The healing power of the wild, mountainous and unexplored Hokkaido
Cruising through the placid waters of Lake Toya on a cloudy day of October, at last I had made peace with my waging mind. Just few weeks back I was losing my sleep over finding answers to questions, which should have been left unanswered. Fed-up with my situation I was contemplating to take antidepressants and sleeping pills but my cure was somewhere hidden in the wide-open spaces of Hokkaido, Japan.
As a lone passenger when I alighted from the Cruise at the floating islands of Nakajima, I didn’t know I would not only be left spellbound by the beauty of the tropical-blue caldera lake of Toya but it will also bring quietude and peace to my life. I sat on the shore marveling at the fantastic art gallery of nature.
Perhaps the uninhabited island was expecting me and that’s why it was all decked up in the pretty autumn colours of red, orange and yellow with streaks of green and brown thrown in between. Maple leaves were busy teasing the sometimes-gentle-sometimes-rough waves. The wild berries of tall mystical pine trees were holding the water droplets by edge. The bright red Shrine gate was keeping a strict eye on everyone.
Nobody seemed to be in hurry. Neither nature nor me. I was in a state of stillness not bothered to click selfies when I heard a voice whisper in my ears,
Welcome home, Honey. You took long to arrive. Let’s have a chat. Why do you get hurt when people leave? Look at me. I have been all alone all my life. People come and go. Each person has a specific role in your life. Why do you want to hold on when they are gone? Do I run after others? No. So stop chasing. Make yourself so enigmatic that others run after you.
Yes, it was that simple. But complicating the simple comes naturally to homo sapiens. It was time to simplify. The enormous Lake Toya, which stretched flat and smooth and blue all the way to the edge of the grey sky, had healed me. Probably the secret conversation between the lake and me was heard by the seagulls too. They were all celebrating my happiness by flapping their wings around me.
WHY did I choose Hokkaido?
This was a slightly long prelude to why Hokkaido in Autumn should be your next destination in Asia. But how did I end up visiting the most offbeat part of Japan and not do the famous Kyoto-Osaka-Tokyo trail? The credit goes to the most potent tool of marketing, word-of-mouth. My friend had visited Hokkaido in May and shared the offbeat charm of the northernmost island of Japan. Being an offbeat traveler it clicked immediately. And then the icing on the cake was Lonely Planet naming Hokkaido as the top destination in Asia.
Another reason for choosing Hokkaido was to witness the amazing kaleidoscope of Autumn Colours, which starts in the mountains of Hokkaido in September and descends to the central and southern parts of Japan until November. I wanted to travel along with the Autumn leaves. And I actually did 🙂
WHEN to go?
Summers (June to Aug): Perfect time if you want to hike Mt. Fuji or other peaks or visit the national parks for flowering season
Autumn (September-November): Best time to catch the fall colours that travel from top to bottom of Japan
Winters (Dec-March): Best time for the Skiing and winter sports. Also, snow festival happens during this period
Spring (Mid-March –Mid-April): Most famous season to see Sakura (cherry blossom) that starts from bottom to top
WHERE did I travel?
I decided to follow the autumn leave path. I spent seven days chasing the fall colours in Hokkaido and 7 days in Honsu.
Day 1: Manila to Tokyo to Sapporo
Day 2: Local sightseeing in Sapporo
Day 3: Day tour to Jozankei from Sapporo
Day 4: Day tour to Yoichi and Otaru
Day 5: Lake Toya & Noboribetsu
Day 6: Noboribetsu and Hakodate
Day 7: Travel to Hakodate and local sightseeing
Day 8: Local sightseeing in Hakodate and travel to Sendai
Day 9: Sendai to Matsushima to Sendai
Day 10: Sendia to Nikko
Day 11: Niko local sightseeing
Day 12: Nikko to Kawaguchiko (Mt. Fuji) via Tokyo
Day 13: Kawaguchiko and Tokyo
Day 14: Tokyo sightseeing
Day 15: Kamakura to Tokyo to Manila
HOW did I travel?
Japan is a heaven for public transport. It can't get better than here. Everything runs on time, convenient and well organised. But quality comes at a price so transportation is incredibly expensive in Japan. Bulk of my expense was on transportation.
