Travel teaches us to be flexible, patient. The unexpected will happen. As it did to us during a recent ten-day trip to Japan, an effort to spend autumn in Hokkaido.
Blanketed in snow for up to nine months of the year, the window for good hiking is limited. And we wanted elevation. And fall colors, and the sound of crunchy leaves skittering across the ground, blown by a crisp breeze. So September it was. Late enough to get the colors we hoped to see, early enough to avoid the first snows.
Sapporo Autumn Festival
Sometimes the unexpected arrives in the form of a delightful surprise. A chance encounter with a friend, a free upgrade, or an invitation to a party. Our plan to spend the first two nights in Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido prefecture, coincided with the city’s annual Autumn Festival.
I’ll pause here to say that one of the reasons we love visiting Japan is the food. There are a number of other reasons, some even higher on our list, but the food is certainly in the top three.
So imagine our joy upon discovering that Autumn Festival is a sprawling gastronomic extravaganza. The city’s gorgeous Odori Park becomes center-stage for hundreds of food and drink vendors. Ten city blocks of white-walled tents and stalls, lined on both sides with people serving up every foodtype you can imagine. From ramen to meat skewers to oysters and rice topped with sea urchin; from beer to sake to whisky to wine; from strawberries to pumpkin ice cream to I-don’t-know-what! The festival runs for two weeks, day and night. Almost enough time to sample everything.
It was death to our wallets by a thousand paper cuts. Five hundred yen here, three hundred yen a few stalls later, a thousand yen on the next block. Ten blocks up one side, ten blocks down the other. We walked miles, imbibing as we went, packing in more calories than we could possibly burn. We made our way through Autumn Fest each day we were in Sapporo, on both ends of our trip.
Most of the blocks had a theme. Whether it be Hokkaido specialties, foods from throughout Japan, or even Oktoberfest (with beers and sausages from throughout Bavaria), there was something for everyone. My favorite was the “Meat, Beer, and Music” block, though frosty mugs of Sapporo beer were never far.
We were particularly grateful to have Autumn Festival taking place, as it gave us something to do in Sapporo. Unlike the larger cities on the main island of Honshu, we found Sapporo to be a bit lacking in terms of things to do. Though we made time to stroll the Hokkaido University Botanical Gardens and Ainu Center, the Shiroi Koibitu cookie/chocolate factory, and the Sapporo Winter Olympics Museum and ski jump, much of our time in Sapporo was spent adjusting to the time change (+16 hours) and eating.
We realized by the end of the second full day in Sapporo that the extra day we had planned in Sapporo on the back-end of our trip was going to be tough to fill.
A Typhoon Timeout in Wakkanai
We had a choice to make. Typhoon Tamil wasn’t going to spin its way back out into the Pacific. It was heading north, following the curve of Japan’s archipelago straight to Hokkaido.
Our plan was to take the overnight bus from Sapporo to Hokkaido’s northernmost point, Wakkanai, and catch the 7:15 ferry to the tiny island of Rishiri where we’d spend two days cycling and hiking up the island’s mighty mountain.
Would the ferries run? If not, we’d be taking a 7-hour bus ride for naught. And if they are, and the typhoon hits, will our outdoor plans on Rishiri be washed out?
Sometimes you just have to take a chance and hope the anomaly of a typhoon wreaking havoc at 45-degrees North latitude doesn’t coincide with your first-in-a-lifetime visit.
The bus ride was pleasant. Curtains cloaked the entirety of the coach, dropping us immediately into darkness as we left Sapporo at 11 pm. The seats were spread three to a row, a gap between each reclining chair. Blankets and pillows provided, foot rests folded up. Cellphones were stashed and conversation ceased. The driver disabled the personal reading lamps. It’s Japan: nobody’s individual desire to read should intrude on the desire of others to sleep. A microcosm of what I love most about this country.
We outpaced the storm to Wakkanai, where two things awaited us: a sign announcing the day’s ferries had been canceled, and a taxi driver offering us a ride to the train station.
Kristin and I slumped into the chairs, waving the taxi driver away. Shit. It was exactly what we were afraid of. Behind us, rain drops started to splash against the windows of the ferry terminal. The sky darkened. The ticket counter opened at 6am, but the woman didn’t know if the ferries would run tomorrow. It’s a ninety-minute crossing to Rishiri in open water. The typhoon. They’ll be cautious. Once we were through kicking ourselves for having predicted this exact scenario, we had her call a cab.
