hokkaido travel tips

Japan!!! A place near and dear to our hearts for so many reasons. My parents lived here in the 1970s and loved it so much that they brought my sister and me here to look at schools and houses during our elementary-school years. For Mike, having so many Hawaiian friends in college prompted him to take Japanese lessons and live on steamed rice and furikake through his twenties. And now with much anticipation, the HoneyTrek has finally brought us to the Land of the Rising Sun. The northernmost island of Hokkaido is not a typical first stop but my childhood friend Martin has taken up residence here and catching up with him and his lovely Japanese girlfriend Mio was the best way to orient ourselves in this near-mythical land.

sapporo travel tips

Fall foliage in our neighboring Sapporo park.
Fall is one of the most incredible times to be in Japan and over our 30 days here we chased it from its earliest days in the north to its last days in the south. In the park right by Martin and Mio’s central Sapporo apartment, the maples were just starting to turn electric red.

homemade japanese meals

A homemade feast of tempura, sushi, and plum wine at Martin & Mio’s Sapporo pad

Even living in a tiny (read: big by Japanese standards) apartment, Martin and Mio were the most gracious hosts as we camped in their living room for four days. They gave us tips on must-see spots on the island, navigating the cryptic bus system, which Sapporo beer to drink, and how to cook a traditional Japanese meal.

Sapporo travel tips

The old Sapporo government building turned museum.

Though Japan has been a country for over a thousand years, Hokkaido was only added in the 1800s. Inhabited by a small population of native Ainu, it was a wild place outside the law, order, and style of Honshu. To fast track it to civilization, the Japanese government actually brought in American agricultural and city planners to design the town. With old administration buildings like “Red Bricks,” Sapporo is a unique blend of New England and Nihon.

Otaru canals

The canals of Otaru by night.

A short train ride from Sapporo is cute town of Otaru. A harbor town famous for a curious mix of glassblowing, music boxes, and German-style beer was a lovely place to spend a day.

best conveyor-belt sushi restaurants hokkaido

Waruku Conveyor-Belt Sushi restaurant, Otaru.

From the pristine presentation to the wacky delivery methods, eating is half the adventure of travel in Japan. For example, this conveyor-belt sushi restaurant in Otaru. Waruku is a place where you don’t order by menu but instead by what’s the most delicious-looking fish gliding by. Each colored plate represents a different price point and to tally the bill a waitress simply points a color-reading scanner gun at the empty stack and prints the bill…totally brilliant and totally Japanese.

traditional japanese hotel room

Our first experience with tatami-mat hotel rooms.

To get a taste of Hokkaido’s raw beauty, we went into the center of the island for an overnight in Daisetsuzan National Park. Made of volcanic mountains, waterfalls, and hot springs, the hub of Sounkyo is a popular summer and winter retreat but we happened to arrive in fall when virtually everything was closed. We roamed the town looking for any open and remotely affordable accommodation and inadvertently got our first taste of traditional Japanese inns. When the innkeeper showed us to this room with a table and a few floor cushions we assumed it was a waiting room—I mean a bedroom needs a bed, right? We waited for him to return for about twenty minutes before we thought to start looking in the closet for any sign of a mattress. Indeed futons, sheets, and pillows were all there waiting to be converted into a tatami-mat king…live and learn.

how to use a japanese onsen

The slightly intimidating shower room at the Sounkyo village onsen.

Not knowing quiet what we were getting into (yet again), Mike and I decided to check out the onsen (hot spring bathouse) next to our hotel. I opened the door a bit nervous about what I would find and what I should do in a local Japanese bathhouse but thankfully it was a empty. Scrubbing down at the seated shower and strolling into the steamy pools was like a dress rehearsal (or undress rehearsal) for the inevitable Japanese ritual of skinny dipping with strangers….more on that later.

hikes near sounkyo

Ginga and Ryusei no Taki waterfalls falls at Daisetsuzan National Park.

Sounkyo is supposed to be fantastic for bike rides but with all the rental shops closed for the season we hitchhiked to the trailhead of the massive Ginga and Ryusei twin waterfalls. The cascade on the left had such a unique flow it seemed to unravel like ribbons.

waterfall hike from sounkyo Japan

Gorgeous waterfall a short hike from the town of Sounkyo.

