By Euan Prentis
The small fishing towns of Esan and Todohokke were recently incorporated into the larger city of Hakodate, on the very southern tip of Hokkaido. The two towns and their surroundings are almost completely overlooked by foreign visitors, but there is so much to see and do in the area that I would recommend it as a detour to any visitor to southern Hokkaido.
The area is dominated by Mount Esan, a still active Stratovolcano that rises straight out of the sea to a respectable 618 metres. The flanks of the volcano are covered with Azaleas in early summer and the Esan Azalea Festival is probably the biggest tourist draw of the year.
Climbing up the mountain starting at the Azalea park, the flora and fauna takes on an otherworldly appearance and sights, such as brilliant blue beetles crawling into smoking steam vents tinged with purple and orange, become quite familiar. Indeed, these bizarre sights turn what should be an hour hike up into a 2 plus hour journey, as your inner astronaut examines these weird new life forms. The view from the top is nothing short of stunning with views across the water as far as Aomori to the south and Niseko`s Mount Youtei to the north.
After a hard climb you can make use of one of the areas excellent onsens (hot springs) fueled by the same heat and steam that you can see pouring out of the mountain above. Mizunashi Onsen is a locals favorite but can get busy. My recommendation is to follow the coastal road at the base of the mountain as far east as it goes (it just abruptly stops) and then you will be at Hamamizu Onsen, a completely free, mixed bath that is situated right on the shore. One word of warning, the changing room is mixed too so not for the bashful!
Round the bay from Esan is the town of Todohokke, and if you are a surfer, or like watching surfers, then this is the place to come in Hokkaido. The topography and location combine to produce perfect breaks year round and the beach is a mecca for riders from all over Japan. The Hokkaido surf championships are held here yearly and the nearby well appointed campsite becomes a lively place for a party during summer months.
To get to Esan and Todohkke from Hakodate there is a very slow and expensive bus (2 hours and 1200 JPY) from the station. The best bet is to go by car, just follow the sea road from the Yunokawa area of the city and you will be at the base of the volcano in 30 minutes. Visitors to the area who are doing the usual Hakodate-Otaru-Sapporo road trip on a tight time budget should note that after visiting Todohokke you can take the very beautiful route 278 along the coast and then link back up with Route 5 on the way to Otaru. For a couple of hours detour you will see a wonderful part of this country and have the added bonus of being probably the first person from your hometown to do so.
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I was born and raised in London, UK and developed the travel bug from a very early age on regular family trips to the English countryside. After graduating from university I worked as a wildlife biologist and was lucky enough to find jobs that let me live for extended periods of time in the Bahamas and Canadian Rockies. I came to Japan on a bit of a whim 8 years ago, expecting a fairly short stay; however, I quickly fell in love with the place and settled down with a beer in hand in Hakodate on the southern tip of Hokkaido. After my son was born I moved to Niseko and have stayed here ever since. Unlike 99% of visitors to this part of Japan I harbor an intense hatred of snow and live for the glorious Hokkaido summers and working on my BBQ skills.