08 Aug 2018 in In immersion
Drive your way through the wonders and wilderness of Japan’s northern island!
Think of Hokkaido and you probably think of snow, skiing and sub-zero temperatures. But, in summer, the island shows another side of its personality: colourful, varied and verdant. And, unlike most of Japan, Hokkaido’s summer has the benefit of low humidity, cooler temperatures and no rainy season.Which makes it the perfect place for a road trip! Start planning your trip now.
South-west: cities, history and lakes (2-3 days)
If you travel by car ferry from Honshu, you’ll arrive in Hakodate on Hokkaido’s southern tip. This is the island’s third biggest city and well worth a few hours’ exploration.
For panoramic views of the coastline, head up Mt. Hakodate, a 1096-foot mountain that overlooks the city.
Fort Goryokaku is a spectacular star-shaped citadel in the city centre, complete with moat and cherry trees galore. Its architecture is typical of the Western influence in Hakodate, which was one of the first places to open to international trade at the start of the Edo era.
The final must-do – or rather must-eat – in Hakodate is its celebrated seafood. For unbeatable freshness, try one of the many seafood stores at the Morning Market.
From Hakodate, drive to Lake Toya for a first glimpse of Hokkaido’s great outdoors. The active volcano Mt. Usu dominates the lake – and its summit makes for a commanding viewpoint. One of the highlights is to walk among the 60-plus craters formed by Usu’s most recent eruption in 2000. As a reminder of nature’s might, it’s a humbling experience.
On the way to Sapporo, take a pitstop at Sapporo Pirka Kotan, where the small cultural center is a great place to learn about the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido.
If you’re a beer drinker, you’ll love Sapporo – especially in the summer. For a month during July and August, the city’s Odori Park transforms into a huge beer garden, supplied by local breweries and international brands. The beer garden is part of the Sapporo Summer Festival, when locals make the most of their short summer. Expect a fun-filled programme of music, dancing, firework shows, antique fairs, and more.
From Sapporo, Hoshino Resorts RISONARE Tomamu is just a 2-hour drive away – and makes a great base for the south-west and beyond.
Central Hokkaido: flowers, fruit, forests (2-3 days)
The verdant hillsides and meadows around Tomamu are a reminder of Hokkaido’s pastoral side. Step out of your hotel and you’ll find sheep and cows grazing around the resort. So where better to sample local dairy products?
From Tomamu, it’s a short drive to Hanabito Kaido 237 or Flower Road. Running from Furano to Biei, this 20-mile stretch is lined with an astonishing array of colourful tulips, pink moss phlox, purple lavender, and more. Have your camera at the ready!
Furano is famed for its melons. The Hokkaido melon is held in high esteem in Japan, with the sweet variety in nearby Yubari known to fetch literally millions of yen at auction! For a much more modest investment, you can sample the Furano kind at the Tomita Melon House.
From Biei, it’s just over half an hour to reach Hoshino Resorts OMO7 Asahikawa, a new hotel with urban attitude and a central location for exploring the area.
Foodies should sample Asahikawa’s famed ramen and try the Hokkaido speciality jingisukan. If you have kids, there’s a great zoo in town.
An easy day trip away from Asahikawa is the Daisetsuzan National Park, a mountain wilderness that’s bigger than certain Prefectures. Mt. Kurodake is one of the most accessible peaks – not least because there’s a cable car most of the way up!
It’s also a trailhead for short and multi-day walks. If you love the outdoors, you’ll be in hiking heaven.
The eastern wilderness (3+ days)
Still have time to explore more? Go east and things start getting really wild. This area is home to 4 national parks, including Shiretoko, a peninsula whose northern tip can only be reached by boat or on a multi-day hike. There are no roads in this part of the park!
From the safety of a boat, you’ll spot brown bears, sperm whales and killer whales. Another highlight is taking a warm shower under the Kamuiwakka waterfall, sourced from mountain hot springs.
Back on the road, make a beeline for the Akan-Mashu National Park, known for its mesmerizingly blue caldera lakes.
You’re now only an hour or so by car from the Kushiro Shitsugen National Park. Composed of vast marshlands and meandering rivers, this is the natural habitat of around 200 varieties of bird.
Our recommendation? Finish your road trip by renting a canoe and exploring the wetlands at your own gentle pace.
Road trip map: