I spent 8 days driving around Hokkaido, the northernmost island in the Japan archipelago. A total of more than 2,200km.
Below is my road trip story, day by day. Some tips on practicalities and logistics are provided at the end.
If you’re planning a trip to Hokkaido, please feel free to ask me any questions, via the comments section below or just send me an email.
Day 1: Chitose Airport > Shiraoi (Ainu Museum) > Noboribetsu Onsen > Lake Toya > Muroran. 200km.
The trip actually started the evening before, at Kansai Airport in Osaka. Because my flight left at 7am, I decided to sleep at the airport.
Newly opened is the “First Cabin” hotel, which is basically a capsule hotel, slightly upgraded. Two types of rooms cells are available: “business class”, which is a room the size of a bed, and “first class”, which also gives you space to take your luggage with you into the room. This being Japan, the facilities include a well-equipped public bath. You get pajamas, towels, a toothbrush and there is even a big-screen TV. Keeping the silence is essential as there are no doors to the room, only screens. Also, no cell phone alarms, but no worries: staff will come personally to your room to wake you up. For a few hours’ sleep at around 5,000 Yen it’s more than adequate.
I flew to Sapporo with the successful Japanese low-cost airline Peach. The one where the flight attendants, women and men, are all dressed in pink (or, to be exact, fuchsia).
After picking up my Times rental car at Chitose airport, I drove to my first stop: the Ainu Museum on the shores of lake Poroto in Shiraoi. The Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido and Sakhalin, Russia. The museum is known as Porotokotan, which means “large lakeside village” in the Ainu language. It is a replica of a typical Ainu village, with several thatched houses, and an actual museum building. There are Ainu folk dancing performances throughout the day.
I found the museum to be a bit sad, not least because of several bears and dogs being held in small cages for display, but also because the Ainu people are almost all gone. They’ve been discriminated against for so long, then assimilated into Japanese society to such an extent, that only a handful of people today (estimated 10,000-20,000) can trace their origins to the Ainu. In fact, only in 2008 did the Japanese government recognize the Ainu as indigenous to Japan.
From Shiraoi I drove to Noboribetsu Onsen, an hot spring town famous for its “hell valley” (Jigokudani). Hot underground steam, sulfur streams and ponds and general volcanic activity. It was raining a bit when I visited, which somewhat dampened the effect, but it was still pretty hellish-looking. It reminded me of the “Hells” in Beppu, Kyushu.
Noboribetsu has several hotels with in-house onsens, and they are open for daily use by non-guests. I chose the Sekisui Tei because it was the cheapest. Surprisingly, it wasn’t crowded and I had all 5 baths (2 of them outdoors) mostly to myself. Sitting in an onsen in the rain is an unbeatable experience.
From Noboribetsu I drove on to Lake Toya (Toyako), which is part of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park. There was a slight drizzle so the promenade along the lake shore was rather empty. Some Chinese tourists (of which there are tons in Hokkaido) braved the drizzle and venture out in small, duck-shaped, motorized boats to explore the lake. I decided against it, so instead I just walked around and took in the scenery. One of the inexplicable features of such places in Japan is the absence of coffee shops and restaurants. Almost anywhere else in the world, such lakeside promenades offer many opportunities to take in the views while drinking or eating. For some reason, this is not very common here.
As the sun was setting it was time to call it a day. I headed to Muroran, a sleepy port town, to turn in for the night.
Day 2: Muroran > Otaru > Yoichi (Nikka Distillery) > Sapporo. 260km.
Getting up early on Friday I drove up the hill on Muroran’s east side to Cape Chikyu and the Tokkarisho Lookout. Although the weather was cloudy, the views were still pretty awesome and being alone at the summit it felt a bit like the edge of the world.
The plan was to drive again to Lake Toya and take the ropeway up Mount Usu, to take in the views, especially of Showa Shinzan, the youngest volcano in Japan. This volcano formed as a result of earthquakes in 1945, climbing to a height of almost 300 meters. It was named after the Emperor era of the time: Showa. But as it was very foggy I decided against it and instead started the drive northwards to Otaru.
