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Title Ainu Article

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Ainu are the first inhabitants of Hokkaido, a major island located  in northern Japan. In a coming article, I will be writing  about the museum of Shiraoi and its enactment of Ainu’s great, but yet endangered culture.

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Warm Welcome to Noboribetsu

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Noboribetsu: Fostering Health from Hell

By Denis Plamondon

Photos: Sandra D’Sylva and Denis Plamondon

Noboribetsu Onsen (登別温泉) is definitively a place to visit if you’re planning a trip to Hokkaido, especially if geothermal activities are included on your agenda! This small town hosts some of the most renowned hot springs in the world. The resort area, entrenched in its mountainous landscape, is only 8 kilometers away from Noboribetsu JR train station and is easily reached by bus in 15 minutes.

When you arrive, you will soon discover the calming effects of this intense geothermal destination. Most of the hotels and inns are equipped with outstanding o-furo bathing facilities, and some even specialize in comprehensive health programs. You can choose from a wide variety of therapeutic and healing experiences, including spa massages and fitness activities. No matter the choice you make, one thing is certain – with water temperatures varying from 45 to 90 degrees Celsius, nature is supplying one of its primary substances in full force. In fact, in Noboribetsu (which means: a river with dark colors in the native Ainu language: nupur-pet, nature is venerated as much as it is feared; devils and demons are considered an evocation of the ominous spirits that rise from Jigokudani or Hell’s Valley, which is one of the main attractions in the region. At the end of August, Noboribetsu Onsen organizes its famous annual Jigoku Matsuri .

Hell’s Valley is proof of the incredible rawness, harshness and power of such an inhospitable environment. The extreme heat and corrosive minerals that rise from the ground prevent vegetation from growing. As visitors walk along a wooden path that cuts across steaming puddles, sulfuric streams and hot gases spewing from deep within the earth, they are left with a strange feeling of amazement and admiration for this barren landscape – one can almost imagine walking along the back of a dragon!

Several hiking trails are well indicated just beyond Hell’s Valley. You will find yourself suddenly trekking through lush vegetation and listening to the sounds of the forest as you climb towards an observatory that overlooks a scorching lake. Your stroll will then continue past blistering mud pools on the way to a “natural foot spa” in the forest which is made from a cascading hot spring. It’s a great place to relax and bathe your feet.

Back in Noboribetsu Onsen town, you can ascend higher into the mountains via a cable car to see spectacular Kuttara Lake, a perfectly round caldera that is now filled with deep blue water. A cable car ticket will also give you access to a bear park where more than a hundred brown bears live in protective captivity; although these wonderful creatures are impressive to see, one can but feel distressed to see so many crammed in a small arena begging for food from tourists. Atop, you will also find the world’s largest brown bear museum and an Ainu museum which demonstrates the close relationship between the two, as Ainus’ worshiped the bear as a God.

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Engraved stone in Jigokudani, the Hell's Valley of Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

Engraved stone at Jigokudani, Hell's Valley of Noboribetsu in Hokkaido

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White landscape in Hell's Valley, Jigokudani, Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

White landscape of Hell's Valley Jigokudani in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

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Story of a man who came to collect raw material for gun powders. His eyesight was healed by the contact with the water from the hot spring. An altar was builted as a grateful gesture.
Story of a man who came to collect raw material for gun powder. His eyesight was healed by contact with water from the hot spring. An altar was built as a gesture of gratitude.

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Altars are always close to nature manifestation. Jigokudani Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

Altars are never very far from natural manifestations, at Jigokudani Noboribetsu in Hokkaido

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This geyser gushes its boiling water out from Jigokudani in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

This geyser gushes out boiling water at Jigokudani in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

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Boiling mud in the Oku no Yu pound. Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

Boiling mud, Oku No Yu Pond at Noboribetsu in Hokkaido

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Oyunuma thermal lake, Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

Oyunuma thermal lake and smoke rising out of Mount Hiyori near Noboribetsu Onsen, Hokkaido

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Pathway along the Oyunuma river in Noboribetsu Hokkaido

Pathway along Oyunuma River in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

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Thermal waterfall in Oyunuma river and natural pool for footbathing, Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

Thermal waterfall at Oyunuma River and natural pool for footbathing, Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

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Unbearable conditions for noble animals in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido. Fog is due to low cloud, not to hot spring reaction.

Unbearable conditions for noble animals in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido. Fog is due to low clouds, not to hot spring reaction.

