This page will serve two purposes: First, to help me figure out how to use WordPress. Thus, this is an ongoing work-in-progress. Second, to help travelers find information in English on navigating Hokkaido. I’m in the habit of doing massive amounts of research before traveling, but found very little on Hokkaido outside of Sapporo, which is a shame, as it is a beautiful island. I spent two weeks in August hopping around western Hokkaido in 2014, successfully escaping the miserable Honshu humidity. I hope some of my experience helps you in your planning, and feel free to email or post questions I’ll do my best to answer.
Far from the hills and cliffs of Rebun Island is another flower-filled destination. Furano isn’t known for alpine wildflowers, however, so much as for its carefully cultivated fields of purple lavender and other richly colored blossoms rainbowing across the landscape. Furano is a bit of a tourist trap, but if you like flowers (or skiing in the winter), then it can be fun.
Furano is located in the middle of Hokkaido, south of Daisetsuzan National Park. Infrequent public transportation, even at peak tourist seasons, means getting around requires planning, luck, or a rental car. There’s a tourist information office at Furano Station for maps and recommendations for things to do, if the flower fields don’t captivate your attention for your whole stay. At least one staff member spoke decent English, probably because ski season is dominated by Australian tourists (as opposed to flower season, which attracts Chinese tourists). The town itself is divided by a river into two sections. Most of the accommodations are in the smaller section that doesn’t include Furano Station (which doesn’t help the transportation issue), but is closer to the ski slopes for the winter crowd. The most famous flower fields are actually north of Furano, in Nakafurano.
Furano is accessible by train from Sapporo or New Chitose Airport. From the latter, it takes about 3 hours with one transfer. If you arrive in the evening, as I did, you’ll have to get a taxi from Furano station. Beware that some of the tourist websites say that Chuo Buses go from the airport to Furano, but they don’t. It was my original plan to take one, but the ladies at the Chuo Bus counter were terribly confused by my request and informed me that there are no buses, Chuo or otherwise, that go to Furano from New Chitose. They likely do go from Sapporo to Furano, though, simply because you can get just about anywhere in Hokkaido from Sapporo.
As mentioned above, public transportation in the Furano area is limited. There’s an open-air train called the Norokko that operates only during the summer season. It’s a bit expensive, ¥540, but if the weather’s nice, it’s a lovely trip with panoramic views of the countryside between Furano Station and Lavender Station. Lavender Station is actually just a one-sided train platform a short walk from Farm Tomita and is also only open in the summer season. You can’t buy a ticket there, but it was easy to tell the ticketing agent at Furano Station where I had boarded and pay upon arrival. Japan is very trusting that way. The biggest problem with the Norokko train, as with the buses, is that they don’t operate often. As in, they make roundtrip journeys twice a day, so if you miss it, you better have a back-up plan!
Also operating in the summer season is the Lavender Bus. It has several stops in that smaller section of town, goes through Furano Station, to Nakafurano and eventually to Asahikawa. It’s a bit of a walk from the Nakafurano bus stop to Farm Tomita, but it takes you past a couple of other nice flower fields on the way, too. There are 8 roundtrip buses a day, with at least an hour between them. There is also the seasonal Kururu Loople bus, but you are required to buy a two-day pass at ¥1000 or more, and it doesn’t take you to the flower fields.
I took the Lavender Bus to the flower fields, meeting a camera-crazy tourist from Hong Kong on board. This worked out, as I could read all the hiragana and katakana, and he could read all the kanji, so for once we could understand most of the written Japanese around us. So if you get turned around somewhere, the Chinese tourists may be able to help; I find they’re more likely to speak English than the locals, too. The best part was when he stopped to ask a Chinese girl a question, and then came back and rattled on for a good half a minute before I pointed out that I can’t understand Cantonese. The brain is fascinating.
I’ve mentioned Farm Tomita several times thus far due to the fact that it is the most popular of the flower attractions. It’s most famous for its fields of deep purple lavender, but my pictures are of its other flowers because my visit was a week into August, past lavender season. Farm workers were actually harvesting the lavender while I was there. So if the lavender fields are your goal, you must visit in July. Luckily, I find the scent of lavender to be unappealing, anyway, and was just as happy with the remaining Autumn and Hanabito fields.
