Hokkaido

by Gabi (Slovakia)


Thinking about Hokkaido but afraid itfs too far?

Well, the true is, it is far but itfs worth it! Let me tell you our story, and then re-think it again J.

What I can tell you is that if you can manage 2 or more weeksf absence from school I recommend you to go. Especially Hokkaidofs nice summer will reassure you did a good decision to escape from Nagoya. I did a trip with my girlfriend 4 years ago, and itfs still one of our highlights in Japan. If you plan to see Snow Festival in Sapporo (begin. of Feb) you need even less daysc

But about our experiencesc..

Because of the quite expensive travel cost in Japan we chose to use Seishin 18 Kippu (you can find about it under ?Useful infog on Kikukofs website). It took us 2 days to reach Hokkaido, but we stopped in Tokyo and Matsushima as well.

From Nagoya we took an overnight rapid train to Tokyo to get the most from the ticket. The train leaves before midnight so the trick is to buy the regular ticket to Anjou; the train arrives there right after midnight so from there you use your seshun 18 kippu (2300Yen and you still have 24 hours to go!). We arrived to Tokyo very early in the morning, and after hanging around for some time we visited the Tokyo Imperial Gardens (opened from 9am,  some nice pictures are on  http://www.nd.edu/~sboker/PhotoBlogs/Japan/Tokyo2003a.html, or info http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3018.html).

Then we continued north and after few transfers we arrived to Sendai, around 4-5pm. Since our next destination was Matsushima we passed by station tourist information to pick up some pamphlets to see what is interesting in the area. Equipped with tent, we took a local train to get out of the city and camped in the countryside. Next day we were lucky to hitch-hike nice couple that took us to see local nature sceneries (waterfalls, canyons,..) and in the evening they dropped us in Matsushima.

Matsushima. You should definitely see it! According to Japanese, itfs gNIHON SANKYOUh ??, one of the nation's three most famous scenic areas. Yes, it really is! Itfs a beautiful bay dotted by many pine clad islets. We spent whole next day there, exploring it. There is also famous Zuiganji temple, zen garden, Godaido and other attractions

(see http://www.pref.miyagi.jp/kankou/EN/sightseeing/Matsushima/Matsushima.htm). Next morning we continued moving north and around 7-8pm we arrived to Hakodate, our first city in Hokkaido. The city is famous for its ?Night viewg from the nearby Mt. Hakodate, often compared to that of Hong Kong or Napoli (see http://www.city.hakodate.hokkaido.jp/english/$sight/guide/area/yama.htm, or http://www.hakodate.or.jp/sight/seibu/05-e.htm#yakei). You can take a local bus up to the peak, a ropeway or go by taxi but the local bus is the cheapest and comfortable enough. Though expect gwhole Tokyo populationh at the topc

The next stop was Sapporo, by overnight (luckily direct J) train. Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido and the fifth biggest city in Japan (almost 2 mil. people). It has very pleasant atmosphere, some kind of mixture of an international gfuinkih and Japanese beauty (more about the city - http://www.conventionsapporo.jp/why/why.html).

There is very friendly tourist bureau that equipped us with a tone of very helpful pamphlets. Our destination was Wakkanai and later northern islands so we did not stroll around to check Sapporofs famous tourist spots though there are things to see (the city is famous for its snow festival, see http://www.snowfes.com/english/index_e.html,

nice pics are here http://www.heather-and-albert.com/sapporo_ii.htm...).

Our next train heading to Wakkanai took us trough Asahikawa, second biggest city in Hokkaido. It was our third Seshun 18 kippu and we wanted to arrive there within the day. But it became obvious we could not catch the Wakkanai before midnight ? the expiration of our 18kippu (Hokkaido is very scarcely populated so the train service is much less frequent than in Honshu). So after quick consultation just few hours away from Wakkanai we decided to upgrade to an express train. It took only 3 or 4 hours but at the station we had to spend half an hour negotiating with the station master J. Another option was to pay 4000yen express surcharge but we managed to avoid it J.

Something about Hokkaido. With land area approximately 84000 km2 (approx. size of Austria) it covers 22% of Japan. From 5.8 mil. islanders more than one half lives in the 5 biggest cities. (more than 1/4 in Sapporo itself!). The island is a vast land with amazing natural beauties; waterfalls, hot springs, volcanos. The roads are wide (wider than in Honshu J), and known for speedingcHokkaido is popular particularly

in summer for bikers, cyclists and even caravans. It has nice road infrastructure with well maintained gmichi-no-ekih net (highway rest areas). More than rice field you will see corn or potato fields and it is not rare to see dear, fox or other wild animal close to road, or human dwellingsc.Hokkaido holds also countryfs record in low temperature, -56Ž.

