Hokkaido – Otaru to Lake Toya

Days 21 to 25 – The Best Whisky – Climbing Niseko – Hiking Mt Yotei – Beautiful Lake Toya – Mt Usu…

Masa-san takes our picture before we leave and gives us the direction to get out of Otaru. We have to take Hwy 5 once more. Fortunately it’s not too far to Yoichi, where the road goes inland. I notice a few tour buses and we decide to check it out. It turns out to be a whisky distillery, and a famous one apparently. It’s called Nikka Distillery, and the guy who built it (Masataka Taketsuru) got himself trained in Scotland before marrying a Scottish lady and starting his business here. The special thing about it is the distillation is still done using coal fire, supposedly giving a caramel taste to the end product — I don’t know if it’s true, we didn’t taste it.

Nikka Whisky
Nikka Whisky

We take the road #36 towards the mountains and after a bit of climb we descend into a valley called Akaigawa. We find a nice road station there with a small noodle restaurant, a bakery and an ice cream shop. We also meet a lone Swiss cyclist, she has started from Chitose and is going in the opposite direction.

Farmlands take over as we enter the Kutchan area. The Asahigaoka campground is free and has a nice view of Mt Yotei. The weather is calm but cool, no bugs. We cycle to the nearby onsen (800yen pp) before having our usual camp dinner with noodles and canned fish.

Asahigaoka campground

Our route takes us through what’s called the Niseko Hills, and rightly so. We end up climbing to an alpine area named Goshiki Onsen at around 800m. Bengul and I miss each other for a while when I am exploring the area. The downhill to Niseko town is exhilarating. Sunday crowd is on the road and some seem to be here just to fill up water from famous spring water.  We reach the Makkari campsite — turns out to be the most popular of four trail heads for Mt Yotei — to find a huge swath of campers occupying every square inch available. After walking around quite a bit, we give up and put our tent nearby a wash station, on a grassy patch with a slight inclination among some trees (2400yen for two days).

Makkari trail head

We see quite a few hikers return late from the hike previous night so we wake up as early as we can and hit the trail. There is a registry at the trail head to check in and out. The hike is going through steep terrain all the way to the top where there is a nice view complete with Lake Toya and the ocean further away. It takes us about 4 hrs to reach the crater. It gets a bit cool and foggy and we decide to turn around without going around the crater and reach the campsite at 2:40. All the tents are gone. We relocate to a better spot. Makkari onsen is a few kms away, so we cycle there for a nice bath (has an outside pool with view of the mountain) and to sample the food at the small restaurant inside (an old lady serving simple dishes).

View from Mt Yotei trail

The sun dries our tent before we leave. The weather is sunny but cool. We stop at Makkari to stock on food and also to take some cash at the post office ATM. The road #66 to Lake Toya is a mix of rolling hills and straight road. We stop at a view point (with no views) for lunch and then descend into the lake shore. It’s quite a nice groomed place and well deserves its reputation. The road that circles the lake is narrow and quiet. We cycle slowly to admire the calm clear waters and scenic spots. There are a few camp grounds along the way, but they all seem too close to the road and it’s too early in the day so we keep going until we reach the “Green” auto-campground (700yen pp, showers, laundry). There is no one around but us. We pitch our tent and go for a walk along the shore. I decide to jump in, the water is not too cold but later I start to shiver due to constant wind that started late in the afternoon. We take refuge in the reception area to nibble on some snacks before going to bed.

Mt Yotei

Next day we take it slow and move towards Toyako town following a pedestrian path on the shore. This place went through four eruptions in the last hundred years, one as recent as 2000 (Mt Usuzan), which was amazingly predicted well in advance, and there are many sculptures to commemorate the events. We choose a nearby camp site to stay (up on the hills, free showers, nice cooking area, 600yen pp)  and go for a touristy Mt Usu Ropeway side trip the next morning. For dinner we find an interesting European-style restaurant, have grilled Salmon and drink Calpys (a sweet milk beverage).

Campsite with a view