Day 6 (3/3).
A sudden downpour greeted our arrival to the farming community as we left Hoshino Resorts Tomamu and entered Minamifurano or South Furano (南富良野). A long and winding road cut through fields of rice paddies, wheat and corn, and passed by rows after rows of farming greenhouses against the backdrop of Tokachi Mountain Range (十勝岳). Further afield, rolling fields of summer flowers had yet reached their peak moment of summer blossom. We could imagine that at its peak in mid July, these fields could well be covered in rainbow colours: sunflower, poppies, lilies, and most famous of all, different types of lavender. At one point, we stopped the car right by a small country road, just to taste the sweetness of nature and feel the mountain air after the rain. Mist rose from the distant mountains beyond farming fields, making a perfect and dreamy picture of Hokkaido countryside. Welcome to Furano!
Located in the heart of Hokkaido Island, Furano is (富良野) a sleepy town about 100km inland from the sea, enjoying a continental climate that sees heavy and powdery snowfall in winter. Like Niseko, Furano is a popular skiing resort in winter. During summer, Furano is a rural wonderland famous for its farmlands and vineyards, especially its rolling hills of flowers that includes the iconic lavender. Drawing large amount of Japanese and Chinese tourists, summer flowers, especially lavender, have imprinted a vivid postcard image in visitors’ mind even before they arrive in Hokkaido. For the Japanese, the works of scriptwriter Sō Kuramoto (倉本 聰) have presented the beauty of Furano to everyone in the nation in the past 40 years, marking the relative sleepy town in Central Hokkaido onto Japan’s tourist map.
We stopped the car at a small country road to inhale our first breathe of fresh air from Furano.
Furano is well known for its fine agricultural produce.
Large plastic greenhouses could be seen in many areas around Furano.
No matter where in Japan, rice paddies is often the dominate landscape.
In Hokkaido, wheat is also a main staple food for noodles and bread.
In Central Furano, a complex of four retail buildings known as Furano Marche introduces local produce, snacks and souvenir for visitors and foreigners.
We got ourselves some food for a light dinner.
We got ourselves potato fries, hamburger and fried chicken (all ingredients from the region) for dinner.
From Furano Marche, we had the opportunity to try the local sweet white corn, which could be consumed raw.
In Furano, we stayed at Pension Yamasan in the village of Nakafurano (中富良野), the home of the famous lavender farms like Farm Tomita and Saika-no-Sato.
Dried lavender is used as decorations and natural air freshener.
We were free to use the dining hall for breakfast and evening television.
The common area of Pension Yamasan is full of the owner’s character.
Situated on a hill across from Mount Tokachi, Pension Yamasan offered us pleasant view of the mountain range and fields of Nakafurano.
For visitors without their own wheels, railway is their best bet for reaching the lavender farms in Nakafurano.
After the rain, Furano River was a little muddy at Nakafurano.
Despite we were a month too early to see the lavender in full blossom, other summer flowers were indeed everywhere in Nakafurano.
Day 6 (2/3).
From Lake Akan (阿寒湖) to Nakafurano (中富良野) where we would stay two nights to explore the rolling hills and farmlands of Furano (富良野) and Biei (美瑛), we drove by Tokachi (十勝), a subprefecture in Central Hokkaido best known for its dairy and agricultural products such as wheat and red beans. Also known as the land of cheese, some say Tokachi produces about 60% of Japanese cheese. We didn’t plan to stay in Tokachi, but did make a stop in the subprefecture’s only city, Obihiro (帯広). There was only one reason: to sample the delicious food of the region. We weren’t after any fancy kaiseki ryori or seafood feast, but simple local dishes that make use of the best local ingredients of Tokachi.
There is nothing simpler to experience the best of Tokachi (十勝) than have a cup of fresh local milk.
In Obihiro, we made a first stop to Amamuekie, a simple pastry shop housed in a cool container. Originally worked in the music industry, the husband and wife of Iwamoto family (岩本夫妻) turned their interest in nature and healthy food and opened Amamuekie.
At Amamuekie, healthy pastry made with plant based ingredients without the use of white sugar and animal ingredients such as dairy and eggs are sold, including this cocoa pound cake made with rice flour.
