HOKKAIDO is the northernmost and second largest of Japan's major islands. The closest thing Japan has to a last frontier, it is home to about 5.7 million people and contains rugged mountains, 15 active volcanoes, and vast tracts of wilderness in additions to huge swaths of agriculture with some of Japan’s largest farms. During the six-month winters much of the island is covered in snow and ice flows from the seas off eastern Russia ram the northern shore.

Hokkaido (Hokkaido) Prefecture is about the size of Austria and it population a bit larger than Denmark's. It is the largest prefecture in Japan, covering 83,424 square kilometers (32,210 square miles), is home to about 5.4 million people and has a population density of 68.6 people per square kilometer. Sapporo is the capital and largest city, with about 1.92 million people. It has 66 districts and 180 municipalities. Even though Hokkaido encompasses 20 percent of Japan's land area it only contains five percent of the people. Most of the island's residents are descents or people who have arrived from other parts of Japan in the last one or two generations. The Ainu — an indigenous people that look as much Caucasian as they do Japanese and once dominated Hokkaido and northern Japan, still live on Hokkaido but their numbers have dwindled to a few thousand.

The Hokkaido Region is formed by Hokkaido Island and several surrounding islands. This island is separated from Honshu to the south by the Tsugaru Strait (although the two islands are connected by train service via an undersea tunnel).. Within Japan’s system of prefectures, Hokkaido alone is categorized as a “circuit,” though it is the equivalent of a prefecture. Forests and mountains cover parts of the interior. Wildlife includes red-crested white cranes, Stellar sea eagles, white foxes, swans, brown bears and flying squirrels.

Most of the flat land is used as pastures for grazing animals such as cows or horses or as fields for agriculture. Hokkaido is now Japan's breadbasket, producing much of the country’s wheat, potatoes, corn, rice and dairy products.Fishing and forestry are important parts of Hokkaido’s agriculture and underlie much of the island’s industrial activity, including food processing, woodworking, pulp, and paper industries.

Visiting Hokkaido

Daisetsuzan National Park
During the summer, especially in August, Hokkaido is packed with hikers and campers. In September and October many people come to check out in the autumn leaves. In the winter, many skiers come to check out Hokkaido's legendary powder.

There are number of flights to Hokkaido from Tokyo, Osaka and other cities in Japan. Tickets are cheaper than they used to be as new no frills airlines Skymark and Air Do have begun flying there. Cheap flights and package deals are advertised in the English-speaking newspapers. Trains?including the 16-hour sleeper service from Tokyo and the 21-hour sleeper service from Osaka?pass the through the 31-mile-long Seikan Tunnel from Honshu to Hokkaido. Ferries to Hokkaido can be taken from Tokyo, Niigata, Nagoya, Sendai, and Maizura as well as across from the Tsuruga Strait from Aomori

As for getting around Hokkaido, there are a couple of good train lines but traveling this way can be expensive. The bus network services many more destinations than the train. If you can afford it is worthwhile to rent a car. Many people also explore the region by bicycling or hitching.

Websites: Hokkaido Tourism Organization Visit-Hokkaido ; Wiki Travel Wikitravel ; Wikipedia Wikipedia

Daisetsuzan National Park

Daisetsuzan National Park (80 miles northeast of Sapporo, in central Hokkaido) is the largest and among the wildest national parks in Japan. Covering 2,309 square kilometers and popular with skiers and hikers, it contains volcanos, mountain ranges, lakes, forests, white birch glades, fields of wild primrose, mountains veiled in mist, lovely Alpine scenery and Hokkaido's highest mountain, 2,229-meter-high Mt Asahi-dake. Mountain ash and Japanese stone pine beginning turning brilliant red and yellow in Hokkaido’s Daisetus mountain range in early to mid September and peak in late September or early October.

