Travel Tales from Hokkaido Part 2: Discovering a New World
By Erik Lebs
My journey west through Hokkaido continues as the bus snakes its way back and forth along the curving mountain road. We climb upwards, cresting over the peak to reveal an expansive, unspoiled stretch of gently rolling hills below. It’s sublime views like this that make Japan’s northernmost island such a joyful surprise for travelers. The landscape is unlike any other place in the country.
On my third day of travels, having flown up from Tokyo Haneda Airport courtesy of the Japan Airlines Japan Explorer Pass, we’re driving from the friendly town of Obihiro to the small village of Biei. You might not have heard of one, but you’ll probably recognize the other.
In search of a desktop background
With a population of around 10,000, Biei is disproportionately famous due to the many photographs of its scenic landscapes used regularly in nationwide advertising campaigns, and as default Apple display backgrounds.
Coming out of the mountains and returning to flatter terrain, the small traces of a town reveal themselves from beneath the freshly fallen snow. The bus passes a hot pink pachinko parlor quirkily posed amongst the postcard-perfect surroundings before coming to an unexpected halt. Apparently this is my stop.
A tiny village with a world-famous view
After a short rest at the hotel, my first destination is the Blue Pond. Arguably the most exceptional view in the region, famous worldwide as the mesmerizing stock background for Apple’s iOS 7, I’m looking forward to seeing it in real life.
When the neighboring volcano, Mount Tokachi, erupted in 1988, the townspeople created this pond as a cautionary measure to absorb volcanic flow and prevent it from destroying the residences at the mountain’s base. The incidental addition of aluminum hydroxide to the pond turned the water a vivid sky blue. Add the skeletal remnants of trees poking out from the pond through a seemingly permanent mist and you have a scene that is hypnotizing in its otherworldly beauty.
It’s already dark when I arrive. An array of cleverly placed lights have been installed, which transition through a series of blue and white settings, presenting a dozen-odd configurations of painted scenes come to life.
An enchanted, frozen waterfall
We depart for our next location, the Shirahige Waterfall. A large steel bridge, some 80 meters long, connects the two craggy faces of a gorge, as a river rages below. From one cliff side, a torrent of water crashes downwards. Exposure to the cold winter air has frozen the waterfall’s innermost layer, creating a thick crust of ice that clings to the rock wall. The bridge railings are just a little too short, and my imagination can’t help but entertain the possibility of a plunge into the mysterious concoction of ice and water that froths below us. For a moment, it feels like I’m a storybook adventurer that’s landed in some spellbound landscape ruled by sorcery.
Spell broken, we get back onto the bus. Back at the hotel, I plan my schedule for the following day when I’ll be traveling to the city of Asahikawa.
Journey to ramen city
The 25-kilometer bus ride from Biei to Asahikawa takes almost an hour in the snow but by the time we arrive the sun has poked out of the clouds, making for unexpectedly temperate weather. After three days of rural adventuring, Asahikawa is a welcome return to the city, with a large station facing a long walkable plaza of restaurants and drinking establishments, neighbored by a dozen or so hotels.
Asahikawa is Hokkaido’s second-largest city and the main gateway to nearby Furano; a region that draws tourists in the summertime to its charmingly cultivated flower fields, while in the winter, transforming into a playground for winter sports. It’s also a popular entrance point to the epic Daisetsuzan National Park, a hiker’s limitless paradise of roaming bears in golden forests, hawks circling above crystal lakes, and smoking volcanic craters.
Asahikawa is also beloved for its epic excess of ramen so that’s what I decide to tackle first.
The story of Asahikawa’s most famous noodles
I walk to Aoba, the oldest ramen shop in Asahikawa. For what is arguably the town’s most famous ramen, Aoba’s small storefront is unpretentiously situated on the main drag between two other nondescript establishments, a small orange banner dangling from above its sliding doors. I poke my head inside and am quickly greeted by three older Japanese people. I’m the first customer of the day!
