After a cool spring season, we discovered that a sunny and warm weekend was on the way, so there was only one thing to do: road trip!
In this edition of Hokkaido Road Trip we decided to head south to enjoy the warm weather by the sea, specifically the area east of Hakodate. We packed the car with our camping gear and hit the road around 9am: an early start is important if you want to take advantage of the entire weekend!
Stop 1: Shikabe Geyser
After around 2 hours of driving, a few conbini stops and a trip to the grocery store in Mori, we came to our first stop: a rest area in the town of Shikabe. As we made our way towards Shikabe, we got an incredible view of Mt Komagatake, a dual-peak volcano that signalled our descent into an area with lots of geothermic activity.
While it may seem like another sleepy oceanside town, Shikabe sits on a highly volcanic area and has a very special attraction that many people might miss: an explosive geyser! As we entered the parking lot we saw a unique cooking area that uses the extremely hot steam from underground to cook meat, vegetables and anything you can think of, all for free. If you don't plan on barbecue-ing later in the day, give this volcanic cooking method a try when you visit Shikabe!
Next we headed inside the information center and browsed the local food items like seafood, ice cream and snacks, as well as some cute souvenirs of 'Karusu-kun', the Shikabe mascot made of pumice stone. We paid 300Y to enter the geyser viewing area, and was told to wait: the eruptions happen quite regularly, around once every 10 minutes. As we waited, there was a natural footbath onsen to relax in and a courtyard to wander around in.
We didn't have to wait long until we heard the rumbling from across the courtyard: we quickly sprung out of the onsen to get our cameras ready, then watched in awe as the stream of water grew taller and taller, until it was spraying out of the earth at around 20m tall!
We imagine this stop would be quite busy in a regular summer (there were only a few other people in the courtyard with us on a Saturday), but there's plenty of viewing spots on the ground and up on the viewing deck. For 300Y it's a pretty cool experience and a nice pit stop on your way to the edge of Hokkaido at Esan!
Stop 2: Mt Esan
Another hour of driving led us to the start of the trail for Mt Esan, an oceanside peak with stunning vistas all the way up and multiple viewpoints to see some volcanic activity up close. We gained a significant amount of elevation as we drove up the winding road to the trailhead, where we found a large carpark and a clear trailhead waiting for us.
All along the trail at the beginning of our walk, we got to see many Jizo statues, which are small monk-like tributes that aim to protect children and travellers - we estimated there were around 100 or more along this trail!
As we ventured up the mountain, we would stop every 20 minutes or so to marvel at the deep volcanic valley that forms the center of the mountain. Waves of sulphur would hit us as the wind changed (talk about stinky), but it was well worth it to see an active volcanic area in action.
It took us roughly an hour to get to the top, and we got to see multiple fumaroles, interesting rocks shaped by lava and a quaint shrine right at the very top. At the peak we got 360 degree views of the surrounding mountain ranges and the Pacific Ocean, which look beautiful and clear in the sunny weather. This hike is great for beginners, with well maintained trails and views that are well worth the trip.
The descent took around 40 minutes, and is just as fun as the climb - just watch out for the light, aerated rocks that cover the trail as they're very prone to displacement, meaning a trip is quite likely! Also since the mountain is almost 100% exposed, we recommend taking sunglasses, a hat, a windbreaker and sunscreen for protection from the elements. It was very windy on the hike, so layers are a good idea!
If you visit Mt Esan, be sure to pull off the road as you're leaving to view the kogane kan'non ritsuzō or 黄金観音立像 (golden icon) - in the afternoon it's a stunning sight as the Buddhist deity glistens in the sun as it looks over the ocean.
It started to get late, so we quickly made our way to the final stop of the day...
Stop 3: Esan seaside camping ground
The Esan seaside camping ground is only ~5 minutes by car from the base of the road that leads up to Mt Esan, so a perfect spot if you're looking to do an overnight trip in the area. Be sure to call ahead to reserve a space, or get there before 6:30pm, as the front office closes at night. For only 300Y per tent we were treated to true beachside camping on well-manicured grass, and with taps, a bathroom and a convenience store right at our disposal. We set up camp and began to BBQ with the supplies we bought in Mori.
After dinner, we went to bed with the sound of the ocean putting us to sleep quickly - it was a long day, but full of adventure! We knew it was going to be a clear morning, so we set our alarms to 4am to try and catch the sunrise over the ocean (the days are very long in a Hokkaido summer: 4am to 7pm!), but sadly it rose right behind Mt Esan, which stood beautifully in view from the campsite.