Worth checking out are gorges and ravines carved out by the Ishikari River, and the spas at base of Daisetsuzan Peak (Sounkyo, Shirogane, Yukomambetsu and Shikaribetsu). Sixteen-mile-long Sounkyo Gorge is sided by 500-foot-high volcanic cliffs with columnar joints that rise up from the river. Asahi-dake is an impressive volcano. In the winter smoke rises from hollows in the snow, leaving behind yellow sulfur deposits on fumaroles. In the autumn ash trees form bright red patches among thickets of creeping pine at the foot of the mountain. Among the popular hiking routes are: 1) from Mt. Asahi-dake cable car station over several peaks to Sounkyo; 2) from Asahidake Onsen through the forests to Tenninkyo Onsen; 3) and hikes in Soubkyo Goree area.

Sometimes referred to as the roof of Hokkaido, Daisetsuzan National Park embraces the Daisetsuzan volcanic group that tops out at 2,291-meter-high (7,516-foot-high) Mt. Asahidake, Hokkaido's highest peak. Among the other stunning peaks in the park are Mt. Tomuraushi, Tokachi Mountain Range and Ishikari Mountain Range. The sources of the Ishikari River and Tokachi River are also in the park. [Source: Ministry of the Environment Government of Japan]

The average elevation of the mountainous parts of the park is approximately 2,000 meters. Their relative high latitude location gives them an alpine environment that is similar that of 3000-meter class peaks found further south in Honshu. The park’s vast mountain belt is covered with colorful alpine plants including endemic species such as Oxytropis japonica var. sericea and Lagotis yesoensis. Among the rare animal species seen here are the Japanese pika and the Parnassius eversmanni daisetsuzzanus, which are said to have survived the ice age, as well as a Miyabe charr that is endemic to Lake Shikaribetsu.

Geology and Landscape of Daisetsuzan National Park

Daisetsuzan National Park consists of the Daisetsuzan volcanic group arranged around the Ohachidaira caldera, the Mt. Tokachi volcanic group named after its highest peak Mt. Tokachi (an active volcano), and the Ishikari Mountain Range, which includes the Mt. Shikaribetsu volcanic group near Lake Shikaribetsu and older geological strata of the Hidaka Mountain Range. Except for the non-volcanic Ishikari Mountain Range, the mountainous areas in the Daisetsuzan National Park were formed through comparatively recent volcanic activity. Active volcanoes include Mt. Asahi (2,291 meters above sea level), Mt. Tokachi (2,077 meters above sea level), and the Higashi-Taisetsu-Maruyama volcano (1,692 meters above sea level). In recent years, Mt. Tokachi in particular has erupted repeatedly. [Source: Ministry of the Environment Government of Japan]

The Sounkyo and Tenninkyo gorges are characterized by patterned crevices, giving the impression of a succession of standing polygonal pillars. This landscape was formed through a phenomenon referred to as columnar jointing, which occurs when pyroclastic flow deposits from volcano eruptions slowly cool down, turn into stone, and are subsequently eroded by rivers flows.

Calderas are a special feature of active volcanoes. The Ohachidaira caldera owes its current shape to a stratovolcanic explosion some 30,000 years ago. In recent years, it was learned that the Tokachi-Mitsumata basin, which has a circumference of over 10 kilometers and is populated by a mixed forest of needleleaf and broadleaf trees, is a caldera that was formed through a volcanic explosion a million years ago.

Permafrost is found in Daisetsuzan National Park. Due to the prevailing cold climatic conditions, the Mt. Daisetsu alpine belt is also subject to certain phenomena typically only observed in Arctic regions. The Takanegahara Highland consist of layers of peat that have risen to the surface (palsas) amid freezing temperatures, resulting in a structural phenomenon that, depending on size, produces mesh or linear patterns. Moreover, permafrost soil (soil and rocks that for the entire year remain at or below freezing temperatures deep into the ground) is mainly found at 2,000 meters above sea level in Mt. Daisetsu, but can also be observed at lower elevations in areas surrounding Tokachi-Mitsumata and Lake Shikaribetsu in the Higashi-Taisetsu area. Even in the summer, a large number of air holes can be seen releasing cold air from the permafrost soil in the ground of the rocky slopes that were formed through an explosion of the Shikaribetsu volcano group in the area surrounding Lake Shikaribetsu. In recognition of its unique characteristics, the area has been certified as the Tokachi Shikaoi Geopark.

