Hokkaido Highlights

Sometimes, the best view is the one behind you.

PHOTOGRAPHY  G-NIE ARAMBULO, AD PHOTO


The next time you visit Japan, consider Eastern Hokkaido, where winter lasts for about six months, from November to April. It’s a beautiful province that places few physical demands on tourists. All that was required for this majestic view of Shiretoko mountain range was an amble from the parking lot of Shiretoko Five Lakes to the 800-meter elevated boardwalk, which leads to the first lake. Once you’re strolling on the boardwalk, surrounded by an endless (and odorless) green carpet of skunk cabbage, don’t forget to turn around. Sometimes, the best view is the one behind you.

“Shiretoko” means “land’s end” in the Ainu language. October is the best month to see the temperate deciduous forest in its golden autumnal glory. This picture, on the other hand, was taken in May, when “last winter” fades into spring and brown-bear mating season begins. Regardless of when you visit — in the gentle embrace of spring or the dead of winter — Shiretoko Mountain Range lives up to its name: it is land’s end, beyond which sea and sky meet. — SLM


DAY 1: Toyama Farm and Ikeda Wine Castle

From April to October, tourists can visit Toyama Farm and stroll through a yellow field of unfortunately named rapeseed flowers, which is where canola oil comes from. The bright blossoms are edible and can be bitten straight off the stem. If you prefer your flowers cooked, you can get them ohitashi-style and enjoy the soy sauce-flavored boiled blooms. Guides set up a tent so that you can picnic in the shade.

The Toyama Farm picnic is an all-rapeseed affair composed of bread dipped in rapeseed oil, rapeseed tempura deep-fried in rapeseed oil, ohitashi, and corn tea. Still hungry? You can even eat the centerpiece.

Sample Japanese wine (made from grapes and not rice) and brandy at Ikeda Wine Castle in Tokachi. The annual wine festival, which is held on the first Sunday of October, draws up to 5,000 people. According to the district’s tourism site, the festival is an all-you-can-drink, all-you-can-eat feast that includes grilled Tokachi beef, beef sausage, beef hamburger steak, Chan-Chan Yaki and local potatoes boiled in a giant pot. Partaking of three whole Ikeda cows that are roasted on a spit for 10 hours is recommended.

WHERE TO EAT

Hage-Ten, one of the famous Japanese restaurants in Obihiro, is known for its butadon (pork rice bowl) and its super-soft meat. Trivia: The restaurant is called “Hage-Ten” because its owner is hairless (“hage” means bald in Japanese).

WHERE TO STAY

Tokachigawa Onsen Daiichi Hotel has rooms that offer views of the Tokachi River. If you’re too shy to try the public baths, book a suite that has an in-room onsen. While there are several dining options available in the hotel, look into Tokachi restaurant and its sit-down dinner composed of Hokkaido specialties.

DAY 2: Kushiro river canoeing

Canoeing down Kushiro River is the best way to explore Kushiro Marsh, a protected wetland that serves as the habitat of the Japanese crane and a host of other birds that caw, squawk, trill, and coo. Onomatopoeia is a poor substitute for the actual avian symphony. Each flat-bottomed canoe fits three people, English-speaking guide included, and you’re expected to help paddle. There’s no rush, though, and the current helps the canoe along.

Toro Nature Center is one of several “experience-based tourist agencies” that serve Kushiro Marsh. The Center itself has a trapper vibe, what with antlers on the wall, a fur carpet on the floor, and numerous hats scattered about. Teddy Saito, the funny guy who runs the place, has been doing tours for 16 years and can customize your Kushiro adventure depending on your needs. When should you go? That depends. Saito loves canoeing through the river in winter, when bare branches are spiked with hoar frost and mist rises from the water.    

WHERE TO EAT

Despite being the oldest market in Kushiro, Washo fish market is spotless. You can assemble your own katte-don or “as-you-wish” donburi rice (rice bowl) by pointing at any of the fresh seafood available at the sashimi stalls.