Otaru is one of the most visited cities in Hokkaido. To put it simply, it was me, a few local Japanese residents, and roughly half the population of China. Sakaimachi Street, the main tourist attraction, is pretty but it has turned into a money-making machines off Chinese tourists. For example, at the Music Box Museum at the south end of the street, you need to look very hard to find the “museum” itself. This two-floor building has transformed into a huge shop for music boxes, gilded jewelry boxes and other tacky souvenirs, which the visiting masses were purchasing en masse. Only in a side room on the second floor was I able to find an impressive collection of mechanical music boxes.
Escaping from this shopping madness, I walked down Sakaimachi Street looking for a sushi restaurant. Otaru is famous for its seafood, and every few steps one can find a restaurant with fish tanks and pictures displaying an impressive array of fish. I didn’t want to join the masses for lunch, so instead I walked a few minutes northwards to Sushiya Dori (literally, sushi restaurant street). The street itself looks very drab and unimpressive, but it is dotted with unassuming sushi eateries. Not cheap, but definitely some of the freshest and best sushi I’ve had. The pieces were so big and covered the rice so completely that at first I thought I had ordered sashimi by mistake…
From there I walked to another famous touristy spot: Otaru Canal, passing along the way the old railway of the Temiya Line, a narrow gauge railroad. The canal itself is not very impressive, but for some reason there were multitudes of Chinese tourists elbowing each other to get a picture taken at one of the bridges. Someone told me there was popular TV show in China filmed at this location.
Interestingly, the city seal of Otaru looks like it belongs to a Jewish basketball association…
From Otaru I drove westwards to the small town of Yoichi, for one purpose: visiting the Nikka Whisky Distillery. The founder of Nikka, Masataka Taketsuru, traveled to Scotland in the early 20th century to learn the process of Scotch whisky distilling. He returned to Japan with a Scottish wife, Rita, and established the Nikka distillery. Their adopted son now continues to run the business. The tour is free, but you are asked at the entrance if you’re driving today, and if you answer yes, you get a sticker that says you can’t sample any whisky, only apple juice.
It was starting to get late on Friday afternoon, so I headed to Sapporo, the biggest city in Hokkaido, to return the car and start a peaceful and quiet Shabbat.
Day 3: Sapporo. 0km.
On Saturday I walked around the city, taking in the main sights: Odori Park, the TV Tower (a small replica of the Eiffel Tower), the old Clock Tower, Nijo Seafood Market. Weather again was not on my side so it was a relatively short walk. (This being Shabbat, no photos…).
Just south of Sapporo Station is the former Hokkaido Prefectural Government Building, now a museum. Admittance to this impressive-looking, European-style building is free, and the history and culture of Hokkaido is explained in various exhibition rooms (mostly in Japanese). One interesting room describes the Russo-Japanese dispute over the Northern Territories, a group of tiny islands which were taken over by the Soviet Union at the very end of World War II. The Russians deported the Japanese and settled the islands, and to this day this dispute remains unresolved.
After Shabbat ended I went out again to take in the Beer Garden sights at Odori Park. On the way I passed a Kit Kat store, Japan’s favorite chocolate snack.
I turned in relatively early as a long drive was scheduled for the following day.
Day 4: Sapporo > Yubari > Furano > Blue Pond > Biei > Wakkanai. 500km.
Today I was headed to Wakkanai, the northernmost town in Japan, so it was mostly a driving day, with a few short stops along the way.
Leaving Sapporo early Sunday morning, after picking up another rental car, I headed first to Yubari. This small, decrepit town fell into financial problems after a couple of accidents that brought about the shutdown of the local coal mines. The town is trying to reinvent itself around the melon industry. Even the local post office has a melon on top of the mailbox…
The only reason I stopped at Yubari was to visit Melon Dome, a shop I had read about that sells all kinds of melon-based products. But the shop was closed for the month of August; a strange decision for a place that is trying to attract tourism. Instead I stopped by a local melon stand to eat a piece of one of the most delicious melons I’ve had in my life.