Animals and Plants in Daisetsuzan National Park

Mt. Daisetsu covers a vast area and hosts diverse vegetation, thanks to its geographical features and harsh weather conditions. At the foot of the mountain is a vast forest zone consisting of needleleaf mainly of the Yezo spruce and Todo fir, and broadleaf trees. As as the elevation increases, the appearance changes with a coniferous forest and Erman's birch forest, and further, it changes to the forest limit and creeping pine zone. The communities of alpine plants growing near the mountaintop are home to nearly 250 species, which account for 40% of the alpine plants found in Japan. [Source: Ministry of the Environment Government of Japan]

At the communities of alpine plants, most of the species are also rare species, such as the Oxytropis japonica var. sericea and Lagotis yesoensis indigenous to Mt. Daisetsu, and the Rishiririndou, whose distribution is limited. The mountaintops retain a number of snowy gorges and snow patches even in the middle of the summer, and the area is filled with colorful alpine flora creating splendid alpine meadows. In addition, a distinctive topography of high moors spreads across the marshland in the plateau region, making a habitat for flora unique to the marshlands and dwarf Japanese spruce.

The stunning forest landscape and the appearance of colorful alpine flora creates the landscape called "Kamuimintara" by the Ainu, meaning the Playground of the Gods. In addition, a distinctive topography of high moors spreads across the marshland in the plateau region, making a habitat for flora unique to the marshlands and dwarf Japanese spruce . Daisetsuzan National Park also contains large fields of flowers. In July, the fields in the area around Mt. Koizumi, Takanegahara, and Mt. Kaundake bloom with Lagotis yesoensis tatew alpine meadow unique to Mt. Daisetsu. The Sieversia pentapetala Greene flower fields bloom at Susoaidaira in July.

In accordance with its diverse environmental conditions, Mt. Daisetsu a rich biodiversity. The vast forests of Mt. Daisetsu are home to mammals including brown bears, Yezo sika deer, Ezo red fox, Yezo stoat and Hokkaido squirrels , and birds including Blakiston's fish owls, black woodpeckers and the rare Eurasian three-toed woodpecker. As for fish, salmonid fish, the Dolly varden , makes its habitat and its subspecies only found in the Lake Shikaribetsu is called the Miyabe charr. The alpine belt is home to the pine grosbeak and spotted nutcracker.

There are a number of wildlife species that can only be found in a limited area in Mt. Daisetsu. Such as Japanese pika ; only found in a cold rocky stretch of Hokkaido, and the Parnassius eversmanni daisetsuzzanus and Freija's Fritillary; the alpine butterfly species that only inhabit in Mt. Daisetsu, these fauna are called relict species that they traveled from a continent during the glacial age and then as a result of warming temperatures, they were left over only in a cold alpine.

Japanese Pika (Ochotona hyperborean yesoensis) is referred to as a living fossil. It lives in rocky areas at cold, high altitudes in central Hokkaido (e.g., Mt. Daisetsu, Kitami Mountains). The Ezo Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes schrencki) is a subspecies of the red foxes family ubiquitous to the Northern Hemisphere and seen throughout the Daisetsuzan National Park.

Pine Grosbeak (Pinicola enucreator) is a beautiful bird. The male is characterized by its reddish color. Pinus pumila is breeding area on Mt. Daisetsu. Often seen in pairs during the summer reproductive season. The male Siberian Rubythroat (Luscinia calliope) has an orange throat. Perches on the tips of shrubs and bushes in an obvious pose, emitting a loud warble. Often seen in the forests of Mt. Daisetsu. Parnassius eversmanni daisetsuzanus is a member of the primitive Papilio xuthus species.One of five species of alpine butterfly found in Hokkaido, it has beautiful, semi-transparent yellow wings. . Found only on Mt. Daisetsu, it has been . Designated as a National Natural Monument.

