We picked up our little Nissan on a sunny Sunday morning in Sapporo city centre, forced our backpacks into the petite trunk and set off on a quest to avoid toll roads and find the wild, rural Hokkaido we had been reading about.
Avoiding toll roads is easy in this part of the country. All you need to do is spend an eternity driving through endless suburbs full of shopping malls at an average speed of 35 km/hour, stopping for a red light every 300 meters. Around Sapporo at least. Elsewhere the speed limits are still surprisingly low, but you don’t have to pause all the time. Finding the wild is not complicated either, but when you call Hokkaido remote, then you’re comparing to the rest of Japan, not the rest of the world. Sure, in places you can drive for an hour without passing a 7-11 – which is saying something here, although given the speed limits, not much – but we never really considered ourselves alone. That said, the Japanese know how to mix people and nature. We’ve seen more living wildlife in a random park in Japan than we did in the middle of nowhere in Siberia, where we were expecting bears to lurk behind every larch, so we had plenty of trees and birds and bugs to look at.
When you talk about the wild in Hokkaido, you talk about multi-day hikes in one of the many national parks, relatively lonely beaches (where you’re usually not supposed to swim, officially at least), and, of course, the higuma. There are hundreds of Ussuri brown bears on Hokkaido and the species exist in part of Russia’s Far East, North Korea and northeastern China as well. The higuma, as they are called in Japanese, are a lot bigger than the black bears you can encounter on the main island Honshu and are considered to be the most dangerous animal in the country.
There are two ways of approaching this. On the Shiretoko peninsula, which has the largest density of higuma, fishermen live side by side with the bears (like in this video), but most people seem to take a more cautious approach. We continuously got bear warnings from tourist info staff and fellow travellers and Japanese hikers usually wear at least one bear bell. The idea is that the bear will hear you coming and leave as it is not interested in company. We had our own bear bell, a parting gift courtesy of Suzie and Jonas, so we fit right in. There was a couple of times when we walked down some particularly small path in dense forest all on our own that we wondered about what we should do if we actually ran into one. Two weeks passed, however, and we didn’t see as much as a claw.
Wet nights in the tent
We went to Hokkaido at the start of our trip in order to catch the great August weather the island boasts and avoid the summer typhoons of Honshu, which don’t usually travel this fart north. This year was different. Some blame El Niño, some global warming, but we were told that the whole country has been hit by more and stronger typhoons than usual this year. During our two weeks of driving around Hokkaido, we experienced three. That’s at least what a lady at a tourism info office told us when we asked. I, personally, have a hard time distinguishing between a typhoon and normal pouring rain. I don’t mean to complain – we had sunny days as well – but we didn’t go 24 hours without at least some drops.
Camping in Japan is fun, at least in Hokkaido in summer. (I’ll tell you why Kansai in early autumn is less amusing in a later post.) When the Japanese camp, they really do it in style. There’s the large sleeping tent, the dining room tent with netting rather than proper walls to help you avoid mosquitoes while still enjoy the moonlight, the massive barbeque sets that remind you of American movies and the giant car to fit all the gear. Heck, we once saw a large family bring out a proper table and ten chairs, all in solid wood, to fit grandma, some cousins and countless bottles of wine. Our little 2.7 kg tent looked rather pitiful next to those and we fit better with the guys biking across the country.
Due to the rain, we spent some nights at michi-no-ekis as well. Those are parking areas specifically made for travellers or truck drivers stopping for the night. You have a parking lot, a large, clean bathroom and some vending machines. Turn your seat down, go to sleep and wake up at 4 AM when the sun goes up and everybody else does too. It was a lot more comfortable than I thought it would be and we met some friendly people. I found the kind nod and ohayo gozaimasu (good morning) by an elderly gentleman on his way to the bathroom, wearing his chequered pyjamas and rubber boots, at 5 AM very endearing.
