Kussharo is rural, but it's not a wilderness. Much of the area is farmland, streets are paved and there's clusters of summer homes and even the (very) occasional shop and restaurant1. Still, it's a long way from downtown Osaka. That, of course, is a big part of the appeal. It's a refreshing change to sleep without the sound of sirens, to go outside into wide-open stillness rather than bustling streets. To soak in an open-air hot spring on a winter night and see the stars, undimmed by the reflected glow of a large city.
The main industries in this area are farming and tourism, and Kussharo seems to share many problems with similar areas in Japan and elsewhere. Neither farming nor tourism need a lot of people - the sparse population is part of the attraction for tourists of course. But that means there's not enough people living in the area to support a dense infrastructure. Travelling here and getting around becomes more difficult and expensive than in populated areas. That hurts tourism of course, even though the very remoteness is a draw for people like us2.
Another problem, all too familiar to rural areas, is that the number of children can barely support a local school. A school is a critical bit of infrastructure; without it, no family with children would consider moving in, and young couples would often elect to move once their children reach school age. Without a school, the area would lose its next generation of inhabitants and risk disappearing as a community altogether.
Kussharo Genya youth hostel. Good place to stay.
Anyway, we stayed here right over Christmas. Every year, the hostel owner - Kazuyuki, a trained chef - puts on a Christmas sushi buffet, with all you can eat nigiri sushi, soup and cake. There were only a few other guests apart from us - as I said, travel is light the week before the New Year holiday - but with the owner and his family and the other staff we were still a fair number of people.
The sushi party is prepared. Plates of nigiri sushi - a dozen kinds, give or take - were prepared beforehand, and once they were gone Kazuyuki was taking requests from the adjoining kitchen.
The first night we didn't really do anything much. Ritsuko stayed at the hostel while I joined a guest from Hong Kong and went to a rotenburo - an outdoor hot spring - right next to Kussharo lake. We spent much of the next day walking in the snow-covered landscape, and joined the sushi party that night. The next morning we left again for Sapporo. Two or three nights really is just about right for this place in winter.
There's a few more pictures in the Kussharo set on Flickr.
The side roads across the fields aren't plowed, but there's enough traffic that you can use the tire tracks. That's Ritsuko over to the right.
#1 Surprisingly, many facilities are closed over winter; I would have thought this was the high season for visitors. Guess not.
#2 That's people for you: we want remote, wide spaces, undisturbed by civilization - but we want that wilderness with good wireless connections, all-night convenience stores, a decent selection of restaurants and a bus stop or train station no more than five minutes away.