Fairy-tale adventure in central Hokkaido

Be princess for a day, pick potatoes like a peasant or scout for dragons atop a volcanic mountain in central Hokkaido

When autumn rains fall on treelined craft hub Ninguru Terrace, find shelter in a wooden hut occupied by a real-life forest gnome busy at his craft.

This is no surprise.

Central Hokkaido is a fairy-tale adventure for travellers young and old. Gracious green hills yield luscious wine grapes, succulent vegetables or cheese made by rosy-cheeked farmers.

A breath away are waterfalls and lakes of cobalt-blue waters out of a fantasy picture book.

There are rumours of dragons on volcanic Mount Asahidake and an ice palace where one can dress like a Disney princess.


Craftsmen
 occupy more
than a dozen
wooden huts in
Ninguru Terrace,
Furano. The
fairy-tale-like
 shopping area
pays homage to
native myths
about forest
 creatures. ST PHOTOS:
AKSHITA NANDA

My 2 ½ days in central Hokkaido are benevolently warm in an autumn delayed by a series of typhoons.

I expect frost on Asahidake, which is 2.3km above sea level and the highest mountain in the northernmost island of Japan. However, the sun beams on the autumn slopes.

Gusts of steam rumble from natural vents in the volcanic soil.

Five minutes on a rocky trail best navigated with alpine poles and I wish I had worn fewer layers.

My host from the Asahikawa Touring Promotion Council leads me back to the lookout point for a reviving cup of coffee.

The faraway steam puffs like a comforting cat. No, a purring dragon, says my host. "Tourists from China say this place has good qi," he adds.

Where there are dragons, there are princesses - at least the chance to dress like a royal in the icy galleries of the Snow Crystal Museum in nearby Asahikawa city.

The palatial museum is straight out of a Disney movie, but was set up in 1991, well before the Frozen franchise was on the drawing board.

I shiver happily through an underground viewing gallery of abstract ice sculptures and rooms dedicated to the art and explanation of snowflakes.

Above ground, 2,000 yen (S$26) buys a snow-themed bento or French fusion lunch at a restaurant spangled with glittering glass crystals.

Another option is to pay 4,000 yen to dress up in royal ruffles, tiara and crystal-encrusted shoes.

  • GETTING THERE

    Central Hokkaido is perfect for driving holidays, but the cities marked on the map are well-served by the Japan Rail Pass (www.japanrailpass.net/en) and other rail lines.

    Local buses also head to key tourist spots. Start with Asahikawa city, which is roughly two hours by train from New Chitose Airport, which serves Sapporo.

    On Oct 1, Scoot (www.flyscoot.com) started a direct flight from Singapore to Sapporo, with a roughly one-hour stopover in Taipei. The flight operates on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and takes about 10 hours. Airfares vary with the season.

  • SEE

    Snow Crystal Museum
    Set up long before Disney's Frozen (2013), this palatial museum includes a gallery of ice formations and art inspired by snowflakes. Visitors can wear princess gowns - or tuxedos - for a 30-minute photo shoot priced at 4,000 yen (S$52). Popular for weddings and high tea.
    Where: 3 Chome-1-1 Minamigaoka, Asahikawa
    Getting there: A 15-minute drive from JR Asahikawa Station or take a bus from Asahikawa city centre
    Open: 9am to 5pm daily, except Dec 31 and Jan 1
    Admission: 700 yen (adults), 400 to 500 yen (students)
    Info: Go to www.yukaraori.com/yukibi or call 081-0166-73-7017

    Mount Asahi
    Take the Asahidake Ropeway to the start of several walking trails on Hokkaido's highest mountain, 2,291m above sea level. Where: Daisetsuzan National Park
    Getting there: An hour by car from Asahikawa Airport or express bus from JR Asahikawa Station.
    Admission: Ropeway round-trip ticket costs 2,900 yen (June 1 to Oct 20) or 1,800 yen (Oct 21 to May 31), may be closed in bad weather
    Info: asahidake.hokkaido.jp/en

    Blue Pond
    Natural minerals colour the waters of this pond a bright blue. Where: Shirogane, Biei-cho, Kamikawa-gun
    Getting there: A 25-minute drive by car or express bus from JR Biei Station
    Admission: Free
    Info: www.biei-hokkaido.jp

  • SHOP & EAT
    Rokkatei
    Have lunch with a view of rolling vineyards and buy wine or biscuits flavoured with the local haskap berry.
    Where: Shimizuyama, Furano-shi
    Getting there: Ten minutes by car from JR Furano Station Open: 9am to 4pm in summer only
    Admission: Free
    Info: www.rokkatei.co.jp

    Furano Cheese Factory
    Taste cheese and make and eat yogurt or ice cream on waffle cups. Workshop prices vary and it is best to book in advance. Where: Nakagoku, Furano-shi
    Getting there: Ten minutes by car from JR Furano Station Open: 9am to 5pm (April to October), 9am to 4pm (November to March)
    Admission: Free
    Info: Go to www.furanotourism.com/en or call 081-0167-23-1156