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Your comments are most welcomed.

Here is a link to Tourism office of  Noboribetsu Onsen Web site.

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Enormous blue demons welcome you in Oyako kisou, Noboribetsu Onsen, Hokkaido

Enormous blue demons welcome you in Oyako kisou, Noboribetsu Onsen, Hokkaido

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Date Samurai Matsuri: Hokkaido

By Denis Plamondon

Photos by Sandra D’Sylva and Denis Plamondon

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Opening of the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri

Opening of the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri

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Memento of the Bushido (The Way of the Warrior)

There are many festivals in Japan and finding one in Hokkaido isn’t hard! Japanese enjoy celebrating past events and observing important anniversaries. Hokkaido is no exception to this fervor. When planning a trip to Hokkaido, consider that many events run during the peak summer season, thus the next question on your checklist may easily read: are their festivals worth the effort of traveling so far a field?

This is a question we asked locals at Lake Toyako about the Date Samurai Matsuri (1-2 August 2009). Some responses were uncertain and unenthusiastic. One senior lady we met said with a quiet smile: “when you’ve seen it once …” Nevertheless, trusting a good recommendation and our own intuition, we set-off by train for the town of Datemombetsu … and, we were pleased with the outcome of this 2-day festival. The events of the first day conveniently took place in front of the Datemombetsu JR train station, from 6 pm onwards. Citizens, visitors and contributors alike were greeted by the organizers in typical festival fanfare during the opening ceremnoy, including a sacred blessing and sutra from a visiting monk. A representative from each of the 10 participating floats gregariously introduced themselves to an equally receptive crowd. As the procession of floats, dancers and performers paraded down the town’s main street, onlookers were treated to the usual aromas and resonances of summer in Japan – whiffs of yakitori on the grill, the drum beat of taiko 「太鼓」 – always a great way to stimulate the senses and nourish the soul.

The following day consisted of a historical re-enactment of a samurai procession preparing for battle. The event was short from about 3-4 pm, and held in a large park called “Date Rekishi no Mori” (伊達歴史の森) some 20 minutes walking distance from the JR station. (Nonetheless, it was prudent to arrive early to secure a good spot.) This colorful and imposing production involved as many actors in traditional costume as there were spectators. Armies of samurai (侍) and heavily armored cavaliers paraded across the makeshift battlefield to congregate atop a hill, while an array of banners and flags fluttered in the background and gunmen on bended-knee fired shots into the air from vintage weapons. A contingent of samurai warriors, wearing outfits from the “bushido” (武士道) era, followed with their squires and fabulously adorned horses. Each took a turn to enter the arena and demonstrate their respective skills. The ceremony reached its climatic finale with the lighting of a bonfire and cries for the triumphant return of samurai armies from the supreme commander known as the sodaisho (総大将)or shogun (将軍).

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Order of cart presentation in the parade of 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri

Order of floats in the opening parade during the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri

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Pushcart at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

Pushcart-float at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

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Black and white banner at the 209 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

Colourful banners at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

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Warriors with their red banner at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

Warriors in vibrant red at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

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Archery at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

A group of archery apprentices choreographically take aim with the grace inherent to this sport. 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido.

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Re-enacting old gun shooting at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

Re-enacting gun shooting at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

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Personalizing the "Bushido" or "Way of the Warrior" in the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

Personalizing the "Bushido" or "Way of the Warrior" at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

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A proud and young samurai? 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

A proud and young samurai at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

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Cavalry and ground army presentation at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

Cavalry and ground army presentation at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

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Inspection and presentation of orders at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

Inspection and presentation of samurai sections at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

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Please share your comments with me:

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Next article: Discover the Geothermal Region of Noboribetsu

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Datemombetsu Samurai Matsuri

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Archery Demonstration at the Date Samurai Matsuri, Datemombetsu Hokkaido

Archery Demonstration at the Date Samurai Matsuri, Datemombetsu Hokkaido

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The town of Datemombetsu held a colorful annual festival in early August. The Date Samurai Matsuri enacts scenes of the Bushido era and it is worth the journey. Please come back soon for a report on this particular event.

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Craters of Toya:

Nishi-Yama Hike in a Disaster Safari!

