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.
If you have looked for sweets as a souvenir in Japan or have received them as a gift from someone who has been there, you might have heard of, seen, or even tasted Shiroi Koibito by Ishiya Chocolate Factory. Meaning “white lover” in Japanese and inspired by a walk on a snowy day in Hokkaido, the aptly named butter langues de chat have decadent white chocolate-flavored filling in between and beautiful packaging featuring snowflake patterns and Hokkaido’s snowcapped mountain. Originally the most popular souvenir in this coldest region of Japan, Shiroi Koibito is so beloved that it has become available at a few major airports around the country and established itself as the second bestselling souvenir nationwide. As a big fan of chocolate, I must say that Shiroi Koibito is no. 1 Japanese chocolate for me (a tie with Royce) and one of the top five among all the chocolate I have had in my life.
While the taste of something delicious usually melts away too quickly for our liking, there is a way for us to extend that fleeting moment of happiness for a bit. At Shiroi Koibito Park in Sapporo, Hokkaido, we can experience more than tasting the famous white chocolate biscuits. Albeit not super big, this chocolate entertainment park offers a wide range of chocolate delights and other sweets and merchandise produced by Ishiya that aren’t available elsewhere, as well as fantastical decorations and colorful seasonal flowers.
And one of the greatest things of all: many areas in Shiroi Koibito Park are free to enter.
We often compare climbing hills to overcoming obstacles, but some people get over certain challenges by creating hills. Those people are the world-famous Japanese architect Tadao Ando and the legendary Japanese-American sculptor and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi. And it just so happens that Tadao Ando’s and Isamu Noguchi’s artistic hills are in Sapporo, the capital city of Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido.
As the third largest city in Hokkaido with twinkling panoramic night view regarded as the best in Japan and one of the top three in the world, Hakodate already has what it takes to become a big star among travelers.
And as beloved as Hakodate night is, Hakodate actually shines both in the night and in the day. This oldest international port city on Hokkaido comes highly recommended in travel guides for its lively waterfront and hill lined with Western-influenced buildings. That said, Hakodate retains the chill atmosphere like most places in Hokkaido and getting to and around the city is easy.
From sunrise to after sunset, there are plenty of things to do and see in Hakodate. I had to start my city walk around noon though, so I didn’t have enough time to try fresh seafood at Hakodate Morning Market and trace the Boshin War history at the star-shaped Goryokaku Fort. Sunshower and rain also came and go throughout the day, but let’s see the scenes I have managed to capture in this charming city.
Country roads are liberating. Even more so when I get to travel them and admire the idyllic scenery unobstructed by tall buildings and bustling crowds at my own pace.
As much as I love country roads and want to freely explore them, I have yet to get a driver’s license, so cycling and walking are my only feasible options when I travel solo (which is most of the times). I am actually a fan of cycling, but I am not the physically fittest person. I had biked only around 7.5 kilometers at most on a pretty flat road in Thailand. However, the vast and colorful fields of Biei in Hokkaido had motivated me so much that I could overcome my worries about cycling on a hilly, more-than-10-kilometer-long road abroad.
Heralded as one of the most beautiful villages in Japan, Biei is actually a town. It is small though and has very large and fertile farmland areas, so it feels like a big bucolic village with computer wallpaper-worthy looks. Biei is also home to Hokkaido’s two most famous cycling routes, the Patchwork Road (14 kilometers) and the Panorama Road (18 kilometers), both of which are among the top cycling routes in the whole country as well. Of course, everyone is welcome to go on a Biei road trip by car and by tour bus, but with the well-paved roads and picturesque countryside views throughout, I highly recommend renting an electric bicycle near Biei Station like I did, so that nothing comes between you and the scenery.
I initially wanted to cycle both the Patchwork Road and the Panorama Road as a full-day trip, but as you can see in the featured image, it was an overcast day and the weather forecast warned me that the rain would start around 12pm. Biei was my last destination before I flew back to Nagoya, so I couldn’t change anything on my itinerary. Although there was no sunshine, there was no way I would miss one of the destinations I looked forward to the most in the entire country, so my Biei road trip had to go on as I hoped that I would be lucky enough to pedal around for at least a few hours and could return my bicycle before it rained.