A drive through Hokkaido’s heartland

It’s just over a 2-hour drive from Asahikawa, Hokkaido’s second city, to Tomamu, a mountain resort surrounded by the peaks of the Hidaka. But there is so much glorious nature to see along the way that you could easily spend a day or more travelling through this spectacular part of Japan.

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From secluded waterfalls and iridescent blue ponds to monumental mountain vistas and fields of flowers, the route showcases Hokkaido’s grandiose landscapes in all their diversity. And in the summer, Japan’s northern island has low humidity, cooler temperatures and no rainy season – unlike much of the rest of the country.

Urban beginning

The starting point for your trip is Asahikawa, a vibrant city lesser-known to most tourists. Stay at Hoshino Resorts OMO7 Asahikawa for an opportunity to sample some authentic Japanese urban culture.

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Located near the centre, the hotel organizes outings for guests with local experts, allowing you to drink in small izakaya or eat in tiny restaurants you would otherwise never set foot in. Ramen is a speciality, as is the grilled mutton dish jingisukan.

Biei waters

From Asahikawa, it’s just over 30 minutes by car to Biei, a hilltop town surrounded by flowers and fruit trees. Drive through town and take route 966 alongside the Biei River.

You’ll soon arrive at Shirogane Blue Pond, a body of water that shimmers with a remarkable bright blue glow. While the pond itself is man-made (a tactic to protect Biei from volcanic mudflow), the colour is natural.

It’s thought that aluminium in the water scatters sunlight, and the contrast is heightened by the whiteness of the rocks caused by sulphur and lime minerals. Surrounded by white birch and withered larch trees, the pond is a photographer’s dream.

Biei

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A little further along the road, you’ll come across the Shirogane Fudo Falls, where snowmelt from the Tokachi mountains plummets energetically down a 25-metre drop. The site is known as a local “power spot”, lined with 88 stone Buddhas.

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A mile or so upstream, the Shirahige Falls features several strands of water tumbling down a 30-metre cliff and coming together in a cobalt blue pond at the bottom.

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The colour is all the more spectacular when set against a white blanket of snow in the winter.

Further along route 966, you’ll hit a turn-off for Mount Tokachi Observatory. With its prime location overlooking the Daisetsu and Tokachi mountain ranges, this panoramic platform offers breathtaking views of an area known by the indigenous Ainu as Kamuimintara (garden where the Gods play).

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Mount-Tokachi-Observatory

The belching fumes of Mt. Tokachi are straight ahead, with the Daisetsuzan chain stretching out to the north, including Hokkaido’s highest peak, Mt. Asahi (2291m).

Furano flowers

Drive back down the same road to pick up route 824 towards the Miyama Pass Outlook Terrace, another 360-degree viewpoint on the imposing Daisetsuzan National Park.

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The nearby Miyama Art Park includes a large Ferris wheel, allowing you to gain more height for yet more sumptuous vistas.

Continue on to Furano along route 237, Hokkaido’s famous Flower Road. Running from Biei to Furano, this 20-mile stretch is lined with an astonishing array of colourful tulips, pink moss phlox, lavender, and more.

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Have your camera at the ready!

Towards Tomamu

The same road leads to Kanayama, where you should head east along route 465. You’ll soon come across Lake Kanayama, a reservoir surrounded by thickly forested mountains.

Lake-Kanayama

In summer, the hillsides by the shore are covered with deep purple lavender. A recreation center organizes activities such as fishing, canoeing and jet skiing, and the intrepid can go canyoning along the Sorachi river.

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In winter, the whole lake freezes over, a chance to try your hand at ice fishing for smelt.

From the lake, it’s a 40-minute drive to the all-season resort of Tomamu, where Hoshino Resorts RISONARE Tomamu awaits you. Every room has a private sauna and jet bath, plus dramatic views of the birch wood forests and surrounding peaks.

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While winter promises world-class skiing, there’s plenty to enjoy here in the summer. The Unkai Terrace, for example, capitalizes on a local climatic phenomenon that regularly see thick layers of clouds forming, resembling waves in the sky.