We picked up several items from Amamuekie, including this hojicha (green tea) biscotti, a tasty fusion of east meets west.
On our way to Obihiro, we made our second stop at Sweet Factory Green, a delightful sweets shop in the small town of Otofuke (音更町).
The cakes, chocolate and ice-cream were all so tempting.
Causal seating were provided on the lawn next to the sweets shop.
Sun was high and sky was blue, what a perfect moment to enjoy local ice-cream, a piece of fruit cake and a cup of good coffee.
Finally we arrived in downtown Obihiro (帯広), and parked our car in one of the outdoor parking lot near the main train station.
It took us a little while to figure out the correct procedure to activate the parking sensor for our stall.
Our destination, Butadon Pancho (元祖豚丼), situates right across the street from Obihiro Railway Station.
Butadon Pancho (元祖豚丼) offers just one thing in the menu: Butadon (豚丼) or pork bowl. After about 20 minutes in the queue, we finally got a small table in the small restaurant. Founded in 1933, Butadon Pancho claims to be the pioneer restaurant that offered butadon.
Originated from Obihiro, butadon is basically a bowl of rice served with several pieces of local pork, topped with sweet soy sauce and green peas. The bowl also comes with takuan (沢庵) or pickled daikon radish and miso soup. Nothing fancy, just a simple local dish but made a perfect lunch for us.
After a little over an hour on the road, we arrived at Hoshino Resorts Tomamu, a vast resort compound that offers a variety of activities for visitors, from skiing in winter to hiking in summer.
The main reason coming to Tomamu was to check out the famous Chapel on the Water by architect Tadao Ando.
Unfortunately, the opening times of the chapel was quite limited. Quite often, the chapel is occupied for private wedding ceremonies. We had to leave it for another time, and moved on on our journey to Furano, where we would stay for the night.
FISHERMEN BELOW MISTY OAKAN (雄阿寒岳), Lake Akan (阿寒湖), Kushiro (釧路), Hokkaido (北海道), Japan, 2019.06.20
Day 6 (1/3).
During our Hokkaido trip, it was hard not to get up early when sunrise happened daily at around 3:30am. An early start to the day allowed us to enjoy the refreshing beauty of Hokkaido’s volcanic landscape under the morning mist. To enjoy the most of Lake Akan before leaving, we took a morning walk before breakfast. By the lake, we passed by the pier where staff were preparing passenger boats for the first tourist cruises of the day. Behind the pier a small trail led us into a forest towards the famous hot mud pools known as bokke.
In front of our hotel, Lake Akan was blanketed with mist in early morning.
At the tourist pier, staff were preparing the passenger boats for the first cruises of the day.
Behind the pier, a small path led us into the lakeside forest.
The path ended at a series of hot mud pools known as bokke (bubbling mud). The area around the bokke remains relatively warm and snow-free in winter, when the rest of Akan is covered in a metre of deep snow.
Occasionally, we saw people standing in the icy water of Lake Akan.
We soon realised the people in the water were actually fly fishing. We later found out that Lake Akan is the most popular venue in Japan for fly fishing.
A recreational fisherman approached us and spoke to us in Cantonese. It was his 18th consecutive year making fishing trips to Lake Akan. We followed him to a narrow path beyond the tourist trail.
Further into the path, we could see dozens other fishermen in the lake.
As well as the majestic Mount Oakan (雄阿寒岳) at the back.
Standing in the water of Lake Akan and fishing in front of the volcano must be a fantastic experience.
At this hidden location beyond the tourist trail, we could enjoy the perfect volcano view along with the fishermen.
As the sun rose, the mist began to retreat.
Minutes later, the fog almost disappeared completely.
Along the lake, there were a number of hotspring where boiling water came out from the ground and flowed into the lake.
On our way back to the hotel, we passed by a number of hotspring streams.
The hotspring footbath (弁慶の足湯) at the trailhead attracted hikers to rest their feet after their walks.
Ten to fifteen minutes on the road took us to Lake Onnetoh, a small lake where Mount Meakan (雌阿寒岳) and Akan Fuji stood along with their perfect reflection.
