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Travel: Autumn bliss in heavenly Hokkaido: Part 1/2

PHUKET: Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan of which Sapporo is the capital, is a holiday destination brimming with exquisite natural, cultural and historical wonders. A sublime mix of East meets West, this island is dotted with rice and potato fields, innumerable national parks, charming Swiss-style chalets, skiing hubs, historic towns and rustic hot springs, something for which this formidable country is world renowned.

Sunday 24 January 2016, 12:32PM

Hansruedi Frutiger

Due to its varied activities and attractions, Hokkaido is a fantastic place to visit at any time of year. Most of Hokkaido enjoys a continental climate of snowy cold winters and moderately warm summers. The western half of the island tends to enjoy slightly warmer temperatures than the eastern side due to its vertiginous peaks and hills.

Although Hokkaido is not all that large, thanks to its mountain ranges and the fact it is located between three different seas on three shores, the climate between north, south, east and west (as well as inland), can change dramatically depending on where you go. Hokkaido is also largely unaffected by the mid-year rainy season which batters down the rest of the country, which makes it a much revered destination for local tourists as well as foreigners, especially in summer.

I left Kuala Lumpur and headed to Singapore in the evening and joined the ANA flight to Tokyo. The 787 Dreamliner was packed in economy. It was a night flight, but I recommend taking a day flight should anyone do this journey.

Prime Travel tour manager, Ms Caryn and the local guide Ms Tomoro San, joined the dramatic autumn east coast tour. Both guides were very knowledgeable in their work, very informative and seemed to really care about the well-being of the 18 tourists joining the tour.

On arrival, we drove for about 30 minutes to a barbecue restaurant. With such a tight schedule, we then drove an hour later through a clouded mountain range, passing through scenery similar to that seen in Switzerland in October, including flower fields and potato and vegetable farms.

The fields in these parts usually light up with many colours of sage, cosmos and cleome during autumn. We stopped at the Tomita flower farm, famous for its lavender flowers, but unfortunately they were all clipped when we visited.

Later that afternoon, almost nightfall, we visited a pond outside of Shirogane where the mineral-rich water is a stunning blue-grey. We than drove to Asahikawa Grand Hotel, a city hotel in town, where we finished our day’s travels with a gourmet nouvelle cuisine Japanese dinner at a local restaurant about 10 minutes’ drive from the hotel.

The next day we drove not far to the Otokoyama Saké Brewery to learn how the various grades of saké are produced, followed by a tasting. The weather was overcast with occasionally sunny spells. Lunch was a Japanese-Italian fusion affair at a restaurant on a green slope 50 minutes’ drive from Asahikawawith views of snow-capped mountains in the distance. The restaurant, Mikuni, was a highlight on the culinary side; small portions with a touch from Italy and Japan. Excellent.

We later drove to the Kurodake Ropeway cable car, which brought us up to the higher part of the Daisetsuzan National Park, though it was misty and cloudy and the view could not be enjoyed.

East of Sounkyo, we visited two waterfalls, bursting out of the solid rock formation. Not much farther was our hotel for the night: Taisetsu, a threestar mountain resort. Unfortunately I had to spend the night in a typical Tatami Room, with a small mattress on the floor making it very awkward to get up and visit the bathroom at night. Large people please note: the bathroom is 150cm long and only 50cm wide.

In the evening we enjoyed the “Once hot steam bath” in the hotel, where men and women bathe separately. The water in the large bath contains a lot of iron and its 34ºC temperature lures you to
sleep. An experience not to be missed when in any Japanese resort.

The autumnal weather continued the next day, and in the poor sunshine we took a gentle drive down to the valley to Taiyo-no-Oka Flower Park. Unfortunately a powerful typhoon a month earlier had turned off the colours of the flowers on the 10 acres of land. The blossoms were gone; only a few flowers survived the storm.

Our next stop, however, was to raise our spirits. We drove to a local restaurant next to the Pacific Ocean and indulged in the freshest of seafood: steamed crab, prawns, squid in various colours, octopus and, of course, fish and salmon. I am sure our cholesterol went through the roof.

We later stopped at a roadside stall for scallop hamburgers. Though I am one of those who enjoy eating, I opted out. But we later stopped at a local store to buy some of the freshest raw,cooked and frozen scallops and other seafood delicacies. We experienced the freshest seafood just the way local Hokkaido residents have come to appreciate and value over the years.

We later drove to Hokuten No Oka Lake Resort, with its excellent-view, good western-style rooms. We put back on our yukata gowns and went to the hot spring bath. Later, I enjoyed a local massage, which cannot be compared to the Thai variant, but overall was not too bad.

The dinner was again exclusive fare with many dishes from throughout the region.

At the end of a long day, a hot steam bath, or “onsen”, washed away our long drive.

Keep an eye out for the second half of Hans’ Hokkaido travels in our next Travel special, or click here.

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