Category Archives: Hokkaido (北海道)

Noboribetsu National Park, Lake Toya, and Hakodate

The last two days have been quite chaotic for me. Yesterday, I got up early to catch my train from Sapporo station to Toya, with a few stops along the way. However, when I got to the station, I realized that the travel company had not given me the appropriate tickets. By the time I realized this, my train was leaving in about ten minutes, so getting everything together with the ticket counter was a hectic encounter. I ended up buying the wrong tickets and I went to Noboribetsu about three hours earlier than I was supposed to. I was supposed to go to Shiroi and see an Ainu Historical Museum. However, with my train ticket I was stuck in Noboribetsu. Not wanting to sit in the station for three hours, I grabbed a map of Noboribetsu and was on my way. I found out that Noboribetsu has a national park. It is famous for its jigoku, or thermal hot springs. These are similar to Beppu. However, unlike Beppu, the jigoku are out in the wilderness and are very scenic. I caught a bus out to the small tourist trap town that surrounds ”Hell Valley”. The town plays up the ”hell” part of the name and there are statues of oni, or Japanese demons everywhere.

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When I made it up to the national park entrance, I could just make out the barren mountain side ahead which marks the entrance to the valley. When you look down into the valley, you can see why the area got its name. Also, because of all the jigoku, the area reeked of sulfur, but the surrounding area was amazingly beautiful.

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I walked around and took the hiking trail to the jigoku lake. This is a thermal lake which flows down from the volcano. It has a surface temperature of about 50 degrees Celcius. My mathematical skills tell me that this is about 120 F. The hike there was awesome. The trail is completely surrounded by the woods around the park, and since it was another very nice day in Hokkaido, the birds and the bugs were very loud. It felt like an almost jungly atmosphere, except I was surrounded by maple trees.

By the time I reached the lake, it was time to get back to the Noboribetsu train station. I didn’t have any time to wait for the bus back, but I got an incredibly expensive taxi back to the station just in the nick of time to catch my train to Toya.

Toya is home to another national park. Lake Toya was formed by a large volcanic eruption quite a long time ago. Now the caldera in which the lake sits is one of the most visited national parks in Hokkaido. The scenery is amazing. When I stepped outside my hotel and looked out at the lake, it was one of the most calming places I have ever been. The weather was a cool 70 degrees and a light breeze. The lake was incredibly still and left a hushed sound floating in the air as the small waves hit the boardwalk embankment.

Over the lake that night, they shot off fireworks which reflected radiant reds, yellows, and oranges against the water which I could watch from my hotel balcony. It was quite a sight.

This morning, I had another kanseki style breakfast at the hotel and then ran over to the bus terminal to catch a bus to the Mt. Usu ropeway. The ropeway takes you up Mt. Usu which is one of the most active volcanos in Japan with its most recent eruption coming in 2000. At the summit, there is an observatory for lake Toya and trails which take you on a scenic route around Mt. Usu so you can see the caldera. The view of Lake Toya was just as amazing from Mt. Usu.

With the bus schedule set the way it was, I knew I only had about two hours to be back at the ropeway, or I would miss my bus back to the Toya train station. I started hiking as fast as I could to get as far as I could around the volcano. Going away from the ropeway station was easy as most of it was down the steps. It was very easy to forget that I would have to climb these back up on the way back. After about an hour, I made it to a spot on the exact opposite side of the volcano from the ropeway station. Again, today the weather was beautiful and I had a great view of the caldera and the ocean on the other side.

With the breeze from the ocean and the sun shining brightly, I took a short breather here and decided to head back to catch the ropeway down. Hokkaido has to be one of the most scenic places on the planet. It has absolutely every type of landscape you could possibly want to look at. In addition, there is literally a national park every 20 miles or so. For outdoorsy people who enjoy hiking, this is paradise. I started back towards the ropeway station as fast as I could, knowing that the climb back up would be difficult. When I got to the steps, I forced myself to go as fast as I could. When I reached the top, I was utterly exhausted.

I got to the cable car and made it down to the bus stop to go back to the Toya bus terminal. From the Toya bus terminal, I would have 15 minutes to run back to my hotel, retrieve my luggage, and run back to the station to catch the bus to the Toya train station to get on the train to Hakkodate. I barely made it in time, but I did and I caught my train to Hakkodate.

Hakkodate is known as one of the first ports to open its gates to foreign countries after the Meiji Restoration. So, like Nagasaki, it also has an ecclectic mix of foreign influence. However, I was so tired when I made it to the city, I just took a nap. I will explore that part of the city tomorrow. I woke up in time however to go up the Hakkodate ropeway and view the city at night. This is one of the most popular things to do in Hakkodate as the city lights reflect beautifully on the ocean on either side.

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Tomorrow, I leave Hokkaido (which I’m rather sad about) to go to the Tohoku area of Honshu. This is the place that was hit the hardest by the tsunami, but I believe much of the damage has been rebuilt. The next few days I will be the closest to Fukushima and the nuclear power plant disaster than I have been or will be this entire trip. Keep reading and see you soon!

