I recently had the pleasure of participating in a nature and outdoors tour of the Japanese Islands of Hokkaido and Kyushu.
I believe these Islands are not well-known to the average tourist, especially to over-60s. I, for one, was unaware of the hundreds of attractions to be explored. What an amazing trip. I was absolutely blown away by the sheer beauty of these magical places.
The journey from Sydney to Haneda Airport in Tokyo was a pleasant nighttime flight, so I was able to sleep. And as the time difference between Australia and Japan is only two hours, there's no jet lag – either way.
Arriving on Hokkaido, at the small town of Memanbetsu, I was happy to meet with my guide. Kimi, was a walking encyclopedia, well-versed on all aspects of this particular tour.
Luggage all sorted, we journeyed to the Shiretoko Peninsular where I was given an incredible insight into a place I never dreamed existed. From the majestic mountain peaks, capped with snow, to the beautiful lakes – especially Lake Tofutsu which was teeming with birdlife – every kilometre offered something new.
There are many onsen (hot springs) in Hokkaido. In fact, all of Japan has many thermal areas and onsen are an integral part of the Japanese lifestyle. The hot springs are full of pristine, mineral-laden water said to be very beneficial to one's well-being.
Later, I arrived at my hotel, the Kiki Shiretoko Natural Resort. The friendly, smiling staff went out of their way to please. After settling in to my luxurious room I proceeded to the dining area where a sumptuous buffet was awaiting this hungry traveller. There was no end to the amount of foods on offer. From traditional Japanese food to Western-style dishes, there was something for everyone.
Kimi advised me to have a hot spring bath and a long sleep, as the next day would be the start of my sightseeing tour.
Day one, and after breakfast – another incredible buffet – the nature guide arrived and we were off to tackle the first hike in the World Heritage Shiretoko National Park. This was quite an easy hike for anyone without mobility issues. There is a shorter, wheelchair-friendly course where some of the beautiful lakes can be viewed. If you have mobility issues, do not let that deter you from visiting Hokkaido.
There was a series of five lakes, nestled beneath the towering mountains. Each and every lake was absolutely stunning. Birdlife abounds, as do brown bears at certain times of the year. There are red foxes and sika deer. Fish can be seen jumping to catch unsuspecting insects which land on the tranquil waters.
In autumn the bears are preparing to hibernate, so are rarely spotted. If one is sighted, the tour group has to return to the starting point and report the bear sighting, and then the park is closed.
Hikers are briefed on what to do if confronted by a bear. The main rule is to stay calm and retreat slowly. I have my doubts that I could remain calm if a 600-kilogram bear, galloping at 30 kilometres an hour, was heading my way! Luckily I need not have worried.
Shiretoko is located on the most north-eastern point of Japan. Its name derives from the Ainu (indigenous people of Japan) word sir etok, meaning “the end of the earth.
Shiretoko is home to rare seabirds, such as the speckled guillemot, Steller's sea eagle, the white-tailed eagle and other migratory birds. It boasts a rich ecosystem, with majestic mountains and coastal cliffs created by volcanic eruptions. Drift ice appears in wintertime, when there are tours out onto the ice.
The next day found me hiking through the Shiretoko National Park, right next to the World Heritage Park. This hike was a little more challenging and not suitable for those with mobility issues. The goal was to spot as many animals as possible. Red fox and sika deer abounded. I saw small birds, holes in trees made by woodpeckers and many deep scratchings on large trees. These were bear scratchings – bears marking their territory. Luckily they were all out at the time and didn't ask what we were doing in their living room.
The park is also home to the largest living species of owl, the Blakiston's fish owl, but unfortunately they were hiding on that particular day.
The hike ended at lunchtime, so after a lovely lunch in a quirky little cafe, we set out once again – this time, to see a waterfall on the very edge of the massive cliffs in the national park. The trek to the waterfall was absolutely beautiful. We saw – and got very close to – many sika deer and lots of birds.
Later, back at the hotel, we recharged the batteries and enjoyed another delicious meal, this time in a lovely little seafood cafe, before heading out on a nighttime animal-spotting tour – this time by car. There were plenty of deer and foxes, but the elusive Blakiston's fish owl continued to stay away. Might have to go back again to spot one of those!
The third day was our last on beautiful Hokkaido. I saw salmon jumping upstream to spawn and then die. The water was pristine and there were lots of salmon, so they were very easy to view.
Afterwards, we had a meal at an izakaya (a Japanese pub) before taking another ride through the countryside to Nakashibetsu to catch a plane to Kyushu.
We also stopped off at Lake Matsu and enjoyed a meal of Teshikaga ramen – a wonderful dish of noodles, vegetables, meat and a broth that is so delicious it's worth bottling.
