Teshikaga, Japan: Journey into Fancy, History, and Mystery at Akan Mashu National Park

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Hokkaido is a land rich in nature. Mountains and volcanoes, lakes, and forests dot this northernmost main island of Japan and fortunately, many are well-preserved and remain quite under-the-radar, especially those in Eastern Hokkaido. Apart from holding superlative titles in the country and/or possessing unique qualities, some of these natural landmarks are steeped in history and age-old mystery, and have even become sources of inspiration for modern fantasy.

There is another truth that those who have been reading this blog for a while might have acknowledged, that I am a huge fan of the Pokemon video games. I have done many fangirl’s pilgrimage trips around Japan to visit the real-world places that have inspired the in-game locations and I treasure every single location, but if I have to pick my most memorable trip, my trip to Akan Mashu National Park (inspiration for Distortion World, Turnback Cave, Sendoff Spring, and Lake Valor in the Pokemon Diamond/Pearl/Platinum games) in Eastern Hokkaido is the one. I first heard of the national park more than ten years ago thanks to Pokemon and since Distortion World has remained the most fascinating Pokemon locations for me to date, I naturally looked forward to visiting the national park the most.

Let me tell you a little story of my struggles before I could make this trip happen. I visited Hokkaido for the first time during my summer break in August 2019, but as bad luck would have it, a very heavy rain hit Hokkaido on the day I was supposed to travel from Kushiro to Akan Mashu National Park and all trains and buses in Hokkaido had to be suspended until night time. Safety is the most important, but I was still dejected because the next day, I had to go to another city several hours from Eastern Hokkaido and it wasn’t possible to visit Akan Mashu National Park anymore. Then came COVID-19 and border closures in 2020. I was stranded at home in Bangkok until Japan started reopening for people with existing student visa in September 2020. I thought that summer 2021 would be my last chance to revisit Hokkaido and get to Akan Mashu National Park before graduation. And finally, I could realize my decade-old dream in August 2021.

Although my visit to Akan Mashu National Park began as a flight of fancy, it has become even greater because of the existing mystery and history in the area, as well as the serene beauty. Let’s explore everything together in this post.

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Sapporo, Japan: Joyful Cool Summer

When winter comes, Sapporo becomes very cold. In spring and autumn, it still can get chilly. Come summertime, however, the rest of Japan wants to escape to this Northern city’s cool summer.

I didn’t write the paragraph above to discredit Hokkaido’s capital city and Japan’s fifth largest city in other seasons. Sapporo hosts one of the world’s most famous snow festivals every February that will make braving the constant sub-zero temperature and thick snow worth it. The city has some spring and fall colors to offer too. But with summer in other regions being notoriously hot (temperature usually almost reaches 35 °C or even goes over 35 °C for consecutive days) and very humid (the reason why even a Thai person like me finds Japanese summer uncomfortable), it is very tempting to visit Sapporo and other cities in Hokkaido where temperature is usually in the 25-30 °C range or slightly higher sometimes. Apart from being the gateway to Hokkaido with many domestic and international flights and the northernmost region’s hub with all the main train lines to other Hokkaido cities and well-developed facilities, Sapporo itself is brimming with interesting attractions and fresh and delicious food. I both traveled in Sapporo and used it as a base for day trips to nearby cities, thus having chances to try a lot of great food for dinner. I recommend you do this too.

I went to Sapporo for the first time in August 2019 and for the second time in August 2021. The places I visited on my first trip are conveniently in the city center and I will share easy trip ideas from that visit in this post. Despite all these destinations being in the center of Hokkaido’s most populous city and my visit being in the peak tourism month of August, I really like that Sapporo felt generally uncrowded, with comfortable summer weather, reliable transportation, and chill yet joyful vibe on both trips.

Maybe that is why the city inspired by Sapporo in the video games Pokemon Diamond/Pearl/Platinum is called Jubilife City, with “City of joy” as its slogan. Without further ado, I will now recommend things to see in Sapporo for first-timers, locations featured in Pokemon and the K-pop group NCT 127’s itinerary during their Sapporo concert that even non-fans might find interesting, and of course, tasty local food.

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Asahidake, Japan: The Mountain Where Ainu Gods Play

At the heart of Hokkaido lies Daisetsuzan National Park or Japan’s biggest national park. It is home to over a dozen of mighty and high peaks and among them, Mount Asahidake stands unrivaled in Hokkaido when it comes to height and perhaps, beauty. Rising 2,290 meters, the mountain is actually an active volcano and it is poetically described by the indigenous Ainu people as the garden where gods play or “Kamuimintara” in the Ainu language.

