There are some things I will never learn. Like the fact that sulphur is supposedly amazing for your skin and health, but also, that it stinks like rotten eggs.

So, I thought it was the most amazing idea ever to visit one of the most famous onsen towns in Hokkaido, Jigokudani, which is part of a national park and located about halfway between Sapporo and Hakodate. 

Welcoming devil shrine
... until we got off the train and the smell of rotten eggs hit me. In all honesty, unless you are a serious hiker who is out to explore the surrounding national park, I am not sure if I would recommend this place. We visited in high season, early October, and found a very sleepy onsen town - in the creepy and neglected way, not in the charming atmospheric way, plus the walk ways around the "Hell's Valley", the much photographed area, crawling with tourists from tour buses. 

We had expected a day of hiking, but what we found were completely covered tour buses. Yes, the landscape is fascinating - for twenty minutes or so - and the walk around the forest is somewhat nice, with a quiz on some interesting trivia about the area, but we felt a bit disappointed. This wasn't quite the magical, remote Hokkaido we had been promised by travel bloggers and brochures. 

Overall, I would say: Skip this one, there's much better to be seen in Hokkaido. Unless you are physically handicapped or with children, then I would expect it one of the best things to do in the often inaccessible part of the country.

Or could it be that some places are popular simply because they are easy to access?



Hell's Valley, with strange rocks that formed from the sulfur that's boiling underneath


Steaming lakes and puddles abound throughout the area

The highlight of our trip: The natural footbath. We skipped the full body egg onsen.

I can't help but think even the devils seem a bit disappointed





Nara Prefecture is one of my absolute favourite areas in Japan – no, not only the ancient temples and deer of Nara Park, a former capital of Japan, although I love that too, and definitely prefer it to Kyoto. The prefecture is filled with both historical sites (from pre-history to modern day) and beautiful countryside and less than an hour by train by the bustle of Osaka.

a very cute scarecrow
The area is fantastic for wannabe hikers, who love nature but hate actually having to climb mountains. Yamanobe no Michi is one of the oldest roads in Japan, connecting Wakayama and the Kii peninsula to Osaka and the former imperial capital of Kyoto. Literally, this is the road that food and goods would have been transported to feed those two cities in the old days. Even today, this is a major agricultural area and on a walk around the “foot of the mountain” (the Japanese meaning of Yamanobe no Michi), it’s easy to see why.

There is a well signed for hiking path between Tenri and Sakurai, which spans around 25 km in total, but you can easily split the walk if you like, as there’s a train station about every 5 km (not directly at the road, but 2-3 km off it). I’ve hiked different sections of the road before and this time, in late October, we decided to go from Tenri to the second to last stop before Sakurai (solely because we started a bit late and it was getting dark), taking about 3 ½ hrs. Even in late October, it was still well over 20 degrees.

Apart from abandoned temples and the picturesque, traditional villages (yes, plenty of these exist in Japan, and even in densely populated, seemingly all urban Kansai), there’s another highlight to the walk: There are small farm stalls which operate on a honour system all over the route. So, bring a backpack, because you will want to buy delicious fruit and vegetables at usually just 100 Yen per bag, which usually works out 1/3 or less of the price you’d pay in a Japanese supermarket. During our October walk, we managed to get persimmons, medlars, tomatoes (real, ripe tomatoes, not the anaemic ones you usually find in Japan), sweet new season rice and aubergines. So, even if you hate hiking, you can just see this walk as a long winded shopping trip ;) 

Don't worry, there are better maps along the road (couldn't take a good picture of the because it was too sunny)

I was glad to see that the signage on the trail has been improved, and there are maps all over the area as well. Signs are now in English, Korean and Chinese and easy to see (where before, there were only some random wooden posts with withered kanji). There are plenty of public toilets along the trail and of course, vending machines all over the villages. Still, we didn’t meet any other foreigners except one Japanese girl who seemed to lead a small American tour to visit some of the temples. The trail wasn’t crowded at all, although plenty of Japanese retirees seemed to also be on the hunt for food.



