Warmer, longer days offer unique opportunities for adventure, relaxation or both in Hokkaido’s green centre.
Summertime vacations in the Japanese island of Hokkaido are a well-kept secret. Most people equate the country’s northernmost prefecture with winter activities, thanks to tons of powdery snowfall annually and dozens of ski resorts to enjoy it, including the famous one in Niseko. But spring brings colourful blooms and breathtaking greenery, and summers are just the right temperature for T-shirts and getting around on bicycle. Now, you may have heard of Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital. But head for the less-travelled roads of the Sorachi sub-prefecture and you’ll discover a haven for cyclists: long stretches of empty roads, clean air and vast countryside scenery. Iwamizawa, the capital of Sorachi, is about the same distance from the international New Chitose airport as Sapporo – 35 minutes by car or one hour by high-speed rail. That’s where adventure awaits.
IWAMIZAWA – enjoy a bracing hike
The capital of Sorachi boasts a four-hectare rose park, an amusement park, golf courses and one of the largest outdoor concert arenas in Japan.
YOUR PLAN Rent a bike and ride 5km – pass vast vineyards – to Iwamizawa Park. There, you’ll be greeted by the city’s Rose Park showcasing 243 varieties of roses, which bloom from late June to late October. Park your bicycle at the Iwamizawa Science and History Museum (the local government has championed the city to become cyclist-friendly) and hike up the hill next to the roses. There’s an observation platform 137m high that overlooks the city.
INSIDER TIP There’s a spacious, light-filled cafe within the museum to rest your tired legs and enjoy refreshing rose-flavoured ice cream. Also, try the local pheasant meat – a gamey version of chicken that can be found in ramen, burgers, satay and even instant noodles.
KURIYAMA – play ball with the locals
South of Iwamizawa, this small town is big on culture. Its home to a working 130-year-old sake brewery, a hilltop baseball shrine, a foundation dedicated to environmental education, and a world-class golf resort.
YOUR PLAN Start at the Kobayashi Sake Brewery. Founded more than a century ago, it’s one of the oldest sake makers in Hokkaido, with cellars designated as national cultural treasures. Next, Kuriyama Park. Follow the signs towards Kuri No Ki Farm (Google coordinates 43.067171, 141.788789), which leads you up a hill to a wooden house nestled in the woods next to a baseball field overlooking the town and the distant mountains. This area is created by former national baseball player Hideki Kuriyama as a shrine to baseball and to train local children in the sport. The housekeeper will be happy to loan you baseball gloves, balls and bats should you fancy a game with friends.
INSIDER TIP The Uenbetsu Shougakko Coca-Cola Environment House may feel like a patronising corporate social-responsibility effort, but the refurbished school building also provides affordable accommodation for travellers. Alternatively, consider the all-inclusive Chateraise Golf and Spa Resort, a half-hour drive up the mountains from Kuriyama with its own hot springs.
BIBAI – to relax and de-stress
The 20th-century coal-mining boomtown is today a shadow of its former self, with a dwindling population of 25,000 spread across an area the size of Singapore. However, this also offers a true escape from the bustling city life.
YOUR PLAN Head for Arte Piazza Bibai, the town’s pride and joy. It’s an outdoor sculpture park that offers nearly seven hectares of manicured green space featuring more than 40 sculptures by artist Kan Yasuda – perfect for slowing down and gathering your thoughts.
INSIDER TIP Stop by the cafe. It offers excellent coffee in a Muji-like space, beautiful postcards to send home and sculpting classes to create your own souvenir.
TAKIKAWA – to fly over the town
This town is well-liked for water sports, gliding, food and summertime blooms.
YOUR PLAN End your Sorachi trip here. Head to Skypark, where you’ll be strapped into a glider that gets towed into the air by a small propeller plane before its set free to circle over the town. Hang on tight, as the pilot can pull forces up to 1.5G in it, all the while pointing out local landmarks. If you’re feeling rich, make a detour to the nearby town of Sunagawa to visit the headquarters of Somes, one of the oldest equestrian goods company in the country (sort of like the Hermes of Japan). Visit in May to see fields of golden yellow Canola flowers blossom.
INSIDER TIP The town is known for high-quality mutton. Interestingly, that’s the reason for the foreign-themed restaurants there. La Pecora is an Italian joint that serves practically every lamb dish you can imagine, including loin sashimi, stewed intestines and brain soup.
By Kenneth Wee, Men’s Health, April 2015