Nestled at the base of Kurodake (黒岳 – Black mountain), one of the many entrances into the wilds of Taisetsuzan National Park, lies a quiet hamlet called Sounkyo. Born from the patronage of nature lovers, this little settlement is a magnet for tourists eager to experience smoking thermal vents, hexagonal rock spires, and inspiring mountaineering.
At the top of Sounkyo is the ropeway, providing access to the ski hill and hiking trails leading to the peak and beyond. July and August are lush and warm, attracting hardy Hokkaido hikers that go up to tramp about the hills. A couple of onsen hotels give substance to the town, with a handful of small restaurants and shops filling in the streets. Among them you find the Natural Café: the culinary poetry of an international couple versed in the language of the mountains.
In the autumn the forests lose their photosynthetic mojo and ignite in waves of crimson and molten copper. Buses cycle through, depositing hordes of camera-toting tourists who, after vigorous exploration of the area, invariably seek out the comforts of civilization. While supplying the undeniable luxury of the bathhouses, the hotels are dated spaces whose aesthetic contribution to the land is debatable. Products of a tourist industry now 50 years old, they are better suited to accommodate an older generation of countrymen than international visitors.
Enter Rob and Nojo, a married couple deeply knowledgeable with points both near and far. Their café exudes a rustic funkiness, accented with the decorative knick-knacks of world travels. Rich and sensual in contrast to the sterile utility of the hotels, airy vibes of hip Hokkaido authenticity spice the atmosphere. It’s a space, in Rob’s words, that seeks to give the weary traveler a place to kick up their feet and snack on artisanal bread while enjoying a steaming cup of brew.
The menu is light fare, featuring several savory curries, soup and sandwiches and (most importantly!) Nojo’s Kurodake Pan (bread). Depending on your appetite, you can enjoy as little as bread and soup or decadently indulge in coconut curry, ice cold beer and homemade cheesecake. Gourmet grub isn’t the only attraction: both Rob and Nojo are accomplished mountaineers, treading trails both popular and less traveled. Natural Café is an excellent source of information for foreign travelers looking to stretch their legs in the surrounding hills. Competent English explanations are rare in remote parts of the island, but both husband and wife are happy to answer questions guests to the café may have, a boon for more than one visitor frustrated with choppy directions.
Hours of operation are 10 – 6, seven days a week, July to October. The café is located at the top of the hill of the main strip, directly opposite the ropeway. After a sweaty hike, let gravity and your nose guide you to this not-to-be-missed café, where you can recharge with epicurean goodies and let these happy hippies advise you on your next excursion.