From Yubari I headed to Furano. This area of Hokkaido is known for its flower farms, particularly lavender. The scenery is beautiful, with rolling hills and valleys reminiscent of Switzerland and Germany. I stopped at a couple of farms, the most famous and toured one being Farm Tomita, to walk around the flower beds and take some photos. My colorblindness did not interfere (I think) with the amazingly vivid colors around me. Here too was a “melon farm” with tons of melons ranging in price from $15 to $150.
From Furano I drove through a winding road to the Blue Pond. This man-made lake, built to prevent erosion, is famous for its eerily blue water, apparently a result of some unplanned accident with chemicals. The place was never a tourist spot, but then someone decided to make lemonade from the lemons of this accident, and started promoting it. Now tourists flood the place and walk the path around the lake.
Biei was my last stop for the day. This peaceful town nestling among the green hills offers mainly scenic lookout spots. A couple of these are Patchwork Road and Panorama Road. I visited the former. Very peaceful. I had a quick late lunch here before starting my long drive north.
In hindsight, perhaps it would have been better to stay the night somewhere between Biei and Wakkanai. It’s a 250km drive, most of it through country roads where the speed limit rarely exceeds 60kph, so it’s a l-o-n-g drive. But I made it, arriving in Wakkanai around 9:30pm and heading directly to my hot spring hotel, where I soaked in the hot water to wash off the weariness of this long driving day.
Day 5: Wakkanai > Cape Soya > Sounkyo Onsen > Asahikawa. 380km.
After the long drive yesterday, I took it easy this morning exploring Wakkanai.
I walked around the port area and then drove as north as possible to Cape Noshappu. From here one can see the two small islands just off Wakkanai: Rebun and Rishiri. Weather was again mostly cloudy and foggy, so visibility wasn’t that good. There are ferries that can take you to these islands, which I’m told are a good spot for nature watching and hiking. I was headed in the other direction, to reach the northernmost point of Japan.
But before getting there, I stopped at Minato no Yu Onsen in the center of Wakkanai. This is a small but delightful hot spring, with two internal baths (one hot, one not so hot), and one outdoor bath (very hot) overlooking the harbor. I shared the waters with a few old Japanese men, which were idly passing their time before lunch soaking and chatting. I couldn’t resist asking two of them which language they were speaking, and they replied: Japanese! It didn’t sound like Japanese to me… They explained it was some sort of local dialect. They asked me if I was Russian, which is understandable as Wakkanai is home to many Russian visitors, mainly fishermen. The onsen even had instructions in Cyrillic, as did many establishments around the city.
Feeling refreshed from the onsen, I drove northwards to the tip of Japan. Technically, there is a tiny island of Bentenjima is more to the north, but is uninhabited so Cape Soya is it. This point is marked by a distinctive triangular monument, a popular photo opp spot. There are various other monuments around the area, including one in memory of Korean Air flight 007, shot down by the Soviets in 1983 (they thought it was a US spy plane), and one in memory of USS submarine Wahoo, sunk by the Japanese in 1943. On a clear day one can see the Russian island of Sakhalin from here, a mere 40km north of Hokkaido. Cape Soya was, appropriately for its location, very cold and windy, so after the requisite photo at the monument, I was back on my way south.
My destination was Sounkyo Onsen, a hot spring town in the Daisetsuzan National Park, in the center of Hokkaido. My hopes were high, as the weather seemed to be improving somewhat during my long drive south. But when I reached the area of Sounkyo Onsen, it was pouring. What was an annoying drizzle in the last few days turned into heavy rainfall. Initially, I was determined not to let the rain stop me from taking the ropeway up to Mount Kurodake. The lady at the ticket office confirmed the ropeway was operating, but she apologetically explained that it’s very foggy and gently enquired whether it was worth my money to go up anyway. That’s Japan for you: she could have stayed silent and taken my money, but she wanted to ensure I had the full information and was not disappointed. I thought for a second, thanked her, and walked away.
Not wanting to wander around the town in the rain I decided to call it a day and drove back to Asahikawa, Hokkaido’s second largest city and my home for the night.
