Hokkaido Road Trip
Trip Start Jun 30, 2010
58Trip End Jun 01, 2011
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We were keen to see the sea, so we plotted a path straight for Hokkaido’s east coast, which according to the Lonely Planet is the Japanese equivalent of Canada’s Yukon territory and a ‘harsh yet hauntingly beautiful, landscape that has been shaped by vast temperature extremes.’ Our destination was the wild looking peninsula of Wakka, wedged between Lake Saroma and the Sea of Okhotsk where in the winter sea eagles fish and icebergs jostle
In the morning we swam in the sea, cooling off the bites, watching numerous boats fishing for scallops off a reef a few miles out and imagining that, in only six months time, icebreakers will be ploughing passages here through a flat plain of frozen sea ice. We followed a school bus full of lively, uniformed primary school children along the coast for a while, travelling the national speed limit of 50kmph despite the road being wide, flat and utterly deserted. It’s an odd system in that if you’re caught driving over 50kmph but under 70kmph you face a substantial fine, over 70kmph you face imprisonment
We circumnavigated Lake Notoro and stopped off briefly at Abashiri (a place synonymous with Alcatraz in the minds of the Japanese due to its large prison, but actually a pleasant northern sea town in summer), before heading inland for a whistle-stop tour of Akan National Park. At a popular view point looking down over the large blue caldera lake, Lake Kussaharo, we made sandwiches of barbequed fish, salad and sesame-soy dressing and sat in the sun watching strings of young cyclists arrive panting at the crest of the hill and head straight for the drink vending machines, and motor-bikers stretching and casually comparing machines, before blasting off at well over 50kmph along the smooth, sinuous road.
We dipped into the tourist resort of Akan-ko and the Kawayu Eco-Museum Centre to have a look at the unique and rather cute marimo algae (Cladophora aegagrophila). Sadly this green fuzz-ball is on the decline, which isn’t surprising considering it’s found bottled in every tourist shop across Hokkaido, and the ferries too! Keen to get off the beaten track again, and ignoring our Asahikawa ryokan owner who sniffed when she heard we were heading that way and said, ‘but there’s nothing there! Sapporo is better’, we headed south-west for the coast and for Cape Erimo. En route we spent a night at a tranquil, but pricey, nature reserve-camping outfit at Tokachigawa, where in the morning I wholly embarrassed myself by accusing a Japanese chap of pinching our BBQ, his was identical to ours, and we had to beat a hasty exit! The same morning I also managed to press the emergency button in a service station toilet, thinking it was the flush (its difficult when everything‘s in Kanji!), setting off the alarm and sending staff racing to my aid
Route 336 stretches right the way down the south-east coast to Cape Erimo. It incorporates so many tunnels, running to such expense, that it is known as ‘Ogon-dori’ or Gold Road. All the way along it signs told us to ‘Be Careful of Tsunami’ and gave the road height above sea level. It is a wild, rocky coast and a good swell had attracted a number of surfers to a reef break. It was 4ft and pretty clean and we watched them for a while from the sea wall. Kelp harvesting was underway in most of the bays, undertaken by stocky, weathered men and women who were hauling lines heavy with kelp onto the shore, manhandling the seaweed up onto compact flat-bed Suzuki’s to be taken off and laid out to dry on the areas of gravel found outside all houses along this coastline.
The landscape of the peninsula changed as we neared the Cape, becoming less mountainous and more undulating with a beautiful, wild, sandy beach running for many miles along the east coast. This Pacific beach was strewn with driftwood and backed by a good dune system and in the dune slacks plots of trees had been planted. A look-out tower come interpretation centre told the story of how the hillsides around Cape Erimo were deforested to the extent that the area was called the Erimo Desert
A ten minute walk inland from the look-out tower was the Hyakuninhama auto-campsite where we decided to pitch up for a few days to explore the peninsula. We spent a morning swimming and messing about on the beach, not a soul around and we weren‘t sure whether this was because we were still in bear country, bears like fish, and perhaps this was a favourite bear fishing beach? Thankfully, we saw only flocks of waders darting in and out of the waves and probing about in the salty pools at the back of the beach and the usual steady stream of dragonflies and butterflies. We visited the Cape and were delighted to see no Land’s End-type development, just a car-park, a short row of shops selling seafood and tourist tat, and, in celebration of its location as the windiest peninsula in Japan, a stylish, low-key visitor centre devoted to wind. The rugged coast continued out to sea in a series of jagged island peaks, noisy with seabirds and home to a colony of Kuril Harbour seals (Phoca vitulina stejnegeri) and, apparently, one male sea otter
After a few days we left the Cape and headed north-west along Route 235, leaving behind the salty air and all things maritime and entering ‘horse country‘. We knew it was horse country by the beautiful ranches, grazing horses and tack shops, but if by any chance we’d missed those we’d know from the frequent signs telling us this was the case and even the street lamps had a horse incorporated into their design! Clearly this was a matter of national pride, and a Japanese man on our next ferry told us, ‘I am a horse-rider and I love Hokkaido; Hokkaido is very important for the horse.’
We made our way to Shikotsu-Toya National Park and were rudely reminded it was a Sunday when we rolled up at Morappu camp ground, another beautiful, sunny lake-side beach, to a packed car park and a packed beach; each family had its own well-organised but sizeable, noisy, lively encampment, and it was a real shock after the peace of Cape Erimo
The next morning we swam for the last time in the mirror calm lake, packed up camp and set out for the port city of Tomokamai just before the heavens opened. We had grown attached to our little motor, and not hauling our backpacks around, so how fitting that we said goodbye to the car and hoisted our heavy packs onto our backs once more, under a leaden sky. To cheer ourselves up we had a good meal in Moss Burger and lost ourselves in the dubiously named 'WonderGoo' (a massive music shop) listening to the latest Japanese DJs and bands. Then it was time to catch our bus to the ferry terminal and our ferry to Oarai, Honshu. Our time on Hokkaido had come to an end.
We’d travelled 600 miles and had a great time exploring the wilder side of Japan, and could now fully understand why many Japanese aspire to visit Hokkaido