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.
In major Japanese cities, urban life isn’t just about what we see on the ground. The undergrounds and the sky-high buildings are just as happening.
Japan isn’t the only place in the world where the urban environments are characterized by well-utilized underground space and eye-catching skyscrapers. Still, I find many Japanese underground passages and high-rises interesting and I think we can’t talk about big Japanese cities without mentioning them.
To explore some aspects of these Japanese urban environments, come with me to Nagoya Station, locally known as Meieki. There is much to discover under, inside, around, and above this biggest train station complex in the world.
With how reliable, convenient, and well-connected trains in Japan are, vacations and even staycations in the countryside from major cities are pretty much effortless.
While living in the Chubu region’s center of Nagoya, I had many chances to make easy day trips to charming small towns around Chubu. One of the most memorable experience for me has to be how I managed to jump onto a train ride after my morning class, visit the traditional merchant town of Mino in the countryside with an atmospheric paper lantern festival, and come back to Nagoya on the same day.
Frankly, I would recommend spending a whole day or even staying overnight in Mino for a vacation in that area, but considering how busy I was with my thesis at the time, I was thankful it was possible to set aside some time at all for a pick-me-up staycation. Even the train ride in the area is in and of itself an interesting experience.