By Denis Plamondon

Photos by Sandra D’Sylva and Denis Plamondon

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Nishi Yama Crater near Toyako, Hokkaido

Nishi Yama crater near Toyako, Hokkaido

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We were enjoying the scenic view of Toyako from our lakefront Japanese style room at the Kawanami Hotel while reminiscing about last night’s fireworks. The sun was a little shy in the sky, but the clouds were dispersing and the day seemed promising. We had several options to spend the day, some contingent on the weather. Viewing Mount Isu is said to be spectacular from the summit on a clear day, where you can hike across a ridge to witness Isu’s active fumes, and admire Lake Toya, Mount Yotei and Uchiura Bay from an observatory.A local bus that takes you to Mount Isu and Showa-Shinzan volcanoes, is conveniently located from the main road in town in front of major hotels, including ours. If your journey starts at JR Toya train station, you can take the Toyako onsen bus and get off at the Nishi Yama bus stop.

Unfortunately for us, a sea of clouds came rolling in at the last minute! So we opted for nearby Nishi Yama, to the west of Mount Isu, instead. Nishi Yama last erupted in 2000 and left a scene of devastation that local authorities have kept untouched for a better appreciation of the power and danger generated by this natural phenomenon. You approach the crater along a long sinuous path, adjacent to a national highway that once crossed the site, now ripped apart and staggered at various heights. The path continues through a small nearby village, now mostly buried under a landslide triggered by the eruption. Scattered remnants are left as is to preserve the authenticity and eeriness of the devastation – chunks of asphalt, fallen electric posts and road signs, abandoned cars, collapsed houses and a daycare that was evacuated in time. The path is easy to walk, mostly paved or covered with old wooden railway planks. This is indeed an interesting and educational venture for all members of the family as it is for any advance hiker.

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Keeping the fire active while cooking Eggs on a BBQ in Nishi Yama, Hokkaido

At the outset of our one-hour hike, we were greeted by vendors at an outdoor farm BBQ with whole eggs and potatoes, a welcomed boost of energy. Nishi Yama, Hokkaido

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Wooden Sidewalk along Nishi Yama's craters, near Toyako in Hokkaido

Wooden path along Nishi Yama's craters, near Toyako in Hokkaido

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Collapse Road caused by Nishi Yama's volcanic activities in Toyako Machi, Hokkaido

Collapsed national highway caused by Nishi Yama's volcanic activities in Toyako, Hokkaido

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Electric post and road signs left behind after Isu eruption on its west flank in year 2000, Hokkaido

Electric post and road sign left behind after Isu eruption on its west side in year 2000, Hokkaido

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Part of Natinal Highway collapsed in Nishi Yama,, Toyako Hokkaido

Part of highway collapsed in Nishi Yama. Lake Toya, Hokkaido

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Remnants of a collapse house in Nishi Yama, Hokkaido

Remnants of a collapsed house in Nishi Yama, Hokkaido

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All roads go to.... from Nishi Yama Observatory, Hokkaido

All roads go to.... from Nishi Yama observatory, Hokkaido

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Warned by early volcanic activities and land elevation, inhabitants seeked refuge in safer area.

Warned by early volcanic activities and land elevation, inhabitants took refuge in safer area.

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Scallops at the Yakitori no Ippei restaurant were absolutely delicious, Lake Toyako, Hokkaido. Particularily, after a day long hike in the surroundings

Scallops at the Yakitori no Ippei restaurant were absolutely delicious, Lake Toyako, Hokkaido. Particularily, after a day long hike in the surroundings

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Supplementary information and  photographs for Nishi Yama and Lake Toya:

Toyako Onsen Tourist Association

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Hokkaido Mon Amour!

By Denis Plamondon

Photos by Sandra D’Sylva and Denis Plamondon

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Rebun flowers with Rishiri volcano in the background

Rebun flowers with Rishiri volcano in the background

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Hokkaido is a very large and unique island, so planning is best if you wish to optimize your journey within a given budget. In a series of articles to come, I will share with you the itinerary we chose, the decisions we made and the discoveries we enjoyed. As it was our first time traveling to this magnificent place, I can only talk about the selected period of our trip, the summer period between July 31 and August 12. Hokkaido has four very distinctive seasons, so you should decide when to go accordingly. In subsequent postings, I will be commenting about the surroundings of Lake Toya (Toyako), the Samurai Festival in Datemombetsu, the thermal and sulfuric landscapes of Noboribetsu, the Ainu museum and its culture in Shiraoi, the winery, the flowers and farmlands of Furano, the end of the railway in Wakkanai, the world of fishery, seaweed culture and other wonders on Rishiri and Rebun islands, and finally, the interesting city of Hakodate. Let’s start with transportation in Hokkaido.

