Posted on September 18th, 2009 No comments
There are currently 108 active volcanoes in Japan (ten percent of the world’s total). On average eruptions or abnormal phenomena are observed at 10 volcanoes a year in Japan. In Japan an active volcano is defined as “volcanoes which have erupted within 10,000 years or volcanoes with vigorous volcanic gas and water vapor releases.” In Hokkaido 19 volcanoes fit that description and there have been 16 large-scale eruptions in the last 350 years (3 were of an equal scale to the 1980 Mt Saint Helens eruption). Closest to home is the Niseko volcanic group, which includes Nisekoannupuri (yes, you are skiing on an active volcano), Mt Yotei and Usu-zan.
Although classed as active, the Niseko group and Mt Yotei are at the bottom of the activity scale. Usu-zan however is right at the top. Situated on the shores of Lake Toya 50km south of Hirafu, Usu-zan is one of Hokkaido’s well-known volcanoes and one of the most active in Japan. There have been four eruptions in the last 100 years alone with the most recent taking place in 2000.
The March 2000 eruption created 50 new craters, caused mudflows, destroyed a national road, several buildings and forced the evacuation of over 13,000 residents from the surrounding area. While most were able to return to their homes within two weeks, 3,000 people from the Toyako Onsen township had to wait for more than 2 months in evacuation shelters before they could return.
Lake Toya is a popular stop on the domestic tourist trail. Highlights include onsen, a ropeway on Mount Usu and Showashinzan (a small lava dome that was created between 1944 and 1945). When Usu-zan erupted in 1977, visitor numbers to the area dropped by 60%. To revitalize tourism following the 1977 eruption the local community started a spring to autumn nightly fireworks display on the lake. This has been running since 1982 and has become a successful draw card to the area. Following the most recent eruption the local community decided to preserve the ruins and the area is now part of the Lake Toya and Usu Volcano Geopark.
I saw the 2000 eruption on local TV. It was major news on all stations. Plenty of live action from helicopters flying over the exploding craters and lots of expert opinions on the size of the boulders being hurled skywards. The township was closed, covered in ash and the local business leaders being interviewed looked mightily depressed.
The Lake Toya economy is heavily dependent on tourism and the eruption at the start of spring threatened the whole summer trade. In a desperate measure to declare the town safe again and generate business one of the major hotels offered a 5000jpy stay with buffet dinner and breakfast included. Lake Toya is one of my favourite places in Hokkaido so I jumped at the offer. With half the town closed and the mountain still fizzing I went down for the weekend to enjoy the onsen and buffet. The thing I remember the most about that weekend was finding a hard-hat and an evacuation map in my room. Errrr I thought this place was safe and I’m not quite sure how effective the hat is going to be at stopping those 3 tonne boulders I’d seen the experts talking about.
Posted on September 11th, 2009 No comments
羊蹄山Youtei-zan (pronounced Yoo-tay and not you-tie or ute-tee) dominates the surrounding Hirafu-Niseko skyline. Mt Yotei is one of the 100 famous mountains in Japan and the name can be translated as sheep’s foot. Standing 1898m tall, Mt Yotei is also known as Shiribeshi-yama, Makkarinupuri and Ezo Fuji (Hokkaido Fuji). Mt Yotei is an active stratovolcano less than 100,000 years old.
Stratovolcanoes are typically tall, conical with a steep profile and known for their explosive eruptions. The most recent eruption from the crater of Mt Yotei happened around 5-6 thousand years ago, while around 3,000 years ago a lower eruption on the Hirafu side created the caldera Hangetsu-ko (Half Moon Lake).
There are four different hiking routes to get to the summit and the hike will take around 6-8 hours. It is a popular hike but it is steep and requires a decent level of fitness. I discovered the hard way that the trail can be quite slippery after any rain. Mt Yotei is part of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park and numerous varieties of alpine flora and fauna can be seen during the hike. From the top there are great views of the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Japan and of course the Niseko ski resort area.
If you plan on hiking from the Makkari side or Kyogoku side you can stock up on some of the fresh spring water before setting off. I have climbed from the Hirafu side and the hike took a total of 6 hours. The steep descent was quite painful on the knees so I would recommend taking hiking poles and also try to get more than 3 hours sleep the night before you attempt the hike. Unfortunately the clouds came in so our view from the top was non-existent.
For those who do not live in the Niseko ski resort area you can keep an eye out for any possible volcanic activity with the Kutchan Mt Yotei webcam
Posted on September 5th, 2009 No comments
If you are driving near the Annupuri ski resort around dawn or dusk during the summer months you may have noticed a strange yellow object in the sky. It is the Niseko Balloon and recently I got the chance to check it out.
I headed out to the Niseko Annupuri Ski Resort at 4pm as I wanted to see the whole process of setting up a hot air balloon.
Interesting but obvious fact: The temperature of the air at the top of the balloon is around 100 degrees Celsius.
The Niseko Balloon operates mornings and evenings from June 1st to October 12th weather permitting. The balloon is tethered so you won’t accidentally fly away and will take you to a height of 30m providing great views of the surrounding area.
A big thanks to the great Niseko Balloon staff (I owe you a beer)
Posted on August 29th, 2009 1 comment
In winter many international guests often ask us what we do over the summer months. “Do we remain open?” and “Who visits Niseko in summer?” are also common questions. Yes, we do stay open, and we are kept relatively busy providing accommodation for the domestic market.
A study by the Japan External Trade Organization estimated the annual number of tourists in Hokkaido is around 50 million. Of which 87% are from within Hokkaido while the remaining 13% (6.5 million) come from outside Hokkaido. Summer is by far the most popular season for tourists from outside Hokkaido with roughly 2 and a half times as many visitors than winter.
The majority of tourists visiting Hokkaido in summer typically stay for 2 or 3 nights. Family tours account for 60% of the visitors and 80% of visitors in summer used private cars for transportation. Hokkaido is well known in Japan for its wide uncrowded roads and fast speeds at which the locals drive. On the flip-side Hokkaido sadly has one of the highest road fatality rates in Japan.
The Niseko area is very popular with school trips and college sports teams during the summer months. Over 190 schools visit the area, with rafting high on the priority list of things to do. In Hirafu it is not uncommon to see sports teams jogging around the streets as part of their summer sports camp.
Holiday Niseko remains open over summer with the Yukon apartments being a popular place to stay as the guests have free use of the outdoor barbecue area. Although we do get some foreign guests over the summer, most are unsurprisingly Japanese family groups traveling by private car.
What is the most common question we get asked in summer?
“Where can I find Kabutomushi?” (Japanese rhinoceros beetle and the most popular insect in Japan. Many Japanese children will buy or catch these and stag beetles to keep as pets.)
Posted on June 27th, 2009 No comments
One of the more popular summer tour destinations in Niseko is Milk Kobo in Higashiyama,(on the road to Niseko Hilton).
Using fresh milk from their own farm, Milk Kobo’s goal is to provide “safe and tasty produce with a smile.”
Milk Kobo is well known in Japan for its delicious ice-cream, yoghurt drink, puddings, cakes and my personal favourite, choux creme.
In the main building you can buy freshly made ice-cream, choux creme and cakes. There is a small cafe and a couple of shops selling glassware and local produce. In summer there are scenic fields of flowers and it’s a great spot to photograph Mt Youtei.
For those with a sweet tooth coming to ski Niseko in winter, you will be happy to know that Milk Kobo is open year round 10am-6pm.