Autumn is my favourite season. I love watching the landscape slowly turning from lush greens to a patchwork of red, orange and yellow hues. I still remember my first encounter with fall in Japan five years ago, when I visited Tokyo. Streets were lined with row after row of yellow gingko and red maple. It was almost like one of those scenes from a jigsaw puzzle. Shrines in Japan are most beautiful, in my opinion, during fall. There’s an inexplicable tranquillity and spiritual energy in these places.
It was with these images in mind as I tumbled along the countryside on one of those rickety buses that ply the countryside in Asahikawa. My destination? Sounkyo Onsen 層雲峡, a famous kouyou 紅葉 or “autumn leaves” viewing locale in Hokkaido. I had spent the previous night in Asahikawa (about two and a half hours by train from Tomakomai via Sapporo) so that I could catch an early bus from Asahikawa Station to Sounkyo Onsen.The pension where I had made a reservation was a humble family-run establishment, but Tripadvisor and Booking.com decals on its glass doors carried promises of a rewarding stay. Since I was two hours ahead of check-in time, I deposited my luggage at the lobby and headed for the Sounkyo Ropeway. The Ropeway was the easiest (i.e. laziest) option to get near the peaks of Mount Kurodake (黒岳), which towers above the sprawling Daisetsuzan National Park (大雪山国立公園). Seasoned hikers may prefer the hiking trail that continues from the summit of Kurodake, through Daisetsuzan to the summit of Asahidake. However, without proper hiking equipment and still nursing a severe bout of flu, I decided against the hike.Nevertheless, the view from the 7th station of Mt. Kurodake was well worth the 1,950 yen that I had to cough out for the gondola ride. At the top of the Ropeway, a chairlift whisks you nearer to Kurodake’s peak and a tiny cafe for a further 600 yen. Despite forecasts of early snowfall (yes! Snow in October!) in the later half of the day, the weather held up sufficiently for breathtaking vistas of the valley below. My only lamentation was that autumn had not quite peaked here in Sounkyo, contrary to what was written in many of the travel literature I’ve read. In other words, the valley was only covered in sporadic blots of yellow and red. Later, I learnt from the pension owner that autumn had been at least two weeks late this year.My second day in Sounkyo was a rough affair. I had planned to make for the Ginga no Taki 銀河の滝 (Milky Way Falls) and Ryusei no Taki 流星の滝 (Shooting Star Falls) on foot – a journey that would take about 50 minutes. However, midway through my journey, the weather turned nasty. Strong gales and a combination of rain and hail threatened to wreck my umbrella (which it eventually did). I had no choice but to turn back as I was completely soaked and shivering. The winds were threatening to make this innocuous 50-minute walk into a dance with death.As it turned out, the two waterfalls turned out to be rather disappointing. Perhaps the stormy weather had something to do with it. After my initial failed attempt to trek to the falls, I decided to have another go at it – this time, I opted for the bus service that would whisk me directly to the falls in case the weather decided to bail on me again. Just as the bus was about to leave the Tourist Visitor Centre, it poured buckets again!!! The wind and rain made it difficult to maintain my balance, much less steady myself for a picturesque shot of the falls. The stormy weather probably made the silver aqueous threads less magical than what their names would suggest. Whoever had named these waterfalls must have had a very cosmic (i.e. ethereal) imagination. Needless to say, I was less than impressed to say the least.
The next pit stop on the bus took the pits. I arrived at a giant cesspool of a lake called Taisetsuko (大雪湖). The pelting rain and chilly winds made the landscape even greyer and more dreary than what it already was. No sign of any autumn foliage, no sign of life, except me, a couple of elderly ladies and a family from China. The lake was a bleak mix of ash grey, sickly yellow and dirty green.Back in the pension, a huge bowl of ramen was a welcome treat after a frigidly cold outing. Unlike Asahikawa, Sounkyo Onsen is not known for its ramen, but on a miserably wet and chilly day like this, I gratefully slurped down my bowl of goodness. A trip to the Kurodake Onsen (conveniently connected to the pension by a passageway) thereafter was the icing on the cake, and the fastest way to warm up my body. The onsen also has a modest walled-in rotemburo (露天風呂) that offers a view of the surrounding landscape, albeit through wooden grilles.
And just as I was blissfully soaking my aches and chills away, I saw it! Snow!
Snow in early October??? This is crazy man!!! I mean, I was just told that autumn arrived two weeks late but it’s already snowing here in Sounkyo. Looks like autumn gave this place a miss this year!
If there’s something I’ve learnt since arriving here in Hokkaido, it is that anything is possible as far as weather is concerned. Here in Hokkaido, a 20-degrees diurnal range is not an exception, but the norm. And that is something I need to quickly get used to. I still struggle with waking up with cold feet to zero degrees in the early morning. I am constantly amazed by how my students could run around with boundless energy, playing football in the sun-drenched field during lunch break in 14-degrees weather. In the evening, I meticulously plan the steps to take in between changing and taking a shower, so that I do not catch a chill. I shudder to think what my first full experience of winter here will be like. LS