People seem to be much more relaxed and less stressed than in the Honshu and it is very easy to hitch-hike there (though we never had a problem in Honshu either J).

Back to Wakkanai. It is a typical port-fishing city. Wide streets, again very peaceful atmosphere and very good soft cream J. We camped under Wakkanai Dome, very close to a ferry port and approx. 300m away from train station  (see http://www.alternative-tourism.com/Japan/Tourism/Natural_places/Hokkaido/Dohoku/Wakkanai_eng.html). The gdomeh seems to be very popular with travelers; there were already more than 10 tents. There is also very nice eRest center with coin hot showers and laundry nearby. The city is the starting point for trips to Rishiri and Rebun island, also our destination.

The ferry to Rishiri island (appr. 180km2) costs about 2000 yen and takes 3-4 hours?. Anyway, it is definitely worth it. The island is a green beauty with majestic Mt.Rishiri in the middle. Unlike elsewhere, camping was free and they provided us with a nice map of climbing route to the peak. After conquering the top (with beautiful views on Russianfs Sakhalin islands)  we hitchhiked around the island and enjoyed its hot spring (some info and pics. from the island ?

http://www.alternative-tourism.com/Japan/Tourism/Natural_places/Hokkaido/Dohoku/Rishiri_eng.html).

Another highlight was nearby Rebun island, known as gisland of flowersh. Though main season was over (May-June), there was still plenty of blossom around to admire. Island has many hiking trails, leading to fishing villages, waterfall next to sea, lighthouse and so on). Very nice camp, a few mins. by car from the port costs 300yen. Some nice pics. ?

http://www.alternative-tourism.com/Japan/Tourism/Natural_places/Hokkaido/Dohoku/Rebun_eng.html.

There is also a Guest House located close to the port, right on the sea shore. It is famous for its spontaneous staff with unique approaches how to welcome guests, wake them up, cook, and so on. If you call ahead they will come to pick you up to the port.

There is a direct daily ferry back from Rebun to Wakkanai. After camping again under the well-known Dome we took earliest train; and after whole day and several transfers we arrived to Shari in the evening. Shari is a little town at the east side of Hokkaido, and the entrance gate to Shiretoko National Park. NP located on the long peninsula is famous for the biggest population of bears J. The sale of bells (to scare away bears) is probably the most profitable business there J. Shiretoko NP is in UNESCO since 2005 and they call it also gthe kingdom of waterfallsh (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e6850.html). From the station we walked outside the city to camp close to the road rest area. Hitch-hike next day took us to NPfs visitor center. It has very good information facilities and there is a nice waterfall walking distance from the center. There are several hotels in the park but these are rather expensive for a budget traveler. We hiked again to get to the beginning of climbing trail where we camped.  Next 2 days we climbed over the range of local

mountains to Iwao zan (still active volcano, last eruption in 1936), and camped on the ridge (campsite has steel boxes where you put your food overnight  to avoid ebear visitf).  From Iwo zan itfs few hours walk down to hot spring called Kamuiwakka. It is definitely must be experience, the jewel among the Japanese onsens. The onsen is natural ehotf waterfall mixing with cold stream and creating ejust goodf onsen temperature in the basin under it. Because its popularity and usually crowd of people, they bath in swimming suits http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e6851.html .


One couple of onsen visitors took us later back to the city, where we stayed in a campsite. Next days we were lucky to hich-hike couple from Gifu on their honeymoon trip. We spent whole day together; they took us to the biggest cowsf farm in Japan (if you have ever chance to visit Japanese farm, donft hesitate!), Kusharo lake (the biggest volcanic lake in Japan, http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e6803.html) and dropped us of in Akan Kohan, our destination. Whole day Tour trip for free!!! This is Hokkaido J

Close to Kussharo lake is another, smaller but according to many Japanfs most beautiful lake ? Mashu. It has deep blue and very clear water (No.2 in the world, in 1931 they measured visibility of 41.6m)  and it is also known for the frequent fog. There is an island in the middle, measuring 230m from the bottom of the lake! The native Ainu people call this island gKamuishuh, which means An Island of Gods c. (see http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e6802.html

Akan Kohan is little town on the shore of Akan lake. Whole area belongs to Akan NP. There is a very nice campsite in the town (with hot showers) and nearby is also Ainu Village. Ainu are original inhabitants of the island (if you are interested in Ainu, have a look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ainu_people). The village is basically one street with a lot of Ainu workshops, making and selling wood-crafts. You can observe their craftsmanship elivef, they make it just in front of you. By the way, a lot of geographic names in Hokkaido are still in Ainu language (very difficult to pronounce L). The Akan lake is famous for Marimo (Cladophora ball,
see


http://www.aquariumplant.com/cart/images/items/marimo%20great.jpg
). Read next website about this very special plan; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marimo.