Farm Tomita includes several buildings on the edges of the flower fields. Within them are typical tourist areas: shops selling souvenirs of everything lavender-scented, as well as a few other home-grown scents, an eating area and food stalls, a greenhouse, and small museums and workshops. The main building, in the above picture, has a balcony on the second floor overlooking the field. The smaller building to the left is the Dried Flower House, which has a scene created with dried flowers, as the name implies, and is worth a look.
One of the must-tries in Furano is the lavender ice cream. I bought this lavender milk popsicle at the Poppy House, where they also sell it as soft-serve ice cream. Not being a fan of the smell, I was expecting to have the same opinion of the flavor, but was pleasantly surprised.
While Farm Tomita is the most popular destination for flower viewing, there are other places. A town to the north, Biei, also has scenic attractions involving colorfully striped hills, a cerulean blue pond, and more. Tourist websites recommend staying in Biei if you’re going to explore it, since public transportation becomes even more infrequent in the evening, so making it back to your accommodation in Furano could be iffy. I don’t like flowers enough to dedicate two days to gazing at them, so I didn’t go to Biei.
There are also other things to do in Furano. The tourist map lists all sorts of little places to explore, including: Furano Winery, the Grape Juice Factory, the Cheese Factory, Furano Ropeway, and Ningul Terrace.
I chose a bike ride to the Cheese Factory to fill my post-flora afternoon. The bike rental place is just around the bus circle from Furano Station. There’s a small souvenir shop and the lady who runs it also rents out bicycles. The larger section of Furano City is flat with minimal pedestrians, so going through the town itself was a nice ride, especially considering I had not successfully ridden a bike since I was 11 years old. It gets a bit more hilly around Sorachi River, and I ended up walking the bike up the last leg of the journey, exhausted and overheated (because I was out of shape, as lamented in previous posts).
I was not overly impressed with the Cheese Factory. I think if I had come earlier in the day (it was maybe around 3pm when I arrived) I may have seen more actual production. They also have cheese and ice cream-making classes, but you have to book them in advance. They have a small pizza restaurant that uses the cheese they make on the grounds (the pizza was good if you like pizza in Japan), and an ice cream shop with some interesting flavors. The kabocha ice cream was pretty good. I say kabocha because when I say ‘pumpkin ice cream,’ I think pumpkin pie, and Japanese pumpkin foods don’t have spices. It’s a completely different experience for your taste buds.
On the top floor is a large, architecturally appealing space where you can buy dairy products and hang out near the huge windows overlooking the grounds. Among those dairy products is the unique Squid Ink Camembert Cheese. As pictured on the left, you can sample it. Squid ink is an ingredient often used in Japan. The original all-black Burger King burger bun was colored with squid ink, since it was developed in Japan. Unlike the Western-adapted use of food coloring, squid ink doesn’t make everything green on the other end. Regardless, I didn’t try it, so you’ll have to see if you gag on your own.
I haven’t mentioned accommodations yet for Furano in part because there are tons of choices and in part because my experience wasn’t great. I stayed at Pension Snowflake. Pensions are privately owned B&Bs, essentially. While the common area was impressively ski lodge-looking, the mattress on my bed was horribly uncomfortable. I had to take the covers from the other twin bed in the room and layer them on my bed to not feel like I was sleeping on a wood board. The kitchen available for use by guests was also tiny, sparsely equipped, and two staircases away from where you could eat your food (not good when you’re carrying boiling-hot instant ramen). So I wouldn’t recommend the place. Wikitravel now has a lot of other places listed as choices, including a hostel, so I suggest looking around.
Furano was the first place I visited on my summer trip to Hokkaido. I wanted to get there as early as possible, since I knew their flower season was at its end in August. While I enjoyed the fresh, pine-scented air, the colors, and the sprawling landscape, I know I probably would have given it up for an extra day on Rishiri. Still, it’s a more oft-beaten path for those who either love flowers or want to go places easier to reach than the remote destinations of Hokkaido. If you’re traveling in July, it would be worth the stop. Happy travels, globehoppers!
