In collaboration with Niseko Tourism
Relaxing at Yuki Chichibu Onsen
When I woke up the next morning, my muscles were still aching after the ‘horrors’ of the previous day. That’s why it was just perfect that the first item on our agenda was a visit to one of many onsens that are located in this area. An onsen is a Japanese name for a bath that is using natural hot water from geothermally-heated springs and being a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of them. And the Niseko area is not an exception.
The one we visited, however, was Yuki Chichibu Onsen, which is apparently somewhat unique as, besides several outdoor and indoor baths, it has a mud bath as well. Unfortunately, this unique feature is only available to women, but we still had some lovely time soaking our bones in hot spring water. The view of the Chisenuri mountain covered in trees was very pleasant as well, though nothing in comparison to what it could be in autumn – inside, in the tatami mat resting area of the onsen, there was a photo of the same view with trees ‘on fire’ and it looked really special.
It was the first time for Patrick to visit an onsen, but he still seemed to enjoy it. And, as we visited it just around the opening time, we were the only people there, which made any possible faux pas less offensive – Japanese have a really well-developed bathing culture, which has many rules of behavior that you need to know before you try an onsen yourself. Luckily most of the places have a picture poster that explains all these rules. And Yuki Chichibu Onsen had a poster like this too.
Just before leaving for the next adventure, we had a quick look around the thermal lake Oyunama, which is on the other side of the onsen’s car park. There is a wooden walkway that takes you halfway around this hot lake and lets you enjoy the rising steam and strong smell of rotten eggs from close by. It seemed that in the past you could go even further but, when we visited it, the path was blocked and we had to return the same way we came. But that was not a problem for us – we were a bit in hurry to get to the next place – Lake Toya.
Packrafting on Lake Toya
Lake Toya is a beautiful, almost perfectly circular, volcanic caldera lake around a 40-minute drive from Niseko. It’s around 10 km wide, has one large and two smaller uninhabited islands in the middle and boasts very clean and transparent waters. It is a popular holiday destination among Japanese and there is a score of onsens and campgrounds on its shore. Besides camping and swimming, it is also possible to go kayaking or even stand-up paddling on the lake (for example, with NAC, which is one of the main adventure companies from Niseko) and that’s what brought us there as well. Well, almost that.
Unlike most tourists, we had our own boats (packrafts) with us and we were eager to use them. Having parked at a large car park next to Ukimido Park, we quickly inflated our packrafts and virtually ran to the lake – it was a hot day and, in my opinion, there is nothing better than spending such a day on the water. At first, we tried to paddle towards the island in the hope of reaching it, but very soon we realized that it was much further than it looked and, as we had relatively little time before our next appointment, we decided to stay near the shore instead. The water under our packrafts was so clean that it almost looked like we were floating in the air. A bit further to the north from where we started our trip, there was a small pagoda-like shrine on a small island that could be reached from the land by walking on stepping stones. The red and white structure looked especially lovely against the blues of the sky and the hills surrounding the lake.
Just before packing up and leaving for Niseko, we left our packrafts to dry next to the car and went for a quick swim ourselves. It was Patrick’s idea, and even though I was worried about the time at first, I could not resist the temptation. The water was not only very clear but also very refreshing on a hot day like that. It was also fun to watch Patrick frolicking in it like a child, diving and swimming underwater for what seemed to me like a very long time, just to surface for a second meters away and disappear again. He was definitely in his element there.
Back in the car park, we said hello to a Japanese couple, who were busy setting up their caravan there. “Do you come here a lot?” I asked them. “Yes, we do,” they replied. They told us that they lived around one-and-a-half-hour’s drive from there and they would regularly come to camp at the lake. “It is very beautiful here, isn’t it?” they asked us. And we could not but agree with them.
Walking in the Tree-tops at NAC Adventure Park
The reason why we were in a hurry was the appointment we had at NAC Adventure Park in Niseko, which is the longest high-rope / tree-tracking course in Japan. Just over 1,300 meters, it has 10 routes at five different levels, ranging from the ones suitable for kids (they need to be at least 115 cm) and beginners to those that require advanced skills. Those routes take you over ladders, swaying bridges, ziplines and a variety of other obstacles (for example, one of them is a real raft strung between trees, while another one is a skating board running over two wires) and it is all as high up as 13 meters. The most ‘adrenaline pumping’ obstacle though is reported to be a freefall jump which is part of the most difficult route, the black one, and is definitely not for fainthearted.
The ten routes of the course are divided in two parts, each of which takes from three to five hours to complete depending on how fast you are. But as we had very limited time (and we were already running late), we just did two of those routes. Well, at least I did…
When we arrived, we were greeted by a stuff member, who asked us to sign a waiver of reliability and then showed us to the tent where we could change and put our helmets and climbing harnesses on. Once we were ready, we were approached by our instructor, a guy in his early twenties. He checked that the harnesses were put correctly and took us to the ‘practice area,’ where we could learn how to use the system.
In general, the idea is that when you are up in the trees, you are always attached to a metal cable with at least one of the two safety lines that are on your harness. This way, even if you lose footing and slip you will never fall down to the ground, but will just hang from the cable and either be able to recover yourself or have to wait for assistance. That is the reason why even relatively young children can use such a system. But to make sure that you do it correctly, you need to practice a bit at the ground level under supervision first. And that’s exactly what we did.
“Which route would you like to do?” our instructor asked us, once we were ready with the preparations. “What about that one with the raft?” asked Patrick. He had his camera with a zoom lens with him and decided to stay on the ground for now as he wanted to take some pictures. “That’s an easy one, but we can begin with it,” said the instructor.
To be honest, I was ok with an easy one as I was not ‘too comfortable’ when it came to heights. At the same time, I was interested in high-rope courses and I had had some experience with them from the field trip with my Outdoor Leadership & Adventure minor students to Belgium. That is why completing the first one was very quick and easy. Our instructor was also very helpful and would give me some tips on how to approach an obstacle. Once back on the ground, I felt that I wanted to go again and this time it had to be something more difficult. “All right,” said the instructor. “Let’s try this one then.” And he pointed at some obstacles high above our heads. “It is not an expert level still, but it has some nicely challenging parts,” he smiled.
Having observed us on the first route, Patrick got curious as well. Though he had never done something like that before, he found it rather interesting. “This looks like fun,” he said. “May I also go?”
And off we went – first the instructor, then Patrick and I – up a vertical ladder and on to the tree-top walk. “Uh, this is high,” said Patrick on the top. And indeed, we were at about 7 or 8 meters above the ground (the first route was at maximum 4 meters), which made my heart rate accelerate a bit. But once again, the instructor did a wonderful job and shared some tips and tricks with us, which made it easier for us as well. But still not too easy as, after one of the more difficult obstacles, Patrick decided that it was more than enough for him for the first time and he took an escape route down. I pressed on with the instructor, bombarding him with different questions to keep my mind occupied and not to think about the fact that we were still climbing up…
On the whole, this route was almost 190 meters long and had 17 elements, the last of which was their second-longest zip line. It was marked as Blue (i.e., skilled), which made me really happy that I did it. Even Patrick, who did not manage to complete the whole route said that he was happy to have tried it. “Next time, you can do the whole one,” told him our instructor before we took our leave. And I was certain that the next time Patrick could do it indeed.
To be continued…