The cook behind the kitchen is in his 60s, while the other two helping are well into their late 70s. Immediately upon sitting down, the eldest woman plonks down next to me and begins to tell me about the shop and her family. Then she pulls out a stack of notebooks, which serve as guestbooks signed by all the traveler’s who have come to the shop. She instructs me to remember my notebook number (#94), as I must bring my entire family back to the shop next time I visit and nostalgically show them my original notebook entry.
Our conversation is soon replaced by a steaming bowl of shoyu ramen (soy-based broth). The sensation of eating a proper (and seriously good) bowl of ramen is the culinary equivalent of getting a deep tissue massage. I’m fully relaxed and replenished by the end of the meal.
March of the penguins
I’m now ready to enjoy Asahikawa’s other main claim to fame, its zoo. Located a short bus ride east of the main station, the Asahiyama Zoo is situated on a gently inclining hill, with various animal exhibits scattered throughout. The zoo has pioneered a creative viewing style – known as “behavioural enrichment” with animals set in a natural habitat in close proximity to visitors – that is now imitated by other zoos and aquariums elsewhere in Japan.
Each exhibit is cleverly constructed to allow for unique views of the animals. I witness a red panda crossing a bridge that dangles over the unexpected heads of park attendees. I find myself casually standing next to a group of penguins, who — with their nonplussed demeanor — are clearly the coolest creatures of the animal kingdom. Later in the day, they let the penguins march amongst the park attendees for a “Penguin Walk.” All of this takes place against an extraordinarily picturesque snowy landscape.
One last adventure in the night snow
As the afternoon turns to dusk I prepare for my last activity in Hokkaido. I’m going for an evening hike through the snow. Picked up by my guide, Kazuhiro, we drive together to the nearby base of Mt. Kitoushi, where two additional guides await. From there the four of us strap on pairs of snowshoes and depart for a one-hour trek.
Despite the moonless pitch-black sky, the white snow reflects the scarce remnants of light, and before too long my eyes have adjusted to the low-lit ambiance, making headlamps or flashlights unnecessary. We navigate through the trees, the wide snowshoes lightly distributing our weight, allowing for an extra degree of agility. Through them we see the expanse of the white-sprinkled sprawl of Asahikawa below.
With just a few hours remaining in my Hokkaido trip, another awe-inspiring view seems a fitting conclusion.
Back to Tokyo
The next morning I board my plane from Asahikawa airport and fly back to the city. I look down at the snowy white fields stretching out several thousand feet below. An hour and a half later I’ll be staring back down at a sea of tightly packed gray buildings as I touch down in Tokyo.
The last five days were just the adventure I needed to start the new year, filled with spectacular views, incredible cuisine, and exceptionally friendly people. I hope that this is a sign of my 2017 to come. If not, I’ll just have to go back.
Why go to Hokkaido?
Exploring Hokkaido is a fantastic way to experience a part of Japan that differs from the typical expectations of many travelers, often compelled to limit their trips to the urban metropolis of Tokyo and the guided temple tours of Kyoto as the best way to explore in a short time. But with regular Japan Airlines flights running from Tokyo to even small destinations such as Obihiro and Asahikawa, a single-day trip is a possible option.
And Hokkaido is equally as eye-opening as the more famous places. It’s a whole new world that remains indelibly linked to the story of Japan, offering a chance to explore the last of the unknown. With its incredible views, warm atmosphere (even in the snow) and that intangible aura of otherworldliness, Hokkaido is truly magic.
Japan Airlines operates flights from Tokyo Haneda Airport to Asahikawa Airport from where you can take a bus into the city (about 35 minutes). You could also fly with Japan Airlines to Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport and take a limited express train to Asahikawa. The journey is just over 80 minutes.
The town of Biei is best accessed via bus from the main station in Asahikawa. Given that it’s only 25 kilometers away from the city, Biei makes for a great day trip – there are plenty of charter buses and tours that can guide you there. Asahikawa station is the most convenient departure point for all destinations, including the zoo and the airport. For any assistance, simply step inside the station where you will find a tourist desk offering assistance in English.
The snowshoeing trek was coordinated by Kazuhiro Hayashi, who runs an Asahikawa-based tour company called Motocracy. They also arrange horseback rides, dog sleds, hot air balloon rides, and more.