Hokkaido Road Trip

Trip Start Jun 30, 2010
Trip End Jun 01, 2011

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Flag of Japan  , Hokkaidō,
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Toyota Rent-a-Car staff in Asahikawa spoke little English, but, somehow, we still managed to hire ourselves a charismatic little Japanese car and at a discount rate, much to the angst of three French gents who were getting nowhere throwing their weight around. We navigated our way out of the city, made easy by its grid road system, past retail centres, petrol stations and gaudy pachinko malls (hugely popular gambling malls), stopping off at a supermarket to load up with BBQ equipment and goodies, including fresh sushi and sake.
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. Fishermen’s houses lined the sheltered lake edge with buoys stacked in colourful piles, pots and nets, and we soon arrived at the deserted public car-park with high grey seawall, look-out tower and interpretation board in Japanese and Russian, and the barriered entrance to the auto-camp site with its Soviet-style office and lake-side beach. Although expensive, it had great facilities and we pitched our tent on the sand and drunk a beer as the sun started to dip over the lake. The site clearly could accommodate many visitors, but we found out why it was only us and four motor-bikers very quickly; the rapacious mosquitoes! Any exposed skin was targeted and they happily bit through clothes too. Thankfully the BBQ smoke kept them more or less at bay while our fresh seafood, steaks and veggies cooked.

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. Most people seemed happy to risk it and drove over 80kmph (and perhaps that’s why Hokkaido has more accidents than any prefecture in Japan?).

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. This desertification altered the sediment dynamic offshore and the local fisheries and kelp industry were devastated. The local community has been replanting the hillsides, now lush and green, and trialling the best technique to stabilise the dune system ever since, and this practical management has been hailed as successful. The interpretation mentioned the hard work that has been required to restore the ecological balance, and a taste of humility, ‘we are learning through trial and error’.

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. Around the west side of the Cape the road twisted and dipped, branching off to small fishing communities, one with ‘WE LOVE OCEAN’ in large rainbow letters on its seawall (a sentiment we couldn’t agree more with) before arriving at the small harbour town of Erimo. We made the most of Erimo’s well-stocked Co-op, restocking with essentials and some fresh fish, scallops, prawns and corn-on-the-cob for the barbie.

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. We went for a long swim in the clear lake and just as we started to relaxed so the place started to grow on us. We became absorbed in watching people enjoying their day off, feasting over BBQ’s, splashing about in the shallows and cruising the shoreline in kayaks. But it was even more fun watching them pack up and leave! All those people, and, to our amazement, the beach was left completely litter-free. That evening it was just us and four or five other groups. We pitched our little tent, conspicuous by its size and the source of great amusement to other campers, under a large silver birch, lit the BBQ and watched the sun go down, drinking the last of our sake.

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. With its good skiing and snowboarding, winter is the busiest season, but it is a stunning island in the summer. In particular we were pleased to have seen some of the National Parks, particularly Daisetsuzan, to talk to some National Park staff and to see that, on the face of it, the protected status seems to be doing its job, and to witness coastal and maritime Hokkaido, to catch a glimpse of people at work and play, to understand the forces that have and continue to shape the coastline and its communities, and to see the extraordinary lengths the Japanese will go to engineer a safe and accessible coast.

Best wishes
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