We hiked up a nearby hill to enjoy the scenery of Lake Onnetoh and the two stratovolcanoes.
After Lake Onnetoh, our journey in Eastern Hokkaido had come to an end. We were ready to move on to Central Hokkaido.
Day 5 (3/3).
About 60km southwest of Lake Mashu, we arrived at Akankohan (阿寒湖畔), our second destination in Akan Mashu National Park. Under the shadow of volcano Mount Oakan (雄阿寒岳), the onsen resort village Akankohan (阿寒湖畔) right by Lake Akan or Akanko (阿寒湖) is another great place in Eastern Hokkaido to experience the beauty of the region’s volcanic landscape. While may not be as crystal clear as Lake Mashu, Lake Akan, also a crater lake, is nonetheless also famous for its pure water. In fact, the pristine quality of the lake water has enabled the famous lake inhabitant, the marimo, to thrive in Lake Akan. Marimo, a rare ball-like algae, may grow up the size of a football if left untouched for centuries. Unlike Lake Mashu, Lake Akan has a much bigger human presence especially along the waterfront of Akankohan, where modern ryokans with all kinds of onsen baths, and shops, small museum, and cultural centre about the local Ainu people are established.
We stayed at Akankohan for a night to have a short visit of the lakeside onsen resort. We didn’t take the tourist cruise boat for a marimo museum visit on a small island in the lake; nor did we do a long hike up to one of the beautiful volcanoes around the lake or visit the Ainu cultural centre. We did however make a morning forest walk to the boiling bokke mud pool east of the resort village, enjoy a starry night standing on the lakeside boardwalk, and cleanse our bodies and souls in the mineral rich hotspring water of Akan.
At Akankohan, the waterfront is lined with resort hotels and docks for tourist cruise boats.
Located at the waterfront, our hotel Tsuruga Lake Akan Lodge Turano is a comfortable pet-friendly guesthouse with nice views to the lake.
Compared to other lakeside resort hotels, Tsuruga Lake Akan Lodge Turano is much more causal.
There was no hotspring facilities at Tsuruga Lake Akan Lodge Turano, we were invited to use one of Tsuruga’s other hotel’s facility. Recommended by the hotel staff, we went to Akan Yuku no Sato Tsuruga for its onsen facilities. During our visit, men were assigned to use the three-level bathing facilities at the lower floor while women at the 8/F outdoor infinity pool facing the lake.
It wasn’t the darkest and clearest night for stargazing, but chilling out in the cool air at Lake Akan after a hearty buffet dinner was delightful.
Clouds and fog moved quickly across the sky. Stars were still visible in between.
At Akankohan (阿寒湖畔), Mount Oakan (雄阿寒岳) has a dominant presence to the scenery.
Dusk fell upon with a soft touch of orange cast on the moving clouds.
In comparison, the artificial lights from the lakeside hotels looked overwhelmingly bright.
Various boardwalk structures extend out to the lake for small boats and tourist photos.
Last erupted in 2008, Mount Oakan is a shield volcano rises about 900m from the lake.
Swan like recreational boats looked quite out of place in the natural surrounding.
Most multi-level buildings in Akankohan are resort hotels. Behind the lakeside hotels, a shopping street lined with souvenir shops forms the main thoroughfare for the village. The entire village looks completely dependent on tourism.
Near our guesthouse Tsuruga Lake Akan Lodge Turano, the lights from the lakeside hotels looked far more overwhelming than the mighty volcano, which sat in tranquility in the background waiting for its next moment of eruption.
Day 5 (2/3).
After a few hours of sleep, we returned to Lake Mashu to seek for another way to enjoy the crater lake and its surrounding landscape. This time, we took the 14.4km trail along the crater rim up to the top of Mount Mashu or Mashu-dake (857m) in a 4-6 hour walk. We read from guidebooks and online research that the scenery of Lake Mashu from the top of Mount Mashu would be very promising. At the onsen village of Mashu, we stopped by a bento takeout restaurant (ほかほか弁当) to order two rice dishes for breakfast, then headed over to Lake Mashu’s Viewpoint 1 to begin our hike.
