By Karyn Lo
Nothing screams summer in Japan like sweat. In my opinion, sweating is only made slightly more tolerable if I am either next to a functioning air conditioner, or travelling on the road while eating copious amounts of ice cream. Where else is better to do the latter than in neighbouring Hokkaido, the land of the cows? Did someone say roaaad triiip??
Hokkaido is absolutely gigantic, and therefore this article had extreme potential to become equally gigantic. In view of that, I have done my best to curb my ‘VISIT ALL THE PLACES’ mindset and narrowed down this article to a few places per region of Hokkaido. So, without further ado…
Starting in the eastern part of Hokkaido, easily the largest portion, there are a lot of lakes and hot springs to visit. Notably, the most eastern point in Japan that is accessible to the public is near Nemuro city. Cape Nosappu (I can and have thought of multiple puns for this place) is right at the tip of Hokkaido. The lighthouse overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk was built in 1872 and is the oldest lighthouse in Hokkaido. Not too far from the cape is the Habomai Archipelago, which is administered under Russia. For an extra bonus on the roads, you can play ‘I Spy’ with the numerous signs with happy-looking seals on them…demanding their islands back from Russia. Ooof.
About halfway up the eastern side of Hokkaido is a plethora of lakes, volcanos, and hot springs. I am particularly fond of the caldera Lake Mashu, known in the Ainu language as the ‘Lake of the Devil’. It is known to be arguably the ‘clearest lake in the world’, and is also one of the deepest lakes in Japan. Often the lake is covered in mist and fog, with a legend stating that seeing the reflections on the waters of the lake gives you bad luck.
Lake Kussharo is nearby, with interesting hot springs along the edge of the lake. They are free, and most notably bathing suits are not frowned upon at these onsen. Lake Akan is known for its ‘marimo’, which is a rare algae species that can grow into a ball the size of a soccer ball. And finally, though not always on the tourist radar, is Kaminoko ike (God’s Pond). This pond is tucked away down a gravel road, and harks back to Aomori’s own Juniko Lakes in Fukaura.
A little further north, the Shiretoko Peninsula is an absolutely stunning place to visit. About a 10 minute drive west from Rausu, the largest town in the area, is a beautiful outdoor onsen that is free. The water is sulfuric and placed right next to a river, and worth a relaxing soak. Further along the peninsula are two other well-known onsen, but set along the coast. Seseki and Aidomaru onsen are also free, but be prepared to air out your goodies as only one of the onsen is covered by a tent.
Even further along the Shiretoko Peninsula are the Shiretoko Five Lakes, which is said to look like God’s fingerprints. Kamuiwakkayu is a short drive away from the lakes, but along an unpaved gravel road. However, the area is usually inaccessible in winter, and during the summer months heightened bear activity means that access to all the lakes are only available with a guide.
Up on the most northern tip of Hokkaido, and indeed the furthest north you can go in Japan, is Wakkanai (also thought of multiple puns while visiting here). Cape Soya is the most northern point, where on a clear day you can see Russia off on the horizon. Russia is reportedly only 43 km away from the cape – though I am still sad I wasn’t able to see Russia when I visited. Rishiri Island and Rebun Island are famous for their flora, being that many of the flora there cannot be found anywhere else. The hiking trails on these islands are also known to be very enjoyable.
Finally, skipping over the famous lavender fields of Furano, I would like to mention the equally famous blue pond in Biei called Aoike (Blue Pond, funnily enough). While not a naturally formed pond, the colours of the water are an opaque blue probably due to the aluminium hydroxide in the water. What makes this pond worth the visit is the drive to the pond throught the ‘Patchwork Roads’, which is an area with lots of trees that are famous due to being in various Japanese commercials, and the farms and flower fields that are plentiful in the landscape.
There are plenty of other places in Hokkaido I have not included in this article, in fear that I am beginning to write a small novella. Of course there are areas such as Noribetsu (touristy but famous for their onsen and geothermal activity), the Toya-Shikotsu National Park (where the volcano is incredibly active and only recently made a new mountain in the area), Sapporo (enough said), Hakodate (on the bullet train line from Aomori), and Matsumae (which has the most northern castle in Japan). All are worth putting on the list to see during a visit to Hokkaido.
And, to polish off this article…
Cape Nosappu/Nemuro (Japanese)
Rebun Island (Japanese)
Rishiri Island (Japanese)
Furano City Tourism (Japanaese)
There are multiple day time and overnight ferries from Aomori, Hachinohe and Oma. They are considerably cheaper if you don’t take a car up with you, but depending on the length of your time in Hokkaido it may be worth it
Ferry Two (overnight) – http://www.silverferry.jp/
If you’re willing to spend more money on getting up north, the Hayabusa bullet train runs through Aomori and onto Hakodate (ultimately to be extended to Sapporo).
Also, there is toll road pass that give you the best deal for using the freeways in Hokkaido. But you will need an ETC card reader in your car.
You can actually take the ferry from Wakkanai City to Russia. Might want to look at the visa situation though…
If you want to save money on accommodation, sleeping in the car is perfectly legal in Japan. Parking overnight at rest stops and ‘michi no eki’ are great since there are public toilets on site, and the many hot springs in Hokkaido mean that bathing is simple.
There are also a huge amount of deer, foxes, bears, and tanuki around on the roads and parks of Hokkaido. Be warned and drive carefully – I’ve lost count of how many deer and foxes that liked jumping onto the middle of the roads.
Winter is also a great time to see Hokkaido and get some snow sports in. The drift ice in the east is very famous and worth seeing. However, a lot of the roads are closed due to heavy snowfall, so careful planning is highly recommended.
Sadly, this is Karyn’s last article with us for Off Route. It was a pleasure and an honour to have her bring us along on her journeys thus far, and we wish her well in all future travels after JET! I am sure an exciting path awaits. If you are interested in taking over for Off Route, or in submitting a one-off piece for the column, please email us at email@example.com.