(Hokkaido part IIIa)
From Sapporo one has easy access to the south-western part of the island, which is the most densely populated part of Hokkaido. Here there are some beautiful places to visit, inside a circle of two-three hours drive. During my Hokkaido trip I was based in Sapporo all three weeks. This means lots of driving to be able to see other places. Instaed of doing what I did, I would recommend though the visitor to move around and every 2-3 days to stay at a different place.
In this page I will try to give some interesting information of the places I visited outside Sapporo and its suburbia.
The Jozankei Onsen is the closest attraction to Sapporo and an easy to do day trip. Jozankei Onsen, a small village that owes its existence to the hot springs of the area, is built in a gorge formed by Toyohira River, some 40 kilometers on the southwest of Sapporo. Toyohira River is the main river that runs thru central Sapporo and a tributary of the Ishikari River. There are 56 hot springs in the Jozankei spa resort. Most of them are concentrated in the vicinity of Tsukimibashi bridge and Takayamabasi bridge of the Toyohira river running the spa resort areas. Hot spring is abundantly gushing out from crannies of bedrocks in the riverbank and in the bottom of the river.
At first glance, Jozankei Onsen looks unattractive to foreign visitors. The picturesque gorge is overwhelmed by huge and ugly hotels located into the lavish green of the Sapporo landscape. These are onsen ryokan (hotels with hot spring baths) that attract mainly the people from Sapporo because of its proximity. Japanese are obsessed with onsen, which gives Jozankai its popularity. But after a little stroll in the area you really feel its serenity and unusual beauty. Visit the area around autumn to enjoy fall foliage colors.
The history of Jozankei Onsen
The history of Jozankei Hot Springs dates back to 1866, when Miizumi Jozan, an ascetic monk, discovered the hot springs and opened a healing spa in upper Toyohira River. Jozan cut through the forest to develop the land and put a great amount of work into bringing injured and sick people to the spa for healing. Eventually his enthusiasm led up to building bridges and roads, and little by little the spa’s reputation spread out. When the industry of mining and lumbering arose, and many workers arrived into the area, restaurants and shops started to increase in number. In 1918, Toyoha Mine opened and Jozankei Railroad was laid, crossing 29.9km between Shiroishi village and Jozankei. Thereafter, the area, blessed with splendid nature and bountiful waters continued to grow into one of the finest hot spring spas in Hokkaido.
The Kappa legend
Walking around the area, visitors will notice many statues dedicated to a mythical creature, Kappa. Fairy tale kappa statues which are seen everywhere in the hot spring town are based on ideas given by residents of Sapporo and made by sculptors from both inside and outside of Hokkaido. A kappa (river-child) is an amphibious yōkai demon found in traditional Japanese folklore. They are typically depicted as green, human-like beings with webbed hands and feet and a turtle-like carapace on their backs. A depression on its head, called its "dish" (sara), retains water, and if this is damaged or its liquid is lost (either through spilling or drying up), the kappa is severely weakened. Kappon (a childish looking kappa) is the mascot of Jozankei Onsen.
There is a “legend of Kappa” in Jozankei hot springs, and here is its origins: Until the Choshiguchi hydroelectric power plant was built in 1908, the water flow of the Toyohira River was big enough to wash out logs (for straight-grained boards) of the interior of the mountain down the river. There were also many big river fishes inhabited everywhere in the deep channels. Around that time, there was a young boy, named a Mr. Seyama, who was working for road works. When he was fishing by one of the deep pools of the river, all of a sudden, he was sucked down into the bottom of the river, even though he did not miss his footing. Villagers who were working to wash out the logs down the river saw the boy being sucked into the river, and immediately jumped into the river to try to rescue him. But the river was so deep that they could not rescue him, and at the end the days passed without being able to find the boy. A year later, on the night of the first memorial service for the boy, the young boy appeared in his father’s dream and said, “I am living happily with a water goblin wife and a child.” The most handsome boy in the village was probably charmed by the goblin wife living in the river. Since then, the area has been called as the goblin’s pool, and there has been no one who goes missing.
Iwato Kannon-do Temple
Iwato Kannon-do Temple  is a solemn space with 33 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. The Iwato Kannon-do is dedicated to the spirits of many people who gave their lives to the construction of the highway connecting Otaru and Jozankei, the second toll road in Japan, and was built also to pray for traffic safety. Once a year, the “Iwato Kannon-do Festival” is held here, attracting a lot of spectators.