Yet another place I wish I could have spent more time at was Sounkyo. The town consists of a single, pretty pedestrian road lined with tourist shops and good restaurants. At the top of the street you can take a ropeway and then a ropeway halfway up Mt. Kurodake for awe-inspiring views of Daisetsuzan National Park, or turn left for the cozy hostel and hot spring resorts. In between the rain showers, I exercised a bit more than expected with the hills and the mountain I felt the inexplicable urge to climb, and ate more than I should have because my gods, how can that much food fit into a ramen bowl? It was a startling, refreshing contrast to the metropolitan life I’d become accustomed to living.
Sounkyo is a tourist onsen town in northern Daisetsuzan National Park. The large hotels have multiple levels of hot spring pools available to guests and visitors, and therefore Sounkyo seems especially popular with older people. The town comes off a main road that runs through the Sounkyo Gorge, with waterfalls a bike ride away along it. Hikers come here either to climb just Mr. Kurodake or to do so and then continue hiking through the national park.
If the weather had been better for my stay, a day and a half (two nights) would have been enough at Sounkyo Gorge. However, it poured for my half day. I did, however discover a wonderful little bohemian restaurant called Nature Cafe. This was as hippie as I’d seen Japan get. The decor was bright, colorful, with an East Indian theme and western-style food that not only looked like Western health food, but tasted like it, too! This rarely ever happens in Japan. I had a long chat with the proprietress, whose English is excellent since, she told me, her husband is from New Zealand. She opens the cafe in the warmer months, and spends the rest of the year in Sapporo with him.
It’s quite a hike up to the hostel from the bus station, since Sounkyo is in the mountains. It only felt strenuous that first time, dragging my suitcase behind me in the rain, though. It was also a bit… gross. There are large moth corpses littering all the sidewalks. Perhaps knocked off the lampposts by the downpour?
In any case, I stayed at Sounkyo Youth Hostel. This hostel can be booked easily online through HostelWorld. I can vouch for this site: I’ve used it a couple dozen times with no problems. Reviews from past guests are extremely helpful.
The beds in the dorm are curtained off for privacy with a convenient cubby hole to let your toothbrush dry or store things in. The shower room is communal, and the only “youth” part of the Youth Hostel is the foreign element. I’m not sure that Japanese people actually know what “youth” in “youth hostel” means. The Japanese guests were almost all elderly people in town for the hot springs. I think they separate Japanese and foreign guests in the dorms, though, as they dominated the main room at breakfast (which you can purchase ahead of time), but were absent from the sleeping and bathing areas assigned to me.
That first night I had the most enormous bowl of ramen I’ve ever seen. This picture doesn’t do it justice. I ate a third of the bowl and felt like my stomach would burst. I apologized to the staff for eating so little, but they laughed and said I’d done well. Either they were being kind, or they mean to overstuff people. The ramen is so rich and tasty, it’s hard to stop.
Most places in Japan are famous for a particular food or two. Hokkaido is famous for just about every food. Ramen is one of the dishes purportedly superior on the island, so I used its reputation as an excuse to eat it more often than I should have.
Sounkyo is a great place to get a mountain-top view of Daisetsuzan without actually having to exercise if you don’t want to sweat. There is a ropeway going halfway up Mt. Kurodake and after a pleasant walk through a garden and some forest, a quiet, relaxing chairlift (¥2200 for both, round trip). The views from the stations at the top of each are great (though cloudy for me, since it was an overcast day). There are no bathrooms at the top of the chairlift, though, so go in town before you board!
If you choose, you can turn around and come back down after this. Or you can continue to climb. Tourist information says that the peak of Mt. Kurodake is only and hour’s hike from the chairlift station. This is not accurate! After more than an hour climbing, I met a couple who had been quite a bit ahead of me and turned around, as there was still no end in sight. There is no actual path; you climb up a rocky stream bed that occasionally has a couple planks of wood secured over large gaps. This is nice in an authentic-nature kind of way, but it is steep. There’s great motivation to keep moving, however, as the stream bed is surrounded by wildflowers, and therefore very loud, large insects that will land on you if you stay still. Well, I wanted nature.
