Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Different Side of Hokkaido

I've been to Hokkaido Japan two times before, once in winter and then in summer. It is certainly one of my favourite places in Japan. And then, out of the blue, I got an opportunity to go on a trip organized by a group of tourism-related companies in Hokkaido, who wanted to let travelers know some lesser known tourism aspects of the island. They collaborated with a few travel agents/companies from several countries, and I am thrilled to be going under Singapore-based adventure company X-Trekkers.

One of the main highlights of this trip is the number of sports activities, with particular emphasis on cycling! Over the course of three days, we are introduced to several cycling possibilities in the Sorachi region of Hokkaido (the area around Sapporo). Aside from bus and train, we are exploring the idea that the cycling paths around the region could provide an interesting way to appreciate the beauty of Hokkaido.

The whole group was further split into two groups, with one heading northwards to cover northern Hokkaido while my group, who included a travel writer from HongKong, covered the Sorachi region. And leading our group is Kunie our English-speaking guide.

Day 1

Our first stop was Lake Shikotsu, which incidentally I have not been in my previous trip. In fact, quite happily, all the places we would be going on this trip were new to me! And even more happily, Lake Shikotsu (and many parts of Sapporo and arounds) are in the peak of the koyo (autumn) season! So in our very first scheduled stop, which was to the visitor center, we were already slightly behind schedule because all of us were so busy taking pictures of the fall foliage! And mind you, the planned schedule was already quite tight!

Heading to the Visitor Center at Lake Shikotsu

Lake Shikotsu in Shikotsu-Toya National Park, is quite a well-known attraction. A caldera lake born from volcanic activity, it is surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. The visitor center, like many in the country, is very well done with excellent information in all media. We were shown a very good video in their screening room, which highlighted the various things one can do in Lake Shikotsu in all the seasons. Interestingly, I didn't see any kayaking in the video, which would be our activity for the afternoon. Information for this activity was rather vague, and I was wondering how tough would the course be since my last canoeing experience was more than a decade ago........

The Volcano Mt Tarumae rising above Lake Shikotsu
Just outside our lunch restaurant azzurro

But before that, we had lunch at a Japanese-Italian restaurant azzurro at Lakeside Villa Suimeikaku. Like its namesake, it is situated right by the lake-side and with big glass windows, the setting was perfect for some relaxed dining. Serving Italian cuisine with fresh Japanese/Hokkaido produce, the fare was fabulous. The bread that accompany the onion soup was just so heavenly, I couldn't bear to finish it. It was followed by two starter pastas - Salmon Mushroom spaghetti and Biei Porkball spaghetti. The mains was chicken thigh from Shiretoko in northeast Hokkaido, with the skin fried to perfect crispiness. The condiments were simplicity itself, but with premium quality, simple is enough - pesto with balsamic vinegar with additional choices of mustard and sea-salt for those who love mix-matching tastes. And how do you end an Italian meal? A scoop each of pear and coffee sorbet would certainly do fine.

Local Onion Soup
Two mini starter

Main - Chicken Thigh from Shiretoko

Dessert - Sorbet

We did not waste any time and headed straight to the kayak operator, which was housed in Guesthouse Shikotsu Kamui. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that excellent gear were all provided. I had brought my wind+water proof jacket, but they had everything covered - jacket, pants, boots, gloves and neck-gaiter even. We were paired up, and brought to the riverbank where the glass-bottomed kayaks were. Yes, the 2-man kayaks had a square glass bottom in front of each rowers feet. I knew there were sightseeing boats with glass bottom, but I didn't realize they have them for kayaks as well!

We were given a 5-minute crash course, and off we go! Well, the lake was particularly choppy today, so we would be only paddling along the river. Thank goodness for that, as later we did try to paddle out to the lake and the waves were quite strong. But one thing was certain, whether along the river or on the lake. The clarity of the waters here is legendary, and hence the glass bottom boats and kayaks. As you'll see in the video, even with the thick glass bottom and the waterproof housing of my GoPro, the clarity of the bottom is quite astonishing! That is probably why Lake Shikotsu waters had been rated the clearest in Japan for many yeasrs. And also, there were some nice autumn colours along the river as well, so the short 1+ hour paddling around the area was quickly over. But I think the objective was achieved - we have experienced first-hand this interesting activity in Lake Shikotsu.

After returning everything, we barely had enough time to take a couple more photos (yes, it's peak autumn foliage!) before heading out to our next activity - cycling. In fact, cycling would be the common activity for the three days. Which somewhat makes sense - the idea is to experience cycling routes where there are interesting activities, and thus we could try to piece out an itinerary for a "cycling trip" that would be interspersed with interesting activities instead of just a pure cycling trip.

Kayaking in autumn
Last minute photo-taking of fall foliage
We were met with our cycling "leader" who would be leading our route. It would be a sampler route covering just 8km, which would enable us to see what the scenery would be like. Obviously, the route would not be a flat 8km like in Singapore, and I guess this would be taken into account if formulating an itinerary for the general "non-serious" cyclists. Which brought me to my next point - the bikes provided were racer bikes, which we thought were not really suitable for a general cycling trip (unless it's a confirmed all-pro cyclists). Nevertheless, we of course took to the course, and I've extracted and combined segments of our three days of cycling scenery, and compressed them into a short timelapse video. Like I said, this will let you see what/how it is like to be cycling in Hokkaido.