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Situated at 1088m and accessible via gondola, the terrace is perched over a cliff edge. When the conditions are right, it feels like you’re walking in the clouds. Yet another remarkable natural phenomenon in a day filled with them!

Atami: a family destination with a bang

The Japanese love their fireworks displays. Every summer, hundreds of shows light up the skies all over the country, featuring thousands of fireworks culminating in a pyrotechnic crescendo of eye-popping proportions.

The biggest displays, such as the Sumida River Fireworks Festival in Tokyo, attract a million spectators, and the most extravagant last up to two hours.

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One of the most famed fireworks venues is the coastal city of Atami, less than an hour south-west of Tokyo by train. Surrounded by mountains on three sides, the bay forms a natural stadium where the sound reverberates across the city and the skylines are reflected in the ocean below.

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Stay at hilltop Hoshino Resorts RISONARE Atami and you’ll have the perfect vantage point to admire the spectacle in all its glory while sipping a cocktail in the top-floor beach café or simply lying back in your room.

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As a bonus, Atami makes for a welcome coastal break from the summer heat of Tokyo, offering activities aplenty for all the family.

Atami Fireworks Fair on the Sea

Atami is best-known as an ocean getaway for Tokyoites and a thriving geisha city – and its spectacular fireworks displays are also a major pull. The tradition dates back over 60 years and, unlike most cities, shows are held a dozen times a year, during every season. In late July and August, there’s a show every few days.

atami-fireshow

Each display features a continuous stream of some 5000 fireworks. And the grand finale, known as “Sky Niagara Falls”, combines countless simultaneous fireworks to create a mesmerizing curtain of light reflected in the flickering waters of Sagami bay.

Rooms with a view

At Hoshino Resorts RISONARE Atami, every room has an ocean view, offering a panoramic perspective on the fireworks. And with no room smaller than 65 square meters, you’ll have plenty of space to enjoy the show.

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Thanks to its hilltop setting, the hotel has no shortage of sweeping vistas. The main lounge is encircled by expansive windows, allowing you to contemplate the vast Pacific Ocean with the peninsulas of Boso and Miura on the horizon.

Total relaxation

One of the best places to enjoy the fireworks is the 11th-floor SORANO Beach Books & Café. You’re guaranteed first-rate views thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows, and the chilled atmosphere is perfect for kicking back and gazing skywards.

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The entire café floor is covered with white sand and decked out with boardwalks and recliners to resemble a beach. Make sure you arrive early to order yourself an Atami speciality, such as a smoothie of local citrus fruit or a green tea latte.

If you reserve in advance, you may be lucky enough to get the two chairs on the café’s private balcony – perhaps the best seats in town for the show!

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There’s just one place that can claim to be a more relaxing vantage point: the hotel’s semi-outdoor hot spring baths.

Here, you can immerse yourself in the soothing warmth of Atami’s hot spring waters while gazing out onto the ethereal beauty of what the locals call hanabi (literally “fire flowers”).

Exploring Atami

If you’re visiting with children, Hoshino Resorts RISONARE Atami offers plenty of extras like a giant climbing wall in the entrance and an acrobranch course in the garden. And the region of Atami is equally well-suited to kids and adults alike.

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Within the city, Atami Sun Beach is the locals’ place of choice for sunbathing and taking an ocean dip.

Down at the port, how about a spot of ocean fishing?

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horse-mackerel

Rods and lifejackets can be rented – and the staff are happy to offer up angling tips. Depending on the season, you might hook rockfish, horse mackerel or blackfish. If you do land a big catch, you can eat it for dinner: many local restaurants will cook your fish for you!

Beyond the city

If surfing is your thing, head to Yugawara beach. Just 10 minutes north of Atami, it’s renowned as a top spot for surf debutants, with its gentle swell ideal for building up your confidence.

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Or how about diving among shoals of colorful cherry bass, chicken grunt and cardinalfish? Beginners can sign up for a trip to nearby Hatsushima Island, while experienced divers can explore the 130-foot long Kosaga cave or swim inside the wreckage of a nearby sunken gravel transport ship.