Day 6: Asahikawa > Abashiri > Shari > Utoro. 280km.
Today marked a turning point in my trip. I headed east and finally got away from the rainy weather and into blue skies. I actually managed to watch the sun set for the first time!
Before leaving Asahikawa in the morning I checked again, just to make sure, whether there was anything I should see in this city (reminder: second biggest in Hokkaido). In the “top ten things to see” I found things like the train station, the mall in front of the train station, a roadside rest area… you get the idea. So instead I headed out, eastwards. Sounkyo Onsen and Mount Kurodake were on my way but as it was still very foggy I didn’t stop.
I drove straight to the northern shore of Hokkaido, to the town of Abashiri. The reason for stopping there was the excellent outdoor Prison Museum. It is rare to find an historical museum in Japan, especially off the beaten path, that is so well-designed and informative and… in English. Even the video show had an option for several languages.
In the late 19th century, as Russia was encroaching on Japan’s northern territories (eventually leading to the Russo-Japanese war in 1904), the Japanese government decided to settle Hokkaido and thus protect the island against this threat. And who can be easily moved to live in frozen, uninhabited Hokkaido? Prisoners, of course. Several prisons were built around the island. This outdoor museum tells the story of the Abashiri prison, reenacting the life of inmates and guards in the harsh environment they were forced to share. The prisoners were also tasked to build the main road traversing Hokkaido, and many of them died in the process. Today the museum grounds are beautiful and enchanting, so despite all the exhibits it is hard to imagine how absolutely awful it must have been here.
I had lunch at a popular sushi restaurant in Abashiri, on the main road. Sushi was good and inexpensive.
From Abashiri I drove along the coast to Shari. The drive is a very pleasant one. The landscape was very different from what I was used to so far: a large flat plain stretching from the sea for miles inland, dotted with farms and grain fields with huge hay bales. This is clearly Hokkaido’s “wheat belt” (or one of them). I stopped several times along the way to take photos of either the coastline or the farmlands.
Shari itself is a non-descript small town. It’s only claim to fame seems to be its position as the gateway into the Shiretoko Peninsula, the last “big” town before the wilderness of the northeastern corner of Hokkaido. I stopped to see the local shrine and temple. Both pleasant, but unremarkable. The tombs all had fruit and drink cans on them, this being the week of Bon, when most Japanese visit their families and go together to their ancestors’ graves, a practice known as haka-mairi.
I continued from Shari my final destination of the day: Utoro. But on the way I stopped to take a short climb up to see the Oshinkoshin Waterfall, designated as one of Japan’s best 100 waterfalls. It is about 80m tall and the water falls dramatically from the rocks. The stairs lead to about half way up the waterfall.
Crossing the short tunnel beyond the Oshinkoshin Waterfall, I entered the tiny town of Utoro, the last inhabited point before the Shiretoko Peninsula. I checked into my Japanese-style hotel (hot spring included of course) and then headed back down the mountain to watch the sunset. The Oronko Rock, a 60m tall and rather huge rock jutting out at the edge of the harbor (named after an ethnic people), provides a beautiful setting for watching the sun set into the Sea of Okhotsk.
Day 7: Utoro > Kamuiwakkayu Falls > Shiretoko Five Lakes > Rausua > Utoro. 130km.
Not a big driving day today, as I wanted to spend some time seeing the Shiretoko National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The two main attractions in this mostly inaccessible reserve are Kamuiwakkayu Falls and Shiretoko Five Lakes.
The starting point is the Shiretoko Nature Center, a short drive north from Utoro. Most of the year, cars can drive up all the way to Kamuiwakkayu Falls, but during the high season in August, one needs to leave the car at the Center (or at the Five Lakes entrance) and take a bus. No worries, it’s a convenient and efficient system. I left early to avoid the crowds, and took the first bus (08:40) from the Nature Center.
