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Hokkaido - Bear country

hokkaidoWild national parks and fields of flowers, plus less rainfall than in the rest of Japan in June. That swung it. We flew to Asahikawa to get straight to the heart of it. You can get airpasses before you arrive in Japan, as a foreign tourist, which keeps flight prices to a minimum. This way it cost £75 per flight anywhere inside Japan.

As we are 4 we picked up a car to get about. Our first stop was just down the road at Biei. The smallish town had an air of Australia, with its grid of wide streets showing that space is abundant. We stocked up at a local supermarket - the kids keen to try the foods they have seen on Japanese cartoons. A patchwork of fields spread out from Biei leading the eye to the snow-topped mountains that lined the horizon in the distance. 

We check into Potato-no-Oka, a lodge a short distance out of town and settled into our little terraced cottage with a patio looking out over working land. The homegrown produce, not surprisingly potatoes, will be part of our evening meal. Dinner is served promptly at 6.30 and fills the table with a variety of dishes. Our host, Takeo, welcomes us and introduces some of our fellow dinners, instigating an after dinner chat amongst the handful of english speakers from around the world.

At bedtime we pull out mattresses over tatami mats and sleep soundly side by side. Breakfast is served early but, as we have our own kitchen, we have long lie-ins (still adjusting to the time difference) and create our own at leisure.

There are lovely log cabins at Potato-no-Oka too, or dorm and private rooms in the lodge itself. There are communal areas where you can relax, use the internet, bathe, do washing etc. The reknowned chef also creates food for a small restaurant on site as well as in the lodge morning and evening.














We discovered that the promised blooming fields of lavender were more likely to present themselves around mid July - a good 2 weeks after we leave. The season can vary but to ensure seeing this stunning spectacle a June stay is too early, we realise to our disappointment. Although less vibrant, the panoramic views still impress with coloured rooftops dotted amidst the greener than grass landscape. 

Our first outing is to the onsen (natural hot springs) settlement of Shikone. We stop en-route at the Blue Pond. Its a beautiful aquamarine - exuding tranquility despite the transient line of tourists attempting to capture it. The trail we wanted to hike was closed off, so we climbed the tunnel of steps, past a waterfall, up to the volcanic centre. A bowing attendent ushered us into a cinema for an information film, in english, on the volcanic activity in Japan. Did you know there are 83 volcanos in Japan, one tenth of the worlds total? Rather disconcertingly, Hokkaido is overdue another large eruption!














With a dominating grey sky overhead we opt to visit a winery, and cheese and icecream 'factory' at Furone. The white wine was too sweet for me, while the icecream, in contrast, had flavours of asparagus, cheese and pumpkin. To dilute our dissapointment at the lack of lavender we stop at Tomita Farm where strips of colour paint the fields in bloom. 

tomitaSetting off from Potato-no-Oka further instilled our delight with the Japanese people. The staff saw us to the end of the drive with full (both arm) waves. As a nationality they are best described as sweet-natured. Despite rarely being able to speak enough english to have a conversation, they are helpful, friendly and often do things that surprise and put a smile on my face. I have fallen slightly in love with their ways.

Back on the road, we head for Daisetzen National Park, moving into the modern youth hostel which is spacious and well organised. After getting up to speed at the information centre we take our first jaunts into the woodland, enjoying the wild flowers that are pushing up around the remnants of snow. Some paths are still hidden under the shrinking snow - I can't help thinking, again, that perhaps another couple of weeks before arriving in Hokkaido could be ideal. The advantage of being here in late June may be that there aren't a lot of other visitors yet, and its not too hot. Temperatures are bouncing around the low 20s.

Following advise from the tourist office we are carrying a bear bell. This area is their domain. Do not turn your back or scream, and play dead if they charge - This could be hard advise to follow. Being 4 together and the 2 smaller ones possibly functioning far better than a bell as a loud speaker warning of our approach, probably means we are safer than most however.

Dinner and breakfast are included and we take our energy from the impressive spread as our next challenge is to climb Asahidake the mountain that, apparently, is our backdrop here. Unfortunately its overcast and we can't see it at all. We take the ropeway (a cable car) first thing in the morning and start our ascent. (This is not cheap at this time of year - it costs around £65 for the 4 of us for one return trip.) There is deep snow at first, and the sound of a waterfall (I later discover its fierce, volcanic steam jets) but we can't see more than a few feet ahead. The gravel underfoot makes for hard graft as it shifts underfoot, but we go on...higher...






















Nearing the top the cloud cleared a little and we got a brief glimpse of the landscape and peak before it disappeared again. Despite feeling we had got away from it all up there, we were unexpectedly passed by 250 Japanese teenages descending! It began to rain and get cooler, the children were tiring a little but we ploughed on to the top - working those distraction tactics to the max. summitChocolate was a welcome reward as we reached the summit. We were proud to conquer that mountain, at 2291m, especially as the conditions weren't very pleasant. On the way down, it was tough on the knees but once the ground became firmer, and we found our rhythm and my ipod was working its magic. I became quite hooked on the mysticism of walking in a haze where nothing existed beyond my little family. (Taking things easy we took 6 hours in all.)

Once we reached the hostel the rain fell hard. I was grateful it had held off long enough for us to complete the climb. We soaked our limbs in the heat of the onsen. Strictly no bathing suits allowed - this is an important Japanese washing ritual that becomes very addictive.

Sunshine greeted us next morning, our last day in Hokkaido. We decided to drive to Sounkyo, on the other side of the mountain. It was 2.5 hours drive but a beautiful one. Forested hillsides and rocky canyon drops with the mountains peeking over behind. On arrival we sat below the tumbling falls of ... for a picnic stop, and children were given snacks and gifts from tiny Japanese ladies. The road beyond was closed after the first 2 watersfalls so we drove round to the gorge on a little further on only to find some paths closed there too. The river side walking tracks were so stunning that we ducked under the tape, too tempted by the views to follow the rules - until we spotted a bear sign and thought better of it. 


Was it the blue skies and sunshine? I was blown away by Sounkyo. Especially if these tracks between the waterfalls and the gorge had all been accessible, I would say this area is a must. You can hike to Asahidake from here too I believe, although it would be a longer, more challenging route.

Although we did this area by car, you could get the Potato-no-Oka to pick you up and get around on a bike around Biei. With older children I would have enjoyed that. From the airport or Asahikawa city you can get a bus, 3 times a day, to the youth hostel at Daisetzen National Park. However you do it, try and get up to Hokkaido.