Tough Winter Fun in Tokachidake Onsen 十勝岳温泉
by Greg Goodmacher
First, I looked at the thermometer: it was minus six degrees Celsius on Mt. Tokachidake (2,077m) at seven in the morning late last February. A colorful blur in the great whiteness outside the window caught my eye.
A cyclist had just pedaled to the front of Ryuounkaku, a Japanese inn perched on a ridge where the snowplows stop. The cyclist had climbed twenty kilometers of ice-and-snow-covered mountain roads on the fist-thick tires of his fatbike. Not a centimeter of bare skin was exposed to the elements, but the air was too cold for him to cease moving and to enjoy the vast mountain panoramas for long.
He had only two or three minutes to rest before the chill would pierce his high-tech cycling outwear and spread into his muscles. The near-Arctic conditions would compel him to pedal back down the frozen roads. The crazy man, though, when I briefly spoke to him, was as happy as a bird, splashing in a pool of water during a drought.
Outdoor Winter Sports
When winter gets tough, the tough go to Tokachi Onsen, Hokkaido, for some of the riskiest and most thrilling outdoor winter sports possible in Japan. The athletic guests who gather in the few ryokan near the top of Mt. Tokachidake are an eclectic assortment of Japanese and foreigners who revel in the powder, the ice, and the unmatchable views from everywhere above tree line on the avalanche-prone slopes of an active volcano.
For three days, my wife and I scaled, navigated, and descended the mountain several times on snowshoes, each time enjoying a different route with impossibly beautiful views. Along our treks, we met mountain skiers, snow boarders, and one snow-crazed cyclist.
Avalanches are a reality that no one should ignore. After listening to our plans to snowshoe, our hotel clerk insisted that we carefully examine a map delineating local avalanche zones.
She pointed out one slope that was visible across a valley from our hotel, and calmly stated that two mountain skiers had been swept up by an avalanche and had frozen to death there a few years earlier.
Although avalanche-prone zones are clearly marked on the map, getting lost when climbing is easy, and avalanches can happen at any moment, so you have to be a diehard winter sports enthusiast to enjoy yourself.
On our first hike we walked out the front door, put on our snowshoes, and headed upward toward the clear sky and peaks above the hotel. Ice and snow glittered like light rays bouncing off diamonds. It was a phenomenon that I had never seen beforehand even though I have been climbing snowy peaks for years.
And the sky, without car or factory exhaust, was piercingly blue. Winds had shaped curvaceous lines into the icy mountain ridges. Snow and ice curled over precipitous, breathtaking ledges. When climbing, I felt as if the mountain was daring me to walk to the edges and look down. Tree tips peeked from beneath meters of piled snow and ice. Mountains and valleys flowed in all directions.
The first evening that I soaked in the outdoor bath of Ryuounkaku, the air was so cold that pointy icicles descended inches above the surface of the hot reddish orange iron-rich-mineral-laden hot spring.
My companions were two skinny men in their early seventies. They told me that they have been hiking and bathing buddies since first meeting each other in a college hiking club fifty years ago. In the hot bath, they appeared frail; but the next morning, after a hearty buffet breakfast with a group of other hardy seniors, they put their skis on their backs and carried them up steep mountain slopes, whose conditions would vary between crunchy ice and deep soft powder. After about three hours of hiking, they strapped their skis on and slid back to the inn for another bath.
I also met two Australian mates in their forties in the ryokan. These hard-core back country skiers had explored in many parts of Hokkaido, Niigata, and Nagano, but they declared Mt. Takachidake to be their favorite. They had abandoned the acclaimed and much more well-known Niseko ski resort for more rugged skiing on slopes of deep powder, where no one stands in line for a ski lift. There are no ski lifts near Ryuounkaku.
Like the older Japanese men, they rose earlier in the morning, walked up, and skied through pristine powdery forests with no one else around them except for a few other powder hounds. Their goal, they explained, was to ski on slopes where theirs were the only tracks.
With an elevation of approximately 1,300 meters above sea level, Ryuounkaku is a match for addicts of extreme winter sports. This Japanese inn has many positive points: The family that owns the hotel is friendly, and the Japanese meals are hearty and delicious. The windows from each room and the outdoor hot springs offer unbeatable winter vistas. Almost immediately after exiting, you can feel isolated in nature. The downside was that the rooms were not as clean as most of the Japanese ryokans that I have stayed at. But the guests are usually not fastidious travelers, they're winter enthusiasts.
Access - Getting To Tokachi Onsen
Mount Tokachi is located in Daisetsuzan National Park, Hokkaido's largest National Park, and the onsen resort is the beginning of hiking trails in to the park during the summer months. Tokachidake Onsen is south east of Asahikawa and north east of Furano.
Asahikawa Airport (AKJ; Tel: 0166 83 3939) is the nearest airport to Tokachi Onsen and is located around 15km from Asahikawa Station.
There are domestic flights from Asahikawa Airport with JAL, ANA and Air Do (a subsidiary of ANA) to Haneda Airport in Tokyo (1 hour, 35 minutes). There are international flights from Asahikawa Airport to Incheon in South Korea with Asiana Airlines, Eva Air and Trans Asia to Taipei and China Eastern to Beijing and Shanghai and Spring Airlines to Shanghai.
Furano has trains to Sapporo Station (2 hours) on the Furano Lavender Express and Asahikawa (1 hour, 10 minutes) on the JR Furano Line. If coming from Sapporo either hire a car in Furano or change trains for JR Kamifurano Station and take a bus or taxi.
Only local trains stop at JR Kamifurano Station on the Furano Line from where there are 3 round trip buses a day to Tokachidake Onsen (45 minutes, 500 yen one way).
There are highway buses from Sapporo and Asahikawa to Furano.
The Hokkaido Chuo Bus (Express Furano) takes 3 hours from Sapporo.
From Asahikawa the Furano bus (Lavender) takes 1 hour, 40 minutes.
From Asahikawa Airport the Furano bus (Lavender) takes 1 hour, 10 minutes
The author of this article is an unabashed hot spring addict, who had bathed his way from Hokkaido to Okinawa. He blogs about hot springs at hotspringaddict.blogspot.jp.
His favorites include Nabeyama-no-yu, an undeveloped hot spring that requires a long walk from Beppu City, Oita Prefecture; Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen, a hot spring that is only accessible at low tide because it is actually in the sea; Kusatsu Onsen, a resort area with many rotenburu, outdoor baths, with green water and forest views; Echigo Yuzawa Hot Spring, which is the setting of Japan's first Nobel Prize winning book, Snow Country, because bathing naked while surrounded by several meters of snow is a mind-blowing experience.
Book Hotel Accommodation in Hokkaido Japan
Hotels in Sapporo - Booking.com
Hotels in Japan - Booking.com
Hotels in Asahikawa - Booking.com
Hostels in Sapporo - Hostelworld.com
Hotels in Asahikawa - Agoda
Hotels in Sapporo - Agoda
Hotels in Niseko - Booking.com
Hotels in Otaru - Booking.com
Hotels in Hakodate - Booking.com
Hotels in Hakodate - Agoda
Hotels in Otaru - Agoda