Hokkaido, the northernmost Japanese island is a mere 5 hour ferry ride from the Russian island of Sakhalin which -perhaps surprisingly- makes Russia Japan’s closest neighbour. This location means that Hokkaido is effectively an extension of Siberia, with temperatures in the winter reaching as low as -20°c and snow that falls too quickly for ski resorts to accurately measure.
However, summer in Hokkaido is a different story. It seems the whole of Tokyo moves to escape the stifling humidity of the south for the ‘cool’ highs of 28°c in the north. We don’t blame them one bit. Exchanging the southern cities where we couldn’t walk around for five minutes without our eyelids sweating for somewhere which occasionally required an extra layer was nothing short of magical.
This northern Siberian island is Japan’s wild child. Unlike the main island of Honshu where you are never far from a town or city, Hokkaido is made up of masses of untamed forests packed with brown bears and surrounded by sulphurous volcanic craters. We originally only gave ourselves a few days to explore Hokkaido but within an hour of stepping off the train station in Sapporo, we knew this wouldn’t cut it. We made the impromptu decision to cancel our Fuji climb, rent a camper van and travel Hokkaido for an entire week. Best decision ever.
Our first stop was Sapporo, which quickly became our favourite Japanese city…and that had nothing to do with the beer festival that happened to be going on at the time. It had such a youthful vibe and its busyness lacked the corporate rush that seems to fuel other Japanese cities. Highlights included the Willy Wonka-esque Sapporo brewery and witnessing a skateboard practice, A Capella group jam, breakdancing session and a rap battle by the fountains in Odori park.
Next we visited Lake Toya, and, after 5 weeks of rushing about Japan trying to cram in as much as possible, we spent two relaxed days camping on the shore, swimming in the purest water and getting rather sunburnt.
The onsen town of Noboribetsu had been on our hit list ever since it featured in a BBC series about Japan (this is the second time I’ve mentioned this series, but seriously, it was amazing). It is a small town built in the midst of some serious volcanic activity. Jigoku-Dani, or ‘Hell Valley’ is the most notable area: a vast expanse of steaming craters, bubbling water and sulphur stained rocks. We visited a local onsen (Japanese bathouse) which uses the same volcanic water for people to soak in. Imagine the Prefect’s bathroom in Hogwarts but with more naked Japanese people, more eggy fumes and fewer ghosts.
We then visited the small town of Furano which, in the summer months hosts fields and fields of flowers planted in colourful strips. It seems here even the most humble farmhouse has at least a small patch of lavender or sunflowers in their front garden. Whilst in Furano we also stumbled across a beautiful mountain onsen, and bathed in this mixed gender (!!) pool. Even though algae got into places algae should never get into, it was one of our favourite onsen we’ve been to; our embarrassed averted gazes were met by pine trees and waterfalls (well, mine were at least, Jasper can see bugger all without his glasses).
Next was a trip to ‘Bear Mountain’. As mentioned, Hokkaido is home to a large number of brown bears. They are far more aggressive than their reclusive black cousins residing in Honshū, and Japanese hikers are encouraged to wear bear bells to scare them away. Bears are extraordinary creatures and we really wanted to see one, but in the wild? Maybe not. Bear Mountain is like a cross between Jurassic Park and a safari. 15 hectares of woodland surrounded by the heaviest duty fences you’ve ever seen is the home of 12 brown bears. A large bridges runs through part of the park so you can watch the bears without fear of having your face ripped to shreds. There is also an area where you can watch behind glass as they play in the water. Seeing them so close confirmed our feelings of apprehension of stumbling across one in the wild. I don’t think we fully appreciated just how big they are, and that one bat of their gigantic paw would certainly knock you out cold. It really is a conundrum how something so terrifying can be so adorable!
See where Bear Mountain ranked on our ‘Top 5 Animal Experiences in Japan’!
One last trip we took before heading excitedly back to Sapporo, was to Lake Akan in the east. Unfortunately is was more of a whistle stop tour as it was pissing it down and really cold (it was probably only like 22°c, but that feels sub-Arctic to us now). We visited ‘Suna yu’ a lakeside area where you can dig your own onsen! If you dig into the sand, hot water rises up and you’ve got your own foot spa.
We then ‘hot-footed’ it to a nearby Ainu village. The Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido who have a rich culture and history, which is totally different from Japanese culture and is slowly being lost. The village showcased traditional arts, music and food of the Ainu people. In our opinion, a trip to Hokkaido isn’t complete without paying a visit to one of the (unfortunately) few Ainu villages still in operation. And try the frozen salmon sashimi- it’s delicious!
And that was our Hokkaido trip! It was one of our favourite weeks in Japan, and we are already dreaming of when we can make it back there. Everything about the island resonated with us: the people, the culture, the landscape, the food! Sayonara Hokkaido- but hopefully not for long!