After another morning snooze, we woke up and enjoyed coffee by the ocean, one of my favourite things to do when camping! We then packed up and got back on the road - there's no time to waste on a roadtrip!
The next stop was an onsen we'd had our eye on for a while, and it was only 20 minutes from the campsite. But this wasn't any old onsen, it was one we had to time very carefully...
Stop 4: Mizunashikaihin Onsen
We had around 1 hour before the conditions were right to bathe in the onsen, so we passed some time watching the surfers at Todohokke surf beach, and wandering around the picturesque Cape Esan lighthouse.
Then it was time to visit the onsen, which sat right under Cape Esan. The Mizunashikaihin onsen is right on the ocean, meaning the tides determine the temperature of the water, which is heated by the volcanic rocks underneath. When you bathe right at the perfect time between high and low tide, it makes a series of delightfully warm onsens with salty water and beautiful views of the ocean. We visited at 11am, right when the online guide suggests to visit. Two pools were warm enough to bathe in, however the smaller one was very, very hot! It was amazing to feel the differences in temperature of the pools separated by just one fence of rocks: if the water was juuuuust too high it was freezing, and juuuust too low it was boiling!
We tested each pool and spent some time relaxing in the larger one that was a perfect ~30 degrees. We noticed as the tide continued to drop the water was getting slightly warmer, and we could even see the hot water from our pool seeping through a crack into the next one over, which was too cold when we went to bathe.
There were bathrooms nearby to change, so we dried off and hopped back in the car: where to next?
Stop 5: Lucky Pierrot, Gelato and Onuma Park
Thoroughly tired from our hike the day before, the early morning and relaxing onsen, we wanted our next stop to be lowkey, so we headed to Onuma Park, just north of Hakodate.
But first: food! When someone mentions they're visiting Hakodate, the first thing I recommend is for them to visit Lucky Pierrot, a chain of burger restaurants that can only be found in the oceanside city.
Not only is Lucky Pierrot a regional specialty, but it's well known for it's kooky interiors, which vary from store to store. You'll find endless fun no matter which of the 17 locations you visit (I've witnessed Christmas, Valentine's Day and Renaissance art themed stores), but the store we dined at near Onuma had a very particular theme: art by Columbian painter Fernando Botero. Known for painting his subjects in a uniquely disproportionate way, he's one of the most influential artists from Latin America, and is considered perfectly kitsch. Why is this artist's paintings the inspiration for an entire restaurant's inner decor in northern Japan you ask? We don't know, but that's Lucky Pierrot - don't ask questions, just have fun with it!
We ate the classic combo available at Lucky Pierrot: their famous Chinese chicken burger, loaded fries with spaghetti and cheese sauce, and a refreshing iced tea. It was the perfect pick-me-up for the afternoon, but before we visited Onuma Park, we decided to get some gelato from the store we saw as we drove in. With soft cream made from local milk and incredible Italian-style gelato, it was a delightful end to our lunch.
Our last stop on our roadtrip was finally here: Onuma Park. Onuma Park (formally known as Onuma Quasi-National Park) consists of multiple tiny islands in a large lake at the base of Mt Komagatake. Polly (our sightseeing expert) mentioned that the islands are actually pieces of the volcano that fell and landed in the lake when it collapsed many centuries ago. The rich volanic soil on the islands turned it into a lush green paradise, and the park built a series of Japanese-style bridges so visitors can walk over the lake and take in the tranquil setting.
While we were very tempted to rent one of the swan boats to explore the lake, we decided to take the longer walking trail, and see what we could find hidden in the tiny islands that dotted the lake. All across the islands we found beautiful red flowers, lots of ducks and beautiful views of Mt Komagatake overlooking the lake.
Back to Niseko
While we could've spent an entire day at Onuma Park, we had to make our way back to Niseko, which would be a ~3 hour drive home. Overall, we were able to pack in so many activities over just 48 hours, so we think it's a great travel itinerary if you're looking to explore more of Hokkaido on your trip to Niseko! All of the activities we did can be done year-round (we think the oceanside onsen would be incredible in winter, and be sure to bring touring gear and warm camping gear if you want to do winter hiking up Mt Esan), so consider a trip down south on your next journey to Hokkaido.
Niseko is the perfect place to use as a base for your Hokkaido adventures, as it's evenly spaced between major destinations like Sapporo, Otaru, Asahikawa and Hakodate. If you'd like to stay in Niseko, be sure to chat to our friendly reservations team for availability and unbeatable local advice!
If you're keen to read more of our Hokkaido Road Trip series, be sure to click the links below.