I spent 1 month in Japan and never thought that the most memorable parts of my trip would be from Hokkaido. It is the most northern prefecture in Japan and if I was going to describe it in a few words, I would use, Wild, Volcanic, Tranquil, Untamed. Fewer people visit Hokkaido than other parts of Japan. With the limited time most visitors have, Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto are the hotspots, but unbeknownst to the many, those who visit Hokkaido are mesmerized by its peace and serenity.
I took the train from Tokyo to Sapporo, the capital of the Hokkaido prefecture. It is a 10 hour journey by train. This probably sounds quite long, however trains in Japan are very comfortable and also extremely punctual. If you have a JR Pass (Japan Rail Pass), you may aswell make the most of it by embarking on this journey by train. There are two legs to the train from Tokyo to Sapporo. The first is via bullet train, going at speeds of up to 200mph to Shin Aomorie. Definitely a worthwhile experience whilst in Japan. The second leg is via the standard trains.
Top reasons to visit Hokkaido
This has got to be one of the most serene and peaceful places I have ever visited. Hypnotising views of golden yellow and fresh green fields, surrounded by a volcanic mountainous backdrop and empty highways running through the town will grant you on arrival.
My advice would be to hire a bicycle and explore the whole area. It’s completely safe, as there a few cars on the road. If you have bags, leave them at the hire place. You can ride to the Tomita Flower Farm, famous for Lavender viewing. The main season is between June and September but lavender viewing has a smaller window of between July to Early August. I went in Late August so missed the lavender. However, the rest of the flowers are still on show and are extremely beautiful to see. Don’t forget to try the Hokkaido famous Lavender ice-cream.
Daisetsuzan National Park
This is an amazing reason to visit Hokkaido. Being the tallest mountain in Hokkaido, it shouldn’t be missed. I thought there would be hundreds of visitors but there was only a handful of tourists that day. Perhaps because of the bad weather. This was excellent, as it meant I had the park to myself.
It is a 2 hour train from Sapporo to Asahikawa and then a 1.5 hour bus to Asahidake Onsen. Buses are limited so check the schedule to time your trip.
Catching a ropeway to the upper station there are different hiking options to explore the area. A board walk will lead you to the main observation points. You will see sulphur vents and beautiful turquoise lakes. Deviating from the board walk, you can climb to the peak of Mt Asahidake. This will take you around 2 hours and is fairly steep. Terrain is rough and there are loose rocks and boulders on the way up.
The sulphur from the volcano was so strong, and it was amazing to be this close to it. You could feel the heat and see the steam right up close.
There is a quaint little lodge/hostel in Asahidake Onsen, which visitors can stay at during their visit. There isn’t any shops around, so one must buy their food package or bring your own dinner. They also have hot spring facilities here.
Shiretoko National Park
This is the most North Eastern tip of Japan and for that reason, often missed when tourists visit Hokkaido.
I caught a train from Abishiri to Shari. Then a 1.5 hour bus to Utoro. Utoro is a quiet but beautiful town and an excellent base for exploring Shiretoko National Park. There isn’t much cheap accommodation though. I stayed at Bon’s Home, which I can recommend, costing about 4,250 Yen/night. This got me a Futon in a male dormitory. Not backpacker friendly prices, but when you are visiting Japan, you’ve got to just take the hit and move on.
Getting around Shiretoko and the surrounding area isn’t the most accessible. Having a car would have been really useful, but I didn’t have time to translate my license to hire a car so I relied on buses and hitch hiking. I read that it’s not popular across Japan, but in Hokkaido you will have some mixed successes, as people know of the transport difficulties.
From Utoro you can get to some of the main places, but beyond these, a car is needed.
The top spots to visit around Shiretoko are:
Goko 5 Lakes
From Utoro, an 800 Yen bus journey will get you there. After watching a safety video about how to deal with Brown Bears you can go on your walking trail. One must be careful, as the area has the highest concentration of Brown bears in the country. On sightings, the park is shut down, so I had mixed feelings about sighting one.
Walk the trail, and be graced by amazing, calm and reflective lakes, which provide a foreground for mountain ranges going on as far as the eye can see. Each lake offering something a little different from the previous one.
A natural hotspring, the Kamuiwakka falls gives visitors the opportunity to walk up a slippery rock face and experience the hot water warming up our feet. Take your shoes and socks off and carefully ascend the smooth rock where you can dip in the small pools that have been naturally formed. Unfortunately, due to safety reason, you can no longer go all the way to the top.
Public transport here is also limited between 1-25 AUG, so the only other means are by car. I didn’t have a car, so decided to try to hitch a ride from the road near Five Lakes.
Don’t visit Hokkaido without coming to Lake Toya. A 2 hour train ride from Sapporo will bring you to Toya station. A short bus ride will then take you to the tourist area of Lake Toya. This is a Caldera Lake, created by a volcano and said to be the lake that never ices.
The water is very blue in colour and could be mistaken for the sea. There is more than enough to keep you really busy for a day or two here with cruises and walks in abundance. Nakajima Island lies in the middle of the lake. You can catch a cruise here and explore the beautiful forest with a diverse wildlife presence here. The boat looks really ridiculous and like it was stolen from Mickey Mouse. But it gets you from one side to the other.
The small island has tall, symmetrical trees towering above and if you’re lucky you can see deer darting away through them. You can follow the peaceful walking track taking in the smells and sounds of nature.
Toya has a number of short walks that can be done. I did the one which leads you to a lake formed by a crater. On the trail you can see abandoned settlements, which looks like no one has lived in for decades. Volcanic eruptions from the past have damaged these buildings.
The cloudy weather prevented Crater Lake displaying it’s clear blue/turquoise water. It’s quite a steep hill down to the lake so I wouldn’t recommend trying to get down there. Otherwise you might not be able to get back up.
Hokkaido is one of the most serene places I have been in my travels and changes as the season’s progress. It is still untamed and tourist numbers are much fewer than the main hotspots. Go visit Hokkaido for a different side of Japan.