Our racer bikes prepared for us...

Personally, one thing I have to highlight is that the autumn scenery added so much to the joy of cycling. But be forewarned that it can get quite cold in the autumn air! Some sections of the path are for bicycles only, while most inadvertently are shared with motorized vehicles. However, the parts that we covered over the three days were relatively low in traffic, so it was still very pleasant. Apparently, it is also quite possible to be cycling during winter as well, in which case, they will replace the bicycle tires with suitable ones for winter. But I guess this would only be hardcore cyclist travelers!

The video below is a compilation of certain segments of all the short cycling routes we took over the three days. I figured it makes more sense to put all the cycling together and I've sped up the frame rate such that it becomes a manageable two-and-a-half minutes timelapse. The idea is just to show the road conditions, scenery etc of the cycling route. And unfortunately as you can see from the video, some parts were rather wobbly because of my first-time handling of the racer bike :p.

Dinner was sushi at a Cafe Maru, where a queue of local patrons is always a good sign. While obviously the sushi was very good, there wasn't really something that stood out for me. Given the variety, all seemed equally good, and of course we had to have Sapporo Classic, their local beer which is only available here in Hokkaido!
Sapporo Classic ... only available in Hokkaido!

Day 2

So Day Two started with us heading to Wild Mustang's, where we would be doing some horse riding. It was actually situated next to a vineyard/winery at the foot of Mt Hakkenzan. Now, I have not heard about Hokkaido wines before, and this caught my interest and we wandered in to take a look. Apparently, they are experimenting with growing various grape varieties, and see which ones are best suited for the climate here. So it was not surprising to see that each row of the grape vines are labeled with different grapes!

Winery/Vineyard under Mt Hakkenzan - Wild Mustang's is just next to this
Experimentation with various grapes grown in Hokkaido soil/climate
After this unscheduled stop, we finally reached Wild Mustang's, whose office is literally modeled into a Wild West Saloon. And to complete the whole "Wild West" feel, all participants can choose from a wide range of cowboy accessories to wear during the riding, eg. boots, hats etc! :)

However, we were not allowed to bring our cameras on top of the horses for safety reasons. In fact, there were alot of emphasis on the safety aspect which of course is a good thing. But we had limited time, and after our lesson and practise inside the manege/ring, we were brought out for our actual riding... for like ten minutes or so! So it was a little disappointing for me... I guess if this was your very first horse-riding experience, it may not be so bad, but for me, it was the least interesting of all the activities. But at least the vineyard visit was interesting! :)

Cowboy apparel for your riding
Wild Mustang's is also a family friendly horse-riding place - in fact, while we were there, a group of kids were also riding

I think due to the unscheduled time spent in the vineyard, we were quite behind schedule. So our next stop Yuni Garden, which would also be our lunch stop, had to be shortened. Yuni Garden is a British styled garden with a revolving cast of flowers that reflect the seasons, as well as a herb garden. The gardens cover over 14 hectares of land, but we could only admire what we could from the upper floor of the visitor center/restaurant. Our lunch was also reduced to a half-hour, which is a shame, as the restaurant had a buffet which was really quite good. Nevertheless, we still had our fill, so as to be ready for our next cycling route!

Yuni Garden main building

Beautiful landscaping of the garden grounds
Lovely autumn colours along the cycling route

We passed by many farmland and orchards

After the cycling, the last activity of the day was something I looked forward to. Paragliding! However, what got me excited was that it would NOT be a tandem paragliding! Really?! Is this for real?? We would be on our own? We had many questions but we would soon find out!

As it turns out, of course we would not be paragliding off a cliff or something. Basically, we would be having paragliding lessons, and we would be actually handling the chute (aided/guided by the instructor from Sunny Side Paragliding School) down a ski slope. This means that we would be actually airborne, on our own, albeit only for a couple of seconds. Each of us would only have three attempts, and so all of us hope to have a fairly good "airborne" experience, as the feeling is just awesome! Now, some people actually prefer the tandem paragliding, as they just want the experience without doing anything. But in this case, you are the one controlling and braking etc (with guidance), so there is a certain amount of effort, but hey, that's what the experience is all about! So this activity was one of my highlights, and I'm glad I can share the availability of such an activity here. Below is a short clip of one of my poorer attempts, so you can see what it is all about. (My second attempt had me airborne higher for a wee bit longer, wheee!)

Beautiful Day - Ready to launch!

Yes, we are in the air on our own!
The paragliding site was near Iwamizawa, and so we would be staying the night in the town. The dinner for the day was another highlight for the trip. Kunie and Okawado-san, the man responsible for this whole trip, brought us to a very local joint serving just hotpot and yakitori. Situated in a nondescript building with a really non-conspicuous entrance at the back, a tourist would never know of its existence! So a guide here would be a definite necessity. And once we stepped in, it's like entering a scene from one of those Japanese TV or movie. A really authentic cosy local place where people come to wind down with family and friends.

