A short flight from Tokyo took us to Sapporo where we picked up a hire car (complete with our new sat nav friend, whom we soon christened Suki-san) and off we pootled into the remote wilderness of Japan’s northernmost island.
I say “pootled” as despite the lack of traffic and the fact that Hokkaido is a pretty underpopulated part of the country (only 5% of the country’s population live in 20% of the land area), the speed limits are really low: only 50 km per hour on main roads and between 70 and 100km per hour on the single lane (!) “express-ways”. Mind you, it did seem that we were the only ones strictly adhering to these limits especially on the express-way and because overtaking was not permitted (and indeed blocked by road barriers) other than in designated points, we did seem to be causing quite a tail back at times. Actually given pedestrians’ unwavering adherence to waiting for green men to appear at road crossings (even when there was no traffic), we were a little surprised to realise that drivers were not quite so rule observant when it came to speed limits. But maybe it’s a little bit more relaxed in Hokkaido?
Going to Hokkaido made a great final week to our Japanese trip and gave us a chance to explore another side of Japan away from the hoards of tourists. On a clear day from the Shiretoko Pass Lookout, we could even see Russia; well, at least the disputed Northern Territories (the 4 islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai) to which Russia currently lays claim and officially occupies (but which Japan regards as inherently its and so these remain a disputed territory to this day).
There’s a lot of volcanic activity in Hokkaido – especially around Jigokudani (“Hell Valley”): this activity provides the heat for all the hot springs and onsens
In Hokkaido we continued our regular onsen action to which we’d become very accustomed. As well as the “hot spring heaven” of Dai-ichi Takimoto-kan (see Blog post “It’s a tatami world” dated 10 June, 2018), at the other end of the scale we took our first public outside and unisex (but still naked) onsen together at the edge of Lake Kussharo. Well now we are onsen pros, this seemed to be the next logical step and I like to think we took it in our stride without too much hesitation. Nor did we seem to phase any of our bathing companions who just let us get on with it and who took pretty much zero interest in us. Our first naturist experience!
But the main joy of this part of the trip was being able to get out and do some day walks admiring the beautiful scenery when the weather was kind to us (which to be fair, it wasn’t always unfortunately and in some parts of the island, there was quite a bit of snow still underfoot). We did however enjoy a great day’s hiking round the beautifully clear and mesmerizingly blue waters of Lake Mashu. Until quite recently, this lake was the clearest lake in the world but has recently lost this title but it still boasts an incredibly high underwater visibility despite being officially “stagnant” having no inlet or outlet rivers.
The beautiful and picture perfect Lake Mashu
Just before we left for that particular walk, the owner of our minshuku (family run B&B) appeared and handed us some small bells on a chain and in broken English tried to explain that if we saw any brown bears (this being peak bear season), we should shake our bells at them and they would apparently amble off. The logic behind this strategy is that the bears want to avoid humans as much as we do the bears and therefore talking loudly or ringing bells should be sufficient to alert the bears to the presence of humans and thereby avoid an unwanted encounter.
Different views of Mount Rausu: L: Shiretoko Goko Lakes (Five Lakes); M: Pond 2 on the Lake Rausu trail; R: Furepe Waterfall Trail
Not entirely convinced that being “armed” only with bear bells was going to be sufficient in the event we bumped into Paddington, off we set vigilantly and enthusiastically ringing the bells as well as chatting and even singing just to make sure we were definitely heard. “Hello, hello, we’re here, we’re here!” My approach to making noise on these walks reminded me of when I was a small child on holiday with my family in Wales when I had been allowed to join my sister and father on a late evening walk to go and see owls. However unfortunately, I had chatted constantly because I was so nervous in the dark thus ensuring every self-respecting owl vacated a very wide area much to my older (and much braver) sister’s disgust and annoyance. In Hokkaido the strategy was equally successful and we didn’t get to see Yogi in the flesh despite people reporting bear “encounters” (presumably this could be better translated as “sightings”) in areas where we were walking and on the exact same day only an hour or so before! Later on, of course when we were walking in less secluded areas, we were of course disappointed not to see any bears. There really is no pleasing some people!
L: If you encounter a bear “Don’t panic”; M: photo taken at 15.54 on 30 May (only an hour after the last “bear encounter”; R: the only bear we actually met!
But don’t worry if you think all this great outdoors stuff meant we couldn’t get our fix of kawaii (cuteness) in Hokkaido (see Blog post “Kawaii” on 11 June, 2018). Fear not. First off there’s natural kawaii in the form of marimo in Lake Akan. Essentially these are spheres of green algae that sway gently at the bottom of the lake at depths of 2 to 3 metres where the sunlight still penetrates to feed their photosynthesis process. Most are small but a few have a diameter of at least 25 cm and no one really knows how long they take to form. But the Japanese seem to love them as they think they are cute and marimo have even been designated as a national treasure, to the extent that their popularity has meant they are avidly collected and are now endangered. To solve this, the original indigenous people of Hokkaido (the Ainu people) have had to introduce an annual Marimo Matsuri (a sort of amnesty festival) to allow people to return their marino to their original habitat with an appropriate show of pomp and ceremony!
Perhaps a little sucked in by the over enthusiastic tourist leaflets bigging up marimo and in any event fancying a boat trip, we went out on Lake Akan in search of these strange green balls. Unfortunately the only ones we saw were in the observation tanks on the island in the middle of the lake. Interesting enough but I am not sure I completely understood the hype: to me they just looked like over-sized fluffy green tennis balls (a bit past their best).
Back on dry land there was the picturesque city of Otaru which exuded kawaii. It was here that we saw the Snoopy food stuffs (see Blog post “Kawaii” on 11 June, 2018) but in addition this town is famous for its music boxes which seem to be come in every shape and size. I don’t know what it is about music boxes but I’ve always found them a bit creepy (perhaps I’ve just watched one too many horror films where a music box suddenly starts playing in an empty house without explanation: even just thinking about this sends a shiver down my spine!!). But obviously my prejudices against music boxes weren’t shared by all the local tourists who flock to Otaru to buy them as well as to visit the beautifully restored (albeit rather short) canal which apparently forms the backdrop to many a local romantic movie. Otaru is one of the main tourist spots in Hokkaido.
And last but not least there’s Sapporo, Japan’s 5th largest city which has everything you would expect of a large Japanese city, including lots of neon lights. Indeed I was really impressed by it and loved its vibe: I even begun to imagine that I could settle there but that’s forgetting a very important point: we were visiting at the end of May rather than in winter when the temperature drops well below freezing when no doubt some of the city’s great charm is lost (frozen out?) in the Big Freeze. Summer is a pretty short season in Hokkaido. Either way though, Sapporo afforded us a chance to see the 1972 Olympic ski jump which was a fun trip.
It’s a long way down
And with that, our Japanese trip ended. I can’t believe I’d never been here before and very much hope to return before too long. Although we’d been lucky enough to spend just over 4 weeks travelling around, it still seemed way too short and as though we’d only scratched the surface of what was a very interesting (and let’s face it, very comfortable) country.
Arigato, Japan. What a great place!