Japan consists of four main islands: Honshu (the largest containing Tokyo), Kyushu (the westernmost closest to South Korea), Shikuko (the smallest and most rural underneath Honshu) and finally Hokkaido in the north. From this northern island it is possible to see Sakhalin, an island once owned by the Japanese and now Russian. Unfortunately there was no time to travel to Wakkanai and Cape Soya to view the familiar country I look back at so positively. It’s a shame the visa for Russia is so short and expensive, else I’d go back in a heartbeat. There are currently no Shinkansen from the southern tip of Hokkaido upwards (though on a walk we went under the new line being built to Sapporo) so travelling takes a lot longer – more comparable to the UK (side rant here about how terribly slow and outdated the UK train system is, such a shame). After the brilliantly coloured turquoise and purple Hayabusa Shinkansen to Hakodate, the Hokkaido coast passed by us from the Limited Express Hokuto.
Our five nights on Hokkaido began with two in a suburb of Sapporo with a couchsurfer and his many guests. The house was beautiful, his dog was the most well behaved I’ve ever seen, and we shared delicious food. He recommended a walk we should do before we headed into the city for our remaining time.
Mount Shioya Maruyama and Otaru
Taking a local train north to Otaru then a change to Shioya, we stepped off into countryside bliss. Only one vending machine was on the road outside the station – very rural. A country lane past houses leads under a bridge for the new Shinkansen line opening 2031. This will make Tokyo to Sapporo much quicker than the nearly 7.5 hours it took us.
The start of the walk (or trailhead as the American word has come over) has a bear warning and a book to write your name in and start and end time of your walk. We reached there at around 10am, and many people had started before us. Most had bells on their bags to warn bears, they have great hearing but bad eyesight. We have since invested in a bag bell for walking foresty hills. Just in case.
The 3km up was steep and excruciating at times, the humidity and the fact it didn’t have a levelish part for a good 40 mins. After this short flatter part, a final steeper push to the top gave, as always, wonderful views. This trip has taught us that walking that little bit further and making a little more effort almost always gives great rewards. (Apart from a latest desperate attempt to view something we’d never seen before, but more on that in a later post…) We would have spent hours sitting at the top if it wasn’t for the millions of tiny black and biege flies that appeared just as we started our lunch.
The afternoon was spent in the town of Otaru. Turns out it’s very famous for its sushi, however it was too expensive for us here. Instead our money went towards a beer on the side of the Otaru canal. Great place for people watching, it was very picturesque if you haven’t grown up in a country full of canals. Mischa enjoyed the seagulls.
The largest city in Hokkaido
Sapporo began as small Ainu villages until as recently as the 19th century when the Meiji government decided a more defendable centre was necessary in 1868. The former Hokkaido Government Office is a red brick western style building in the middle of the city. It is free to enter and it was full of the history of the town and the island, if sometimes just in Japanese. There was a whole separate room devoted to the issue of the northern territories owned by Russia – the Kuril Islands dispute. After having to give them up to Russia when WWII ended, Japan now wants them back.
Train stations generally have shopping malls in them or next to them (or above) and shopping malls always seem to have at least one floor full of restaurants. One lunchtime determined to have sushi in Hokkaido we took a ticket and queued for nearly 40 minutes at a well reviewed restaurant – we were not disappointed one bit. Being able to pick dishes off the conveyor belt and order directly from the chefs in the middle, it was hard to choose. It was all delicious, apart from the octopus – unbelievably chewy. Oh well, we tried it. At £13 for 11 plates, we were both full.
People are really friendly here, and go out of their way to help you. Some do not smile or give you funny looks but those rude people exist everywhere, no matter the country. Sapporo, like Nagasaki, is famed for its cityscape, so that meant yet another hill had to be climbed. Finding the trailhead was the issue, the first person we asked in broken Japanese pointed us to the ropeway. “No ropeway” in Japanese we said almost in unison. He looked confused, then shocked on realising our plan to walk up Mount Moiwa. It’s only 531m. He asked the next person who came around the corner. The second man with a big smile on his face and his perfect English offered to walk us there and off we trotted, after saying thank you to the first man. Our temporary guide was 81 years old, as fit as a fiddle and his goal was to walk 10,000 steps a day. Our average over the last seven days has been 13,205 steps, only a little bit more.
Sapporo was expensive to stay, our hostel beds were £25 each per night, and that was the cheapest I could find. It meant the location wasn’t great for the centre, but turns out it was perfect for the annual fireworks festival (which may be why everything was expensive). Standing on a road bridge the the crowds of people, many dressed in kimonos, were illuminated by the colourful fireworks for 50 minutes. When there were pauses, the audience clapped.
We couldn’t leave Sapporo without heading to the only beer museum in Japan apparently, Sapporo Beer Museum. Outside of the museum are displayed the barrels of beer on which the first sign announcing to the world that the company has successfully made beer is painted: “the production of barley and hops leads to an alcoholic drink called beer”. There is a small free museum in the former brewery and a bar where a tasting set of three beers can be purchased for ¥600 (~£4). It’s all lager of course but still, a German beer keller atmosphere existed with chandeliers made from glass bottles. It didn’t have the roaring yet bemusing feeling of the Tsingdao brewery bar, now that was fun.
The demon town
A day trip to Noboribetsu Onsen an hour south of Sapporo gave us two new experiences. The first was seeing and being in a volcanic area. Getting off the bus from the train station in nearby Noboribetsu, the first thing that hits you, other than the demon statues, is the smell – sulphur. This eggy smell is strong, but eventually it becomes just a backdrop to beautiful scenery and you get used to it quickly.
Jigokudani (aka Hell Valley) is a small valley with hot volcanic streams and geysers bubbling water and spurting steam. The guided path takes visitors along the edge of the valley and into the middle to view a dormant geyser.
Continuing on the path passes Okuoyu pool and the much larger Oyunuma pool with Mount Hiyoriyama above it. Today steam was shooting out – this means bad weather is coming. It was already raining.
A little further round the water from Oyunuma streams out and through a wooded area with a wooden path. Half way down people are encouraged to take their shoes and socks off, sit on a plastic mat and dip your toes in for a natural footbath. The sand was black.
Back in the town we arrived just in time for the local geyser which goes off once every three hours for around 50 minutes.
To finish off the day we treated ourselves to our second new experience, onsen. We chose to visit the largest bath house (29 baths) in Asia, though I’m sure there was one in Busan which boasted this too… Dai-Ichi Takimotokan is a very fancy hotel which opens its onsen to the public during the day. For ¥2000 each, about £13, (we accidentally took the wrong way in and almost didn’t have to pay as people are very honest here) we enjoyed the hot sulphuric baths, segregated of course Indoor and outdoor – though Mischa said the nearby road is viewable from a certain spot in the men’s section. The water in the outdoor pools was milky, straight from the volcano apparently, surrounded by green and purple trees, and the indoor pools provide views of the tops of these trees and hell valley beyond.