On the other end of Sounkyo off the road to Momijidani, we found a trail to these gorgeous falls. Ending a nature walk at a waterfall always brings a sense of an accomplishment but the forest of gold birch, mountain ash, stone pines, and moss growing everywhere in between was just as exquisite.

what to do in hakodate

Fish shop at the Hakodate morning market.

Our week in the north island was coming to a close but to stretch it out we decided to visit the southernmost city of Hakodate before taking the boat across to Honshu. This port town is famous for its early morning fish market so we arrived at 5am to not miss an ounce of the action. Crabs crawling, squid squiggling, seaweed drying in the daybreak…this was the real deal. We had fresh salmon roe and rice for breakfast and would still take it over Corn Flakes any day.

Mike becoming one with art outside the Hakodate station

Mike becoming one with art at the Hakodate station.

Taking in Hokkaido’s mashup of cultures, charming cities, and expanses of untouched nature—especially with the help of good friends–made it the perfect foray into a month-long journey through Nihon.

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    1. it was totally gorgeous in Hokkaido and the onsen experience was very relaxing.. once you get over the fact that you are stark naked and roaming around publicly ; )

  1. Nice to visit with friends when away for so long! Who found the heart??

  2. Sam Taniratna says:

    I can’t wait!!! I’ll be in Sapporo in a few hours 🙂

  3. Kenneth Webster says:

    Ahh… Now this is nice! Thanks for sharing guys!

    1. Ken, so glad you enjoyed our Hokkaido account. Adventures in Japanese farming, remote Okinawan islands, and geisha dinner dates coming soon!

  4. David Carillet says:

    Awesome! Looking forward to reading about the rest of the time in the southern islands.

  5. Lauri Taylor says:

    I’m confused, are you in New Zealand or Japan?

    1. Okay Lauri, you got us. We have left Japan (it takes a while to put these posts together while we are on the move and having fun : ). For a more accurate gauge of our day-to-day whereabouts and adventures, check out our Facebook page Facebookcom/HoneyTrek

  6. Amazing! Hokkaido seems like such a unique part of Japan! Definitely hoping to make it there while we’re in the country this year.

    1. Jessica, we hope you do! if you can get to the national parks to the far eastern coast to see the ice flow that is supposed to be particularly amazing. Whatever you do…have fun!

  7. Rashaad Jorden on Facebook says:

    I’m so happy the Japan articles have started 🙂

  8. Alyson Long says:

    The more I see of Japan the more I need to go there. It’s so different. I’m always saying that we travel to find the different.

    1. I like this travel philosophy. Great travel is all about that sense of discovery…the familiar you can find at home. Hope you make it to Hokkaido some day!

  9. Rashaad Jorden says:

    Hokkaido certainly seems like a wonderful place to visit (I always love seeing new pictures of Japan – makes me miss Japan even more). Unfortunately, I never was able to visit that island but hopefully, the next time (if there is a next time) I go to Japan, I will hit up Hokkaido (I’ve certainly heard it’s the least Japanese island in appearance).

    1) Did you visit the Sapporo Beer Museum? I wouldn’t consider Sapporo my favorite Japanese beer, but I do like. Actually, when I was living in Yamagata Prefecture, a German couchsurfer brought me a can of Sapporo only found (or brewed) in Hokkaido. I loved it.

    2) I love image 42! Was the inn in Sounkyo a ryokan?

    3) Did you have the opportunity to explore Ainu culture while in Hokkaido? I saw in Lonely Planet that there was an Ainu Museum. At least, I think I did.

    1. rashaad, always throwing the solid questions at us, keeping us on our toes :). Hokkaido was really beautiful, but definitely lacks any sort of history or real japanese identity, just a heads up. 1) no we didn’t make it to the museum, but we did enjoy our share of Sapporo, and we did go to the Otaru Brewery in the town of Otaru…then we went to an aomori (sp?) factory on Okinawa island. 2) glad you liked that photo. that Inn wasn’t a ryokan, although it was very traditional, and it was connected to a traditional bath house that we got good use of 🙂 love those bath houses. 3) we did go to the Ainu museum in Hokkaido, it was pretty cool learning about their culture, reminded me a lot of the eskimo people of canada and alaska (but maybe not quite as cold)

  10. Jim Steere says:

    Hey guys just back from Portugal… I enjoyed the write up, I hope there is more to come on Japan!

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