When I heard that I was going to be on my way to Hokkaido for a couple of days in October, the first thing that came to mind was ‘koyo‘– the beautiful colors of autumn. Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, is the first place to witness the autumn foliage during the season… and the first area in Hokkaido to change color is the Daisetsuzan National Park. That was where I had to be!
The Daisetsuzan National Park is located in the mountainous center of Hokkaido. It is the largest national park in Japan, with 16 peaks scattered around the park. It is also home to many indigenous wildlife, most notably the Higuma Bear— it is a species of brown bear only found in Hokkaido. There are bear signs everywhere in the park; apparently there have been hikers who have encountered these dangerous bears.
Still, the Daisetsuzan is a popular place for hiking and enjoying the outdoors, as well as for its onsen hot springs resorts. I chose to stay in Sounkyo.
Sounkyo is located at the north entrance of the Daisetsuzan National Park. This onsen hot springs town is snugly located in a narrow valley, and is surrounded by towering forested cliffs and snow-capped mountains.
Though it is a small town, Sounkyo is the largest one in the park and is pretty popular and touristy– it gets crowded during the autumn and winter seasons, as it is considered a great base for hikes and ski trips.
The overnight AirAsia X flight from Kuala Lumpur to the New Chitose Airport takes about 7-8 hours, and I arrived in Hokkaido early in the morning. From the airport, I boarded the Airport Rapid train from the airport to Sapporo, the capital city of Hokkaido– which was my first stop (35 mins, every 15 mins, ¥1070~US$9/way).
From there, I took the Super Kamui train service (1.5 hours, every half hour, ¥4500~US$38/way) from Sapporo to Asahikawa— it is Hokkaido’s second biggest city and the nearest train point to Sounkyo. A cheaper option is to take the Chuo bus to Asahikawa (2.5 hours, every half hour, ¥2000~US$17/way).
The only way to get from Asahikawa to Sounkyo is by bus. The public bus stops near the train station at Gate 7, and heads to Sounkyo via Kamikawa with a couple of quick stops along the way (2 hours, 7 times a day, ¥2100~US$18/way). Getting to Sounkyo is quite a journey, and it took me half a day.
Arriving in Sounkyo
The bus dropped me off at the bus terminal in Sounkyo, just a short walk away from the main town center. It was late afternoon when I arrived, and unfortunately, the weather wasn’t in my favor. There was a storm along the coast of Hokkaido during my visit, which caused strong winds in the central part of the island. It was also raining and freezing, and it was getting dark.
I had trouble finding my bearings in the bad weather. It didn’t help that the town center was practically deserted and I felt like I was on the set of a horror movie! But thanks to the map signage located around town, I finally managed to find my ryokan (a Japanese-style hotel); and upon entering, I realized that there was no one about town because they were all staying indoors to escape the weather. I spent 3 days and 2 nights in Sounkyo.
Most of the hotels, restaurants and shops are centered around the small town center; though there are several high-class hotels and ryokan that are located on a hill overlooking the village. I booked into the Sounkyo Onsen Yumoto Ginsenkaku, a 3-star ryokan located right smack in the town center. It isn’t a very impressive or extravagant ryokan— it is old and in need of up-keeping, the Japanese-style rooms are small, the receptionist couldn’t really speak English, and at ¥20000~US$165 a night, it is just as expensive as the other places around town.
Ginsenkaku’s plus points however, is that it is close to all the restaurants and shops, has a pretty decent onsen, and I especially loved their Japanese breakfast buffet. Everything here is self-service– including getting your own yukata (Japanese robe), asking for a DVD-player, and borrowing Japanese movies and comics.
Onsen Hot Springs Baths
Sounkyo is famous for its onsen baths, and can be found all over town. The source of hot spring water was discovered here in 1857, and became popular around the early 20th century. There is a public bath house, the Kurodake no Yu; and most of the ryokan and hotels offer their own onsen— some of them are open to the public during the day for a fee.
My ryokan, Ginsenkaku, has several onsen baths; and they are divided by gender, with indoor and outdoor baths. The baths get really packed during the day as it is open to non-staying guests– and because I’m uncomfortable with getting naked with everyone and bathing together, I usually wait till midnight when there’s no one around. During the day, I book a limited one hour time-slot in the small indoor private onsen.
Food and Restaurants
There are a limited number of restaurants in Sounkyo, as most of the ryokan and hotels offer breakfast and dinner packages with their stays. In the town center, there are a 2 small ramen shops that are quite good– they serve the local Asahikawa Ramen, as well as the popular Miso Ramen. I loved the soba too. For something more Western, there is an Italian restaurant that serves pizzas and pastas; and another slightly posh one, ‘Candle’, which offers cheese fondue. There are also several small cafes scattered around.