There are 2 volcanos close to the town, O-Akan and Me-Akan. The first one (a dead volcano) is walking distance and there are fine views over the lake and area. The other one is a bit further, we hiked there, there is beautiful lake Onneto with friendly ryokan close to it. We camped at public parking (it has big wooden toilet facility) and entered ryokanfs onsen. Next day we left our luggage at the reception (they are really friendly) and climbed Me-Akan. Still alive, the volcanofs last eruption was in 1998, some trails are still closed, as is also nearby campsite. The climb is not as long as it is steep but more interesting can be climbing the next hill - Akan-ko-fuji. This is dead volcano, in the shape of Fuji-san, and surface is all rotted lava. So climbing up is like walking on the sand (tough!) but descending takes 5-10mins. of virtually eflying downfc..Some pics. of volcanoes are here;

 http://volcano.und.nodak.edu/vwdocs/volc_images/north_asia/akan.html. Coincidentally, our next hitchhike from the lake to Akan Kohan was again the honeymoon couple form Gifu J.

Our last destination was Daisetsu-zan, the biggest NP in Japan. The starting point was Asahikawa city, which was more then 200km away from Akan. After night in Akan Kohan we caught a hike to Bikawa, little town north of Akan. Driver suddenly stopped on the way at econbinif and on our surprise he bought us a bag of onigiri and some other food. In Bihoro we hitch-hiked an old couple going back home, to neighboring city. Finally they took us another 70km further, just to drop us at very nice michi no eki (highway resting area). They also gave us their tel. number in case we couldnft catch anything on the next dayc.Next day we spent ewhole 15mins.f trying to hike something L, incredibly long in Hokkaido Jc.But the driver, young girl, took us directly to Asahikawa. We left our big backpacks right at the station (just leaned against the wall, we didnft want to spend money on storage) and went for shopping ? stocks for hiking.

After 2 hours, the backpacks were still there. We took a local bus to get to the suburb (Asahikawa is big, population of 360000.) and then hitch-hiked again. Next hitch hike was a taxi, but he did not charge us (it was about 40 km to Asahi-dake Onsen, the start of trail). 

Daisetsu-zan, located in the middle of Hokkaido, has an area of 22000 ha and has also the highest peak in Hokkaido, Asahi-dake (2290m). There are two trails to climb the peak, through Asahi-dake Onsen or Sankyo. We chose the first one, 1100m above the sea level. Driver dropped us directly at the campsite (400yen per tent, very cheap in Japan). You can use a ropeway (700yen one way) to get to the peak, but we opted for tough 2 hours climb. From the peak there are amazing views. Our plan was to traverse along the range of the mountains to the south. The park is beautiful and while doing the traverse you can feel its huge dimension J. If you donft believe, have a look at the next pics. http://pictures.nicolas.delerue.org/japan/200308_hokkaido/daisetsuzan/.

There are several mountain huts on the way where you can stay for free (if you go to Japanese Alps be ready to pay 7000yen per night!). To invest in the Lonely planet guide eHiking in Japanf is really good idea, since it also lists trekking maps of entire traverse (as well as other ones in Hokkaido). The plan was 5-day traverse finishing at Mt. Tokkachi but due to typhoon we decided to descend on forth day, just before the peak. There are plenty onsens around, even some natural ones (for free J). The park has official website http://www.daisetsuzan.or.jp/e-index.htm, some info is in Englishc

Then we just hitch-hiked down to Tomakomai port (once we tried even in the city where they dropped us, and the guy going home from work, within the city, gave us 120km drive !!).  From Tomakomai we took Ferry directly to Nagoya, which was another nice experience. Ferry leaves every second (?) day around 6-7pm, next day you have 2-3 hours stop in Sendai and the next morning around 8am you are in Nagoya. Ticket with gakusei waribiki (student discount) was, as far as I remember, 7.500 yen (or 8000?) for the cheapest bed (12 people in the room, but clean and completely ok). Check the website http://www.taiheiyo-ferry.co.jp/top.html for more info, you can even book by internet. There is 24 hours free onsen with sauna, cinema, few restaurants (we stocked with food before, but donft worry there are budget options, like ramen for 400Yen, or if you bring instant noodles, there is a kettle with hot water), TVs everywhere, Game rooms and so on. You will enjoy it J

Hopefully, you could find some handy info here. But more than that I hope I wiped off your potential worries about distance, cost and problems concerning traveling in Hokkaido. Once you can manage 2 weeks and more of holidays, you can get a lot from Hokkaido and relatively cheaply.

Good luck J