Enter the little red-roofed temple and at the right-back corner of it open a door to enter the cave (rather a long narrow corridor) with the statues of Kannon. There is also an adjacent to the temple room where the visitor can see old photographs of Jōzankei on display.
Just next to Iwato Kannon-do Temple there is a small covered hot spring. This is the Hot Water of Longevity and Health of the Foot Massage . Here you can enjoy a footbath and get healthy. Massaging soles of your feet with pebbles at the bottom of the bathtub makes your body warm.
Between Hot Water of Longevity and the temple starts a trail going up to Mt.Asahidake (598m).
It is time to have a revitalizing tea/coffee and a tasty flaky pastry. Just some meters down on the main road leading to Tsukimi bridge there is the cozy "J・glacee" café . The perfect place to rest while looking out of the window people passing by. I recommend a strong cup of coffee and a delicious apple pie topped with a scoop of the famous Hokkaido ice cream.
Futami Jozan Road
Walk a block down the main street and turn right towards Futami Park  located on the north bank of the Toyohira river and the Futami Jozan Trail . Futami Jozan trail is a natural walking path that starts at Futami Park and after passing over the bright red suspension bridge (Futami Tsuribashi suspension bridge)  continues on the southern bank. “Kappa buchi” , a big green Kappa statue, welcomes the visitor at the beginning of the trail in Futami park. The walking trail is closed for winter.
Jozankei Gensen Park
Come back to the main road. Going south on the main town road and after crossing Tsukimi bridge , which offers wonderful vistas all over the gorge, the visitor sees Jozan Gensen Park  on his left hand. The park was opened to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Miizumi Jozan, the founder of Jozankei Hot Springs. In the park, there is a statue of the founder along with foot spas and places where you can boil eggs in the water of the Jozankei hot springs (Onsen Tamago Hot Springs).
Continue uphill on the main road and cross the Route 230, the road that connects Sapporo to Lake Toya. On the other side of the road stands Josankei Shrine . The shrine was founded in 1905 to enshrine Amaterasu-Omikami, the sun goddess. The shrine is of not much interest to the tourist, but from here starts the trail up Mount Huhidate (594m). Some meters further east on Route 230 is located the Jozankei Sight Seeing Information Center  which will provide you with a local map and other information on the area.
Continue walking on Route 230 and turn left on the road that goes over Jozankeio Ohashi Bridge. At this corner take off your shoes and relax your tired feet in Taro-no-yu Footbath for Friendship . Turn right on the first road to visit Shiraito Falls . Ok these are not any real falls…just water falling from a hight of a couple of meters. Continue over Tamagawa Bridge  and turn immediately to the right to go down to the riverbanks. Absorb the beauty of the landscape and head back to Jozankeio Ohashi Bridge . There are many bridges in Jozankei and this bridge is the newest (1978) and biggest (232m long and 16m wide) among them. It is most probably the best point to enjoy the views of the town and the surrounding mountains. From the top of the bridge you can see the second red bridge of the town, the Koyama Bridge .
A couple of kilometers north of Jozankei Onsen, Otarunai River forms an artificial lake. This is Lake Sapporo formed after the completion of Jozankei Dam in 1989. From the parking park at the foot of the dam one can visit the small dam museum and climb up the dam to enjoy the lake the mountains that surrounds it. This is one of the best spots in the area to enjoy the beautiful foliage colors in autumn.
Alternatively, you can follow route 1 that connects Jozankei Onsen with Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort on top of Mt. Yoichi and further to Otaru. The first part of the road follows the right bank of Lake Sapporo right bank thru bridges and tunnels. From observation decks on this road one can admire the deep colored waters of the lake and the dense vegetation of the mountains.
Exit Jozankei Onsen from the south and follow Route 230 for about a kilometer. At the first traffic lights you meet, take the exit to the left towards Hoheikyo Hot Spring and Hoheikyo Dam.
Drive for another kilometer or so and there is no way to miss the signs for Hoheikyo Onsen. The onsen features one outdoor bath a couple of indoor ones. The outdoor one is very beautiful and it a real pleasure to wonder around naked and enjoy the nature. The highlight though of the facilities is the Indian curry restaurant which is considered one of the best in the Sapporo area. The serve a quite big variety of curries and nan bread.
