Article updated on May 25, 2020
Text & photos: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
While the Japanese train system is excellent and allows to traverse most of the country, driving is essential to explore the more remote areas of Japan, where public transportation is less practical.
Hokkaido is the second largest island of Japan, accounting for about 22% of the territory. The northernmost island is a lot less connected by public transport than Honshu, the Japanese mainland, and renting a car is a great way to explore its wilderness.
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As soon as the train from Shin-Aomori arrives on Hokkaido Island, the differences with the rest of Japan appear immediately: even if it is the summer the harsh climate shows in the build of the houses and the vegetation of the island. On the side of the wide asphalt road, endless amounts of red arrows 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.
Sapporo is the capital and largest city of Hokkaido. It is famous for its great nightlife and excellent ramen, seafood and local beers. It is home to the eponymic brewery which is well worth a visit and even better, a tasting!
This booming city hosts an increasing amount of young people every year, who eagerly settle here to start a new life away from the megalopolises of Japan.
Very popular as a Winter destination, the Sapporo Snow Festival, taking place annually for one week in February, is world-famous as well as the nearby ski resorts such as Niseko. Western Hokkaido powder snow is legendary due to its geology and extremely cold air blowing in from Siberia over the Sea of Japan where its moisture content increases to generate dense snow clouds that bring heavy snowfalls. After these snowfalls close to shore, dry air moves inland to Niseko and other mountainous areas. New snow falls out of this dry and cold air creating the praised dry and light powder that winter enthusiast crave.
Shiretoko National Park
However, it is summer when we pass the prison town of Abashiri along the unfriendly North Coast on our way to the Shiretoko Peninsula where we spend several days and nights to spot bears and foxes, enjoy the remote forests and unique cliffs shaped by the winter’s drift ice, and taste super fresh local crab, seafood and fish guts, the local delicacy.
Completely off the beaten path, the freedom of driving our own wheels allows us to look for some wild salmons battling their way upstream through rivers against strong currents and rapids during their amazing journey to their birthplace where they reproduce.
Also known as the Provence of Japan, Biei is a hot spot for Japanese tourists. Park the car and hop on a bike to explore its surroundings.
The quiet settlement is the perfect place to start the 5-day Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse hiking trail, or a day hike to summit Hokkaidos’s highest peak: the active volcano of Asahi-dake. The lovely ryokans with their onsens and rotenburos are perfect to recover from the outdoors!
Cruising Hokkaido with endless pine forests taking away the view on both sides of the road, villages are scarce. The Russian Kuril Islands are not far, and even if it is August, it feels like winter is coming. The local comforting food keeps us warm, as well as the friendliness of the inhabitants, some of them descendants of the Ainu people. Some rotenburos on the side of the road are another way to stay warm.
Back in Sapporo, a last sushi meal on the fish market, a bit of shopping as if we could capture some of the spirit of this amazing country in a few souvenirs to bring back and we are already boarding our plane back to Europe at the international Sapporo New Chitose Airport. After traveling through Japan for a month and a half, 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.
- Make sure you can drive in Japan! Check driver’s license details here.
- For driving tips, check out this article.
- Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!
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Or click on the images below for a selection in Hokkaido:
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