“I want to continually challenge myself to see how far I can go, if I fail I'll do something else, but even though I hate the cold, I love the mountains.” -Yohei Shimizu
Born and raised in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, Yohei Shimizu is still only 28 years old, but has become a fixture of the town and is part of a movement to revitalize the area.
Like many living in Hokkaido, he comes from a family that loves the outdoors.
Yohei’s father started taking him trekking in the forests when he was only three years old, even bringing him along to Nepal when he was six.
But he still has the modern, youthful mindset of wanting both a city and rural existence, so he’s trying to create a life balance with both elements; Offering modern services to a new generation of travelers, and not just sticking to the old ways of doing things.
He lived in Tokyo for a while and got a sense of how services are offered in the city, and has a better sense of reading people due to the experience.
Today, Yohei is focused on developing the mountains and forests around Kamikawa-cho, especially in the area around the impressive Sounkyo Gorge, an impressively large area in the Daisetsuzan National Park.
Filled with sprawling trails, towering peaks, gorges, waterfalls, rivers, and plenty of wildlife, the area is now seeing a major uptick in tourism, which also requires a lot of support.
Yohei works in the park checking and fixing trailheads, guiding visitors through the mountains, and also took over the Sounkyo Hostel, which was aging and run-down but is now a surprisingly modern offering right in the middle of the onsen town. In-line with his adventurous spirit, when he decided the take over the hostel he jumped on his bicycle and made a trip around Japan before returning to get started.
“If I wasn't given the chance to be able to open my current hostel,” he told us, “I wanted to go to Alaska by bike, and then return to Japan and become a science teacher”.
We went out with Yohei for a day during the peak changing of the autumn leaves, in the (for the most part) damp yet beautiful weather. In these varied landscapes, the weather can change rather quickly, but that just added to the experience for us.
As a knowledgeable guide, when we hit inclement weather and zero visibility on the way up the ropeway to the trailhead of Mt. Kurodake, he already knew exactly where the weather would be good and brought us down to the Momijidani Valley where the leaves were beautiful, and we took a walk in the forest instead.
Sounkyo itself is known as an onsen town, with naturally hot water literally pouring out of the side of the volcano, and it attracts tourists from all over.
But a town so far away has to have more than just hot water, and Yohei is focused on changing the perspective to appeal to people who come for the whole experience of the area, especially those who want the tranquility, and physical challenges, of the outdoors.
“I want to shift the focal point of this town into a trekking resort that also happens to have onsen, instead of an onsen resort that trekkers can stay at”, he said.
“From now on, I want to learn more about this area, so I can recommend different length treks, transportation options, everything. I want to develop better, more comprehensive tourist information for my hostel and other hotels.”
While it’s not necessary to have a guide here, because it’s such a large area you can save a lot of time and discover spots that simply isn’t covered online.
Yohei is developing a lot of the information along with his staff, but he also loves explaining the area in person. As Daisetsuzan is Japan’s largest national park, there are a lot of trails to maintain, so in the summer he and his team work as a patrol inspecting the trails, so they know every corner and can give great advice to adventurers of all skill levels.
This suits their work at the hostel perfectly.
“We’re able to ask hikers and locals about trail conditions on a daily basis,” he says “so we have detailed information to suit each individual hiker or climber, whereas the people working in hotels aren't as interested or knowledgeable about what happens outside of the hotel.”
There’s also a great sense of local pride among Yohei’s peers, though it’s also one of his biggest challenges.
Visitors from overseas rave about the area and their experiences, but he feels like many locals don't really appreciate their hometown.
“I think if more and more tourists and mountain climbers come here, see how great it is, and then talk about it over a longer period of time,” he says, “instead of the locals saying there isn't anything here, they’ll be proud and realize they actually live in a great place, and be able to say, "There are lots of great things about where I live.”
Even though the town itself won’t change much, people will be prouder and happier living here, and the general quality of life will increase.”
This is a common theme in a lot of local towns with declining populations, but that sentiment is working in other parts of Japan and Yohei is set on fostering it in Kamikawa as well.
Rather than just be a “tourist destination”, he’s making it into a place with great things to do, and now that the hostel is up and running, a more comfortable place to stay and socialize.
What keeps him here, and what brings the visitors, is Hokkaido’s unique climate and seasonal changes, which make the area a welcome refuge from the heat and humidity that blankets the more southern parts of Japan during the warmer months.
“Living here, you can see the color of the trees changing day by day, and feel the temperature change over time. Saying this makes me sound like an old man, but I like to experience the changing of the seasons.”