Leave the Hoheikyo Onsen behind and get back to the road towards Hoheikyo Dam. At about one kilometer turn left (follow the blue overhead road sign just before the turn). Follow this road till you reach the parking lot. From here you can either walk to the Dam or take the little electric bus during the summer period (end of April till the end of October). In both cases the dam is reached only through a 2-km long tunnel. The bus costs 640-yen return, but there are discounts for children and seniors. There is only one opening along the tunnel from which you can see a small waterfall. After you get off the bus, you can walk towards the dam for great views of the lake/reservoir (Jozan Lake) and the steep rock slopes that surround it, as well as of the gorge that Toyohira River forms through beautiful mountains. At the bus stop there is a small lift up to the Rest House deck for views of the damn and its discharge. At the far end of Hoheikyo Dam stands a small museum with old photos and information (in Japanese only) about the dam. It has a nice place to sit, with amazing views over Jozan lake.
The arch concrete dam, which is 102.5 meters tall, was completed in 1972 to utilize the Toyohira River. The dam is dramatically discharged for sightseeing between June and October from 9:00 to 16:00 and it is famous as a place for foliage viewing. The peak season for getting to Hoheikyo Dam is in October (for the stunning Autumn leaves).
Otaru is a city port about 30k northwest of Sapporo. The city faces the Ishikari Bay, and has long served as the main port of the bay. With its many historical buildings, Otaru is a popular tourist destination. There is a very good train connection between Otaru and Sapporo, but if you prefer to use your car, to avoid traffic I recommend taking the Expressway (toll road) E5A instead of Route5, which runs almost parallel to the first.
The city was an Ainu habitation, and the name "Otaru" is recognized as being of Ainu origin, possibly meaning "River running through the sandy beach". Otaru was recognized as a village in 1865, and in 1880 the first railway line in Hokkaido was opened with daily service between Otaru and Sapporo. An Imperial decree in July 1899 established Otaru as an open port for trading with the United States and the United Kingdom. The city flourished well as the financial and business center in Hokkaido as well as the trade port. Otaru was designated as a city in 1922.
The days of wealth, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, left a great architectural heritage in the city, which is largely preserved till today. Many old warehouses and former office buildings by shipping and trade companies give Otaru's city center a special character reminiscent of the past. Since the 1950s, as the coal industry around the city went into a decline, the status of economic hub shifted from Otaru to Sapporo.
The main attractions of the city rest mainly around the famous Otaru canal and Sakaimachi street, which is the commercial and touristic center of the city.
Otaru Canal (Otaru Unga) was a central part of the city's busy port in the first half of the 20th century. Large vessels were unloaded by smaller ships, which then transported the goods to warehouses along the canal. The canal became obsolete when modern dock facilities allowed for direct unloading of larger vessels.
Thanks to a citizens' movement, a part of the canal was beautifully restored in the 1980s instead of being landfilled, while the warehouses were transformed into museums, shops and restaurants. The canal makes for a pleasant stroll during the day, when artists present their works to passing tourists, and during the evenings when old fashioned gas lamps are lit and provide a romantic atmosphere. The canal also serves as the main site of the town's Snow Light Path Festival.
Opposite the northern edge of the Utaru canal stands a beautiful former warehouse, which houses the Canal Plaza Tourist Information Center and the Otaru City Museum. The museum covers broadly the history and nature of Otaru, recounting the times of Hokkaido's native Ainu people as well as the city's preservation movement during the 1970s. There are many models and displays, which are explained in an English pamphlet.
Sakaimachi Street (Sakaimachi Dori) is an attractive, preserved merchant street and the heart of Otaru. It rests at a short walk from the city's canal area and the train Station. During the development of Hokkaido in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Otaru thrived as a port city, and many trading and shipping companies constructed impressive Western style buildings in the city center to house their offices and shops. Many of the buildings along Sakaimachi Street have since been converted into restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops, boutiques and museums.
At Sakaimachi Street there are also a few glass workshops for tourists to enjoy a hands-on experience in creating the local Otaru Glass. When the herring fishing industry declined in the 1950s, the makers of glass buoys shifted to the production of refined glassware instead. Nowadays, Otaru benefits greatly from the reputation of its glassware, attracting many tourists to its glass shops.