WHERE TO STAY

Popular with the locals, New Akan Hotel recently unveiled its rooftop swimming pool and outdoor bath, which provide an unmatched view of Lake Akan and the Akan mountains. If you want to try sleeping on tatami floor mats, request a Japanese-style room.

WHAT ELSE TO DO

An Ainu cultural village is walking distance from the hotel. Every night, at 8 p.m., a musical performance that tells the story of Japan’s indigenous people is staged. Looking for souvenirs? There are plenty of shops selling Ainu handicrafts.

DAY 3: Lake Akan Cruise, Mashu and Shiretoko Five Lakes

 

Shiretoko Five Lakes is a must-see at any time of year. After taking a 90-minute walk that covers all fives lakes, you can take a car up to Shiretoko Mountain Pass. From there, you’ll get excellent views of Mount Rausu, the highest peak in the Shiretoko Peninsula. Visit during winter, and you can sled down the mountainside.

The Lake Akan Cruise Sightseeing Cruise is a relaxing way to spend a couple of hours, staring at white birch, fir, spruce, and ash trees in silence. Lake Akan boasts that it is the only place where you can find perfect spheres of marimo. The Cruise stops at the Spherical Moss Exhibition and Observation Center on Churui Island, where you can see the moss balls yourself.

There are several ways of catching a glimpse of Lake Mashu, the clearest lake in the world. The most popular is Mashu Lake Observatory 1, which has a rest house and a scenic trail that leads to a direct view of the lake.

WHERE TO EAT

Covo Restaurant, an Italian restaurant in the form of a log cabin in the middle of nowhere, is the preferred lunch stop for those exploring the Kushiro Marshland-Lake Akan-Lake Mashu area. Built and operated by a former nature guide, the restaurant follows the trend of using the best in-season local ingredients.

WHERE TO STAY

Located a reasonable distance from Oshinkoshin Falls and Mount Rausu, Shiretoko Grand Hotel Kitakobushi has a wonderful view of the Sea of Okhotsk and Utoro Pier. Both Japanese-style and Western-style rooms are available, and onsen lovers may choose from several options.

DAY 4: Utoro Pier and Pink Moss Park

If you plan to visit Hokkaido in the spring, find out when the phlox flowers are in full bloom. According to locals, your best bets are dates around May 20. There are several pink moss parks to choose from, among them Higashimokoto Shibazakura Park village. Wondering, perhaps, how to sustain tourist interest when the tiny flowers aren’t in bloom, the park offers several activities such a go-kart racing, strawberry picking, and camping in geodesic domes.

The Shiretoko Nature Cruise is an hour-long trip that starts and ends at Utoro Pier. Gyring seabirds populate the stark black cliffs and depending on when you go, you have a pretty good chance of seeing other animals from the ferry, including brown bears, eagles, whales, and porpoises. In the winter, drift ice from Russia arrives in the Sea of Okhotsk, blanketing the water in white. You can hop on an icebreaker ship and plow through the cold.

WHERE TO EAT

It would be a shame to visit Hokkaido and not eat hairy crab, a regional specialty. There are different ways of preparing hairy crab but it’s best to have it traditionally: steamed whole with minimal seasoning.

WHERE TO STAY

Hokuten No Oka Lake Abashiri Tsuruga Resort has a distinct look inspired by the Ainu as evidenced by the ubiquity of wooden sculptures and furniture. A “chair gallery,” located on the first floor adds a contemporary twist to the hotel’s aesthetic.


High Life visited Hokkaido as a guest of Japan’s Ministry of Transport, the Eastern Hokkaido Tourism Association, and the Japan Tourism Bureau (JTB). For more information and for assistance in arranging transport, tours, and accommodations, contact JTB’s Manila Office at jtbphilippines.com. As our guide put it: “They can do anything.” Promos are usually offered in October.

Photos were shot on a Fujifilm X-T1 and a Fujifilm X-Pro2.