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Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012

Lake Shikotsu: a Hokkaido wonderland awaits


Special to The Japan Times

I have spent the last four hours perspiring under the summer sun, moving slowly and photographing wildflowers. Having hiked the circuitous, twin-peaked route around the caldera of constantly active 1,041-meter Mount Tarumae, I then loped up and down a small peak known only as Kyu-san-ni (its height, of 932 meters, since kyu means "nine," san is "three" and ni is "two"). With that behind me, it was a half-hike, half-scramble to the top of wonderful, 1,103-meter Mount Fuppushi.

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Double vision: Lake Shikotsu with clouds floating on it (above), and the 1,898-meter cone of Mount Yotei (bottom right), as seen from the slopes of Mount Tarumae. The map shows the five separate areas comprising the Shikotsu-Toya National Park, being the ones around each of those two large lakes, the areas centered on the towns of Jozankei and Noboribetsu, and that around Mount Yotei. MARK BRAZIL PHOTOS
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This is one of my favorite day's outings in Hokkaido, in the superb Shikotsu-Toya National Park (NP). It is long and varied enough that it feels to be a proper workout, and it well clears the cobwebs from my mind. But the scenery alone would be enough to sustain my efforts, while it's sufficiently diverse in its wildlife that at almost any time, save midwinter, there is something alive of interest to watch — whether it is insects on the summit, pipits singing over its flanks, alpine flowers growing in the pumice barrens in spring and summer or woodpeckers tapping in its woods in winter.

Mount Fuppushi itself is no great peak, especially in comparison with the towering summits of the Japan Alps, but being 1,000 km north of that range it shares a similar climate at the top despite its lower stature.

Adding to its appeal is the scrambling — something between hiking and easy climbing — it takes to traverse the mid-section en route to the summit. Indeed, some agility and arm strength is required to pull yourself up the permanent chains to reach the top. From there, though, Mount Fuppushi without doubt offers one of the most spectacular views in Hokkaido — and indeed one of the most beautiful scenes anyone could hope to behold anywhere in the world.

This most northerly of Japan's main islands is well blessed with gorgeous scenery. I rate the view from the caldera rim overlooking Lake Mashu in the Akan National Park of eastern Hokkaido as the most spectacular of them all — but the panorama from the top of Mount Fuppushi, taking in the whole of Lake Shikotsu, is a very, very close rival.

The landscapes of Hokkaido are well represented in this island's prefectural and national parks, which range from lowland peat swamps with Red-crowned Cranes in Kushiro Wetland NP, to rugged mountain ranges with Brown Bears in the Shiretoko Peninsula NP, by way of the Kamuy Mintara (Playground of the Gods) with gorgeous summer wildflower meadows in Daisetsu NP.

And here, in southwest Hokkaido's enormous Shikotsu-Toya NP, the landforms are as much a monument to violent geological forces as to beautiful scenery.

This national park spanning 993-sq.-km that was established on May 16, 1949, actually consists of a quintet of fractured parts which each offer different attractions. The two enormous lakes, Shikotsu and Toya, that give it its name, are some 40 km apart, though each offers fine views, good fly-fishing so I am told, fine camping at sites near their shores and excellent hiking.

The area around Lake Toya includes the volcanically active 737-meter Mount Usu and famous Showashinzan that burst up through a farmer's field in 1943 and now tops 400 meters in height.

This area is further and separately recognized as the Toya Caldera and Usu Volcano Geopark. Here, the towns of Jozankei and Noboribetsu allow for excellent hot-spring bathing in incongruously designed big-city-style hotels — which to my eyes are quite out of keeping with the protected landscapes they stand among. However, the hot-spring facilities come complete with all the requirements of the road-oriented, bus-transported tourist, meaning souvenir stalls selling obligatory Hokkaido woodcarvings and trinkets, and lots of cafes and beer halls.

The area around Jozankei includes the Nakayama Pass and the Toyohira Gorge, through which the Toyohira River fights its rocky way toward Sapporo; while the area around Noboribetsu, including the Orofure Pass, its adjacent peak, and Lake Kuttara, are also in the protected national-park area.

Compared with its two lakes and its two resort towns, the fifth part of the park is an astonishing visual anomaly, namely the single dominating feature of western Hokkaido, the great 1,898-meter volcanic cone of Mount Yotei, otherwise known as Ezo Fuji — the Mount Fuji of Hokkaido. Hiking this mountain requires good fitness and one or two days (there is a hut near the peak that is open in summer only), and to be on the summit for sunrise is a common goal.

In winter, the mighty cone attracts keen mountain skiers in search of pristine powder runs; this is wild skiing with no lifts or tows — meaning snowhounds get but a single run as reward for their long slog up.

Look out from any high vantage point across this landscape of the Shikotsu-Toya NP, pocked with craters, calderas, low volcanic peaks and the gracefully and seemingly placidly rising Mount Yotei, and it's impossible not to think that Hokkaido has suffered a terrifyingly turbulent and violent past — and it sure is good not to have lived here when all that was going on.