In town, there are bicycles to rent at some of the resorts. When you’re going down the hill back to the main road with one, make a right and you can cycle 3km to the Ginga no taki (Milky Way Falls) and Ryusei no taki (Shooting Star Falls). The town map is confusing, so make sure you know which way to turn. I emphasize this because I went left, and while it was a lovely downhill ride next to the river, I didn’t have the energy to go to the falls once I turned around.There is also supposed to be an interesting rock formation called Obako beyond the falls.
At Sounkyo Youth Hostel, guests can pay a small fee to use the onsen at the Taisetsu Hotel across the street. The hostel will even rent you a towel to take, and they have guides posted near the front desk on onsen etiquette and the layout of the hotel.Taisetsu has several gender-separated pools and the staff at the front desk will tell you which ones are in use when you arrive. I’m pretty sure I heard her wrong, since there was no one else at the one I soaked in. It was relaxing, but a little unnerving, as the hotel backs up to a mountain and therefore the outdoor, third floor onsen looks out on a lawn and forest that anyone could stroll through at any moment. I don’t suppose anyone would be walking around a mountain in the dark, but it felt a bit exposed.
Sounkyo Gorge also has fireworks every night. You can see them well from the Taisetsu parking lot, where everyone gathers to watch, so you won’t be run over.
If you’re going to Sounkyo in the winter, there is an impressive-looking ice festival that lasts all the way through March. Google images of it to see what I mean. It is also a popular spot for skiing. I’d be a bit worried about access to the gorge in winter, as Daisetsuzan National Park gets tons of snow, but perhaps it’s a popular enough place that they try to keep the roads clear.
Sounkyo Gorge is a great place to stop for a couple of days, especially if you want some fresh air and room to breathe it. There’s quite a bit of information out there for the parts I missed (such as the waterfalls), but I hope this helps your planning a little. Happy travels, globehoppers!
While Rebun Island was my favorite experience in Hokkaido, it is possible that Rishiri-to could have beaten its neighbor for the top spot had I planned my visit better. The striking Mt. Rishiri dominates the horizon for half the ferry ride to it, the island is lushly green, and there is no better seafood in Japan.
Like Rebun, Rishiri Island is part of the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park, comprising the northernmost points of Hokkaido, and therefore Japan. The ferries from Wakkanai dock at the bigger port town of Oshidomari, while a second ferry terminal exists in the other town on the island, Katsugata, to take you to Rebun Island. The focal point of Rishiri Island is Mt. Rishiri, a dormant volcano, and it is also the main draw for tourists. The shape of it resembles Mt. Fuji, and so it is often called Rishiri-fuji. While there are plenty of picturesque points around Mt. Rishiri to stop on a bus tour and make use of your camera, the brave see the beautiful mountain and must climb it.
I am not one of these brave. Climbing Mt. Rishiri, by all accounts, is a serious business and takes a full day. You can supposedly see the Russian islands from the top, though.
While I arrived at Oshidomari Port intending to climb part of the way, or at least take a bus to see Himenuma Pond, I ended up stuck at the port. This wasn’t a total loss, as I could climb Cape Peshi here and not only was the view fabulous, of both Mt. Rishiri and the distant Rebun, but I could feel fit and accomplished for finishing the hike, as it only took maybe 15 or 20 minutes.
I strongly advise studying and properly planning around the infrequent bus times as soon as you disembark the ferry. The ferry terminal contains a cafe with great views on the second floor and a tourist information desk on the first, where you can pick up the day’s bus schedule and a map of the island. There’s also a bay of coin lockers, and several of the lockers were big enough to stash my medium-sized suitcase in.
Mistakenly, I decided to climb Cape Peshi before organizing the rest of my day, and by the time I got to it, there wasn’t much chance of my taking a bus to Himenuma, coming back, picking up my suitcase, and getting to Katsugata by the check-in time of my accommodations. So a lot of this post is a do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-did.