No sooner had we told the driver to take us to the train station had I changed my mind. I flipped on my phone and booked a room at the ANA Crowne Plaza overlooking the harbor, within sight of the ferries. We crossed our fingers, hoping the ferry would be running in the morning.
The hotel wouldn’t let us check in until 1 pm, but they did store our bags for us. And the breakfast buffet was robust. We try to avoid corporate hotel chains when traveling, but a West-meets-East breakfast buffet never disappoints. We spent the rest of the morning at Fukoko-Ichiba, a complex of restaurants and food markets with a sprawling onsen on the second floor. Nothing like a long soak in a hot spring bath to help you forget the stress of unplanned delays.
The storm broke the umbrellas the hotel loaned us. We arrived back at the hotel soaked, despite taking taxis each way. Below our room, waves crashed over the breakwater as the ships rolled in the harbor.
The 7:15 ferry was cancelled the following morning so we took a hike up the nearby hill, with a stop at the temple along the way. The Buddhist monks were clanging their bell and banging their drum by the time we returned down the hill. It was time for breakfast, and time for a decision on the 10:50 ferry.
At 9 am, they announced the 10:50 would sail.
But what was the point? We’d barely have four hours of daylight on the island before leaving in the morning. Not enough time to climb the mountain before dark, especially on trails that would likely be a muddy mess after the storm (not to mention the lingering swells would make for an unpleasant crossing). So after another trip to the onsen, and my second bowl of curry udon in as many days, we went to Asahikawa a day early.
Seven hours in the bus and four hours on the train, only to wind up 90 minutes from where we started. So it goes.
Hiking Daisetsuzan in Autumn
I had made reservations months ago at a lodge a short walk from the cable car leading up to the hiking trails at Daisetsuzan National Park. It was the week of peak-color as far as autumn in Hokkaido is concerned and, unsurprisingly, the lodge couldn’t accept us a night early. So that meant two nights in the gateway city of Asahikawa, Hokkaido’s second largest.
Considering we had already missed out on a planned 53-kilometer bike ride around Rishiri and an ascent up the 6,000 foot Rishiri-zan, an extra full day of city-based downtime was a bit unfortunate. But we made the most of it.
Thursday morning, after our second meal of Hokkaido specialty, Genghis Kahn — grilled mutton and vegetables, with a Febreeze chaser — we shifted our plans and took an earlier bus to the lodge in Asadake Onsen, on the southwest side of Daisetsuzan National Park. Not wanting to tire ourselves out before the bigger hike the next day, we took the cable car up to the tourist trails near Sugatami Station and went for a short walk in the clouds.
Crowds swarmed the rocky trails, taking photos of the ponds, the fumaroles, and the scarlet ground cover, but the volcano was invisible, hidden behind a blanket of clouds and mist.
First we missed Rishiri and now, here we were at what was supposed to be the highlight of our trip, and there was nothing to see. We weren’t going to bother climbing a volcano if there weren’t any views to spot. Not to mention, the weather at the summit was undoubtedly even colder, wetter, and windier. We rode the cable car back down the mountain, seeking consolation in the waters of the onsen at the fabulous Daisetsuzan Shirakabasou lodge.
We’ve had plenty of great travel days before, especially in Japan, but daylight brought with it one of my all-time best days in the mountains. The eight-mile hike proved to be one of the most memorable of my life, filled with wispy clouds, comfortable temperatures, friendly hikers, and scenery that stretched to infinity. Peak foliage had arrived, basking the mountain in gold and red while the steam-spewing Asahi-dake reflected in the ponds at its base. With salmon- and pickled plum-packed rice balls in our packs, we head off up the mountain, barely containing our wonder at how the weather finally managed to work in our favor.
But enough of my thoughts, let’s get on with the photos. By the way, all the photos taken during this trip were done on a Google Pixel smartphone, without accessories. I dare say I might be done with my Canon G15.
We returned to Sapporo in the morning and spent the afternoon cruising the Autumn Festival with friends we had made during our bicycle tour. They were visiting Japan from London and their cruise ship just happened to be docked for the day a short train-ride away from the city. What a treat it was to see them again!
The rain hammered down on Sapporo that night, our last in Hokkaido, and for the third time in ten nights, we found ourselves grilling heaping piles of mutton, toasting a trip that didn’t go quite the way we had planned, but proved memorable nonetheless.