While the food may not compare to the Japanese-Italian restaurant on the first day, the whole experience was such a rarity. I mean, the menu consists of just the hotpot (with really tasty soup) and two types of yakitori! But the conversations were free flowing, of course aided by some good local Sapporo classic and sake!!

A small inconspicuous entrance behind a building

They have bar counter-top eating/drinking space as well as the normal sitting table space
Standard hotpot set laid out, wooden walls with age-old posters/menu, hangers for your jackets - just your friendly neighborhood eating place

Hotpot and yakitori, the main menu for the place
End of a wonderful day in Iwamizawa

Day 3

Thankfully, our third and final day still went on time ;). It was a visit to Arte Piazza Bibai, a sculpture park with works from Kan Yasuda, a renowned sculptor. His sculptures are mainly made from white marble and black bronze, and the placement of all his works in the 17 acre park is specially planned to harmonize with the surroundings. And in the different seasons, they invoke different ambience to the park as well. This was also one of the more touristy sites we visited - there were many tour buses and groups when we were there!

Sculpture and Art installation in a beautiful setting

Kan Yasuda's art is carved from a single block of white marble

Autumn setting

After a relaxing walk around the park, it's time for some cycling again. This time, we cycled close to 10km to Takikawa city for lunch. Inevitably, our lunch would be at Matsuo Genghis-Khan, the city's local specialty of marinated BBQ lamb. In fact in Hokkaido, this form of grilling lamb together with vegetables and a special sauce, is so famous that now people refer to the dish as Genghis-Khan, which kinda got me confused for a while.

Cycling in Takikawa

According to instructions, we put the mutton at the center while all the vegetables are placed around it. Then we pour in the special sauce...

After lunch, it was another exciting activity. Like paragliding, our itinerary just stated "MOTOGLIDING", and we were left wondering how involved are we in the activity. We reached Takikawa Skypark, where the gliders are, and it seemed apparent that this time, we would be just passengers enjoying the ride!

The gliders here do not have any engines, nor propellers (as far as I can see), and taking off is assisted by an actual small aircraft (so technically, we are not doing "motorgliding" which I presume would have an engine/motor). Once into the air, the glider can manoever, fly/glide etc just by using air, its weight, and its wing/tail configuration etc.

Our motorless, propeller-less glider and our pilot

The gliders are two-seaters, and the pilot sits in front while the passenger sits behind. There are control sticks and panels in the back seat as well, which move in tandem to the ones in front. Well, the Skypark is actually also a school, where one can learn to fly these gliders. Thus this allows the instructor to guide the trainee pilot during lessons. This school, in fact, is the only one available in Hokkaido! I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and again, this is one that not many would know about.

We did our final cycling route before stopping for a nice coffee break at Cafe Horno. It would be a long drive back to Sapporo, and enroute, we would be stopping at what is known as a Roadside Rest Area. Many highways around the world have these rest areas or rest stops for drivers to take a break, service their vehicles or... shop. Here in Hokkaido, many of these rest areas contain specialty shops, and some are like attractions itself! The one we would be stopping by is Riceland Fukagawa. That area is known for its quality rice, and inside the station, there is a rice processing and polishing machine. Visitors can come in, buy and see their rice being dehusked, sorted, polished and packed right before their eyes. And all this in a highway rest area!

Rice grain sorting and polishing machine - Japanese machinery
Operated by inserting 200yen into the machine

Now, there are like hundred over such roadside rest areas in Hokkaido, and the relevant authorities have come up with another innovative idea. They came up with a booklet that contained all the main roadside rest areas on the island in each page. Each rest area have a special stamp/chop that one can stamp onto the booklet. So whoever can complete all the stamps in the booklet within a year would be able to get something in return. Not exactly pokemon hunting, but I thought it was a cool and fun idea that would stimulate traffic to these rest areas and thus the shops. Like I said, many of these have specialty shops within them, and are attractions in itself, like Riceland Fukagawa. Even self-drive tourists can have a go at this "game", even if they are unlikely to complete it. It's kinda fun! At the end of this trip, we have collected three such stamps, and I am bringing this booklet home as a souvenir! :)

The blue symbol would indicate that this Roadside Rest Area has the stamping facility, and on a counter within the rest area, it would indicate which page on the booklet to find this rest area

Each Rest Area stamp is different (and usually very cute), and you would then stamp the date that you reached

We reached back to Sapporo late in the evening. We headed straight to dinner at a modern Japanese fusion restaurant, and even though we have scheduled a debrief session the next day, we were already talking about the experience. It had been a packed but fruitful trip. In my previous trips to Hokkaido on my own, I had covered many parts of the island, from the north to the far east. But in this trip, we covered an area at most two hours away from Sapporo only, yet the activities we did and experiences we had were so varied and interesting. It was really a different side of Hokkaido for me.

While some of the activities can be done independently, for those who are keen on exploring a "cycling trip" can contact X-Trekkers, who would be planning out some itineraries. The trip would handle most of the bicycle logistics etc. You can email their dedicated team for more info.

And I'll like to end off with special thanks for Kunie and Okawado-san for making this such an enjoyable trip! Thank You!


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