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High in Hokkaido

The Straits Times on 12 Aug 2014


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Jac Woo hikes on the tallest mountain and enjoys coffee in the clouds in Japan’s second largest island


“THERE’S a fox by the road! Stop the car!” shouted my friend excitedly.


Once we stopped, the fox stared at us hungrily, as though we were food in a delivery van.


Without winding down the window, I snapped a few quick shots before we moved on, just in case the fox decided to hitch a ride.


Hokkaido’s famous wildlife includes the brown bear and the red fox. I’m glad I met at least one of them in the wild during my recent trip to Central Hokkaido of Japan.


The highest peak
About an hour’s drive away from Asahikawa city is Mount Asahidake, the highest peak in Hokkaido. We decided go for a short hike to view the alpine flowers blooming in summer.


En route, we popped by Chamise rice ball shop to buy our picnic lunch. Japanese rice balls are convenient to eat and are filling too because the glutinous rice is densely packed with cooked meat or seafood.


Then we went to Daisetsu Asahidake Spring to fill up our water bottles with the mineral-rich mountain spring water.


Even though Mount Asahidake stands at 2,291m high, we didn’t have to hike all the way from the bottom to the top. The 10-minute Asahidake Ropeway ride took us half way up to the Sugatami Station at 1,600m.


We chose the “strolling path”, a 1.7km hike on the plateau near the ropeway station. Serious mountaineers can take the more challenging route to the peak.


Our hiking path had ups and downs but it was not too tiring because we walked leisurely and paused frequently to take photos.


The picturesque sights I saw included the vast alpine meadows, mirror-like ponds partially covered with snow, and volcanic vents creating a steamy ambience below Mount Asahidake’s peak.


I heard bells ringing whenever mountain trekkers walked by. My guide told me those were the bear bells, which the trekkers tied to their backpacks to “scare away the bears”.


We had no bear bells on us, so I was glad we didn’t have to share our picnic lunch with the animal.


Sea of clouds
Another highlight of my trip was to look for the unique “unkai” (sea of clouds) in Tomamu — a weather phenomenon where clouds appear like ocean waves beneath your feet.


The breathtaking sight is only observed at dawn on certain days between May and October at Hoshino Resorts Tomamu’s Unkai Terrace.


We stayed at the resort and took the first gondola at 4.30am for a 15-minute ride to Unkai Terrace. We were each given a postcard with a picture of the unkai, which we could mail at the blue Unkai Postbox to any address free of charge.


There is a café on the terrace selling hot coffee and soup for us to keep warm and enjoy the mountaintop view while we waited for the unkai to appear.


The visibility of the unkai is dependent on weather conditions. The forecast that day was 40 per cent, so we kept our fingers crossed.


Alas, after waiting for more than an hour, we did not see it. Even so, the view there was surreal as we were within the clouds.


Nobody complained as they understood the unkai was not a guaranteed sight. Some went for a stroll around the terrace while others lingered to take photos.


Suddenly there was excitement on the terrace — a free yoga session for everyone! After feeling kind of frozen in the cold mountain air, everyone was so happy to stretch and bend in unison with the yoga instructor.


We then took the gondola downhill and had a sumptuous outdoor barbecue breakfast at Kumonoshita Café, which has a lovely sunny view of the mountain range.


Over the rainbow
If the tourism pictures of Hokkaido’s rainbow-coloured hills have ever made you drool for a vacation, then summer is the best time to be there.


The flower farms are mainly in the Furano-Biei area, and one of the famous ones is Shikisai-no-Oka (Panoramic Flower Gardens).


It spreads over 7ha, with dozens of flower varieties blooming in different periods in summer. You can hop on a tractor bus or drive a buggy to tour the gardens.


To take a variety of pictures at different times of the day, we also checked out other flower farms such as Farm Tomita, Kanno Farm and Zerubu Hill.


Lots of lavender
From stretches of purple fields to purple scooters for staff, almost everything — from ice cream to souvenirs — is lavender-themed at Farm Tomita, one of Japan’s oldest lavender farms.
Though the lavender blooming season is summer, you can see lavender and other colourful flowers inside the farm’s greenhouse all year round.
The farm also has rainbow-coloured flower fields, a dried flower house, perfume workshop, photo gallery, cafés and gift shops.
I didn’t wear my purple T-shirt that day, otherwise I would have blended right in with the lavender fields.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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