After checking out of the Cross Hotel in Sapporo, and having tea at Starbucks, we picked up our new rental car this morning, about an eight block walk from the hotel, not a long walk, even though we were carrying our backpacks…but we did chat along the way about taking less clothes with us the next time we travel! It seems that no matter how often we travel, and how much we cut down on what we take, we still carry too much with us, rather than relying on washing what we do bring more often. We’ll have another opportunity to travel light, on our next backpacking trip, to India, Bhutan and Sikkim, later on this year.
Our new rental car, which we will have for the next 11 days as we travel around Hokkaido, is a bit larger and in better condition than the ill-fated one we had in Miyakojima, so I feel more confident behind the wheel than I did before!
Our aim today was to drive to the Sounkyo Gorge in Daisetsuzan National Park, which, at 2310 sq. km, is the largest national park in all of Japan. The Park is essentially a huge raised plateau, full of wildflowers this time of year, ringed by dramatic, rocky mountains and hot springs. Our onsen hotel, the Taisetsu, is located right by the base of Mt. Kurodake, which is accessible by a combination of cable car, chairlift, and hiking. There are two other major onsen resort towns, located at the bases of two other mountains, elsewhere in Daisetsuzan.
We planned on seeing as much as possible along the way, by taking the longer route to get to our destination, through the towns of Furano and Biei, which are well known for their gorgeous blooming lavender fields. We took the most rural, scenic route we could discover to make this drive north and east from Sapporo, and we passed through many simple farming villages on the way. When we got to Furano, we discovered that we were not here in lavender blooming season, so there were few splashes of purple in the landscape we saw. However, both Furano and Biei had small farm roads surrounded by beautiful patchworks of different colored vegetables, plants and flowers, and it was easy to imagine how they must have looked in season.
By the time we made it to the Hotel Taisetsu, it was already late in the afternoon, so we walked around the hotel before dinner to get oriented. The hotel itself is a bit dated in terms of its appearance, but it is clean and well maintained, and our room was spacious – more than ten tatami mats in size. There are three separate onsens, all available almost 24 hours a day, with baths of different temperatures, with either mineral-rich or spring waters. As with all Japanese onsens, there is a washing area to use before you enter the baths (and if you’ve bathed in the sulfurous mineral waters, you also wash or shower again afterwards).
Dinner hour begins every night at 5:30pm, and the tour group busses don’t arrive until more than an hour later, so there is a perfect window to dine with only a few other guests, if we go to the dining room at about 6:30pm…so that’s what we did! The dining room is set up with tables around a long buffet in the center, filled with many different dishes of vegetables and seafood, and a few of meat as well. There is also a table with desserts, and another of hot and cold drinks. The food seems fresh, and is simply seasoned, but very enjoyable in its variety – it’s easy to eat a pleasant and filling meal here that is also healthy. After dinner, Tali and I each went to the onsen we had chosen (each of the onsens is segregated by sex) on our earlier tour of the hotel. The baths are fantastic – clean, restful, and nearly empty, to my surprise! I especially liked the onsen that has an outdoor bath, and was in the most modern style of the three, and I decided that would be “my” onsen while we were here. It’s possible to just sit and soak, undisturbed, allowing old and unexamined thoughts and feelings to melt away, just as any muscle aches and pains do.
We began our first full day at Hotel Taisetsu by changing rooms in the morning – twice, in fact! We were trying to get a room away from the large hotel parking lot, because the tour busses, that had arrived at dinner time the evening before, loaded up their many tourists and left quite early in the morning for their next destination, right outside our window! Our first effort for an “atarishi heya” got us a room at the far end of the same parking lot, better but not quite right, but our next attempt was successful, and we moved to the other side of the hotel, with nothing but the forest outside our window – so much better! As always when we travel, a positive attitude and a friendly manner can usually overcome most any language barrier we encounter.
Once we got settled in our new room, we headed out for our hike of the day, up to the summit of Mount Kurodake. This is a very popular hike in Daisetsuzan National Park, judging from the full parking lot at the entrance to the cable car, which takes you part of the way up the mountain, and accesses the chairlift that goes further up, to the beginning of the hike. We really appreciate the location of Taisetsu, at most a few hundred meters from the cable car, so we can just walk over to begin our adventure!
The sightseeing was fantastic from the cable car going up the first 1300 meters through the forest, heading towards the base of Mt. Kurodake – the trees grow very densely, all different types of evergreens, spruce and birch native to Hokkaido, and the surrounding mountains are still capped with quite a bit of snow. We got off the cable car (which was big enough to carry about a hundred people, even though there were less than a dozen visitors on our ride up, including us), and walked over to the chairlift, to continue another 220 meters up to the trailhead.
Once there, we took a look at the steep, rock-strewn path in front of us, and knew that we were in for a challenging and exciting experience! We signed the logbook and saw that almost all of the hikers were Japanese, and their ages ranged from late forties to early seventies. These Japanese people take their hiking seriously! We knew beforehand that this was to be a “serious” hike, so at least we had worn our hiking boots, but we were woefully unprepared compared to our Japanese fellow-hikers, most of whom were fully equipped with gaiters, walking poles, professional day packs, technical clothing, and, lest I forget, bells to let the native Hokkaido brown bears know of their presence.
What a fantastic experience this hike was! It was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and exciting hikes that either Tali or I have ever taken. Much of the hiking path was strewn with boulders of all sizes that we needed to make our way around – much of the path looked in fact like an old stream bed, or maybe a seasonal stream that is still flowing during snow-melt in springtime. Parts of the path were still covered with snow, and parts were very muddy – all was at a steep grade up, with a steep drop off to the plateau below, requiring balance, coordination, and some strength.
We encountered many, many hikers, either climbing or descending – a huge variety of people were making this hike today – everyone from climbing clubs of a dozen to fifty hikers, to a group of young skiers with their skis strapped to their backs (!!!), to a young woman carrying her baby in a backpack (!!!), to lots of families with young children, to women and men significantly older than us, making their way sure-footedly and quickly.
The scenery was breathtaking – the high plateau was strewn with colorful grasses and wildflowers, with rocky outcroppings at higher altitudes; around the plateau were the many shades of green of the native forests; and then, still further away were the looming mountain peaks that ring the plateau. The very top of Mt. Kurodake is flat, and so when we finally reached the summit after more than two hours of hiking and picture-taking, there was an incredible 360 degree panorama as our reward. The hiking path actually continued from here, across to the peak of Mt. Asahi, and then descending to its onsen hotels, but that longer hike required more time than was left in the day. As it was, when we turned around and descended (on this type of terrain, not much easier than the climb had been), we knew that the chairlift and cable car stopped operating at 4:30, but we managed to make it in plenty of time…tired, but exhilarated!
And what could possibly be better than coming back from a strenuous hike, and going to wash up and soak in a wonderful onsen? How grateful I feel for all the blessings in my life…