I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking of why it’s worth visiting. It was high season for persimmons, which were glowing in the autumn sun all over the area. Even if you just have a short holiday in Japan, I highly encourage you to check this trail when you are in based in Kyoto or Osaka - it's by far the most beautiful I've seen in Japan, and without the crowds of the well know "rural" places like Nara City, Nikko or Kamakura (which actually all are cities). This roads traverses several villages that will give you an idea of what rural Japan really is like.
All persimmon, no leaves
Time for vegies!
Just a random farm house along the road
Any more persimmons?
Vegetable porn
Rice farmer's house, signaled by the rice peddle at the door (no idea why they have the bear!)
Halloween assortment of fruit and veg
This was a private family residence along the road, unbelievable that this is "crowded Kansai", right?
Chicken temple at the beginning of the trail in Tenri







Hokkaido has an exciting history, which is quite distinct from the rest of Japan. Until about 130 years ago, it was barely settled by the Japanese and mostly inhabitat by the native Ainu.... until during the Meiji restauration, the Japanese government decided to encourage "pioneer" settlers to move to the northernmost island and start developing it. 

How is this related to Hokkaido University? As you will find out during a guided tour of the campus, quite a lot! 

Hokkaido University was founded as agricultural college to help settlers learn and make sense of and prosper in the harsh, cold climate they were facing. Today, the university is more general, but its agricultural and down to earth roots remain. It's incredible to think that just a hundred years ago, salmon actually swam upriver all the way to this campus!

horse taxidermy, eeeek!
Every Thursday-Sunday from approximately May to November, you can join a free guided tour of the campus led by amazingly knowledgeble volunteers (in English and Japanese). I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but we learned so much about the local flora and fauna as well as people's living conditions in Meiji period Hokkaido, as well as the history of the university itself, of course.

The campus is so beautiful and green and even includes are small forested area and some fields, just a few minutes walk from Sapporo Station. There's also a cafeteria as well as a nicer cafe and visitor centre, which come highly recommended.

Even if you can't make it to the tour (which is also not running during the winter months), do make sure to check out the campus, especially the model barn section towards the northern end of the campus, which dates back to the founding days of the university. 
The famous Elm no Mori - famous because elms only grow in Hokkaido in Japan

crocuses in October!
One of the model barns, complete with bull plaque




Hokkaido Shrine in Sapporo, close to dusk

October was a great month, maybe my favourite this year so far (although April in Ukraine and the Caucasus is hard to beat!). That’s somewhat unsurprising, since we spent it entirely in Japan, with very little time running around – just three cities all month!

Hokkaido






We started October with three days in Hakodate, the major city of Southern Hokkaido.

western style building in Hakodate



It’s a tourist favourite and I can see why: There is a lot of interesting history here, the seafood as well as the pub grub is to die for and the bay views are beautiful. It’s often called the San Francisco of Japan, and with good reason.



Breakfast in Hakodate!
It was also super expensive to stay there, thanks to the first few days of the month being a public holiday week in China. That said, we managed to avoid the crowds quite well, as they mostly hung around the converted warehouses (which are now all tourist shops). That’s the only bad thing I could say about Hakodate.

From Hakodate, we did a little side trip to Onuma National Park, which was a lot more built up and un-natural than we had expected, and the rainy weather didn’t help much, either. So on it was to Sapporo, a city I fell absolutely in love with!


Onuma National Park
Sapporo reminds me so much of Helsinki, just a Japanese version. A trendy, bustling modern city with lots of design and artsy stuff, without being pretentious, and a lot of green and great day trips in the vicinity. I was a bit sad to leave, but mid-October, it was starting to get seriously chilly up north!

Osaka

Where do I begin? Osaka is my big love, and with the way London is currently going, my favourite city in the world. If I have to describe Osaka in one word: It’s alive. Cosmopolitan but still utterly Japanese, non-touristy apart from a few streets, affordable, with amazing history, museums, constant low key, fun events and full of people you just have to love for their blunt but hearty ways.
We spent two weeks in Osaka, mostly doing nothing exciting, working, meeting friends, eating and running around Osaka Castle Park so the constant eating of all the things the city has to offer (ONE CAN NEVER EAT ALL THE THINGS IN OSAKA L )


The way things are going, we probably won’t be able to stay in Japan long term, but I am happy to know that we’ll be spending two more months in Osaka before we most likely head back west in late January.

Hell's Valley in Hokkaido... the sulphur stench was unbearable!


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