Compared to the rather gloomy day we had before, the sun shone bright and rather insistent as we bid farewell to the city of Hakodate and made our way up North towards Rusutsu. Hakodate had been fairly warm and quite snow free, but as we went up towards the suburb of Onuma we met with a carpet of snow and ice that justified the shoe spikes we'd purchased.
The first attraction of the day was Onuma Quasi-National Park. The name of the park confused me at first, and I spent a time wondering if it was in fact partially privately owned. But after a little digging I found that there are classification levels for public landscapes in Japan, and rather strict criteria must be fulfilled before a place can be considered a fully fledged National Park. Unfortunately, even with the splendid views of the lakes, Mt Komagatake and the surrounding forests, this park could only manage "Quasi-National" status, which makes me want to see what a real National Park would look like.
Part of Lake Onuma was frozen over, so D & BB decided it was up to them to break the ice, and some time was spent as they packed together sufficiently dense snowballs to chuck at the lake. Eventually, D managed to get in a good shot, and he was pleased as punch for the rest of the morning. High fives were exchanged all around.
The park boasts quite a number of activities for visitors to take part in, even in winter. We only managed to cover a small area of the park though, and didn't wander far in enough to see where the ice fishing and the cross-country skiing was done. With most of the snow-related fun already planned for Rustsu, this was really only a short picture stop for us.
Managed to take a few good shots while gingerly treading through the snow. We made our way to a few different vantage points to get a good view of the mountain, one of many named Komagatake (駒ヶ岳), which literally translates to Horse Mountain, all over Japan. It's not the most famous one, but it's still a pretty impressive looking active volcano all the same.
We were treated to more beautiful views from our lunch tables at Table de Rivage (ターブル・ドゥ・リバージュ), a popular cafe-restaurant located on the banks of Lake Onuma, where looking out the windows is like gazing at well-framed paintings.
We had a break from rich Japanese fare with a very relaxed Western-style meal, still skilfully prepared using fresh local ingredients.
The stew was made with Onuma beef, and from what we'd seen of the scenery thus far, I imagined they'd been rather contented cows, happily grazing on the rich pastures of Onuma before they ended up on my plate. The chunks of beef were delightfully soft, and the vegetables accompanying them weren't too shabby either. The carrots were quite astoundingly sweet.
We paired lunch with some tasty beers from the nearby Onuma Craft Brewery - BB stuck with the Koelsch we'd tried on our first night in Hakodate, D tried the India Pale Ale, while I had the dark Alt beer. It's a pity we didn't get to visit, but I suppose the bottle sufficed. D went on about how I really shouldn't be drinking so much dark beers, until I reminded him of his grandmother, by all accounts quite the formidable lady, who literally had a bottle of stout with every meal. If she could do it, then so could I. (Of course I'm not actually going to drink with that degree of regularity M, don't panic.)
Lunch was rounded off with a smooth pumpkin pudding, which I very eagerly liberated from the bowl.
After lunch we spent some time stretching outside the restaurant, which was when we saw a rather majestic looking Black Kite in the tree right in front of us. I tried to take a picture, but it turned out pretty pants so I contented myself with just gazing at it. Our next destination was up the Usuzan (有珠山) Ropeway, bringing us near the summit of Mt Usu, one of Hokkaido's most famous active volcanoes.
It's erupted four times in the last century with some regularity, and since the last eruption had been in early 2000, we were reassured that it was completely safe. The next one apparently isn't due for at least another decade. The only thing we were in danger of was the bitter cold, and even then that had been preempted by the good people running the Observation Deck: warm orange windbreakers were set out for free use.
We'd been up Mt Usu before, and the views of Lake Toya from the top, while majestic, didn't feel as new or exciting any more. So, while everyone turned right, I announced my intention of going left, towards the Usu Crater Observatory. We had twenty minutes to spend up top, and the sign clearly indicated that it would take only about seven minutes there. Assuming another seven back, there'd be more than enough time for me to poke around. Previously, the layers of snow had been an obstacle preventing me from venturing more than 10 metres from the sign in that direction, but armed (Legged? Footed?) with the snow cleats I was ready for anything.
Well, maybe not entirely ready for all those blasted stairs, but at least I wasn't alone. As I raced off, D jogged after me to catch up, both to make sure I didn't break my neck and so I'd have company, because he's a sweetheart like that. It's only fun whining about endless stair climbing when there's someone else around to hear.
Once we made it to the top, my lungs felt fit to burst, what with all that exercise and the freezing mountain air, but the rather astounding view of the Pacific managed to put all notions of grumbling out of my mind. It was splendid indeed, even if we had to squint a little with all that sun.
The Crater Observatory turned out to be a fairly safe distance away from the mouth of the volcano. All was calm as we took in all the craggly bits that resulted from volcanic activity in 1977. A few moments of zen later, we legged it back down the stairs to seek warmth in the Panic Room, where we watched video clips of the people who've made the volcano their life's work. From there, the coach brought us round Lake Toya (洞爺湖), where we looked out the windows to the rather unimaginatively named Nakajima (Middle Islands) in the middle of the lake.
Our final stop before Rusutsu Resort was Lake Hill Farm (レークヒル・ファーム). It's one of Hokkaido's top destinations for ice cream, and even in winter they're very tempting. So tempting in fact, that when we got there they'd already run out of a few options. All of the ice cream sold here is made on-site using all natural ingredients and milk from their own cows, so the flavours change seasonally, or even on a day to day basis depending on what's available. I once owned a Nancy Drew Mystery that made the case for ice cream being a healthy food, and even if my six year old self wasn't entirely convinced, Lake Hill's ice cream is about as healthy as they get.
I finished my cone of Milk/Cream and Red Bean/Chestnut ice cream in the comfort of the ice cream parlour, before going outside to properly take in the sight of Mt Yotei (羊蹄山), named for a sheep's hoof. I'd visited Lake Hill Farm with M & D the summer of 2010 when there'd been a field of purple flowers and bales of hay where there was now an endless expanse of white.
We'd made our own ice cream then on makeshift tables out back, but in the haze of summer the Mountain hadn't been as clear as it was now. There's something to be said for each season.