The Tokachi area: The bread basket of Japan

OBIHIRO

2021.04.12

The Tokachi area of Japan’s northernmost island Hokkaido is located on the Tokachi plain facing the North Pacific Ocean. Obihiro city is the largest city in the area. Otofuke, Memuro, Kamishihoro, Shintoku and Shikaoi are just some examples of the smaller towns and municipalities of Tokachi.

The Tokachi area is known for its agriculture and dairy products. The island of Hokkaido has a very diverse nature and geography from mountains and forests to marshlands and caldera lakes. The Tokachi area is one of the few flat areas in the island. The area is characterized by vast farm lands that continue as far as the eye can see. Driving through the area towards East Hokkaido you can enjoy the striking contrast between different areas of Hokkaido.

For many Japanese who live in the main island of Japan the Tokachi area is “the Hokkaido” in their minds thanks to several popular Japanese television dramas based in the Tokachi area. Besides agriculture, the area is known for the spectacular Tokachigawa moor onsen and unique local events. The Tokachi area is also home to some of the most famous sweets and pastry companies in Japan.

On this blog column you can find travel inspiration and read about off the beaten path hidden destinations and exclusive activities in the Tokachi area of Hokkaido, North Japan.

Tokachi: the heart of agriculture in Japan

Hokkaido produces a large part of agricultural and dairy products in Japan. The Tokachi area is especially famous for its agricultural land. Wheat, corn, potatoes, sugar beets, rapeseed, Azuki beans and soybeans are some of the main products of the Tokachi area.

Around 70% of Japan is covered by mountainous areas, so a plain area this vide is a rarity itself. There are many reasons that make the Tokachi area so excellent for farming such as the high quality of the local soil and the right amount of sunshine in the region. However, one important reason for the area’s success is definitely the respect for the local farmers and the pride they take in their work. Japan as a nation actively supports farmers to develop new farming techniques and technology. Some travelers visiting Hokkaido are surprised that farmers have such a wealthy image.

The scenery and atmosphere of the Tokachi area reminds in many ways that of the farm lands in North Europe or North America. For people who are used to spacious fields and rows of birch trees, the destination may not feel very exotic at a first glance.

However, if you stop to think about it for a moment, it is actually quite amazing that you can find a place so similar to your home on the other side of the world!

The similarities and differences between the local lifestyle and what you are used to can provide also cool opportunities to interact with the locals. It will be interesting to share your own experiences about agriculture with your new friends and get to know their point of view and life stories. Another aspect that makes the agricultural center of Hokkaido an intriguing destination is the somewhat controversial history of “Japan’s final frontier”.

"Kaitaku": the discourse of the pioneering spirit

What is kaitaku? “Kaitaku” means reclamation and cultivation of  a wasteland or undeveloped land. In the context of Hokkaido the word is used to mean how the island was “made livable” from the point of view of the first Japanese who arrived from the main island. Many Hokkaido residents are proud of the hard work of Japanese “pioneers” who immigrated to Hokkaido (known in Japanese as Ezochi or “land of the barbarians” before the Meiji Restoration in 1868). Words such as colonialism are hardly ever used when it comes to Hokkaido. Many Japanese seem to have an image that it is obvious and natural that Hokkaido is part of Japan and that the land was destined to become part of the state. One reason for this way of thinking is that usually other points of view are not actively part of public discourse.

The position of Ainu, the indigenous people of present day Japan and Russia is often undermined and many people living in contemporary Hokkaido are not that comfortable talking about the subject. Especially in the main island and other parts of Japan there are even people who are not aware that individuals with Ainu roots still live in Hokkaido. It was not until 2019 that Ainu were officially recognized as indigenous people of Japan.

People born and raised in Hokkaido are often educated about the existence and heritage of Ainu people and many respect them. However, very few identify themselves as descendants of colonialists who actively invited the home land of Ainu and discriminated against the people originally living in this island. Being aware of these contemporary pioneering discourses can make you understand Hokkaido and its history on a deeper level.

The discourse of pioneering and the hard work of “kaitakushi” is strong in present day Japan. There are many people who have left their lifestyle in the main island behind and moved to “Japan’s final frontier” Hokkaido to make their dreams come true. Both the everyday narratives and Japanese history books tend to underline the sacrifices and hardships of the immigrants and the role they had in developing agriculture in Hokkaido. For a person who has studied the history of Japan from another point of view the position of “Kaitaku” can feel confusing. The narratives are however part of the image of Hokkaido and agricultural industry of the island and understanding them may provide interesting insights into the culture of Hokkaido.

 


Interested in the history of Japanese in Hokkaido? You might also enjoy reading: Yakumo: The town of samurai and rice

Obihiro city

Obihiro is the largest city in the Tokachi area. With a population of little under 170,000  Obihiro is also the sixth largest city in Hokkaido after Sapporo, Asahikawa, Hakodate, Kushiro and Tomakomai.

