Hokkaido is a year-round destination – each season is distinct, bringing with it a new mood, a different palette of natural colour and fresh adventures. In this issue of the Hokkaido Newsletter, we’re going to talk about autumn – that special time of year when green gives way to red, gold and ochre.
To the north of Japan, Hokkaido is wilder and less built-up than the rest of the country. It’s the perfect destination for hikers, bird-watchers and lovers of nature, and the people and local government all have a real commitment to sustainable living. There are plenty of natural, eco-friendly activities awaiting visitors – we’ve gathered together just a few of our favourites.
Autumn is a beloved time of year in Japan. As the summer heat cools, the leaves begin to change colour, and people like to venture out and view the rich carpet of colours autumn brings, perhaps sharing a drink or a picnic with family and friends.
Autumn in Hokkaido is especially vibrant, thanks in no small part to the momiji, the Japanese maple leaf, which can assume some almost unbelievable shades of red –an effect that’s magnified when the whole countryside begins to change. These trees are all over Hokkaido, filling its designated national parks, and lining the mountain slopes, river banks and avenues across the island. The Japanese never tire of autumn, such is the beauty of the momiji. In fact, there’s even a word for hosting parties to witness the autumn leaves – momijigari.
Yet while these leaves can be seen throughout Hokkaido, there are some places where the experience becomes almost transcendent. Take, for instance, the Five Lakes on the Shiretoko Peninsula…
The Shiretoko Goko Lakes
The Shiretoko Peninsula juts out of Hokkaido’s north-east coast into the frigid Sea of Okhotsk. It’s a massive, unspoiled national park, thick with woods that provide a habitat for many animals, including wild deer and brown bears. The Five Lakes are said to resemble the fingerprints of a god – and they are definitely a divine place to catch the autumn leaves out in the wild.
Elevated wooden walkways have been built above the forest for visitors to gaze down on the autumn foliage, which can be seen reflected in the crystal lake water, and you may even catch sight of a few of the wild deer that make their home here.
Daisetsuzan National Park
The Sounkyo area near the town of Kamikawa in central Hokkaido is another gorgeous hideaway at this time of year. It’s the gateway to the Daisetsuzan mountain range – Japan’s largest national park – known for its abundant hot springs, sparkling waterfalls, and magnificent cliffs.
Conveniently, the Daisetsuzan Sounkyo Kurodate Ropeway whisks visitors 1,300m up Mt Kurodate, the tallest peak in the range, home to some of the earliest autumn colours to arrive every year anywhere in Japan. The area is fantastic for hikers of all abilities, while you can also attempt some mountain climbing or bird-watching depending on how fit you’re feeling! The entire national park is a dream for lovers of outdoor pursuits.
If your trip to Hokkaido is short, you needn’t journey far from the capital to find incredible views. Rich autumn hues can be found in or near Sapporo at Hokkaido University Gingko Tree Avenue, Nakajima Park, Hiraoka Tree Art Centre, Hokkaido Makomanai Park and Jozankei Onsen without the need for much time spent in transit.
Hakodate MOMI-G Festa (autumn leaves festival)
In Hakodate, the pretty city on the south coast, the best momijigari destination is in Miharashi Park, at the stately Iwafune Family Garden.
This historic villa symbolises the Meiji Restoration, a period of rapid modernisation in the 1800s after Japan reopened its borders to the world. Built by the wealthy Iwafune kimono merchant family in the 1890s as Hakodate prospered with international trade, the villa and its gardens are considered so beautiful that the national government has registered it as an important cultural property.
There is a garden pavilion in the classic Japanese style, a brick greenhouse, and a landscape garden tended with a blend of Japanese and western influences. The momiji here are spectacular.
The Hakodate MOMI-G Festa is held at here, from the end of October until the middle of November. Visitors are welcomed to enjoy the autumn leaves throughout the garden, and the garden pavilions are illuminated until 9pm every evening. The contrast of the trees against the background of twilight is mesmerising, the perfect spot for a romantic evening stroll. Activities are held throughout the festival, including live concerts and craft workshops.
Hokkaido certainly has its wild side, and it is blessed with one of the most diverse ecosystems in all Japan. Sacred brown bears frolic on the Shiretoko coastline, while whales, orcas and dolphins play in the waters to the north, and birds such as the iconic red-crowned crane, Steller’s sea eagle and the whooper swan roost here.
Boat cruises can be arranged to watch whales and bears in their natural habitats, while there are bird-watching tours and special canoeing trips in places like the Kushiro Wetlands which let you really get up close to the local wildlife. In autumn, there are even more unusual delights.
