Hokkaido is the northernmost but least populated of Japan’s islands. Our trip started in Sapporo and a bus trip from Chitose airport to our hotel, immediately we were treated to Japanese hospitality and politeness, even though we didn’t know Japanese and the bus driver didn’t know English, he made a special detour to bring us right to the hotel entrance.
Sapporo is one of the few cities in Japan where the street layout actually makes some sense. Blocks are named and numbered according to compass points, so walk north from block North 1-West 2 and it’d be North 2-West 2. For that first night we stayed at the Sapporo Grand which was within walking distance of the station and famous sights like Government House, Clock Tower and TV Tower.
The Clock Tower is very much a New England styled building. It is the symbol of Sapporo and seemed to be constantly teeming with visitors. The TV Tower is located at the eastermost side of Odori Park, which dissects the city from east to west. The park is small but beautiful and peaceful, even though it was right in the centre of town.
The other attractions for us were Ramen-Yokocho and the Fish Market. Food places of course. The former is a narrow alleyway that has a dozen or so small ramen shops – we had other plans for dinner otherwise we would have tried one of them. Instead we had a crab feast of 3 types of crabs all beautifully cooked, as well as side dishes such as fish soup, salad and dessert. The Fish Market was full of stalls selling all sorts of fresh crabs, fish and our favourite, roe. There were a couple of small restaurants serving the freshest sushi and we ate some fabulous sushi at this one stall which was no more than a counter with 3 chairs, and the chef made the sushi one piece at a time and served straight to us.
From Sapporo we went Noboribetsu, where we stayed at the Daiichi Takimotokan hotspring hotel. The hotsprings are open 24 hours and there are over 10 different types of springs of various mineral content and temperatures. The spa is separated into male and female sections and all you’re allowed to take into the spring is a teeny tea-towel which barely covers half your torso. But nakedness is so matter-of-fact that anyone who is overly modest stands out more. My 2 favourites are the foot spa and the outdoor spa. The foot spa is made up of 2 knee-deep trenches filled with hot and cold water respectively and you walk along the trenches experiencing the different temperatures. The outdoor spa is absolutely breathtaking, surrounded by trees and flowers while the hot water flows out from a bamboo pipe and steam wafts up from the surface. The sensation of lying there at night, our bodies immersed in this body of sulphurous nectar, gazing up at the stars surrounded by nature, is as close to heaven as we can get on earth.
All meals were provided and served in this cavernous dining hall. It was buffet style and there were numerous stalls serving different types of food, like grilled crabs, sushi rice, teriyaki steak, noodles and all sorts of other delicious foodstuff. Japanese breakfast is rice and all sorts of other goodies and a perfect start to the day.
Noboribetsu is a typical resort town, with one main road running through the resort lined with shops. At the top of the village is the Hell Valley, with sulphurous streams of hot water bubbling out of red and yellow rock formations. This is where the water in the spa comes from naturally. There are a few well marked walks in the valley and we joined a local guide on part of his walk, of course it was all in Japanese but we could sense how knowledgeable he was. He led us to a small pool and asked us to try a sip of the water. It was hot and acidic but supposed to have medicinal uses.
Further into the valley the red rock formation gave way to the regular greenery of a well maintained “wilderness”. The other lakes in the were just as beautiful.
Furano in full bloom
From one highlight to another. We took a bus back to Sapporo where we changed to another bus to Furano. Buses in Japan are clean, comfortable, reliable and cheaper than trains. We’re lucky we can read a bit of kanji, which makes travelling so much easier. Even so stops are clearly shown on the bus, well basically, they’re a doddle to take.
It was also the only day on our trip that rained, so spending it on the bus wasn’t a bad deal. By good planning and a little bit of luck we got to Furano on an earlier bus and gained a couple of hours.
Furano town itself has very little to recommend it, it felt uncannily like an out-of-favour seaside town, and we dubbed it Westgate because it reminded us of Westgate in Kent. Furano of course is famous for the lavender farms. And spectacular they are. The lavender doesn’t grow everywhere, they’re grown in specially designated areas but when in season the entire hillside is completely covered by a lavender carpet.
There are special local trains that bring people over to the main fams. Farm Tomita is the biggest, the brochure suggested a visit of 1 1/2 hours, in the end we were there something like 5 hours but each minute was well spent. Lavender wasn’t the only attraction, the other flowerbeds were equally well maintained and pretty.
I’ll let the flowers do the talking …