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!