Mountains and Volcanic Features at Daisetsuzan National Park

Mt. Asahi is the highest mountain in Hokkaido at 2,291 meters high (7,516 feet high) and contains a crater that spews a great deal of smoke. To get there take the ropeway from the Asahidake Onsen and getting off at Sugatami Station. There is a trail that travels by way of Sugatami Pond and leads to the top of Mt. Asahi in two and a half hours.

Ohachidaira Caldera is two kilometers in diameter and lies in the center of Mt. Daisetsu. The caldera is a remnant of the explosion of the newly formed Mt. Daisetsu approximately 30,000 years ago. You can hike around the outer rim of the caldera.

Mt. Tokachi is also volcanically activite. The peripheries of the mountaintop has the most ongoing volcanic activity. There are a number of craters including the Taisho Crater and the Grand Crater. Hikers are advised to keep informed about the mountains’s conditions and activity.

Mt. Tomuraushi is situated on the border of Omote-Daisetsu and Higashi-Taisetsu, It is 2,141 meters high and has been described as Mt. Daisetsu's Annex. Mountaineering on Mt. Tomuraushi requires careful planning. Climbing accidents occur there every year.

Numa-no-hara High Moor is a high moor located at 1,420 meters-1,460 meters above sea level on a plateau in the center of the Mt. Daisetsu range. Ponds of various sizes are scattered here and there, Also known as “the inner garden of Mt. Daisetsu, it has been designated a National Natural Monument.

Mt. Kuro-dake (Black Mountain) is a popular hiking mountain. The summit can be reached by taking a ropeway and lift, and then walking for about an hour. The mountaintop affords a panoramic view of the entire Daisetsu range, with especially good views of Mt. Aka-dake (Red Mountain), Mt. Hakuun (White clouds Mountain), Mt. Hokuchin, and Mt. Ryoun. Kurodake Ropeway is a ropeway and lift on Mt.1,984-meter- Kuro-dake that goes from the base of the mountain to the seventh station at a height of 1,500 meters above sea level.

Mt. Nipesotsu is an independent peak standing precipitously at 2,013 meters above sea level. Situated in Higashi-Taisetsu, the rocky mountain areas of piled-up lava that serve as a habitat for Japanese pika that sometimes makes an appearance among the rocks.

Mountain Climbing destinations in the national park includes Mt. Asahi, Mt. Tomuraushi, and Mt. Tokachi. Each section of the mountaineering track is evaluated in terms of difficulty, and the overall sensation experienced by mountaineers, into five 'Mt. Daisetsu Grades.'

Lakes, Lowland Areas and Tourist Sights at Daisetsuzan National Park

Taushubetsu Phantom River Bridge is a concrete arch bridge on the old National Railway Shihoro Line at Dam Lake Nukabira. Commonly referred to as the 'Megane Bashi.' Underwater during summer, it becomes visible when the water level of Lake Nukabira drops around January, leading to its naming as the 'phantom bridge.'

Lake Shikaribetsu is the only natural lake found in Daisetsuzan National Park where visitors can enjoy a landscape of lakes exhibiting an outstanding natural beauty surrounded by forests. The Miyabe charr, which is a subspecies of the Dolly varden, makes its only habitat in Lake Shikaribetsu, a lake known to be formed by the eruption of a volcano damming a river.

Traditional Ainu Culture is alive in a somewhat touristy sense , Every summer,the Sounkyo Onsen Fire Festival is held in the Sounkyo Onsen. This festival gives visitors some of the exposure to the Ainu's traditional ceremony called the fukuro owl ritual, a folk dance that the Ainu dance along to traditional tunes and other aspects of the Ainu culture that was descended and handed down by the people of Ainu who are the indigenous inhabitants of Hokkaido through centuries. Other highlights of this festival are the fire taiko drums that echo throughout the gorge and fireworks display.

