Erupting volcanoes, tranquil ponds, busy crossings, endless forests, crashing waves, relaxing onsens, humid and hot in the South, chilly in the North: Japan is a country of significant contrasts, and we clearly notice this as soon as we arrive on its Northernmost island, Hokkaido.
After road tripping on Kyushu and Shikoku, riding trains on Honshu, visiting Hiroshima, Kyoto, Tokyo, the Alps and so much more, we are about to start our last big adventure of our journey in Japan: a road trip in Hokkaido.
It is mid-August and this means one thing: Obon week in Japan! During this national holiday, Japanese people are off and travel to their hometowns to pray for their ancestors as they are believed to ascend and visit their families on Earth. Food is offered at temples and ceremonial dances are carried out. Unfortunately we did not get a chance to witness this cultural happening from up close. What we did notice though was the fact that trains and hotels are packed, making it a must to book months ahead.
Our road trip started by biking through the hilly heart of the island. But Hokkaido is a big island, the second largest in the country, representing about 22% of it. Being a lot less connected than Honshu by public transports, renting a car is a great way to explore its wilderness. While driving, the differences with the rest of Japan appear immediately: vegetation, houses, climate… Endless amounts of red arrows above the side of the road turn out to be winter indicators for when it is covered in snow. Landscapes are not as mountainous as on Shikoku or Kyushu, but hilly and covered in crops grown in the milder climate of the centre of the island. We pass the prison town of Abashiri along the unfriendly North coast on our way to the Shiretoko peninsula where we spend several nights to spot bears and foxes, enjoy the remote forests and unique cliffs shaped by the winter’s drift ice, and taste hyper fresh local crab and seafood.
The freedom of driving our own wheels allows us to get off-road while making our way south, looking for some wild salmons during their amazing journey swimming upstream rivers against strong currents and rapids to reproduce in their natal stream.
Cruising the wide roads of Hokkaido reminds us of Sweden, when endless pine forests take away the view on both sides of the road. Villages are scarse, and it is getting dark when we start looking for a hotel. As it could have been expected for Obon week, the few hotels we find are fully booked. When we are about to accept the fact that we will have to drive all the way to the city of Asahikawa until the middle of the night, we stop in a cosy hotel in a small village that is of course fully booked too! But despite the fact that she speaks only Japanese, the clerk makes a few calls, and signals us to follow her by car to drive us to a close-by guesthouse where she leaves us with our hostess for the night. Wearing a friendly smile and a cloth in her hair, she is shy and extremely welcoming, despite her lack of English, running after us in the early morning to offer us gifts before we leave. When we were expecting to struggle even more in Hokkaido, it appeared to be one of the easiest islands in terms of communication, with open inhabitants, speaking a bit more English than on the Southern islands and above all, willing to try and communicate with foreigners like us.
We drive towards Sapporo, the capital of the island with its famous homonym beer brewery which is well worth a visit and even better, a tasting! This booming city offers lots of options from shopping, to restaurants and nightlife and hosts more and more young people every year, settling here to start a new life away from the megalopolises.
A last sushi meal on the fish market, a bit of shopping as if we could try and capture a bit of the spirit of this amazing country in a few souvenirs to bring back to our loved ones, and we are already boarding our plane back to Europe at the international Sapporo New Chitose airport. After traveling through Japan for six weeks, discovering and learning so much about this culture full of contrasts, sometimes frustrating to try and understand for a foreigner, the after taste makes us both want to experience it more during different seasons and after learning a bit of the language.