The local industry of the Tokachi area is a source of pride for many locals. Interestingly, even people living in Obihiro city tend to have a stronger identity as Tokachi area residents rather than Obihiro citizens! Just outside the city center you can find farm lands.

The city of Obihiro is full of intriguing details.  As you wander around the streets of Obihiro, you may hear a nostalgic clopping sound. “Basha Bar” or draft horse bar is a famous local specialty. The background of the bar inside a wagon is said to be local farmers who came to drink to the city. At night they were so drunk they could not walk, but fortunately their working horses knew the way and took their drunken masters home every single time!

Hokkaido Treasure Island Travel can arrange you a private guided tour in Obihiro to interesting local sights such as the Guinness World Record long bench and many other places that can be hard to find on your own. A local guide can show you her favorite shops and routes and tell you fun stories about Obihiro city and the Tokachi area.

The city is also famed for being the home for some of the most famous pastry companies in Japan including Rokkatei and Ryugetsu. Ryugetsu is known for its Baumkuchen called “Sanpouroku”. This chocolate cake is a real eye candy: The easy to recognize striped pastry has been inspired by the pattern of a birch tree. Rokkatei (literally “the pavilion of six flowers”) is famous for its “Marusei Butter Sand” cookies with a tasty filling as well as their flower patterned wrapping material.

In Obihiro you can pop in to the flagship stores of the famous pastry makers for some local souvenirs. The famous sweets brands of Obihiro have their visitor attractions also in other parts of the Tokachi area: Ryugetsu Sweetpia Garden is in Otofuke town and Rokka no Mori (“the forest of six flowers”) can be found in Nakasatsunai village. If you are interested, we can even arrange you a cool factory tour behind the scenes of the celebrated confectionery makers!

Obihiro food culture is more than just desserts and tasty souvenirs. While you are in the city you must try the famous food of Obihiro “Butadon” or marinated pork cutlets on rice. At night you can stroll around “Kita no Yatai” food alley and explore a variety of global cuisine in cozy little food stalls.

Harvesting activities and scenic farm picnics

In the Tokachi area you can dive deep into the agricultural scene of Japan. Especially children love the harvesting activities and running among the tall crops. For the adults a farm picnic can be a chance to have a little break and chat with the locals.

In normal circumstances, entering farm fields is strictly prohibited. However, with a local guide who respects the local farmers and their work you can have a soothing picnic in the middle of the vast wheat fields of the Tokachi area. You can even harvest some corn or jams with your own hands.

On the top of agriculture, the Tokachi area is also known for its dairy industry. Fresh milk, cream, cheese and ice cream are popular local goods. For tourists the local ice cream is especially interesting, since in Hokkaido there are often many unique varieties that you often cannot find at home. You can choose from tastes such as such as cherry blossom, matcha or lavender.

In the Tokachi area spotting cows wandering around vast grazing land is a very typical sight. Naitai Plateau Ranch (also known as Naitai Highland Farm or Naitai Kogen Bokujo) is the largest farm in Japan. Naitai Plateau Ranch is located in the Kamishihoro town of the Tokachi area, close to the border of Daisetsuzan National Park. The farm is open for public. Naitai Plateau Ranch is a popular sightseeing spot among both domestic and international travelers.

Though agriculture and farm animals are what the Tokachi area is most well known for, there is much more to this region than initially meets the eye. In the next sections we will take a look into other sides of this charming area.

 


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Tokachigawa Onsen

Tokachigawa Onsen (literally Tokachi river hot spring) is one of the most famous hot spring towns in Hokkaido. Tokachigawa Onsen is located in Otofuke town of the Tokachi area, but the hot spring facilities are just around 10 kilometers west from the city center of Obihiro.

There is more to Tokachigawa Onsen than its convinient location: The water of Tokachigawa Onsen is different from your usual hot springs. This plant-derived moor hot spring has a peculiar amber-like color. The “water of beauty” of Tokachigawa Onsen is said to have various positive effects, including moistening the skin. What is for sure is that dipping into the hot spring will help you relax your mind and body!

Tokachigawa Onsen is also the site for the annual Sairinka Festival (also Otofuke Tokachigawa Shiratori Festival Sairinka or Tokachigawa Onsen Hakucho Festival ) featuring a sea of illuminations and various performances. The festival is held to celebrate the whooper swans that stop by at Tokachigawa river every single year.

Summer is the season of fireworks in Japan. In August, massive fireworks festivals Doshin Tokachi River Fireworks and The Kachimai Fireworks Festival are held at the riverside. The captivating fireworks reflected in the river surface look amazing against the darkness of Japanese summer evenings.