A terrain model at the visitor centre of Viewpoint 1 gave us a rough idea of the hike, from the trailhead at the south of the crater lake to the peak of Mount Mashu east of the lake.
Soon after the trailhead, we reached the first open lookout of Lake Mashu.
The trail took us along the crater lake on one side, and open plains and distant volcanic landscape on the other.
Most of the trail ran along the rim of the crater lake with little shades.
From time to time, wooden signage indicated how far we were from our destination.
There was pretty much only one trail for most of the time. It was almost impossible to get lost.
Near the peak, we could fully appreciate the volcanic landscape of the area, including the lush green forest in a caldera next to Lake Mashu.
After the steepest section of the trail, we finally reached the summit of Mount Mashu, a small lookout that offered wonderful panoramas of the area’s volcanic scenery.
From the top, the volcanic scenery of Lake Mashu area was fantastic.
Looking west, the ridge of Mount Mashu led to the eastern edge of Lake Mashu.
Clouds were getting in with the wind but we still had blue sky for most of the day.
Looking north, we could see the eastern tip of Lake Mashu.
With a circumference of about 20km, Lake Mashu is one of the most famous lakes in Hokkaido. We stayed for 20 minutes or so at the summit all by ourselves, and began the descending journey when another couple followed our footsteps and replaced us at the peak.
Claimed as the clearest water in the world, the beautiful blue colour of Lake Mashu was simply stunning when viewed from above.
The wind was mild and the air was dry, such a perfect day for us to hike at Eastern Hokkaido.
From afar, the tiny island in the middle of Lake Mashu looked funny.
The hike would offer a different scenery if we were to visit in the autumn.
The beauty of Lake Mashu never cease to impress us, despite we were a little tired near the end of the hike.
Finally back to Viewpoint 1, the colour of Lake Mashu had changed due to the constantly moving clouds. From dawn to mid afternoon, we had fully experienced the sheer beauty of the famous caldera lake. After about 5 hours of walking, we returned to Viewpoint 1 and treated ourselves with local chocolate milk and a slide of Yubari melon (夕張メロン) , the king of Hokkaido fruit which just broke the record in May 2019 with a pair fetching 5,000,000 JPY (47,000 USD) in auction.
Day 5 (1/3).
Leaving Shitetoko behind, we drove southwest towards another natural marvel of Eastern Hokkaido, the Akan Mashu National Park (阿寒摩周国立公園). On the lush green plains, stratovolcanoes emerged from the horizon, revealing the violent past of the local geology. Hot springs, crater lakes, and stratovolcanoes define the characteristics of the area, and have led to the creation of the national park in 1934. Just 15 minutes of drive from the Viewing Platform 1 of Lake Mashu (摩周湖), we checked in at Masyuko Youth Hostel (摩周湖ユースホステル). That night, we woke up at 2:30am and drove to the Viewing Platform 1 of Lake Mashu to watch the sunrise, a famous scenic sight in Hokkaido. In the summer, the sun rises at around 3:30am in Hokkaido, leaving us little time for sleep.
On our way to Akan Mashu National Park , we could see stratovolcanoes rose from the horizon in a distance.
Masyuko Youth Hostel offered us a comfortable place for a short rest before venturing out again to watch the sunrise.
Arriving at Viewing Platform 1 of Lake Mashu, we were stunned to see a sea of clouds blanketed over the area of Kawayu Onsen (川湯温泉).
Looking down from Viewing Platform 1, the water of Lake Mashu appeared like a crystal clear mirror.
Claimed as the clearest lake in the world (with transparency measured at 41.6m back in 1931), Lake Mashu is a beautiful crater lake where visitors can enjoy the scenery from two viewing platforms along the crater rim. The clarity might have slightly declined in recent decades, but Lake Mashu is still nevertheless an extremely beautiful water body.
Occasionally sea of clouds would appear over Lake Mashu, but not during our visit.
Soon the sun emerged behind the distant mountains to the east.
We enjoyed moments of tranquility at the viewing platform.
Several tourists and photographers stood among us at the viewing platform to watch the sunrise.
While the sun gradually rose over the crater lake, the moon still lingered in the sky behind us.