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Sapporo

Yesterday I flew from Nagasaki to the city of Sapporo up north in Hokkaido Prefecture, Japan’s last frontier.  I first flew to Tokyo and then caught a connection on to Sapporo New Chitose Airport.  I was dreading the day of flying, but the Japanese move things along very quickly and the day wasn’t as much of a hassle as I was expecting.  They called to board the plane fifteen minutes before the flight, and I was away from the gate within ten minutes after that.  Very efficient.  When I landed in Sapporo, I took the train to Sapporo Station and walked to my ryokan.  The first thing I noticed about Sapporo is how nice the climate was.  It was around ten degrees cooler than Honshu and Kyushu and there was no humidity.  The buildings are all very modern and the city is unbelievably clean.  Also the trees around the city are very similar to those you would find in any US city.  Immediately, I was very attracted to how pleasant the city was.  My ryokan was sandwiched by the Hokkaido Prefectural Government building and the Hokkaido University Botanical Gardens, making it a little hard to fin.  But after some wandering, I found it all right.  Once I got to the hotel, I had a quick dinner and then went to bed.

This morning at breakfast, I tried natto for the first time.  Natto is a Japanese delicacy which suits only a very specialized pallete.  Natto is fermented soybeans, aka its soybeans put in a mixture of stuff and left to rot for a while.  The smell of natto is awful and I found the taste to be just as bad.  But many Japanese love it.  Near the end of breakfast, an American walked in who was wearing a Carnegie Mellon hat.  Since I was wearing my Case class shirt, we talked for a while.  He was a computer engineer who had family in Hokkaido and was here visiting for the first time in a while.

When breakfast was done, I met my guide.  He was an older man in his sixties.  Our first stop were the Botanical Gardens and the Prefectural Government building which were just blocks from the hotel.  When we stepped outside, the weather was gorgeous unlike some previous days in Kyushu.  I was extremely happy because Sapporo was beautiful.

You might notice that the gardens look like something you might find in America and very unlike typical Japanese gardens found in the rest of the country.  This is because when Hokkaido was being settled by the Japanese at the very beginning of the Meiji Period, the government brought several American agricultural experts to Hokkaido to develop the island for comfortable living for the Japanese.  Previously, only the Ainu people lived in Hokkaido and the climate was not particularly appealing for those living on Honshu.   The Americans who came over, brought many different species of plants and trees which which were suited for the cooler climate.  Because of this, the flora in Hokkaido is very similar to that of America.

The next stop was the old Hokkaido Prefectural Government building.  This building also looks very Western.  Its red brick and green steeples stand out against the backdrop of the modern city of Sapporo.  The building is no longer used for governmental purposes but is now a museum of the history of Hokkaido.  Hokkaido, as a Japanese prefecture, is only about 150 years old, but the Ainu people who inhabited it before have a long and interesting history which some of the rooms display.

Next, we went to Hokkaido Shrine.  The gardens surrounding the shrine were very calm and very reminiscent of home.  The tall pine and maple trees reminded me a lot of Dearborn.  This shrine, like most things on Hokkaido, is relatively modern.  It is the most important shrine for those living in Sapporo and the surrounding areas.  This shrine is a popular visiting place on New Years for those wishing for good luck for the ensuing year.  When we were there, there was an actual wedding in the process. I had seen other traditional Shinto wedding ceremonies at shrines in their early stages, but never one that was actually going on.

Hokkaido Jingu is dedicated to the kami of the frontier and there is a large sculpture dedicated to him at the shrine’s entrance.

With that, my tour of the city was over and I went back to my hotel.  Since the tour was only a half day and it was only around 12:30 when I got back, I scoured my guide book looking for something to do.  Hokkaido is host to many of the most scenic places in Japan, but because the prefecture is the largest (Japan’s Alaska), it takes a lot of time to get to those places.  I found that as much as I would have loved to go on an adventure in the wilderness outside of the city, I was pretty much confined to Sapporo and its immediate environs.  Both guide books said that the Sapporo Brewing Company was a must see in Sapporo, not only for the beer, but also because the campus and the gardens around it are nice to walk through.

The brewery was about a half hour walk from my hotel.  When I made it there, the gardens did jump out at me.  The park was filled with people just sitting taking in the view.  On the campus, there is both a Sapporo Brewery Museum and a beer garden.  I took the free tour of the beer museum, which was actually somewhat interesting.  In the company’s early beginnings, it was government sponsored as part of the development of the Hokkaido Prefecture.  It was apparently an important part of the development, as Emperor Meiji made a trip to the brewery from Tokyo to see the beer making process.  The chair he sat on during his visit is preserved as a treasure of the museum.

Soon after, it was privatized into the company it is today.  After the explanation of the history, the bottom floor is all about tasting the beer.  I got a few samples before heading off.

Tomorrow I go to Toya a little further south in Hokkaido.  See you soon!

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