Tokachigawa Onsen makes an excellent resting point between Sapporo and East Hokkaido. This is also a good base camp if you are interested in exploring the Tokachi area on a deeper level.

Tokachi Millennium Forest

One of the interesting travel locations in the Tokachi area is Tokachi Millennium Forest. The forest-like park is an unique and inspiring manifestation of the future of gardening. Tokachi Millennium Forest is in Shimizu town at the western edge of the agricultural center of Japan, at the base of the Hidaka mountain range.

This sustainable gardening project was designed by a newspaper entrepreneur Mitsushige Hayashi who wanted to find a meaningful way set off the carbon footprint of his business. The gardens have been created in cooperation with gardening professionals and other experts.

The gardens provide visitors not only soothing natural environment and a place to relax but also inspiration and a chance to study urban gardening design at its best. As the name suggests, the gardens of Tokachi Millennium Forest have been created thinking 1000 years into the future.

We are yet to see do the gardens stand the test of time including challenges such as the climate change and urbanization, but the brilliant concept of Tokachi Millennium Forest really gives us something to look forward to!

Lake Shikaribetsu: Cute Pika and brilliant autumn leaves

Lake Shikaribetsu is located in Shikaoi town of the Tokachi area. This lake is high in the mountainous area of Daisetsuzan National Park at the northern side of the otherwise flat plain. Among the lakes of Hokkaido Lake Shikaribetsu is located at the highest altitude (around 800 meters).

The high altitude of Lake Shikaribetsu makes it an unique location in Hokkaido. As you can image, the air in the area is generally colder than in the surroundings, which means that the rhythm of the seasons and the flora and fauna in the area follow their own logic.

The national park around the lake is home for a cute little animal called Pika. Pika is known as “nagiusagi” or “whistling hare” in Japanese for its unique voice that it uses to communicate with other Pikas in the nearby area. These close relatives of rabbits enjoy cool holes in the ground and between rocks. They come to the surface to check their surroundings and to keep an eye on their competitors. Spotting a pika can require some patience and skill, but even if you are not lucky enough to spot the camouflaged little animal, you may well hear its squeaking voice in the woods. We can arrange a local guide to take you to secret spots where you have higher chances to meet Pika.

Because of its elevated location, the Lake Shikaribetsu area is colder that other parts in the near region, which means also that autumn leaves can be appreciated at Lake Shikaribetsu earlier that in other parts of Hokkaido (and thus Japan). The peak for autumn leaves in Lake Shikaribetsu is in late September. For instance in Hokkaido’s largest city Sapporo the peak of autumn colors is around the end of October and early November. The clear lake surface reflects the autumn colors beautifully, making this an extraordinary spot for outdoor activities such as lakeside hiking and scenic kayaking.

 


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Shikaribetsu Ice Kotan

Also because of its high altitude, Lake Shikaribetsu freezes early and stays frozen longer than other lakes in Hokkaido. The thick frozen lake surface becomes a stage for an interesting annual winter event from late January till early March.

Shikaribetsu Ice Kotan Festival (also Lake Shikaribetsu Ice Village) has been held since the 1980s. “Kotan” means village in the Ainu language, but Shikaribetsu Ice Kotan is not an actual village, but a village made of ice and snow, that is build every winter. At Shikaribetsu Ice Kotan you can visit igloos, have a drink from a glass made of ice inside an ice bar and even enjoy hot springs. The festival has also many changing events and performances.

Our recommendation is to combine a visit to the Shikaribetsu Ice Kotan Festival with some cool winter activities such as a guided snow shoe tour in Daisetsuzan National Park or dog sledding in the Tokachi area.

Unforgettable local activities

We can arrange you unique off the beaten path adventures and exclusive activities including visit to a local temple and meditating session with a local Buddhist priest, dog sledding in the vast fields of the Tokachi area, tofu making with adorable grandmas or private winery tours.

Hokkaido Treasure Island Travel is deeply rooted in the local scene of Hokkaido, North Japan.

Let us know what you are interested in experiencing in Obihiro, the Tokachi area or other parts of Hokkaido and we will make it happen!

Starting from the intriguing agricultural history and vast farm lands all the way to the picturesque scenes at the edge of Daisetsuzan National Park, the Tokachi area is really worth a visit. If you wish to add the Tokachi area to your travel bucket list, let us know!

The Tokachi area is a great place to stop on the route between Sapporo and East Hokkaido. Feel free to read also our column about the neighboring area: Akan-Mashu National Park: Hot springs and caldera lakes 

 


Contact us for a custom-made Hokkaido itinerary or find more travel inspiration on our blog columns or  Hokkaido sample itineraries!

We are taking reservations for the year 2022 and after. Please read the latest Covid-19 updates for Hokkaido and Hokkaido Treasure Island Travel’s countermeasures for further information.

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