Northern Horizons - Hokkaido & North
‘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
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.
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
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:
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
Click to read
haiku poems from this tour.