While in Sakaimachi Street do not miss the famous LeTao confectionery shops. LeTao company established just in 1998, but since then it has become a Hokkaido must live experiense. Hokkaido is famous for its dairy products, so it’s of no surprise that confectionery here is based on freshly made cheese and dairy cream. One should not leave Hokkaido without tasting the famous Double Fromage: a two-layered cake, of which the upper layer is creamy smooth no-bake cheesecake and the lower layer is rich baked cheesecake… I beleive this the best cheesecake I have ever tasted… I could live on this cake for the rest of my life!
The main LeTao shop building is distinguished from its tall “clocktower”. The ground floor sells delicious cakes, ice cream and souvenirs, while on the upper floor there is a huge café, where the visitor can enjoy all the LeTao products. The hall looks huge, but it is always crowded with tourists, so not easy to find a seat.
LeTAO PATHOS is the second chain store in the street: on the ground floor of the building there are both a confectionery where they sell LeTAO popular products and a small sitting area to enjoy your cake and/or ice cream.
Nouvelle Vague LeTAO Chocolatier, LeTAO Plus and Fromage Danish DANI LeTAO complete the delicious Sakaimachi Street quintet.
Of course, in the street there are branches of other famous confectioneries such as Rokatei, known for its traditional Japanese sweets like daifuku and mochi, and Kitakaro, known for its delicious variety of baumkuchen cakes. If you are a matcha-addict you should visit the all-green-confectionery that sells only matcha products. It is located just opposite Kitaichivenetsia Museum and cannot be missed as it is painted in matcha-green color.
The place you should not miss, though, is the traditional tea house Kuboya, housed in a 1907 wooden building. Enjoy traditional desserts with red bean cakes, ice cream and matcha. Try the star of the Japanese desserts: “Matcha in Cream Zenzai”, which is matcha in sweet azuki-bean soup with toppings of ice cream and white dumplings.
Even though the city has much to show and one visit is not enough, one should visit also a couple of places located at a small distance from it.
The herring fishing industry played a major role in the history of Otaru since the early days of the town's development, with the vast majority of fish being processed into fertilizer rather than consumed by humans. Large fortunes were made by the leading fishing enterprises until the 1950s, when the herring stocks dramatically declined, and the industry collapsed.
During the heyday of herring fishing, large Herring Mansions (Nishin Goten) were built by wealthy fishermen to process the fish and as a residence for themselves and their employees. A large preserved herring mansion dating back to the end of the 19th century stands on a hill-peninsula beside the water about five kilometers to the north of central Otaru. It was built in Tomari-village, west of the west of the Shakotan Peninsula, on a narrow beach between the cliff and sea water's edge but moved to its current location in 1958 and is open to the public (there is an admission fee). Fishermen's tools and living conditions are displayed inside. Behind the mansion, on the very top of the rocky peninsula stands a lighthouse.
Former Aoyama Villa
About a kilometer inland from the herring mansion stands the Former Aoyama Villa (Kyu Aoyama Bettei), a luxurious villa built by the Aoyama family, one of the most successful families in the herring fishing industry. The villa, which was born out of the dream of a 17- year-old young woman, Masae Aoyama, completed in 1923. The family spared no expense in the materials and construction of the villa and surrounding gardens. The Villa houses a small museum and an expensive restaurant with both Japanese and Western style rooms.
The Aoyama family's herring mansion was also preserved, but it was moved to nearby Sapporo where it can be viewed in the Historic Village open air museum.
About 500m, on the way back from Nishin Goten to Otaru there is another fisherman's wooden house. At the back of the house there is a path that leads to Ebisu Shrine, the oldest shrine in Otaru (built in 1863).
Katsunai river crosses the southern suburbs of Otaru. Parallel to the river starts Route393 which leads up to the mountains overlooking the city to the southwest. From the top of this twisted road there is a viewpoint from where on can see the whole city and the Ishikari Bay. Continue this road, which leads to the iconic Mount Yotei, for about 10 km to visit one of the many farms open to tourists: the Hopi Hills farm. The farm has a restaurant and a café to enjoy your ice cream. Children can pet farm animals here.