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In the summer months, the thrills of Atami are as much under the ocean as they are in the sky!

Encounters with bears and flying squirrels

The popular image of Japan is one of soaring skyscrapers, urban buzz and ultra-modernity. Yet over 70% of the country is uninhabited by humans, dominated by thick forests and snow-capped mountains – and populated by an astonishing array of wildlife. The country boasts a rich biodiversity accommodating over 90,000 animal species, from the Yezo Brown Bear of sub-arctic Hokkaido to the Habu snake of sub-tropical Okinawa.

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Getting up close to Japan’s wildlife doesn’t require you to wander too far off the beaten track. Situated just over an hour from Tokyo by shinkansen, HOSHINOYA Karuizawa lies in the foothills of the Japanese Alps, overlooked by mighty Mt. Asama and bordered by forests dominated by larches and water oaks.

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In partnership with the Picchio Wildlife Research Center, the resort offers guests a wide range of ecotours, taking you to the heart of Japan’s wilderness. From flying squirrels to the native mountain serow, you’ll encounter animals you may never even have heard of!

Mountain retreat

HOSHINOYA Karuizawa is a hot spring resort set in expansive gardens complete with rivers, falls and colourful footbridges. From your private villa, you’ll be able to contemplate this classic Japanese landscape.

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This is a place where tradition is seamlessly intertwined with modern comfort, where you can leave behind the stresses of everyday life, and where nature reigns supreme.

Within the resort’s park, you can treat yourself to exquisite kaiseki dining, pamper yourself with a massage, or soak your body in the natural hot spring baths.

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Outside the resort, forest trails lead you into stunning Alpine scenery.

The Picchio Visitor Center is located just opposite the main entrance to HOSHINOYA Karuizawa, within a National Wild Bird Sanctuary. Walking circuits are marked to let you get a feel for the forest and even spot some local birds.

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But the best way to seek out the wildlife and understand it is by signing up for one of Picchio’s organized tours.

Flying squirrel

One of the most popular tours is an outing to spot the Japanese giant flying squirrel. Officially named musasabi, these extraordinary animals are native to Japan and are among the largest flying squirrels in the world. As they are nocturnal, the tour begins at dusk.

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The Picchio team has built wooden houses for the local musasabi population. As the sun starts to fade, you’ll see them poking their heads out – and then suddenly leaping into the void, opening out their “wings” (a membrane between their front and back legs) and gliding elegantly through the sky.

It’s a unique spectacle and Picchio reckons you have more than a 90% of seeing the squirrels in action.

Serow sighting

In autumn, the conditions are ripe for spotting the Japanese serow, a protected species often described as a “goat-antelope”. Your Picchio guide will lead you deep into forest trails on the volcanic slopes of Mt. Asama, where you’ll reach Kamoshika-daira, a plateau reputed as one of the best local spots to view serows.

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Japanese-serow

Positioned at an altitude of 1900 metres, you’ll have a view of rocks and grasslands – the preferred terrains of serows, who pass their time climbing and munching grass.

Bear patrol

The Asian black bear roams this part of Honshu – and, while you’re relatively unlikely to bump into a bear, Picchio can tell you if any are nearby. The Center runs a bear management program to promote the safe coexistence of bears and humans in the area.

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Bears that venture near the city are captured and tagged with a radio-collar so their movements can be tracked. Specially-trained dogs then chase off the bears with loud barking to dissuade them from returning. The dogs can also scent the migratory paths of the bears, helping Picchio to further reduce potential conflict between bears and humans.

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If you take a Wildlife Night Drive with Picchio, you’re likely to spot sika deer, Japanese hares or red foxes – and your guide may well bring out a radio antenna to track any bears in the vicinity.

Tours for all tastes

Other Picchio tours include an outing to spot some of the 80 species of birds in the sanctuary, including the native Japanese Green Woodpecker and Copper pheasant. Or how about a mountain bike tour to the Ryugaeshi Falls?

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However you choose to experience the Karuizawa forest, Picchio and HOSHINOYA Karuizawa will ensure you do it in the very best conditions and have every chance of coming face-to-face with the unique local wildlife.

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