The Comprehensive Guide to Central Hokkaido
Central Hokkaido is the prefecture’s heartland, and features everything that voyagers have come to love about Japan’s North. With Asahikawa, Hokkaido’s second city, as a natural hub and entry point, and the mountains within Daisetsuzan National Park stretching along the entire area, it features the sort of breathtaking natural landscape that forms the motivation for many to visit. Nevertheless, some might argue the area is still underrated. Indeed, skiers would rather flock to Niseko, while the Shiretoko Peninsula grabs headlines as it has been recognized as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site. This article thus serves to set the record straight and showcase all the fascinating locales Central Hokkaido has to offer. As it is an attempt to write a comprehensive guide, there will be three separate sections. We begin by venturing to Daisetsuzan, before looking at what the auxiliary towns surrounding Asahikawa have to offer. Finally, Asahikawa’s charms will be introduced. In doing so, aspects that might be new to many readers will be shown, specifically when it comes to the region’s burgeoning craft, gourmet, and alcohol scene. Indeed, we are trying to show that Central Hokkaido does not only have beautiful mountain landscapes, but also a fascinating local population that have been contributing to the area’s charms through their ventures.
But first, let us venture to the best-known spot in Central Hokkaido: The Daisetsuzan National Park, which features a stunning mountainous terrain. Indeed, it is oftentimes referred to as the Daisetsuzan Mountain Range as a result. There are no more than 16 peaks that are over 2,000 meters in height, which is why the area is known as the “playground of the gods” in the language of the indigenous Ainu. In winter, the mountains of course become snow-capped, and the crisp descents have made Daisetsuzan a skier’s paradise. Furthermore, the colder months produce an incredible natural phenomenon: unkai, literally the sea of clouds, undulations of the sky that resemble an ocean.
However, there is also ample reason to visit Daisetsuzan in the warmer months. Atop the list is hiking. There is a myriad of trails here for both the experienced and novice hiker. The Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse covers the entire area and takes about 5-7 days to complete. Luckily, there is ample infrastructure in the form of rest huts and campsites on the way, making the trek a relatively comfortable, but challenging, experience. For a shorter foray into the mountains, we recommend the hike up to the summit of Asahidake: The Asahidake Ropeway will bring you to the beginning of the trail, and reaching the top will take about 2-3 hours, meaning this hike can easily be done as a day trip. The summit of Asahidake is the highest point in the entire mountain range, and the way to the top will afford you with a view of all the natural highlights in a compressed form. Expect to see sloping valleys nestled between the grand mountain peaks, with the scenery becoming more volcanic the higher up you go. Wherever you look, the “local population” is probably not far from view, with birds, butterflies, squirrels, foxes and of course the ubiquitous Hokkaido deer set to join your ascent.
If you visit the mountains in summer, mountainous wildflowers will brighten up the terrain. On the other hand, the fall comes with its own beauty: Daisetsuzan known as the first place in Japan where autumn leaves display their rich multicolored hues each year. The fall foliage is a popular sight throughout Japan, and at Daisetsuzan some trees even begin to change colors as early as in August. At the peak of the season in September, visitors can marvel in the incredible shades of red, yellow and magenta, making for a true living canvas. The trek up to the Asahidake summit, described above, makes for a great hike to see the autumn leaves.
After descending from your hike, you might be in the mood for a change of pace. Luckily, the numerous small towns at the foot of the mountains have evolved into charming rural communities, driven both by locals and a rapidly increasing population of younger city transplants. Higashikawa Town is the perfect example of this trend. Featuring seamless access both from downtown Asahikawa as well as the foot of Asahidake, it is the perfect place to spend an afternoon. Trendy cafés and delicious bakeries have popped up throughout this small town, in addition to artisans and artists showcasing their wares. One of the trendsetters of Higashikawa is Kitanosumai Sekkeisha, a furniture company that follows in the traditions of the area as a manufacturing hub for furniture and other woodwares. At their headquarters located in a remote part of Higashikawa, they offer not just a showcase for their Nordic-inspired minimalist furniture, but also a charming select shop as well as a delicious bakery and restaurant – all in all the perfect way to spend a few hours in the locality.
To the north of Daisetsuzan you will find Kamikawa Town. While it has not yet gained the popularity of Higashikawa, here too you will find some charming local ventures. While a soak at the local hot spring Sounkyo is always a great idea (and especially after a hike!), the town also features an up-and-coming Sake brewery as well as a Michelin-starred restaurant. The former, Kamikawa Taisetsu Sake Brewery, became one of the first to use Hokkaido’s own rice in making Sake, while maintaining a distinctly local characteristic. Indeed, while their products have become increasingly sought after, they continue to exclusively sell their Sake in Kamikawa, effectively drawing an increasing number of visitors to the town. Then there is Fratello Di Mikuni, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the most unlikely of locales, atop a hill overlooking the great nature on the outskirts of Kamikawa. Run by renowned chef Kiyomi Mikuni, this restaurant will offer you a culinary experience closer to the high tables of Tokyo, but nevertheless located in Central Hokkaido’s vast nature.
After exploring some of the charming towns that dot the foot of the Daisetsuzan mountains, we now inch closer to Asahikawa. Before taking a look at the delicacies offered in the city, however, we have one more stop to make. Located just a stone’s throw north of Asahikawa in Takasu Town, Towahokuto Vineyard is part of the growing culture of winemaking in Hokkaido, and perhaps the finest entrant to the scene from Central Hokkaido. Having started cultivation in 2015 and wine-making in 2018, they are one of the prefecture’s newest winemakers, and we recommend their latest wine made from a mix of different grapes, dubbed “L’ASSEMBLAGE 2020”. Whether you sample the wine onsite or take it with you as a souvenir, it will definitely serve as a delicious introduction to one Hokkaido’s fastest growing industries.
Now, after having exerted yourself skiing or hiking in the nature of Daisetsuzan and experiencing the charming localities across the region, we now head to the hub that ties Central Hokkaido together: Asahikawa. The second largest city in Hokkaido is the home to countless local eateries, which is why we maintain that it is best explored at night. Besides, after having sampled some of the newest local alcoholic offerings, you might be in the mood for more. For all of this and more, the vast downtown area to the north of Asahikawa Station has you covered, featuring countless Izakaya and bars across its primary artery, Showa-dori, with numerous other tiny restaurants tucked away in the nearby side streets, such as the charming Furarito. The whole neighborhood has a rustic charm, with the ubiquitous Yakitori houses serving up grilled chicken – the soul food of the region. While we heartily recommend you to explore and venture into any establishment that piques your interest, Dokushaku Sanshiro and Gin’neko are two of our favorites.
Epic nature (and all the activities that come with that), Sake, wine and foodie options both high- and low-end: Central Hokkaido has it all. We hope that this guide can serve as an effective introduction to one of the most fascinating areas in all of Japan. While the spots showcased here serve as an excellent overview, there is still much to explore – and we hope you have been inspired to do just that during your visit.