Especially if you plan on climbing the mountain, book more than one night on Rishiri. The original hostel on Rishiri, Greenhill Youth Hostel, shut down some years ago, and though there are rumors online about a hostel called “3.9” (a play on the Japanese pronunciation of ‘thank you’), contact information is nowhere to be found. Even my Japanese friend could find nothing on Japanese language websites.
So I splurged and had my friend book one night for me at Minshuku Ebisu-so in Katsugata. Katsugata is about a 30 minute bus ride from Oshidomari and a minshuku is a Japanese-style bed and breakfast. While one night there only costs a bit more than the campsite on the island, they also offer two meals for an extra fee. I went for the meals since I didn’t know what Katsugata would offer for restaurants. The stay cost ¥8640. The proprietress who runs the minshuku is a kind, bubbly lady who doesn’t speak a word of English. I understood about 1/4 of what she said, but it didn’t seem to bother her. She is also an amazing cook. Dinner was a huge assortment of the best seafood I’d ever eaten, including the local specialty, uni, or sea urchin.
Even if you’ve tried uni elsewhere and didn’t care for it, try it in Hokkaido; the difference is astounding. There was also my personal favorite, hotate, or scallops, as well as different mushrooms, pickles, shrimp, sushi, etc. Second most notable were the four or five different dishes of octopus. I’d always been neutral about octopus, but what this lady did with it made it seem like an entirely different, and far more delicious, dish. There were a couple of less appealing offerings, like tsubu, a kind of sea snail, but since you can’t eat everything the proprietress puts in front of you, you don’t seem rude not eating it all. See my link below for someone else’s picture of one of her meals. You will get a far greater variety of home-cooked local delicacies for the same or a lower price at a minshuku than at a restaurant, so I recommend it.
Minshuku Ebisu-so: #0163-84-3640
The rooms at Ebisu-so are private, sunny, and airy, even if the mattresses are a bit hard. The proprietress has discount passes for the town hotel’s onsen, as well. I think my presence threw off at least one local- she was about to get in the onsen when she saw me, froze, and made a beeline for the other pool. I realized a bit later that she was simply a very chatty older lady who wanted someone to talk at, after seeing the politely strained expression of the young woman sharing her pool.
Unfortunately, while seafood makes an amazing dinner, it’s not quite as welcome to a Western palate for breakfast. I suggest requesting only dinner at a minshuku. There’s a convenience store in town for a cheap, prepackaged pastry or protein bar, and the ferry terminal is walkable from the minshuku, if you’re going to Rebun. The ferry terminal is smaller and only two ferries leave a day, but it has vending machines and a surprisingly good wi-fi signal.
Please see my post on Rebun for information on Wakkanai and getting to the islands.
Obviously, this post is an incomplete guide to seeing Rishiri Island, but I hope you can use it as advice on a few things not to do, and that it gave you an idea of what to expect. Happy travels, globehoppers!
My favorite place in Hokkaido was certainly Rebun-to (Rebun Island). The island itself was covered in wildflowers, and though I’m rarely impressed with what the Japanese deem a great ‘variety’ when it comes to flora, the quantity makes up for it, and the views are incredible (see my blog’s main photo). While these are recommendations enough in themselves, what really makes Rebun an experience is the Momoiwa-so Hostel. I’ve stayed at a lot of hostels, but none like this.
Let’s start at the beginning. Rebun Island is part of the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park, which encompasses the most northern points of Japan. You can see Russian islands from Sarobetsu, supposedly. I’ll talk about Rishiri Island on another page. Rebun is the smaller, flatter island of two, famous for the aforementioned wild flowers, and falling short of being Japan’s northernmost point by only a few meters in favor of Sarobetsu.
