I didn’t go to the top of the mountain overlooking the city as it was too dark to walk and too expensive to take the cable car. Instead I went to see some of the churches and consulate buildings that were built by the Russians, British and Americans in the 19th Century when Hakodate first opened up as a trading port to the foreign powers. In the evening I watched Liverpool vs. Blackburn and School of Rock on TV. It was the first time I’d seen anything in English on Japanese TV.

214.1. Some shots from a night time walk around Hakodate.

Day 215: Hakodate to Toyako Onsen

I checked out this morning and left my bag at the hotel so I could spend a couple of hours walking through the town before getting my train. I went to the morning market which consisted mostly of fish and seafood including some huge crabs. The market workers were very talkative and many asked me where I came from. I almost felt I was back in South East Asia. I did the walk I’d done last night in reverse and saw the churches and consulate buildings in the daylight.

215.1. Hakodate morning market.

I ended up getting an earlier train than I’d intended so I arrived in Toya town with time to spare. There wasn’t a lot to see in town though the beach was nice, but not for swimming in.

215.2. The beach near Toya town.

I got a bus to Toyako Onsen and when the bus rounded a hill I got my first view of Toya Lake. It was very beautiful; an almost circular lake formed from a collapsed caldera with some almost perfectly conical islands in the centre. Away to the north is a huge classically shaped volcano called Yotei-San. When I arrived at the hotel I was too early to check in so I got some lunch form the nearby convenience store. I checked in afterwards and my room was very nice, in traditional Japanese style with an amazing view from the window. It was probably nicer than the room in the minshuku in Takayama and it was cheaper too. I was quite tired so I rested in the room for a bit before going out in the late afternoon. I walked through town and saw some of the defences that had been built in case of an eruption by the nearby active volcano Usu-Zan. I also saw the parasite volcano of Usu-Zan, Showa-shinzan, which only came into existence in 1945 and reached a height of 400 m within just a couple of years. It is still steaming at the vents.

215.3. Statues by the lakeside in Toyako Onsen.

Day 216: Toyako Onsen

I got up this morning and saw that the weather had taken a turn for the worse. It was grey and cloudy and quite cold though at least it wasn’t raining. I borrowed a bike from the hotel and cycled anti-clockwise around the lake. It was a circuit of about 40 km. The lake looked serene in the cold air and it was very beautiful. At the eastern shore of the lake I took a detour and visited a waterfall. It was pretty enough but not particularly impressive. At the north side of the lake I stopped for lunch before completing the circuit. When I got back to the hotel I went to the rotemburo, the outdoor onsen. It was the first that I’d been to in Japan and the first since the hot springs at Jhinu Danda in Nepal.

216.1. Bike ride around Toyako Lake (Showa-shinzan, the 60 year old volcano is in the top-right).

Day 217: Toyako Onsen to Sapporo

This morning the weather was much better, even though it was still very cold. I decided to walk along the lakeside and along the path up to Usu-Zan. The path was nice to walk along and I hoped to walk further up the mountain but I eventually came up to a sign forbidding entry to all but construction personnel. It was a bit disappointing so instead I tried to find a different path that went past some volcanic vents that was on my map. When I found the path I discovered that it too was closed so I gave up and went back to the hotel and had some lunch before getting the bus back to Toya town.

217.1. Photos from the morning’s walk around Toyako Onsen.

I arrived just in time for a train to Sapporo so I didn’t have to hang around in Toya like I did when I arrived. When I got to Sapporo I got a metro to Susukino, the nightlife district of Sapporo, where I checked into a capsule hotel. I later realized that this wasn’t the ‘amazingly luxurious’ capsule hotel described in the guidebook but another one. In fact it wasn’t very luxurious at all; the one I’d stayed at in Osaka was much nicer. It was fine for a couple of nights though. I took a brief walk though town and saw the clock tower – the third most disappointing sight in Japan – according to some recent poll.

217.2. The Sapporo clock tower – the third most disappointing sight in Japan.

I went back to the hotel and had a bath before going back out in the evening. Susukino was OK but didn’t really compare to the nightlife districts in Osaka which were much more buzzing. I went for a bowl of ramen in a little alley filled with ramen shops. It was very good – the ramen in Sapporo has a deservedly excellent reputation.

217.3. Susukino at night.

Day 218: Sapporo

Today I went to visit the Historical Village of Hokkaido, a kind of open air museum where buildings from the time of the colonization of Hokkaido from Honshu had been collected. It was 15 km from the town centre so I went to the station to get a bus out there. There was no English at the bus stop but when one bus arrived I recognized the kanji for the historical village and got on. I think if I hadn’t been in China before I wouldn’t have had the confidence to get on and would have given up and done something else. When I arrived at the village I had some ramen before looking around. There were a lot of buildings there and included a town, a fishing village, a farming village and a mountain village. You could go inside most of the buildings but you had to take your shoes off for each one which became tedious after a while so I would only go in the interesting ones or just peek through the door. I kind of rushed the last half as the bus was due to leave and I didn’t want to wait around for another hour.

