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Crowds watching Sumida River fireworks

On Shirakami  mountain hike

Clouds gathering below Shirakami

Iwaki Shrine

Crossing Daisetsuzan

Lunch on top of Hakkoda

Hirosaki Neputa festival 2

Breakfast at Ryu's Inn

Kids playing in Odori Koen Beer Festival site

Goshiki hilltop onsen hot spring

Path across Daisetsuzan

Blue carpet of Bellflowers on Daisetsuzan Hokkaido

Campanula on Daisetsuzan

Diapensia lapponica vari. obovata.

Pretty but what are they  Gentian maybe

Saxifraga Merkii.

Path over Daisetsuzan

Lagoon beside Sea of Okhotsk

Mount Shari.

Climbing Mount Shari.

Group on top of Shari.

Old Abashiri Prison bathhouse

Ezo shika deer

Shima risu The Siberian chipmunk

Tip of Shiretoko Peninsula

Ainu necklace ornament.

Kabukiza in Tokyo.

Northern Horizons - Hokkaido & North Main Island

August 2006

 

‘Why come to Hokkaido ?', a local asked me when I was researching this tour in May. ‘There's nothing here. Nothing!' he said. But he knew that Hokkaido has something. So did I.

 

So it was with a sense of curiosity as much as excitement that we set off on the tour to the deep north. Travelling from Tokyo station to Akita , then on to the Shirakami Mountains on the Sea of Japan , we felt as though we'd entered another world. Japan 's a bit like that - worlds within worlds. We passed through pretty countryside when we lost the way briefly trying to figure out the car satellite navigation system north of Akita . In the end instinct and reading the land got us to our first destination, a minshuku by the sea at the foot of Shirakamidake.

 

On the climb the next day we were accompanied by the local TV station, Akita Asahi Broadcasting (AAB). I received the video tape in the post this morning and hope to have time to watch it soon. It will document a climb through beech forests on one of many hot, hot days. One thing it won't show is the cameraman. He was ill-prepared for the climb. The soles of his boots fell off half way up, and he nearly collapsed with exhaustion on the way home. He sent me the video so he must have driven the two hours back to Akita safely.

 

One of the photos records what a jolly tiring day it was, and how little beer it takes to keep over and have a nap on the tatami mats after dinner.

 

On the drive over to Hirosaki we stopped for a bowl of noodles and a look at the important Iwaki Shrine at the foot of Mount Iwaki , one of Japan 's sacred pilgrimage peaks. Stopping at the usual prayer slips and charms on sale, I mentioned how hot we all were to the miko (a shrine ‘maiden') at the window, whereupon she magically produced fans for everyone. The colourful picture on the fans was of the festival we were to see that evening in Hirosaki. The Hirosaki Neputa Matsuri . So wishes do come true, sometimes.

 

There was time before dinner for a quick flit around Hirosaki. The wonderful old 17 th century Choshoji temple was unfortunately under wraps for a total refurbishment, but we sweet-talked the builders who were about to knock-off and were allowed a brief glimpse of the Tsugaru clan mausoleums to the side of the main hall. Hirosaki Neputa is some spectacle. Not as big or famous as the neighbouring Aomori Nebuta, but just as dynamic and colourful. Everyone from the youngest children in prams to Hirosaki's senior citizens took part in the parade.

 

Drummers, warriors
Dancing, marching band, bondage
A dog, Neputa

 

Everyone seemed to enjoy the walk over Hakkoda san. The hike features upland marsh environment, mixed forests and, higher up, a sub alpine environment. This makes the walk particularly interesting. Again it was a hot climb, but it was cooler sitting on the rocky bluff on top for lunch. The whole area is geothermally active. We walked up a sulphurous gully on the way up and our accommodation that night was in a lovely secret onsen hot spring lodge in the woods nearby. We all gave the organic food there the thumbs up.

 

The next morning, after a session in steaming pools and breakfast, we stopped by the Munakata Shiko museum in Aomori before boarding the ferry for Hakodate in Hokkaido . Known for his fine woodblocks, Munakata was one of the most important Japanese artists of the twentieth century. His work reminded me of the woodblock prints by Okinawan artist Naka Bokunen. Although their prints are similar, Bokunen lives and works on one of the smaller islands in Okinawa , right at the other end of Japan .

 

We sailed into Hakodate port, the southernmost gateway to Hokkaido , after a peaceful crossing of the Tsugaru Straits. After settling into our boutique hotel we took the cable car up Hakodateyama. The view of the lights twinkling along the isthmus the city sits on in the evening and the brilliant dots of light from the squid fishing boats out to sea was quite spectacular. Hakodate was one of the firs two ports to be opened for trading, after Japan emerged from isolation from the rest of the world after 250 years, following The Treaty of Kanagawa between Japan and the US in 1854. The other port was Shimoda. A British Consulate was established in Hakodate in 1859 by Christopher Hodgson. In the morning, after breakfast on the freshest seafood in the nearby fish market (which has surely the most delicious, freshly shredded surume ) we visited the consulate constructed in Hakodate later, in 1913.