Bogakudai Observatory can be easily accessible via a roadway connecting Shirogane Onsen and is a vista point facing the Mt. Tokachi emitting volcanic fumes. A stretch of the gravel ground is a large habitat for the Pennellianthus frutescens. Parallel with National Route 273 extending north to south from the town area in Kamishihoro to the Nukabira Gensenkyo through the hilly forest region in Tokachi-Mitsumata, there are a number of concrete arch bridges from the former National Railway Shihoro Line that went defunct in 1987. These elevated railway bridges are remnants that pass down the pioneering history of Higashi-Taisetsu as the Heritage of Industrial Modernization. Above all, the Taushubetsu River Bridge spanning the Taushubetsu River sinks to the lake bed from around June to October in times of rising water from the Lake Nukabira, which is a dam lake. It is called a fairy lake as the water lowers from around January revealing the bridge from the frozen surface of the lake. These bridges became the designated Hokkaido Heritages in October 2001 as "The Former National Railroad and Concrete Arch Bridge on the Shihoro Line."

Onsens at Daisetsuzan National Park

Asahidake Onsen (hot springs) is a hot-spring district (1,050 meters above sea level) spreading across the foot of Mt. Asahi. Along with Sounkyo Onsen, it is the mountaineering base in the Omote-Daisetsu area. During the winter, it is one of the popular skiing spots, enjoying the longest ski season in Japan (From November to early May).

Sounkyo Onsen (hot springs) is located along a major route connecting Asahikawa with Abashiri and Obihiro. It is the largest hot-spring area in the northern Hokkaido and serves as a major base for tourist attractions around Hokkaido. It is also known as a mountaineering base in the Omote-Daisetsu area.

Daisetsu Kogen Onsen is the base for a hiking route that starts from onsen and goes marshes where brown bears are often spotted. The onsen is staffed with staff that will guide you to the bear and help keep you safe. Before setting off, visitors are advised to listen to a lecture to learn about the rules at the Brown Bear Center located at the trailhead.

Nukabira Gensenkyo serves as a base for tourist attractions around the Higashi-Taisetsu area and attracts people in its own right with natural-flowing hot springs. Lake Nukabira is a manmade lake created by a hydroelectric dam completed in 1956. It is also a place to enjoy the scenes of the lake that has been acclaimed as a place of scenic beauty with the mountains of Higashi-Taisetsu in the backdrop.


Tourism at Daisetsuzan National Park

The main gateways and accommodation centers are Ashikawa and Kamikawa in the north, Kitami in the east and Obihiro in the south. The only real bus service is between Kitami and Kamikawa and Asahikawa. The main hiking access points are Sounkyo, Asahidake Onsen, Tenninkyo Onsen, Furano Tokachidake Onsen. Accommodation Areas: Sounkyo Onsen, Asahidake Onsen, Tenninkyo Onsen, Shirogane Onsen, Tokachidake Onsen / Fukiage Onsen, Nukabira Gensenkyo, Lake Shikaribetsu, Tomuraushi Onsen, Shihoro Kogen Nupukanosato, Shikaribetsukyo Onsen, Website: Daisetsuzan Guide daisetsuzan.or.jp ; Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan ; Hiking Trail Map PDF daisetsuzan.or.jp;

Getting There: 1) Asahikawa. is about 100 kilometers from Sapparo and there is good train and bus service between the two cities. It takes about one hour and 40 minutes to fly from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to Asahikawa Airport. From there, take an Asahikawa Denkikidou bus to JR Asahikawa Station, a journey of 30 minutes. 2) From Haneda Airport it takes about 95 minutes to get to Tokachi-Obihiro Airport. The airport shuttle ride is about 40 minutes to Obihiro Station. From there take Tokachi Bus about one hour 40 minutes to get to Nukabira-Gensenkyo 3) From Haneda Airport it takes about 95 minutes to get to Asahikawa Airport. From Ideyugo it os about 50 minutes to Asahidake Onsen 4) From Haneda Airport it takes about one hour 35 minutes to get to Asahikawa Airport. The airport shuttle is about 30 minutes to Asahikawa Station, By Dohoku Bus it takes about one hour 50 minutes to get to Sounkyo Onsen. 5) Using the JR Sekihoku Line it takes about 75 minutes to get to Kamikawa Station. From there take Dohoku Bus about 30 minutes to get to Sounkyo Onsen