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Top spots: The west peak of Mount Tarumae (above) and the track up to it, with Lake Shikotsu beyond an expanse of alpine vegetation.
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That said, a sign overlooking Lake Shikotsu tells how an explorer of a recently bygone age, led to the lake by an Utari guide, heard the howling of wolves as he admired the view across the caldera. While Hokkaido's distant past seems replete with cataclysm, I wish I could return to Lake Shikotsu in the middle of the 19th century to meet those explorers and, like them, experience this spectacular landscape complemented with the resonance of an intact soundscape — the howling of the top carnivore — in that now lost land of the wolf.

There seems little doubt that the famous explorer Matsuura Takeshiro (1818-88), who gave us the name Hokkaido, approached Lake Shikotsu, reaching its southeast corner by way of the Chitose River.

Perhaps he and his guides hiked along beside the river, or even paddled up it. Today, there's a broad undulating road (Route 16) going westward from Chitose City through mature and extensive mixed forest, much of it beside the river, all the way to the enclave of restaurants, shops and lodgings that now cluster at the southeast corner of the lake at an altitude of 247 meters, making for a little pleasant coolness on a hot summer's day. It is from this very corner of the lake that the Chitose River debouches wide and slow beneath an incongruous red-painted steel-girder bridge built in Waverley, England, in the 19th century for Japan's then-fledgling railway system.

Buses, many in winter whisking Antipodean skiers from Chitose Airport, bound for the powder-snow heaven of Niseko by way of Route 276, briefly skirt the southern shore of the lake. However, this road designed to carry people to such a spectacular lake provides almost no opportunities to pull over and admire the view. Fishermen in their muted colors who wish to wade the shoreline angling for trout in spring and summer have 40 km of shore to wander — but must drive their vehicles up onto the sidewalk, then scramble down through the woods, to access it; while hikers need to know the narrow side roads to the trail heads and leave the main road behind them to pursue their goals. Car-bound tourists are poorly served unless they know that a pull-out awaits them above the northeast corner of the lake.

Lake Shikotsu sets many records, though its surface area of 78.4 sq. km makes it only Japan's eighth largest. It is Japan's second-largest caldera lake (Lake Kussharo in east Hokkaido's Akan NP beats it), and it's also the second-deepest lake in the country, averaging 265 meters but with a maximum profundity of 363 meters.

In fact, Lake Shikotsu, with 20.9 cu. km of water, contains 75 percent as much water as Japan's biggest lake, the nine-times-larger (by surface area) Lake Biwa. It is because of its great depth and enormous volume that its temperature remains fairly constant year-round and the lake is ice-free in winter. The caldera into which it filled was formed some 30,000 to 50,000 years ago, when the land between the three volcanoes of 1,320-meter Mount Eniwa, Mount Tarumae and Mount Fuppushi collapsed. How dramatic would that have been to witness!

The proximity of the Shikotsu-Toya NP to Sapporo makes it a popular weekend destination both for the city's residents and travelers with a limited time in Hokkaido. In fact, not only is the Shikotsu-Toya NP the easiest national park to access from Sapporo, but Lake Shikotsu offers so much that there is really no need to go further afield.

The national park not only includes Lake Shikotsu, but also the area around taking in Mount Tarumae, where I began my recent hike to Mount Fuppushi, and facing it across the lake to the north, rugged Mount Eniwa.

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JAPAN TIMES GRAPHIC

A direct road to the lake from Sapporo, Route 453, leaves the city through Ishiyama in Minami Ward, passes the enticing Sapporo Art Park and then winds through forested hills before sweeping up and over the caldera rim and descending toward the lake past the trail head for Mount Eniwa. It is by the final hairpin bend on this approach from the north that there is the viewpoint overlooking the eastern third of the lake.

On calm days the deep waters are placid and reflect the surrounding mountains. Whether those peaks are lush and green in summer, fiery with autumn colors, or snow-whitened in winter, the views make the journey to here supremely worthwhile.

Yet, despite being close to Hokkaido's main city, and to almost half the island's population, step away from the busy honey-pots of the southeast corner of the lake and elsewhere there's almost endless empty trails to walk, mountains to hike — and even cycle tracks to (or from) both Sapporo and Chitose.

Truly, there is here in this corner of Hokkaido a wonderland of nature you'd go a long, long way to better.

Getting there: Buses run to Lake Shikotsu from Sapporo and Chitose stations. By car, take Route 453 from Sapporo to reach the north shore of the lake, or Route 16 to reach the eastern side. There are good hot-spring baths around the lake's southeast corner, and in Marukoma on the north shore. Mark Brazil, who has been a contributor to The Japan Times since 1982, is a British travel and natural history writer, a photographer and a global eco-tourism consultant based in Hokkaido. For more details, visit www.japannatureguides.com.


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