When the sun was up, the blue water and lush green surroundings changed the ambience of Lake Mashu into a different picture.
The deep blue Mashu Lake looked mysterious and surreal, almost too beautiful to be true.
The rim of the crater lake is now covered by dense vegetation.
On the other side, clouds and fog continued to cover the foot of Mount Iō (アトサヌプリ) and the Kawayu Onsen (川湯温泉) area.
The entire Kawayu Onsen (川湯温泉) area was blanked in thick fog.
Over to the southwest we could see the stratovolcanoes near what could be the Lake Akan area.
Down in Lake Mashu, the small island stood like a feature sculpture at the centre.
The sea of clouds at Mount Iō (アトサヌプリ) and Kawayu Onsen (川湯温泉) subsided a little as the sun rose further up.
Moisture and thin mist emerged over the water of Lake Mashu. The mist moved rapidly over the water as if dancing. At one point thicker mist gathered over the small island like a cotton shield.
The mist over the island soon dispersed into thin air. As the sun reached high in the sky, we returned to the hostel for another few hours of sleep before coming back to Lake Mashu for hiking later in the day.
Day 4 (2/2).
Whale watching was the final act of our Shiretoko experience. The 2-hour outing in the Nemuro Strait turned out to be one of the biggest highlights of our trip. Located at the eastern coast of Shiretoko Peninsula, Rausu is the most popular spot in Japan for whale watching. Depending on the season, various kinds of whales might be found in the waters just off Rausu, including minke whales, sperm whales, orcas (killer whales), humpback whales (rare), Dall’s porpoises, giant beaked whales, and several types of dolphins. In the summer months, there would be a good chance to spot Orcas, also known as killer whales. Orca is the biggest member of the oceanic dolphin family. They are highly social animals that hunt and wander the sea in pods.
After three days of poor weather, the strong wind and rough sea had finally died down despite the overcast condition over Nemuro Strait. Returned from Shiretoko Pass, we went immediately to the office of Gojiraiwa Kanko Eco Tour (ゴジラ岩観光) in Rausu to make our cruise payment, get a quick snack near the tourist office, parked our car at the dock, and followed one the three queues to get on our cruise boat.
After three days of stormy weather, the sea was calm as we were about to set sail for the whale watching cruise.
Looking back towards the dock, we could see Mount Rausu rising beyond the village of Rausu.
After seeing several black dorsal fin dolphins popped out of the sea in the first ten minutes, our boat captain received the news that orcas had been spotted by the other cruise boats ahead of us. Soon we reached cruise boats and had our first encounter with the magnificent orcas of Nemuro Strait.
While the whales roam in the water of Nemuro Strait, Stellar Sea Eagles and White Tailed Eagles rule the sky.
Lies between Hokkaido’s Shiretoko Peninsula and the controversial Russian Kunashir Island (国後島), Nemuro Strait is one of the best place in the world for whale watching.
Orcas often appear in a pod. We were fortunate to follow a pod of around a dozen of orcas, even with a few juveniles.
Sometimes, the pod would get pretty close to one of the cruise boats.
Eventually, the pod of orcas broke up into a few smaller groups. Our boat followed one of the groups towards the direction of Rausu.
Each boat followed a different group of orca.
Seeing one of the juvenile killer whales in the pod was very exciting.
In a few moments, the whales swam really close to our boat.
A few of them even swam under our boat.
From a close distance, we could truly appreciate the true scale of the orca’s dosal fin.
Some scientists can identify different orcas just by studying their distinctive dorsal fins.
For most of the time, our boat continued to follow a small group of orcas.
It was the first whale watching cruise that we ever experienced. We were grateful that the cruise turned out to be a fruitful one.
After about 1.5 hour chasing the whales, it was time for our boat to return to the dock.
The majestic Mount Rausu signified our arrival of the village of Rausu.
Most fishing boats were parked behind the sea wall at the dock.
It seemed that most fishermen were staying away from the sea for another day. Whale watching offered us the perfect finale to for our Shiretoko journey. We picked up our car at the dock, had another seafood lunch at Jun no Banya (純の番屋), and left Shiretoko altogether for our next destination: Mashu Lake.