The beauty of this godly playground is fortunately not off-limits to us mortals. It is even easy to access thanks to a combination of bus and ropeway that takes visitors up to the altitude of 1,600 meters. To explore it fully and hike to the top is another story though. “Daisetsuzan” actually means great snowy mountains and the national park lives up to its name, with Japan’s first and long-lasting snow that stays on Mount Asahidake from late-September until July. In addition to the short season for convenient visit, the weather on Mount Asahidake is very turbulent. It can change rapidly and even on a sunny day, there are possibilities that the way to the summit is shrouded in fog, rendering the hike inconvenient or even impossible.

With the goal of summiting it, I visited Hokkaido’s tallest mountain and volcano in August, which is its only month without snow (unless it is an unusually cold year). Although I was lucky that there was no snow, I was unlucky with the gloomy weather and the thick fog. Having to abandon my full-day hiking plan was a pity, but it turned into an opportunity to enjoy the shorter nature trail on Mount Asahidake at a more leisurely pace. Looking through the photos later made me realize the fog created interesting combination between the minimal sky and the maximal meadows, blurring the line between sparse and full. Moreover, the fog added the mystical air fitting for the link to Ainu gods.

A note to fellow Pokemon fans before we dive into the visuals: the mountain range of Daisetsuzan National Park has inspired one of the most significant locations in Pokemon Diamond/Pearl/Platinum, Mt. Coronet (Mt. Tengan in Japanese). Just like Mount Asahidake and its prominent status as the Roof of Hokkaido, Mt. Coronet rises at the center of Sinnoh and is the fictional region’s highest mountain as well. The eternal snow around the peak area is probably a tribute to the long winter in Daisetsuzan National Park. Although Mount Asahidake doesn’t have an ancient ruin at its peak like Spear Pillar at the very top of Mt. Coronet, it was designated as where the Legendary Pokemon Dialga, Palkia, and Giratina descended, possibly due to its celestial, sacred status in the Ainu religion.

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Otaru, Japan: Crafty Canal City

The world is nothing short of small cities with big amount of charms. I haven’t been everywhere, but few probably have all the charming details packed into its quite limited space like Otaru.

Once one of the most prosperous port cities on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, Otaru is long past its heyday for fishermen and merchants, but traces of its glory days remain almost everywhere and in so many aspects that travelers should dedicate a day to explore this small city. Otaru is lined with century-old warehouses and other European-influenced buildings that have been refurbished into craft shops, seafood restaurants, and cafes that look as if they belonged in picture books.

What’s more, imagine these time-honored places reflected upon the water of Otaru’s historical canal flanked by cobblestoned paths and classic gas lamps. Romantic.

For nature lovers, Otaru offers not only calming sea views as expected of a harbor city, but also a mountain that bursts into green in summer and turns into a tranquil silver world in winter.

With its east-meets-west air along the atmospheric canal, myriad of handicrafts, fresh sushi and gourmet sweets, and mountain and sea package, it is no wonder Otaru has been featured in J-pop MVs, manga, films, travel documentaries, and others. In this post, I will show Otaru through my perspective as not only a tourist and an admirer of the little details but also a fan of the Pokemon video games and the K-pop group NCT 127.

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Kushiro, Japan: Foggy Marshland and Fisherman’s Wharf at Sunset

Home to Japan’s biggest marshland with rare Japanese red-crowned cranes (tancho) and the bountiful sea with the country’s largest annual catch, Kushiro is Hokkaido’s fourth biggest city with well-preserved nature, fresh seafood galore, and one of the world’s three best sunset spots chosen by well-traveled sailors. And yet, this beautiful place remains undiscovered by many tourists. If it weren’t for Kushiro and Kushiro Marshland (also known as Kushiro Shitsugen National Park and Kushiro Wetlands) being the inspiration behind Pastoria City (Nomose City in Japanese) and the Great Marsh in Pokemon Diamond/Pearl/Platinum, my curiosity about this under-the-radar city might not have been piqued.

It seems this swampy seaside city is often in the mood for mystery anyway. Shrouded in fog on the average of over 100 days a year, Kushiro has earned the reputation of Japan’s foggiest city and exudes mysterious aura on those days.

I visited Kushiro in August. The height of the foggy season.

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