Access to Rebun is mostly via Wakkanai. The very modern ferry terminal is just down the pier from the train station. Wakkanai itself is exceedingly dull, but if you have to stop there, I recommend the Wakkanai Youth Hostel. It’s a distance from the station/terminal, but the proprietor is excellent about picking you up and dropping you off there and I got a two-bed hotel room for ¥3240. The Moshiripa Youth Hostel (¥4000/night) is a closer option if you’re taking the first ferry in the morning, but I found it difficult to make a reservation. There is also an early curfew, for those to whom it matters, though there’s not much you’d want to break it doing, anyway. Proprietors at both hostels speak English well.
The journey to Rebun Island’s Kafuka Port on the HeartLand Ferry takes about two hours. Try to board early to get a good spot on the floor (yes, you have to take off your shoes).
Alternatively, there are a few ferries each day from Rishiri Island to Rebun, if you’d prefer to start there.
And now comes Momoiwa-so Hostel. I don’t want to give everything away, but at least two of the six male staff greet every guest at every ferry arrival and then you get to witness their Goodbye Ferry ritual, which consists of singing, dancing, and call-responses at top volume and energy until the ferry is out of sight again. These guys get up at 4:30 and don’t sleep until 11p.m. every day- they have more energy in one day than I have in a month!
After the Goodbye Ferry ritual, they pack you into a vehicle to take you to the hostel, situated on a gorgeous, isolated cliff at the southern part of the island. Entertainment is provided enroute and upon arrival. There is also a nightly “meeting” that would more accurately be called a show. It’s part information session on the island and the 8-hour and 4-hour hiking courses that attract people to Rebun, and part interactive comedy/musical routine, complete with quizzes, cosplay, and skits.
I had a Japanese friend book Momoiwa-so Hostel for me. ¥6,000 a night, with the fee collected daily. The hostel provides two generous meals for an extra fee (the octopus curry and rice was quite good!): dinner and a boxed lunch to take hiking. One of the six men and the lady who seemed in charge of the front desk spoke English well, and one of the other guys was intermediate. I think I was the only non-Asian guest at the time. Therefore, if you don’t understand at least some Japanese, you may not get much out of the experience here.
If you’re traveling to Rebun to do the 8-hour or 4-hour hikes, however, missing out on the entertainment may not matter. Momoiwa-so is at the end of the 8-hour hike. They do a wake-up call in the morning and either drive the hikers to the northernmost point of the island or drop them off at the bus that will take them there, if there aren’t enough hikers to warrant the use of the hostel bus. The hostel staff does a full information session nightly, both the entertaining overview in the “meeting” and a serious meeting afterwards when hikers get divided into groups. This is when the intermediate guy sat down next to me and tried translating the gist of the information, and luckily my Japanese was low-intermediate at the time, so I got the important points.
I did the 4-hour hike. I am the first to admit that I am not in shape, and that said, I was exhausted. When Japanese people hike, they hike with a purpose. It likely would have been a 6-hour hike if the pace were left to me, so good thing it wasn’t! At the end of the 4-hour hike, you break off from those continuing on the 8-hour hike, go up a blessedly flat road for 40 minutes to the bus stop, and take that back to town, where you can catch a ride back to the hostel with the fresh-off-the-ferry guests (and participate in the Goodbye Ferry ritual, since you’re there). I understood that, past the split-off point, the hike became both less difficult and less scenic, should you choose the 8-hour one. Either way, you need to wear: hiking shoes, a long-sleeved shirt, and pants that are as waterproof as possible. The grasses are nearly as tall as you and still dew-kissed at the start of the hike.
One more point international visitors may want to keep in mind: bathing. Momoiwa-so Hostel’s bathing situation is public bath style. The genders are separated, but I admit it was one of the more bizarre situations I found myself in during the entire course of my stay in Japan. I had, of course, been to onsen and public bath houses before, but they were nearly empty or of the ‘get in, do your thing, and get out’ variety. Here, there was a long wait for the bathing room, as most people want to get clean between the end of their hike and the start of the meeting. So there were ten or so of us women hanging out in the changing room and I was having the exact same ‘where are you from, how long have you been in Japan’ conversation I’d had several times every day for a week, except this one was taking place while nude. The fact that I wasn’t feigning my nonchalance was actually the bizarre part. Their indifference took away my self-consciousness.