218.1. Some of the buildings in the Hokkaido Historical Village.

In the afternoon I visited the Sapporo brewery and museum. The museum was crap but the beer tasting was very good. I got three beers, a lager, a dark beer and something that looked somewhere between a lager and an ale. I paid 400¥ for all three which was pretty reasonable and the size was fair as well. I expected them to be miniscule for that price.

218.2. Pictures from the visit to the Sapporo Brewery and Museum.

In the evening I went again for a bowl of ramen and then visited a games arcade. I played some Street Fighter IV and it wasn’t until afterwards that I realized the reason I was losing so badly was because I was playing against some Japanese guy on the machine behind.

Day 219: Sapporo to Asahidake Onsen

Today I went to Daisetsuzan National Park. I’d originally planned to stay at Sounkyo Onsen and then hike across the mountains to Asahidake Onsen as Silke (who I met in Aso) had done previously. No chance of that now; for a start, the hostel in Sounkyo doesn’t open until June and secondly the whole place is submerged under about 2 m of snow. Instead I decided to head to Asahidake Onsen and do a lowland walk around there. I arrived in Asahikawa, the gateway city to the national park and the second largest city in Hokkaido, at around midday. I went to the tourist information centre and the guy there was very friendly and helpful. He showed me where to get the bus from and even called the hostel to reserve a bed for me. I had a few hours to kill in Asahikawa so I walked through town and went to a CD and DVD store. They had a lot of anime but it was very expensive. Malaysia was much better for cheap anime DVDs. I had some lunch and then got on the bus. Sadly the bus to Asahidake Onsen is no longer free, as it was a couple of years ago and I had to pay 1,300¥. I checked in at the hostel, which was very expensive – 7,000¥ including breakfast and dinner, but it was still the cheapest place in the resort. I did my laundry and then went for a bath. They had the perfect rotemburo that was just as I’d imagined one to be – surrounded by about 3 m deep of snow with the snow still falling while I was in the warm water. I went for dinner and met an American guy called Mike who I was in the same dorm as. Also at dinner was an Australian guy who was travelling with his mother. He used to work at the ski slopes nearby in Hokkaido. There wasn’t much to do in the evening so I just used the internet for a bit before getting an early night.

Day 220: Asahidake Onsen

I went to the visitors centre this morning and hired some boots and snow shoes so that I could go walking through the thick snow. I went back to the hostel and bought some chocolate and some biscuits to keep me going as there would probably be nowhere else to buy food along the way. I walked along the path near to the hostel through the snow and occasionally saw glimpse of Mt. Asahidake through the trees. Along the way I met a Japanese woman who was walking in the same direction so we walked together for a while. She was from Sapporo and worked as a mountain guide and had been to the Annapurna and Khumbu regions of Nepal. The walk along the paths was shorter than I’d expected and we soon arrived back at the resort.

220.1. From the lowland walk through the snow in Daisetsuzan National Park.

The woman I was walking with drove back to Sapporo and I decided to take the cable car up the mountain to a height of about 1,600 m. It cost 1,000¥ but it was well worth it as the views from the top were incredible. It was very cold though, about -16°C, and I was glad to have my thermals, hat and gloves. The summit of Asahidake was very close but I didn’t go up to the top. I wandered around for about an hour before it started getting too cold and then headed down. The path down suddenly became very steep and it soon became impossible to keep my footing. I slid down the mountain and it became quite scary as I kept accelerating but I eventually brought myself to a stop by digging into the snow with my snow shoes and poles. This happened a couple of times before I made it down to the bottom an hour or so later.

220.2. Looking up and looking down on the slopes of Mt. Asahidake.

I was a bit early to return the snow shoes but I was tired by then so I gave them back anyway at the visitor centre and went back to the hostel. I chatted for a bit with the Australian guy and his mother who had also returned and were waiting for the bus back to Asahikawa. I went to the rotemburo and chatted with a Japanese guy who was also a mountain guide – there seem to be a lot of them around here. I went for dinner which was very good and even better than yesterday’s. Again there wasn’t much to do in the evening so I just used the internet for a bit before going to bed.

Day 221: Asahidake Onsen to Hakodate

I was up for breakfast but then had about three hours to kill before the bus left for Asahikawa. I used the computer again and then went for a walk around the resort before the bus left.

221.1. From the morning’s walk around Asahidake Onsen.

The journey back to Hakodate was a little like travelling back through time as it followed the exact same route as I’d come by. I changed trains at Sapporo and then got another train that passed through Toya. I arrived in Hakodate and checked into the same hotel that I stayed in last time.