Hokkaido has so much to offer us over-60s. It's a positive wonderland of scenery, foods and hot springs.
I caught the plane from Nakashibetsu back to Haneda Airport and then connected with a flight to Oita on the island of Kyushu.
Here I was met by another guide, Kate, who was to be my guide for the next two days. From Oita we travelled by car to the beautiful city of Beppu, in the Oita Prefecture.
Here we stayed in the Beppu Onsen Hotel, a ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) where one sleeps on a Futon. After another good sleep I awoke to start the next stage of my tour.
First stop was a local market, selling mainly food and a few trinkets. The array of foods was incredible and there was no shortage of anything.
Beppu is a famous geothermal city. More onsen water gushes out here than anywhere else in Japan. Of course, not all springs are suitable for bathing in – for example, the amazing Beppu Boiling Hells, which are way too hot for that.
First up at the Hells of Beppu: Chinoike Jigoku, "Blood Pond Hell", named because of the blood-red colour of the springs. Set in a picturesque location with a waterfall on one side and heavily treed woods on the other, there's also a foot bath which is quite a pleasant temperature – dipping your feet in it is a must after a walk around the Hells.
Umi Jigoku, "Sea Hell" was next up. This geothermal pond was an amazing shade of cobalt blue. Temperatures of 78°C meant there was no testing this one! There was also a smaller red pond and one covered with beautiful lotus lilies. The strong leaves of the lotus plants are big and strong enough to carry a small child. Then on to Oniishibozu Jigoku, named after mud bubbles that look like monks' heads.
After another foot bath I was treated to lunch at a little cafe, cooked in wooden oven-like structures by the steam of the boiling thermals which rose from a tapped hole in the ground. The steamed food was delicious and, according to the guide, very healthy.
Travelling away from the Hells and into the countryside to the rural area of Tashimunosho, we travelled through ancient rice paddies and rural areas where an abundance of small farms grew everything from rice and wheat to daikon radish and all manner of veggies. The farms are very small, but obviously produce a lot.
A little further on and I arrived at the coastal town of Matama. This was where I witnessed the amazing sunset. Many people flock to the area to photograph these sunsets. It was well worth the trip. Later on, we enjoyed another perfect meal – this time at an Italian restaurant. Who would have thought!
A new day and a new guide – Osaka was just as pleasant and helpful as the previous two guides. All are veritable walking encyclopedias, with a vast knowledge of Japan, the myths, culture and foods.
Moving on from Beppu we took a trip on the Sea Gaia 7 express train to Noreoka, and then a taxi to Takachiho in the Miyazaki Prefecture.
Takachiho is steeped in Japanese mythology. It's the site where the legendary sun goddess Amaterasu hid herself in a dark cave, thus depriving the world of light. Luckily, the other gods and goddesses were able to lure her out and thus restore light to the world once more. A trip to the Takachiho Shrine to see a cultural dance in regards to Amaterasu was indeed a pleasant experience.
Takachiho is also known as a power spot, a place of deep religious importance and natural beauty. In fact, a trip into Takachiho Gorge radiates a spiritual energy not to be missed. The Gorge is a place of outstanding beauty. There are many different hiking trails, some easy and others quite challenging. I took a couple of the hikes and found them to be quite do-able for the over-60 person with no limitations on mobility.
The magnificent Manai Falls can be viewed from atop the cliffs or down on the water in a boat. Either way, they are stunning. The autumn colours of the ginkgo, maple and rowan trees are absolutely incredible. There are no words really to describe the beauty of the leaves.
Of all the places I visited, Takachiho was my favourite. It's a little town, with quaint shops, friendly people and an unhurried pace of life that's just perfect.
Moving on, we took a car trip to Mount Aso, Japan's largest active volcano, located in the Kumamoto Prefecture. It's an easy, wheelchair-friendly walk to the Kunimigaoka Observatory, from where you can enjoy an out-of-world experience watching the sun rise above the "sea of clouds".
The scenery around the Mount is mainly fertile grasslands and rocky outcrops. A horse ride around the outer rim of the Mount was a lovely way to explore a little more of the countryside. Those who are fitter than me could enjoy a pushbike ride around the same area. From the top you can look down at the farms and houses nestled on the crater floor. The last eruption of Mt Aso was in 2016, so I'm not sure if I would like to live down there!
Lunch was at the El Patio horse-riding facility and was surprisingly American style: hamburgers, chilli beef and fries. It was quite different from anything I had eaten previously and as always, was delicious – the food on offer in Japan is second-to-none. There's such a wide variety of tempting and tasty dishes – I would love to return to do a foodies' tour.
Japan is the most amazing country I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. It is extremely clean, safe, and easy to navigate your way around. Put it on your list, all you over 60s. You will not be disappointed.