Lonely days in the countryside
So what did we do? We went to Furano and Biei, famous for lavender, agriculture and trees used in tobacco commercials, followed the coast up north to Wakkanai, then down again on the Okhotsk line via Abashiri and Shari into the higuma heaven of Shiretoko, west to the Akan national park and back again, going wherever the weather forecast said it would be dry, finally ending up in the Shikotsu-Toya national park.
Once we left Sapporo, Furano and Biei behind, the number of western tourists thinned out and we were left surrounded by mostly Japanese. Big families out camping, solo motorcycle or bike riders, local farmers and fishermen. It also meant that we became a more unusual sight than we had been in the big city, or even Russia, where we blended in just fine until we opened our mouths, or Mongolia, where in July we were just another backpacker there for peak season.
The Japanese observe us, but most are very discreet about it. However, I have never been as stared at as in Wakkanai, the northernmost town in the country. Two examples: In a grocery store I bumped into a man in his 40s, who stood looking at me with his mouth open and his head tilted slightly to his left. It was like he had been surprised and then held that expression for a very long time. The second time was when we went to one of the Wakkanai onsen (pools with hot water). As it was segregated by sex, Christophe joined the men and I went along with the women. When I entered the pool area, all action literally stopped and I looked out over a bunch of Japanese ladies staring back at me, again mouth open. I smiled and waved and they came to their senses (contrary to the grocery store guy) and said hello back.
Hot water and lots of trees
Let’s talk a bit about the onsen. We love the natural hot pools in Iceland, so we were looking forward to this feature in Japan. There are, however, some differences between the two pool cultures. In Iceland, men and women usually wear swim gear and bade together. In Japan, you’re usually naked and men and women go to separate areas. In Wakkanai, most pools were inside and they differed in colour and temperature. There was one pool outside, with a bamboo fence dividing it into a male and female section. I thought Christophe and I could sit on either side of the fence and still talk, but when I got in I realized the bamboo was fake, strengthened by solid concrete, and on top there was barbed wire. I wonder what incident triggered the decision to add that last touch, especially since the average age of the clientele seemed to be 72.
The public pools in Iceland are relatively cheap (I’m not talking Blue Lagoon now), while in Japan, prices are quick to rise. All Icelandic pools I’ve been to have had an outdoor section, but in Japan we passed a lot of inside-only onsen. Finally, both countries have a lot of rules in order to maintain hygiene, but they are stricter in Japan. For example, most establishments won’t let you in if you have a tattoo. Bottom line, for us, Iceland wins this one, mostly because we felt more at ease there. The Japanese seemed to be very much at home in their onsen, of course, and I imagine I would have felt different as well had I not always been all alone and decidedly the odd one out, the one to stare at.
As a result, we didn’t visit many indoor onsen, but stuck to the wild ones outdoors. They are usually free or cheap and come with great scenery. Most of them are mixed as well. We found two great pools of hot water in the mountains near Furano, where you could sit in the forest and watch the sky turn dark. In the Shiretoko national park there are several good rotenburo (outdoor onsen) but unfortunately we could only visit a few as many roads were closed due to typhoon damage.
The weather was not good for our hiking plans, with days of heavy rain and mountains covered in thick fog, but we managed to do some. Two hikes we could definitely recommend are walking by the lake Mashu-ko up to Mashu-dake in Akan and around the active volcano Tarumae-zan in Shikotsu-Toya.
All in all, we had a very good time in Hokkaido. It’s a beautiful part of the country and it sure is very different from the rest of Japan. In terms of wildlife, this island has more in common with Russia’s Far East – they were once connected by land – than Honshu, and the architecture reminds me more of northern fishing towns than of the Japanese cities we were to see later. There are high mountains, dense forests but also a lot of European or North American-style agriculture and dairy production. I was told that for many Japanese, this is very exotic, while I found it very familiar.
We spent a total of three weeks on the island and while we covered a lot of ground, we wouldn’t hesitate to go back to discover all the things we missed. We’ll just avoid the El Niño years.