Hokkaido is seen as a prefecture apart, where the vastnesses are vaster, the wilds wilder and the splendor more splendid than anywhere else in Japan. The Group of Eight summit attendees and other summer visitors will have a chance to see for themselves at the 11 national or quasi-national parks in Hokkaido, including the summit venue, Shikotsu-Toya National Park.
Shikotsu-Toya National Park is the most accessible of Hokkaido’s parks, making it the ideal starting point for forays into the wilds. It extends south from Sapporo, the prefectural capital, beyond Lake Shikotsu, an hour’s drive away, and includes the noncontiguous Mount Yotei, Noboribetsu hot-spring resort and Lake Toya, the caldera that is serving as the stunning backdrop to the summit.
Only three decades ago, Toya was a dead lake, a victim of acid runoff from sulfur mining. A volcanic eruption in 1977 expelled alkaline ash that restored the pH balance and paved the way for phytoplankton, then zooplankton, then larger organisms to repopulate the ecosystem. Today, cherry salmon and pond smelt breed here, bears roam the nearby wilds, waterfowl rest during their annual migrations, and deer graze at the lakeside and on islands in the middle of the lake.
The volcanic activity that helped to restore the ecological balance is evident in the smoldering peaks on the south side of Toya. The southeastern peak, Mount Showa Shinzan, sprouted from a field without warning in 1944. Within two years, it had swelled to 400 meters in elevation and today it is almost twice as high. A museum there charts the course of the eruption.
That eruption was minor compared to those of Mount Usu, which explodes every three decades. The 2000 eruption hurled boulders into the sky, upheaved roads and buried parts of Toyako town under mud. The Volcano Science Museum in the town documents this devastation, and the Nishiyama Crater boardwalk southwest of downtown brings strollers past steaming vents, buckled streets and destroyed factories. Fortunately, the town was temporarily evacuated without loss of life.
A more placid volcano is Mount Yotei, north of Lake Toya, which last erupted 5,000 years ago. Its perfect symmetry has earned it a place among Japan’s “Hundred Most Notable Mountains.” Several trails bring hikers to the summit within five hours. For shorter walks, a 15-minute stroll from the northwest foot of the mountain brings you to the secluded Hangetsu Pond. The truly indolent can contemplate the view of Mount Yotei from the outdoor hot-spring baths at The Windsor Hotel, the G8 summit venue, and from hot springs in the Niseko area.
The Niseko resort, immediately northwest of Lake Toya, is the centerpiece of Shakotan Otarukaigan National Park, whose coastline includes the Shakotan Peninsula, a prime spot for sea kayakers, scuba divers and sea urchin fishers — and poachers. Bus tours from Sapporo and Otaru bring sightseers to the peninsula’s wind-blasted capes and bluffs.
Until a decade ago, Niseko was a domestic phenomenon, the most reliable Japanese resort for deep powder snow. Since then, the area has grown into a full-fledged international winter sports destination, thanks to its popularity among Australians, who escape the sweltering Down Under summers for the snowy Hokkaido winters. Asian vacationers and investors have joined in the Niseko boom.
A 2007 article in Forbes magazine ranked Niseko at No. 2 among the “Top 20 Snowiest Ski Resorts in the World.” But snow quality and quantity are just the beginning. Niseko has been expanding its attractions to the snow-free season, with hot-spring bathing, white-water rafting, mountain trekking, wildflower viewing and other outdoor recreations.
In addition to its natural beauty, Hokkaido is rich in animal and plant diversity. Some species are found nowhere else in the world, and many are found nowhere else in Japan. This is due to three quirks of natural history.
The first is the island’s relatively late modernization. Until the late 19th century, Hokkaido was sparsely populated by indigenous Ainu and by small outposts of ethnic Japanese in the southwest. It was not until the 1870s that the Japanese government regarded it as a full-fledged part of Japan. The late start of land reclamation and the low population have left large unspoiled areas. Hokkaido accounts for 22 percent of Japan’s land area but less than 6 percent of its population.
The second is topographic isolation. When Honshu and the other southwestern islands of Japan remained attached to southern Asia, Hokkaido was attached to northern Asia. The deep Tsugaru Strait separated Hokkaido from Honshu, blocking animal and plant migrations. This created a division called the Blakiston Line, named after the English naturalist who first documented the differences in species.
The third is climatic severity. Hokkaido is the southernmost limit of ice floes in the Northern Hemisphere, and inland temperatures can plunge to minus 40 C, the lowest in Japan. Coastal areas see more moderate temperatures, but they still receive daunting snowfall and withering winds. Southerly species can’t tolerate these extremes.
To the visitor, this means rare opportunities for nature appreciation. The endangered Japanese red-crowned crane thrills visitors to Kushiro Wetland National Park in eastern Hokkaido. Ezo squirrels wag their tufted ears by the side of trails. Siberian chipmunks charm handouts from hikers. And Asiatic pika cry from their hidden dens in alpine rock fields.
Nature appreciation has fostered a strong tradition of wild vegetable gathering. In spring and summer, elderly Japanese search for bamboo shoots (“take-no-ko”), rhubarblike butterburs (“fuki”), Japanese spikenard (“udo”), devil’s walking stick (“tara-no-me”) and a wild garlic called the victory onion (“gyouja niniku”). Mushroom hunters venture out in fall. Where? Don’t ask. Promising spots remain family secrets. Shiretoko, Akan, Furano
The most prominent Hokkaido park is Shiretoko National Park, which was designated a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site in 1995. In addition to the Shiretoko violet (Viola kitamania Nakai), seen nowhere else in the world, the park is a haven for Hokkaido brown bears. Elsewhere in Hokkaido, these keep to themselves, but on the Shiretoko Peninsula they’re found in unusually high population densities. Early morning motorists may glimpse them crossing Route 334, which cuts across the peninsula from Utoro to Rausu. Hikers on Mount Rausu, at the base of the peninsula, may see tracks, scat or vertical claw marks on trees, signs that bears are not far away. Encounters are rare and attacks even rarer. In 15 years of hiking Hokkaido, I’ve seen bear traces countless times, but never a bear.
Shiretoko National Park overshadows neighboring Akan National Park, but Akan’s denser forests and less-developed towns give it a wilder feel, and Ainu culture is an added bonus. For this reason, Akan is a better choice for travelers looking for a unique Hokkaido experience.
Lake Akan is home to spherical colonies of algae called “marimo” in Japanese, which grow in few other lakes in the world. Meakan volcano overlooks the lake, and in a prefecture of memorable peaks, it stands out. An easy hike, climbers are rewarded with views of the aqua-colored ponds in the crater at the top. The 90-minute hike to the summit passes through pine forests, with views of Lake Akan and Lake Onneto.
Those who prefer their nature cultivated should head to Furano and Biei. Tracts of farmed flowers there draw domestic visitors and have recently gained favor among international travelers from Singapore, China and Taiwan. Lavender here blooms from June through August, and peonies, field mustard, potato blossoms, roses, sunflowers and marigolds peak in July.
No matter how tame or wild you like your wilderness, Hokkaido has enough parks for several visits and a distinctiveness that leaves visitors with lasting memories of this northern frontier.
Michael O’Connell is a technical editor and avid hiker living in Sapporo.