The wild salmon return to spawn
The annual salmon run is a wonder of nature in Hokkaido. At the end of October, many thousands of salmon return from the ocean and start to swim upstream in rivers across Hokkaido as they fight to reach their spawning grounds. And while salmon species do this the world over, it’s very rare to be able to watch it so closely in an urban setting. There are spawning nests within the Sapporo city limits, where this frenzied struggle against the forces of nature may be observed from nearby bridges and riverfronts.
One of the major spawning waters, River Toyohiya, runs right through the capital. It has always been a site for fishing activity, but wild salmon were almost extinct here by the 1950s as industrial activity spoiled the water quality. A local initiative to restore the river and bring the salmon back has been very successful, and conservation efforts are ongoing to this day. Local salmon are now fished sensitively and sustainably, and we may once again observe the wonders of their spawning efforts.
Salmon season in Hokkaido is very busy. The Ainu, the local indigenous people of the island, perform a traditional ritual at River Toyohiya every September. Called Asir Cep Nomi, the ceremony welcomes the salmon back to their home river from the sea, with singing, dancing and spirituality. Then there’s the food – there’s nothing quite like fresh salmon, and locals celebrate by eating choice cuts of sushi and exquisite salmon roe.
There are plenty of other places to watch the Salmon run, including at the Indian Water Wheel in Chitose City, River Uyoro in Shiraoi, and River Hamamasu in Ishikari.
Migratory bird-watching at Bibai
The Miyajima-numa Wetlands are a swath of shallow swampland near Bibai to the west of Hokkaido. These have been designated as a Ramsar Convention Wetland, part of an international effort to conserve and sustain wetland habitats around the globe. The relatively small size of these wetlands belies the incredible importance they have for a wide variety of wildlife.
Most notably, almost 70,000 geese pass through the area twice a year, during spring and autumn on their seasonal migration between southern Japan and Russia. Visitors to Miyajima-numa between late September and early October can catch the truly spectacular sight of thousands of migrating geese birds taking off landing in unison.
Food, drink and festivals
The Japanese absolutely love a party. There are festivals all year round, celebrating local gods and temples, praying for a good harvest, a bountiful catch or pleasant weather. These aren’t solemn occasions – guests are welcomed, and revellers dress up, sing, dance and feast, and there are performances, lanterns, fireworks and colourful, historic floats.
Hokkaido has many of these festivals throughout the year, and there are some exceptional parties held every autumn.
Sapporo Autumn Fest
This massive, month-long festival is also one of Hokkaido’s newest. Founded in 2008, it encompasses nearly the whole of September. It is one of the four big festivals held in the capital each year, alongside the winter Snow Festival, the Lilac Festival in spring, and Sapporo Beer Garden in the summer.
Autumn is the harvest season, and this festival showcases the best produce and cookery from all over Hokkaido. Representatives from more than 100 municipalities across the island descend on Sapporo to reveal their local specialties to the world – and there’s so much delicious food on offer that you’ll struggle to pick!
The festival is held in Odori Park, a huge space right in the centre of Sapporo, which has a total area of nearly 79,000 square metres. The event is divided into 12 distinct venues, each with a different theme. In all, more than 2m people attend every year.
Sapporo is a sister city of Munich in Germany, and this year’s Sapporo Autumn Fest (9th September – 1st October 2022) commemorates the 50th anniversary of this long relationship. It’s for this reason that one of the venues this year has an Oktoberfest theme, to match the world-famous beer festival held every yeah in Munich. Visitors can sample the Official Oktoberfest beer prepared in Germany, alongside many other craft beers – including several brewed in Hokkaido. You’ll also tuck into German cuisine, including delicious sausages and lamb chops, while listening to live, traditional German music to get into that authentic Bavarian atmosphere!
Other themes include food prepared with seasonal ingredients from around Hokkaido; an entire venue dedicated to ramen noodles, Hokkaido’s signature dish; stands from popular Sapporo restaurants; local and international wines, whiskeys and shochu; famous local specialties from other regions of Hokkaido; and even cuisine from around the world.
Akkeshi Fresh Oyster Festival
The Akkeshi Oyster Festival is held every October for 10 days. Visitors will dine on another local speciality: delicious fresh oysters straight from the ocean. Patrons may even rent grills and barbecue the day’s catch for themselves.
This event isn’t only known for its oysters – scallops, saury and other fresh seafood is also available, prepared by expert Hokkaido chefs. It’s a great opportunity to try the fresh food of Akkeshi and meet the locals in a relaxed and convivial setting. There are also fun events – including competitions to grab as many oysters and clams as you can!
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Author: Deb Davad