 

Our friend Ryu then drove us up to his home in Niseko. Niseko, with its reliable dumps of powder snow, has become a popular winter playground for skiers throughout Asia , and particularly Australians. In the summer, however, the area is peaceful, and we enjoyed a fine onsen hot spring bath high on a nearby mountain. Ryu's timber house is surrounded by fields of potatoes, maize, and beans. The small dairy herds we saw on our morning walk were mostly kept in open sheds, unlike in Britain where we are more used to seeing cows grazing freely in pastures. From Niseko we travelled on to Sapporo , stopping briefly to drink some of the local Niseko spring water.

 

The broad leafy avenues of Sapporo give it a more European feel than many Japanese cities. Our stay coincided with the annual beer festival held in Odori Koen. As well as enjoying the local Sapporo ramen noodles, we had an excellent Genghis Khan grilled lamb dinner. The following day we visited the first whisky distillery to be established in Japan , the Nikka distillery in Yoichi. Our local contact Saori kindly guided us around Sapporo and Yoichi. Her local knowledge and interpreting skills were very useful. Arigato Saori!

 

The fine, hot weather continued as we progressed further into Hokkaido towards the highest mountain on the island, Asahidake. Asahidake is part of the Daisetsuzan massif, the roof of Hokkaido . Summers are short here and the winters severe. The long day's hike over Daisetsuzan, was one of trip highlights. As well as a host of alpine flowers – gentians, pinks, dwarf rhododendron (which kept the photographers happily snapping), we saw foxes ( kitakitsune ), deer ( Ezo shika ), and squirrels ( shima risu ). Fumaroles with jets of steam and bubbling grey mud pools skirt the mountain. We stayed in a wonderful ‘secret' natural hot spring onsen near a bubbling cauldron – a great way to relax after a hard days walking.

 

Sitting in the onsen
Watching sunset gently drifting
A large wasp attacks

 

Seafood in Hokkaido is excellent, and nowhere more so than in the towns of Abashiri, Shari , and Utoro, and Rausu, which face the Sea of Okhotsk with its abundant marine life. The scallops and salmon and salmon roe are particularly delicious. The only Hokkaido Brown Bear ( higuma ) we glimpsed was from a boat off the tip of the Shiretoko Peninsula . With food abundant in the woods, bears tend not to move out into the lower coastal areas or the areas where hikers walk in the summer. On our hikes up Mount Shari and Rausudake we all carried bear bells and I had bear spray just in case. Whilst there are several hundred brown bears in this wilderness area, we found scratch marks on tree trunks but not much other evidence along the trails.

 

There has recently, but rather belatedly, been a growing recognition of the importance of Ainu history and culture, but sadly the Ainu heritage is not much in evidence as visitors to Hokkaido soon discover. The Abashiri Museum of Northern Peoples is excellent, but covers all the ethnic groups in the far northern hemisphere. I found the collected exhibits an interesting context in which to view Ainu culture, but I think that others in the group wanted to see and learn more specifically about the Ainu. To learn a bit more:

http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/cultural/oldworld/asia/ainu.html

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/hokkaido/

http://www.ainu-museum.or.jp/english/eng01.html

http://www.trekearth.com/gallery/Asia/Japan/photo428006.htm

 

A tour of the glossily reconstructed Abashiri Prison made us aware that, like Australia , the remote island of Hokkaido was where many convicts were sent in the latter part of the 19 th Century. Between 1886 and 1894 the Meiji government established five major prisons on Hokkaido.

 

Although similar to winters in the Tohoku area of northern Japan , life for the prisoners, as well as settlers, must have been brutal in the winters since, unlike the Ainu, they had not of course adapted to life in this sort of environment over thousands of years.

 

So we began to glimpse Hokkaido as we walked its mountains, studied its past, and talked to the locals. But a tour of this kind, where there is so much to do and see, and where we are nearly always on the go, can ultimately only offer a brief introduction.

 

 

 

Click to read haiku poems from this tour.

 

 

 

 

Trolley service on the bullet train to Akita.

Guide Sasaki san.

Crossing a stream

View from Hakkoda

Hirosaki Neputa festival

At Ryu's Inn in Niseko

Hokkaido blues

Saori guiding us at Nikka Yoichi distillery

Sampling Nikka whisky

Butterfly on Hakkoda san

Fumaroles below Asahidake

Campanula on Daisetsuzan 2

Dicentra Peregrina  Bleeding Heart.

Primula Cuneifolia

Wild flowers on Daisetsuzan

Group on top of Hokkaido

Secret onsen hot spring

Mount Shari map

Bumping into a friend climbing Mount Shari.

On top of Mount Shari.

Museum of Northern Peoples

Friends in Abashiri.

Feeding time

Shiretoko Peninsula waterfall

Kamuiwakka hot waterfalls

Attractive concrete tetrahedron sea defence centre piece

 


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