First, I rode the bus all the way to Kamuiwakkayu Falls, about 40 minutes, most on a winding mountain dirt road. The “falls” are really just a shallow river flowing over rocks, because the upper part has been closed down due to falling rocks. The interesting point about these falls is that they are water sprouting from an onsen (hence the “yu” in the name). Because only the lower part is now accessible, the water is only tepid. Still, it’s a nice experience, walking up the rocky surface and dipping feet in the shallow pools. I walked barefoot, no problem. Most Japanese wore special grip socks, so as not to slip.
Then the bus back, this time stopping at the entrance to the Shiretoko Five Lakes. This grouping of lakes is the main attraction in this peninsula, not only because of the beauty of the scenery, but also because it is home to brown bears. This last fact means that before going in one needs to fill out an “application form” and watch a 10-minute safety video, followed by the requisite 5-minute repeat of the video by a staff member to make sure we all understood (look up the word kakunin online). There have been some bear sightings, and very occasionally, people got attacked by bears (not on the trail, but let’s not be picky). But safety first! One of the safety tips is to clap and make sounds, so as to scare the bears away, so many people walk the train constantly clapping and making funny noises. In addition, many carry small “bear bells” on their backpacks, which supposedly scare the bears away. In short, it’s a hilarious cacophony.
There are two trails. One is a short, elevated boardwalk, less than 1km long, going only partially through Lake 1. The second is a proper trail through the forest, about 3km long, passing by all 5 lakes. Unless you are disabled, don’t take the short trail. Lake 1 is the least impressive of the lakes, and the elevated walk ruins the nature experience. I think the photos say it all, although they do a disservice to the real beauty of this place.
After taking the bus back to the Nature Center I took another walking trail, which goes from the Center to Furepe Waterfall, on the western coast of the peninsula. About 15-20 minutes. The peculiar thing about this waterfall is that it originates from underground water, so there is no river, just water flowing out from the rocks. The waterfall itself is quite disappointing. It is tall, but the flow of water is weak, maybe because this is summer. The views out to the ocean are beautiful though.
From Shiretoko National Park I drove back to Utoro and, after a quick lunch, drove across the peninsula to the eastern coast. The drive, only possible in summer, goes through the Shiretoko Pass, about 750 meters above sea level. The road is, as expected, winding and stunning, with beautiful views of Mount Rausu. When I drove through the pass (in both directions) the summit was completely fogged out and visibility very poor.
On the other side of the pass lies the town of Rausu, with its rather large port. An observation platform above the city provides a great view of the town and the harbor. Not much to do here, except visit the local shrine…
On a whim, I decided to drive up the coast because I saw there was an outdoor onsen – Seseki no Yu – on the very shore, a rare occurrence in Japan. Turns out this “onsen” is a small concrete bathtub, in the backyard of someone’s home. There was a sign saying “no entrance today”. I can understand the owner not always happy with naked people bathing under his kitchen window.
I was about to turn back, disappointed, when a young family with a bright little boy, stopped just as I was pulling out. I told them the onsen is closed, and they said they’re continuing a bit north as there’s another one, also on the shore. We drove together for a couple of minutes and arrived at Aidomari no Yu, a public outdoor bath on the rocky shore, almost touching the water (if you ignore the tsunami concrete blocks…). There are two tiny baths, about 3x2m each, one for men and one for women, separated by a thin wooden wall. As I was dipping in the pleasantly warm water, trying to chat with my newly found young friend, more people joined. Five is a crowd in this bath…
Time to head back to Utoro for the night. On the way back I stopped just north of the town at a point called Cape Puyuni, to capture the stunning sunset.
Day 8: Utoro > Lake Mashu > Mount Io > Lake Kussharo > Obihiro. 300km.
My last day started early in Utoro. I set out southwards towards the Akan National Park in eastern Hokkaido. Akan National Park is an active volcanic area and as such has several crater lakes. The three major ones are Akan, Kussharo and Mashu. I decided to visit the latter two.
