After a trip through the longest and deepest tinsel in the world on some of the fastest trains in the world we then jumped into what felt like of the slowest trains in the world. We appeared to be about a year early of them finishing the bullet train line to Sapporo so we were stuck on a slow noisy diesel train for 3 hours. We didn’t stay in Sapporo for long before setting off into more “rural” Hokkaido. Our first stop was the Daisetsuzan national park for a bit of volcanoes and hiking but as we arrived late in the afternoon we thought we’d have a quick look at a waterfall that was nearby. When we got there we discovered that the path to the waterfall was closed for renovations, which seems to have become something of a habit for places we try to visit in Japan. We did manage a quick walk over a dam and back as the sun was setting which made up for it.
Our first trek up a hill was to Asahi Dake. It’s 2291m and an active Volcano complete sulphurous smelling steam vents. It’s not quite Fuji but it’s still a good long humf up the hill. The bottom reaches, I say bottom, the road at 1500m so not exactly sea level, are very alpine with patches of meadow that would be covered in flowers in spring. It is a very beautiful bit of the country. As you approach the half way point the vegetation thins out and you suddenly remember where you actually are. With the peak looming in front of you and the various vents billowing out steam it was very reminiscent of Iceland only a little warmer. That said by the time we’d scrabbled up to the summit it was actually enough to put on a jumper and coat for the first time since leaving the UK.
The next day follows a very similar plot with a trek up a volcano. This time out walk was accompanied by the sound of explosions. Needless to say, explosions are a slightly unnerving sound when your up a volcano. Fortunately it wasn’t the mountain itself making the noise. We think it was some sort of nearby firing range though we could never quite actually see the of the nose. A much more gently walk up but with equality impressive scenery made for a great introduction to Japan’s biggest prefecture.
The next stop was the very north east corner of Japan for some more beautiful scenery and some onsen. We stayed in a cabin at a camp site that felt like spome sort of North American hunting lodge only with its own private onsen which makes a very nice way to have a wash the end of the day. We had a day at each side of the Shiretoko peninsula. We had fun pushing our little 600cc kei car to its limits over the mountain pass on our way to the first of the days onsen. Situated right at the end on the coast road it was supposed to be nice pair of pools by the beach with some shelter for changing. When we arrived we found that it was currently a pair of slightly grotty puddles full of rocks and sand after some rough weather and was closed for renovations, again. Thankfully the onsen we had in mind was nearby and not closed. It also turned out to be much nicer as well. Also located by the see, hot water bubbles up through cracks in the rock pools that vary in temperature as the tides change so they slowly cool down as they fill up with sea water. We arrived as the tide was on its way in so got to enjoy the gradual cooling off in first the cooler pool then the hotter one before the waves started overtopping the sheltering rocks. We retreated back up to the car and made our way to the nearby town for a spot of coffee and cake at a surprisingly nice little place where the host enjoyed what I’m guessing was the relatively rare chance to practice her English skills.
Following the shopkeeps recommendation we went to the local Visitor centre which had a good short video about the area and some interesting displays. At the back of the centre was a short walk to a geyser that we went to have a look at. The information sign was entirely in Japanese which made it a slow process to work out that the geyser only went off every 50 to 90 minutes. After 15-20 minutes we decided it probably want going off for a while so we gave up and edged our way out of sight before walking back to the car and heading to the next onsen.
I am slightly ashamed to admit that we effectively away from this onsen. In a very nice location by the river just out of town, this onsen was rather busy with locals all chatting away merrily to each other. Now it’s not the lack of clothing that made reluctant to jump in, rather the not being entirely sure of the etiquette around washing beforehand as all the locals appeared to have brought a small wash basket with a small towel and soap. We didn’t have any of that and didn’t want to get out that wrong with such a large crowd. So knowing we had plenty more onsen to come we meekly stole away back to the car to find some dinner and ejoy the rather less daunting onsen back at the camp.
The following day was spent on the near side of the peninsula with our first stop at a raised Boardwalk along to a lake. On our way up we caught our first glimpse of bears. A mother and cub wandered out into the road in front of the coach we were behind before disappearing back into the woods. Even from this distance we were glad to be in a car and fully understood why the boardwalk is five meters above the ground with an electric fence around it.
Next up was the warm waterfall. From what I can only assume is a very sizable hot spring, the warm river flows down a long series of small cascades with a few pools to splash around in. Sadly the higher and presumably hotter sections have been cordoned off for some reason that was written in Japanese but there was someone official wandering around as well so we decided not to risk sneaking past the rope across the stream. I really wish that the water in caves and canyons was this temperature. I cant put into words how amazing that would be.
After this we headed up another sort road in search of the next onsen. A series of three pools going into a forest just past the car park at the end of the road. We found then easily enough and guess what… closed for renovations. Well shitzu. Instead we had a bit of a walk up and down a river we’d driven pass the time before calling it a day.
Time to start heading back toward Sapporo we planned a route past lake Kussharo in Akan national park with more onsen to be had. The first stop wasn’t an onsen but a hot beach where the water soaks up through the sand and into the lake. If you dig down a little you get your own little foot bath. We soon discovered that it was best to make your pool right at the waters edge so that the water in the lake could mix in. Otherwise the water was far too hot to bear for more than a few seconds. This is definitely the strangest hot spring I have ever come across and worth stopping at. Both the next two onsen were by the lake as well. The first was a huge pool of blue water eight metres across. And was closed. Not quite for renovations this time but due to an unexpected algal bloom. Thankfully the last onsen on our trip was open and empty. A pair of small but clear pools by the shore with a small changing hut and a magnificent view. It definitely made for a perfect onsen to end on.
We had one last stop planned before being back in Sapporo. Bear Mountain.