    Ninguru Terrace
    Also known as Ningle Terrace, this fairy-tale-like shopping area pays homage to Ainu myths about forest creatures. Craftsmen occupy about 20 wooden huts, selling candy, handmade paper and glass art.
    Where: New Furano Prince Hotel nai, Naka-Goryou, Furano-shi Getting there: Ten minutes by car from JR Furano Station Open: Noon to 8.45 pm daily
    Admission: Free
    Info: Go to www.furanotourism.com/en or call 081-0167-22-1111

    STAY
    Ryounkaku Tokachidake Onsen
    This no-frills, family-run onsen is perfect for hikers - 1,280m high in the mountains and with hearty home-cooked food. Try the red, iron-rich, outdoor rotenburo bath with views of the autumn foliage. Note that guests have to share bathroom facilities, hostel-style.
    Where: Tokachidake Onsen, Kamifurano-chou, Sorachi-gun Getting there: An hour by bus from Kamifurano Station
    Open: May be closed some months, so call ahead
    Price: Varies by season
    Info: Go to ryounkakuonsen.wixsite.com/ryounkaku or call 081-0167-39-4111

Photography is included. Make-up is not.

The gowns are off-the-shoulder, so I opt to keep on my thermals and pink sneakers.

Instead, I photograph blushing tourists holding bridal bouquets and beaming despite their goose pimples.

Next morning, the sun shines again on the Hokkaido expressway connecting Asahikawa to Furano, favourite spots for Japanese tourists.

My bus rolls past green fields of cabbages, golden swathes of drying sunflowers and red-green forests enveloping the ever-present mountains.

The rich soil expresses itself also in the churning mineral-blue waters of the Shirahige waterfall and the eerily cobalt Blue Pond, situated in Biei, halfway to Furano.

Later that evening, I get to soak in the red, iron-rich heat of family-run Ryounkaku Tokachidake Onsen in the Tokachidake mountains.

From the outdoor rotenburo bath, I also soak up the stunning views of autumn foliage 1.3km above sea level.

There are also chances for Cinderella to return to her peasant roots.

"In five minutes, you can dig up 1kg of potatoes," says my guide at Country Terrace Koropokkur.

It is one of several farm resorts in the Furano region. Starting at 1,000 yen a head, visitors can dig up potatoes to take home, pick asparagus or eat strawberries (all you can eat or pick in 15 minutes).

Within five minutes, I have 4kg of potatoes, many bigger than my open palm.

Sweet and succulent, they go well with butter or the rich cheese fondue at Furano Wine House, one of many world-class cellars in this fertile region.

In summer, visitors may also pick lavender or the tart haskap berry famous in this region.

Autumn is time to enjoy already harvested bounty. I sample non-alcoholic grape drinks at Chateau Furano.

I join an apple-cheeked family of four in an ice cream-making workshop at Furano Cheese Factory.

Replete and rotund, I rejoice in a cool walk in the forested and photogenic Ninguru Terrace, also known as Ningle Terrace.

Nestled in a sheltered grove are more than a dozen wooden huts harbouring artists and artisans who make paper, musical instruments, candy, toys and other beautiful things.

Caught without an umbrella in a sudden shower, I run through the trees seeking shelter.

Like a sign from a nursery tale, I chance upon a giant heart-shaped pile of autumn leaves.

The leaf trail leads to a tiny hut housing glassmaker Kazuki Yanaguchi.

The wrinkled 70-year-old sets his tools aside to welcome a dripping visitor.

White-bearded and clothed in bright red, he is straight out of a myth. Ninguru are forest creatures, according to stories told by the Ainu, the native dwellers of Hokkaido.

Like the good gnomes in stories, Mr Yanaguchi makes designs with fallen leaves to enchant passers-by, whether or not they visit his shop.

It turns out he is also a prince of sorts. He was heir to a huge family concern in Osaka, which employed more than 100 people.

Yet he gave it up 20 years ago to marry a dyer, raise a daughter and learn the art of glass-making.

He and his wife create glass art for hotels and private customers. He shows some of his creations in Ninguru Terrace.

His nimble fingers spin glass into delicate but solid jewellery, paperweights and sculptures. Some are speckled with bright dashes of yellow and red. Others glow with firefly luminescence.

I splurge on a pendant. Mr Yanaguchi gives me another for free.

He waves away my money, carefully wrapping up his creations in handmade paper.

"I got to practise my English," he says.

A prince has offered a gift of glass. I recognise this fairy tale and, charmed, accept.

• This is the second of a two-part series on Hokkaido. The writer’s trip was hosted by Scoot together with the Hokkaido District Transport Bureau, Hokkaido Tourism Organisation and Asahikawa Touring Promotion Council.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 20, 2016, with the headline 'Fairy-tale adventure'. Print Edition | Subscribe