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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Noboribetsu, Japan: As If Hell Froze at Jigokudani

Hello, hell.

Aptly called Hell Valley or Jigokudani in Japanese for the landscape that resembles the underworld realm, the area has century-old heavenly onsen resorts (collectively called Noboribetsu Onsen, which is Hokkaido’s most renowned onsen and boasts a wide range of 11 highly effective hot spring water types, earning the nickname Department Store of Onsen) and shopping area called Paradise Street (Hakuraku Dori Shotengai) as the reception though. Still, you will know whose territory you are stepping into with the demon statues lurking around.

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Toyako, Japan: Sailing across the North’s True Blue at Lake Toya

A 110,000-year-old lake over 10 kilometers in diameter, Lake Toya is considered one of the tops in many categories. Japan’s third largest caldera lake, also born from one of the largest volcanic eruptions in the country. Japan’s second most transparent lake. One of Hokkaido‘s greatest landscapes. And although located in Japan’s coldest region, Lake Toya is one of the only two lakes in Hokkaido that never freeze, the northernmost lake that remains veritably blue through countless winters.

Part of Shikotsu-Toya National Park and Toya-Usu UNESCO Global Geopark, Lake Toya area offers diverse and ever-changing views since in the area stands the active stratovolcano called Mount Usu. Right in the middle of the lake is a group of four uninhabited islands collectively called Nakajima, which were also born from volcanic activity around 50,000 years ago. Apart from taking a pleasure cruise and strolling around the lake, there are multiple walking trails and lookouts. From taking easy nature walks to hiking the trails around the volcano, you can choose your own adventure.

For a Pokemon fan like me, Lake Toya is also a very meaningful location. Lake Toya is the real-life version of Lake Verity (Lake Shinji in Japanese) in Pokemon Diamond/Pearl/Platinum while the island at the heart of Lake Verity is inspired by Nakajima Islands. Obviously, no Lake Guardian Legendary Pokemon resides on Nakajima, but we can play pretend.

Though Lake Toya straddles two towns called Toyako Town and Sobetsu Town, Toyako Town is where the action is, including onsen with lake views and fireworks every night from April to October. I visited the Toyako Town’s side of the lake and had a wonderful time strolling by the lake and walking through the forest on Nakajima Islands.

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