Given its location deep in a national park and a name meaning Cloudy Gorge, for many visitors the actual Sounkyo Onsen is a disappointment. The curse of development is indeed evident: the modern town with its multi-storey concrete hotels is an eyesore, and the endless procession of tour groups through the gorge itself doesn't exactly enhance the wonders of nature.
That said, with lowered expectations Sounkyo Onsen does fulfill what it promises: it's first and foremost a hot spring resort, with cool mountain air and steam rising from the vents in the streets, and it's an excellent base for starting (or, better yet, ending) treks through the national park. Much of the center of the town has also been recently landscaped with a fairly pleasant, mildly Swiss-flavored touch.
The only means of public transport into the gorge is bus. Departures to the nearest major city Asahikawa are fairly frequent.
Bus 81 leaves from the bus terminal at Asahikawa JR Station (booth 7) at 9:15, 10:45, 12:15, 14:35, 15:45, 16:35 and 18:40. The ride takes about two hours with a brief stop at Kamikawa JR Station and costs 2100¥ per way. Busses back to Asahikawa leave Sounkyo at 6:20, 7:45, 8:40, 10:55, 13:30, 15:40 and 17:30. This schedule may change on certain public holidays (eg. New Year), so make sure to read posted signs.
Another option is to take a JR train from Asahikawa to Kamikawa and then change to the bus, with more departures than the one mentioned above.
Sounkyo Onsen and its nearby attractions are best covered on foot, although you might want to rent a bicycle for visiting the gorge itself. A cable car runs most of the way up neighboring Mount Kurodake.
Sounkyo Onsen is known and named after the nearby gorge, which runs for 24 kilometers along the Ishikari River and features some pretty waterfalls and interesting lava formations. The gorge is located to the east of town, an easy walk or bike trip of a few kilometers along a disused highway. Entry is free, so head here early in the morning to beat the tour bus brigade... or just head further down into the gorge, past the few falls frequented by everybody.
- Ginga Waterfall (銀河の滝 Ginga-no-taki), literally "Silver River Falls", is a series of thin, silvery rivulets cascading down the mountainside.
- Ryusei Waterfall (流星の滝 Ryusei-no-taki), literally "Shooting Star Falls", is a powerful fall seemingly bursting out of solid rock.
- The gorge has a number of lava tubes and other odd rock formations, many of which look not a little like concrete. Best known are the aptly named Big Box (大箱 Obako) and Small Box (小箱 Kobako), although the path near them is often closed after rain due to the danger of landslides.
Sounkyo Onsen is a popular starting point for hikes into the Daisetsuzan National Park. Be sure to stop off at the Visitor Center, next to the cable car station, before heading up.
- Mount Kurodake (黒岳, 1984m), or "Black Peak", is located immediately to the south of town. For ¥950/1750 one-way/return a cable car takes you from Sounkyo Onsen to the Fifth Station (五合目), while a chair lift will carry you up to the Seventh Station (七合目) at 1740 meters for ¥400/600 one-way/return. From here it's 244 meters vertical and 1.7 kilometers horizontal to the summit. In autumn there is some fairly spectacular autumn foliage to be seen here and you may even spot a deer or two. From the summit, which is watched over by what must surely be one of Japan's most bizarrely placed police boxes, trails to other mountains lead in a number of directions.
- In wintertime, the Kurodake chair lift serves its original purpose of ferrying skiers up the mountain. Five trips is ¥1,800, while a day pass is ¥3,600.
If hiking or skiing sounds like too much hard work, try resting your weary bones in one of the many hot springs in town. The visitor information center (where the bus stops) can give you a map with all hotsprings, opening times (mostly 12:00-17:00) and prices (600-1000¥).
- Kurodake-no-Yu (黒岳の湯). 12:00-17:30. A small three-story edifice in the center of town, featuring an outdoor rotenburo (suitably protected from prying eyes), an inside bath, a sauna, a (tiny) cold pool and a relaxation room with cold Hokutō Tōgen for sale. All this (excluding the beer) costs ¥600, and if you're staying at the youth hostel you'll get a coupon for ¥100 off. The pools are gender separated, and views from the outdoor pool are not spectacular. 600¥.
- Sounkyo Kanko Hotel Spa (層雲峡温泉), 〒078-1797 Hokkaido, Kamikawa District, Kamikawa, 層雲峡温泉 (Located at the main road), ☏ . 12:00-16:00. The only hotspring in town that has a mixed-gender outdoor area (with provided bathing suits). Daily from 12:00-16:00 the spa is opened to guests who are not staying the hotel for 600¥ (with exemptions on some public holidays - call to make sure before going!). 600¥.
Eat & Drink
There are a number of basic restaurants in town.
- Ajikko Ramen (味っ子ラーメン), in the center of town, serves up a pretty good bowl of noodles. Try their artery-clogging Hokkaido speciality butter ramen!
- The local microbrew, Hokutō Kōgen Beer (北斗高原ビール), is the perfect thirst-quencher after lolling about in hot water for an hour or two.
There is no shortage of fancy hot spring accommodation in towns, but fortunately there's one pretty good budget option as well.
- Sounkyo Youth Hostel (層雲峡ユースホステル), ☏ . A popular youth hostel perched above the main town, a 5-minute walk up a winding road from the ropeway station. A bed for the night costs ¥2,940. Open only from June 1st to October 31st!
While there are bears in the surrounding Daisetsuzan National Park, they're generally smart enough to stay far away from town.