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Transportation

If you are a visitor to Japan, you will certainly benefit from the use of the Hokkaido JR Rail Pass,  but if you are already living in Japan you can only avail yourself of the more restricted Hokkaido Furii Pass or the popular seishun 18 ticket (seishun ju-hachi kippu). If time is not an issue, reaching Hokkaido on a ferry is an excellent option as well (Oarai to Tomakomai Ferry). The shinkansen and limited express trains will bring you there from Tokyo in 4 hours, but you can fly for more or less the same price with a few local airlines.

In reality, you are most likely to use different kinds of transportation, including taxis, during your holidays: we flew to Chitose Airport on the outskirts of Sapporo, and used the shinkansen only at the end on our way back to Tokyo (stopping in Matsushima for a little additional fun). In Hokkaido, the seishun 18 ticket, which allows you to use only local trains, served us perfectly since the slow pace gave us an opportunity to really feel the countryside and meet charming people along the way. From Wakkanai, we crossed by ferry to Rishiri and Rebun Islands. I highly suggest renting a bicycle to go around Rishiri Island, which is a great way to discover the region while keeping your body in shape. We even hitchhiked on Rebun Island after hiking for many hours in the wild. On the return from Wakkanai, we took the overnight bus to Sapporo, which allowed us to save on accommodation as well as time. However, on our way back to Tokyo from Hakodate, we were compelled to use an express train to make up some time.

Beside the great countryside and open spaces you see when taking the train in Hokkaido, the first thing you will remark is the people themselves. Unlike Tokyoites who are often busy with the matrix of their cell phones, Hokkaido inhabitants are happy to see you, help you and stop to chat. The second obvious thing you will soon realize is the smell of diesel (!) as very few lines are electric due the breadth of this island. The third thing about travelling in Hokkaido, and important to be aware of, is the relatively fewer connections and frequencies in the transport system. So plan your holidays well and don’t be in a rush. It’s Hokkaido; it’s huge, exciting and beautiful. There are mountains and volcanoes, rivers and sea shores, farmlands and rice fields, islands and fisheries to explore.

Lake Toya turned out to be a lovely starting point. We decided to start our journey in Toyako, a beautiful location which offers a fireworks display every night during the summer season. (Toyako Onsen was the venue for the recent G8 Toyako Hokkaido Summit). During our 12-day visit to Hokkaido, this is where we found the best value for accommodation at the Kawanami Hotel. We chose a Japanese style room with a fantastic view on the lake. The friendly personnel looked after us well. Facilities include interior and exterior thermal baths (o-furo) which we enjoyed after exhausting hikes in the vicinity, free internet access, a good value restaurant, a small art gallery and a cozy lounge. The hotel proved to be well located to visit surrounding volcanoes like Usu, Showa Shinzan and Nishi-Yama. So don’t hesitate to stay at the Kawanami Hotel; price starts at only 3900 yen per person. For the more information on our journey to Hokkaido, please come back to this site soon.

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Naka Furano, farmlands and Mountains In Hokkaido

Naka Furano, farmlands and Mountains In Hokkaido

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One man Train car going to Wakkanai in Hokkaido

One man Train car going to Wakkanai in Hokkaido

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The Crew's cabin in One man train car! Hokkaido

The Crew's cabin in One man train car! Hokkaido

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Trees in Highland country near Furano Hokkaido

Trees in Highland country near Furano Hokkaido

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Farm with rice fields in Hokkaido

Farm with rice fields in Hokkaido

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Date Samurai Matsuri and 2 horses in DateMembetsu Hokkaido

Date Samurai Matsuri and 2 horses in Datemombetsu Hokkaido

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Showa Shinzan near Lake Toya in Hokkaido

Showa Shinzan near Lake Toya in Hokkaido

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Flowers in a sailing boat on the island of Rishiri, Hokkaido

Flowers in a sailing boat on the island of Rishiri, Hokkaido

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Tunnel on the Hokkaido Raiway system

Tunnel on the Hokkaido Raiway system

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Sunset observed from the Ferry after Rebun, Hokkaido

Sunset observed from the Ferry after Rebun, Hokkaido

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Next article: Hiking in a disaster area