Sounkyo Visitor Center is a core facility designed to promote study and experience, as well as protection of the natural environment focusing on the theme of contact with the natural environment of the Daisetsuzan National Park. Location: Sounkyo, Kamikawa Town, Kamikawa County, Hokkaido, Tel: 01658-9-4400; Hours Open: 8:00-5:30pm (June-October) 9:00am-5:00pm (November-May), Closed Mondays November-May (if coinciding with a national holiday, the next day), December 31-January 5

Asahidake Visitor Center is used by large numbers of people as an information center for mountain climbing, communing with the natural environment, and for sight-seeing in the Asahidake area, and as a rest site. Designed to assist with the experience of the natural environment with a 3D map of the still-active Mt. Asahi and surrounding mountains, and exhibits of plant and animal life, snow and characteristic landforms, as well as local history. Location: Asahidake Onsen, Higashikawa Town, Kamikawa County, Hokkaido, Tel: 0166-97-2153; Hours Open: 9:00am-5:00pm, Closed December 31-January 5

Higashi Taisetsu Nature Center is located at the Tokachi entrance to the Daisetsuzan National Park and functions as a source of information on the natural environment and history of the Higashitaisetsu area. It is a center for experiencing and protecting the natural environment, and as a source of information on a wide range of subjects from the natural environment to sight-seeing. Location: Nukabira Gensenkyo 48-2, Kamishihoro Town, Katou County, Hokkaido, Tel: 01564-4-2323; Hours Open: 9:00am-5:00pm, Closed Wednesdays (if coinciding with a national holiday, the next day), December 30-January 5

Furano (between Sapporo and Daisetsuzan National Park) is another one of Japan's most famous ski resorts. It has a dozen ski lifts and is regarded as having some of the best powder skiing in the world. Websites: Furano Tourism Association furano-kankou ; Ski Furano snowfurano.com ; Maps and Brochures :furanotourism.com Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet ; Dogsleddging Trips are organized from Engaru by Outrider, an Alaskan dogsled tour company in the town. An 80-minute train trip aboard the limited express Okhotsk from Asahikawa will take you to JR Shirataki Station in Engaru.

Lake Shikaribetsu Igloo Village

Lake Shikaribetsu (in the Daisetsuzan National Park) has set up an igloo village every winter since 1980. The temporary village is set up to attract tourists. There are buildings made of ice and a bath filled with water from a hot spring close to the lake. The bath is kept going until the end of March. Atsuki Kira wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “At an approximate altitude of 800 meters , it is the highest lake in Hokkaido. In winter, it is so cold that the lowest temperature may fall to-30 degrees Celsius. It is said that its water freezes earlier and the ice melts later than in any other natural lake in Japan’s northernmost island. [Source: Atsuki Kira, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 6, 2012]

“Lake Shikaribetsu is the venue for the Lake Shikaribetsu Igloo Village, which runs from January 22 to March 31. A village made solely of snow and ice appears on the lake surface, which looks like a snowfield. One of the highlights of this event is the open-air hot spring bath on the ice, something that probably has no equivalent in the world. A large bath tub is placed on the frozen lake surface about 100 meters away from the bank, and hot spring water is pumped from the bank into the tub so that you can take a bath there. The changing room is also made of snow and ice.

“There is also an ice bar, made of snow and ice, where you can have a drink from a glass made of ice. At the ice theater, movies are projected to the ice screen. Concerts are held in the ice hall. You can stay overnight in an ice lodge, also made from snow and ice.”

Image Sources: 1) idioimagers.org Kumai Mintara 2) Wikipedia 3) 6) Nicolas Delerue 4) 5) Akan National Park 6) 7) 8) Wolfgang Kaeler, International Wildlife Adventures 9) 10) Rishiri Tourist Association

Text Sources: JNTO (Japan National Tourist Organization), Japan.org, Japan News, Japan Times, Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan Ministry of the Environment, UNESCO, Japan Guide website, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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