Read more about the food in Hokkaido: Mynn’s Top 10 Food to Eat in Hokkaido
Sounkyo Town Center
Sounkyo’s town center is just a narrow street lined with several ryokan, hotels, restaurants and shops; either facing the small walking street, or outwards at the main road that leads into town. The town sees many visitors during the day, as throngs of tourists arrive in tour buses to visit for an hour or two. The come mainly to take the cable car up the mountain. Sounkyo is much quieter at night.
The souvenir shops in the town center sell many local trinkets– woodcraft souvenirs are one of the more popular ones as the forests of Daisetsuzan produce high-quality wood. They are made into key-chains and table displays that can be brought home. Favorite Hokkaido snacks are also widely sold.
There are many things to do and see in and around Sounkyo. The town’s Visitor Center is like a small museum with information and maps of the area, photographs of the surrounding scenery, as well as a display of stuffed bears and local animals. They also offer tours and transport to the nearby sites. Here are some of Sounkyo’s popular attractions:-
The Kurodake Ropeway
All the visitors in town come to experience the Kurodake Ropeway, where you can admire the gorgeous views of the Daisetsuzan and its surrounding mountain range. The main reason I chose to visit Sounkyo was to see the autumn foliage backdropped by snow-capped peaks, that made the place so popular. Luck was not on my side though, as the bad weather during my visit resulted in the cable car service being suspended. It was too windy to risk the ride up the mountain. I was so disappointed!
The cable car takes visitors to the halfway point of the 1984m high Mt. Kurodake, and a chairlift continues the rest of the journey to an hour’s hike from the summit. Most people stop here, but advance hikers can continue the trek into the wilderness and more peaks.
I hired a taxi from the Sounkyo Visitor Center for a couple of hours to take me to the attractions along the Sounkyo Gorge area. Most of them are situated a couple of kilometers from the town center, and though it is possible to walk or cycle– I didn’t want to brave the cold strong winds.
My first stop was at the twin falls– Ryusei-no-taki Falls and Ginga-no-taki Falls, which are also nicknamed the ‘husband and wife’ falls. They are located next to each other, and can be individually seen from the narrow path along the river that links them both. There is also an elevated observation deck that offers stunning views of both falls together. It can be reached via a steep stairway climb at the back of the building near the falls.
The Ryusei-no-taki Falls is the more impressive of the two, as it cascades down so beautifully like fine white threads. Ginga-no-taki Falls on the other hand, is made up of smaller flows that join together, and is slightly hidden from view.
The Obako Gorge rock formations are said to be the most beautiful in Sounkyo, as it resembles folding screens. It was formed from a volcano eruption around the Sounkyo area about 30,000 years ago, and the deep valley was shaped after years of erosion by the Ishikari River that runs through it.
There is a two-level wooden observation platform overlooking the gorge for easy viewing.
The Taisetsu Dam was constructed in 1975, at the upstream point of the Ishikari River. The man-made Taisetsu Lake was a result of the dam. There was no one around when I visited the area overlooking the lake, as it is not one of the main stops of the tourist buses that ply the Sounkyo Gorge route.
I especially loved the beautiful scenery surrounding the lake. The highway that runs along the lake offers the most stunning views of the forested area of the park, with a glimpse of the snow-capped mountains in the distance.
The Momijidani walking trail is best appreciated during the autumn season, when the leaves turn a beautiful hue of red, orange and yellow. After all, its name translates to ‘red maple valley’, and that is exactly what the entire walking trail is filled with; beautiful maple trees. I would say it is a medium-level hike for the non-hikers like me– a few parts can be difficult as it is muddy and steep. The trail is marked, and roped-up at certain points.
After a 45-minute hike, the forested path along the narrow Akaishi River finally gives way to the gorgeous Momiji-no-taki Falls. The waterfall cascades down two levels of rocks before dropping down the steep ledges into the river. It is enclosed by stone columns that tower over the surrounding area; and together with the autumn foliage, it makes such a breathtaking sight.
Best Time to Visit
The main purpose of my visit to the Daisetsuzan National Park is to see the autumn foliage– and the best time is from mid September to mid October. It is said that the top of the mountains start changing colors in September, and slowly makes its way down to the bottom come October. During my visit in early October, most of the bottom trees were still green and yellow, with specks of orange and red.
The ski season begins from January to March; and the best time for hiking are from May to October.
My Autumn in Sounkyo
I had a wonderful few days in Sounkyo. Despite the bad weather– it rained a little, and even though it was sunny for most parts of the day, the wind was extremely strong and cold. I enjoyed my visit to the many gorgeous natural attractions around the gorge, but what I loved most were the lazy hours just strolling around the village center, having my alone time in the private onsen, and admiring the beautiful autumn colors all around me.
Sounkyo offers a calm and laid-back environment– it is a wonderful retreat to rest, relax, get lost in the scenery and run away with your thoughts. After all, you’re in the middle of nowhere.
*She Walks the World was on Air Asia X’s inaugural flight from Kuala Lumpur to Hokkaido on the 1st October 2015. Air Asia X flies between the capital of Malaysia to the New Chitose Airport 4 times a week.