Lake Mashu, the mid-sized lake, is probably the most visited one for its spectacularly clear blue waters. Some say it is Japan’s most beautiful lake (my friends call it the “deep blue”). As promised by the online guides, it was foggy around the lake so views of Mount Mashudake were limited, but the views were still pretty awesome. One cannot go down to the lake, but there are three observatory platforms around the lake. I first stopped at Observatory Number 3, on the western side, and then at Observatory Number 1, on the southern side. Observatory 1 has paid parking (500 yen) but the ticket includes parking at Mount Io, which was my next destination.
Mount Io (Iozan, meaning “sulfur mountain”) is an active volcano with sulfurous vents. With the steam, the strongly pungent smell of sulfur and the glowing sulfurous rocks which look to be on fire, this is a truly surreal experience. I felt as if I was at Mordor, and I looked up the mountain to search for Sauron’s watchful eye…
The biggest lake, Lake Kussharo, is almost 60km in circumference. There’s tons of outdoor activities around it for nature-minded travelers: hiking, camping, kayaking, cycling, etc. But for me the biggest attraction of this lake as its numerous outdoor hot spring baths. I headed for Ike no Yu, only to find out it was closed due to “algae outbreak”. So I continued further south to Kotan Onsen, which turned out to be the loveliest hot spring I visited. It is a small, rocky bath, which fits probably no more than 5-6 people, but it sits literally at the edge of the lake. So as you soak its wonderfully hot waters, you can take in the entire views of Lake Kussharo. An absolutely stunning experience.
Jutting into Lake Kussharo is the Wakoto Peninsula. There are walking trails around it. I didn’t go all the way round, just a few minutes into the forest and back out. The views, needless to say, are well worth the walk. The silence inside the forest is bliss. Here too is an outdoor hot spring, with a foot bath.
The Akan area concluded my trip. I drove east to Obihiro, the fifth largest city in Hokkaido. It was a pleasant place to stay at for my last night, before driving the 160km to the airport in Sapporo the next morning.
- Some may find 2,200km to be a lot of driving for one week. I was by myself so I could pace things as I wished. You might want to consider a shorter itinerary if you only have one week.
- If you fly an LCC like Peach, invest a little extra and get an exit row seat. The seat pitch is really tight.
- If you use the sleep at the First Cabin hotel at Osaka Airport, invest a little extra and get the “First Class” cabin. This way you’ll have some space for your luggage.
- Before your trip, write down the Japan Mapcode for all your destinations (use this website). It will save you a lot of time, no need to input the address or phone number.
- All the major car rental companies in Japan (Toyota, Nissan, Times, etc.) offer English support on their websites, so you can book directly with them if you have a preference for a specific company.
- If you want an aggregation website in English, there are two options: ToCoo and Tabirai. I used them both because I rented two cars. My recommendation is Tabirai. They don’t charge you a “mandatory” fee for English support (which you won’t need), and you can get the ETC card with the car, not mailed to you separately (which is what ToCoo does).
- Make sure you get a car with cruise control. My second rental car didn’t have it, and those long stretches of empty roads can be a little taxing.
- Make sure your rental car comes with an ETC card. Not only it will save you time going through the toll gates. It will also save you some money on tolls.
- You don’t need a 4×4 car, unless you plan to so some serious off-road driving. The roads, even the dirt ones, are all well-maintained.
- Come ready with patience and music/podcasts. Speed limits in Hokkaido are really low. The 100kph limit on the expressways is a myth, because most stretches have electronic signs limiting the speed to 70-80kph. Most roads I traveled on had very long stretches of 50kph.
- Take advantage of the Machi-no-Eki stops (roadside rest areas) to go to the restroom or buy food/drinks.
- Don’t worry about public toilets. They are everywhere and they are clean.
- If you plan a long drive (e.g. to Wakkanai), make sure you fill up your car before. The further out you go, the less often you’ll see gas stations.
- If you want a hassle-free gas filling experience, look out for gas stations with attendants (they will be standing there waiting for customers, so you can’t miss them). You give them your credit card and they’ll take care of everything, including cleaning your windshield. Sometimes they will also give you a wet towel to freshen up.
- If you plan on visiting onsens, especially outdoor ones, make sure you pack two towels. A small one to use at the bath, and a medium one to dry yourself.