- Flight: To save on time I flew from Tokyo to Sapporo. One way ticket costed me around 8000 JPY but I did the booking at the last moment so I had to pay almost double the usual booking amount
- Trains: The fastest but the most expensive mode of transport. I got a 14 days JR Pass, which I used extensively for intercity travel except for Kawaguchiko where JR train service is not available
- Buses: Used them for intra-city travel and day tours to destinations like Jozankei, Nikko, Kawaguchiko. They were cheaper than trains. For example a train ticket from Sapporo to Toya costs approx. 5000 JPY but a bus ticket (Hotel service) costs only 1000 JPY. However, the bus frequency is very less. So it was imperative to check timetable before venturing out.
- Subway: Used them in big cities like Sapporo and Tokyo. Buying a day pass was economical. For example a 24 hour pass in Tokyo costed 600 JPY
- Trams: Hakodate’s old world charm is incomplete without its tram. I bought a day pass for 600 from my hotel and it was very convenient and romantic way of traveling
- Cruises: I took three cruise rides - Lake Toya, Matsushima Bay and Tokyo. Costed between 1200-1500 per ride
- Walking: I walked a lot. On an average I walked for 15 kms per day. Japan has well paved walking pathways
WHAT travel hacks did I learn?
maps.me is a savior for travelers. It's super accurate offline maps empowered me to explore the most offbeat places on my own
Hostels in Japan are top notch. I tried Oak Hostel Cabin and instantly fell in love with the idea of capsule hotel. Very cozy very comfortable. The staff spoke English well and went of their way to help. I had imagined it to be cramped and claustrophobic but it was just the opposite. In spite of staying in a dorm I had my privacy. Best thing was its location and the amazing services it offered – lounge, kitchen, bathroom and laundry areas were well equipped with all modern amenities. Tip: Book in advance as they get sold out soon.
Although I booked most of my accommodation two weeks in advance but the few I booked at the last moment turned out to be better deal than the ones booked before. Also, Agodo.com offered better prices than booking.com, hotels.com, hostels.com, tripadvisor, Airbnb or even the hotel rates. I would always compare the price on all sites before making a booking. Tip: search in incognito mode
Tokyo and close-by destinations like Nikko and Kawaguchiko have a larger influx of tourists during weekends so they have a weekend surcharge. Try and plan your trips accordingly
Food and Drink:
Hokkaido is heaven for foodies, especially for seafood lovers. Ramen noodle shops, Soba Noodles and tempura are good quality food options available at cheaper price. You can get a big bowl of Ramen in 800 JPY. Also, I preferred buying groceries from the supermarkets instead of a convenience store. And you find vending machines almost at every street corner and even in desolate areas. Always stocked with cold drinks, hot drinks, food items and other assorted items. In drinks, you must try Sake and Japanese Whiskies and don't forget to visit the Whisky and Beer Museums in Hokkaido
Maps and Timetable:
I traveled to the strangest and most offbeat places, where I was either alone or in the company of people who didn’t understand my language. But not even once did I face a language barrier. Every station/restaurant/grocery shop/sightseeing attraction/outlet/home always had a map and train/bus timetable. Also, Google translate came handy
I packed too much but ended up wearing the same Uniqlo and North Face travel gear most of the time. It gets incredibly cold in Japan and layering always helps but because you don’t get dirty therefore you can afford to wear the same clothes (except for undergarments) for several days. So pack light to avoid carrying a heavy backpack. All train stations and hostels provide lockers where you can store your luggage at a nominal price of 500-700 for 24 hours. Most hostels, hotels and guest houses are well equipped with every basic item you need – toiletries, towel, hair dryer, tea-coffee vending machines, umbrellas and even washing machines. So you can pack light.
I got a data SIM from the airport for approx. 3800 JPY and 4G worked everywhere. You can buy a pocket Wi-fi if you are traveling in a group else Mobile SIM is better
So this was experiences of Offbeat Japan - Discovering the Autumn beauty of Hokkaido . Hope this post inspires you to plan your trip to the land of vast spaces and incredible beauty soon.
Before I end the post let me share some interesting facts which can earn you brownie points in front of others 😛
INTERESTING FACTS about Hokkaido
- Approximately of the same size as Ireland
- Second largest but most offbeat island in Japan
- Has an area of 20% but only 5% population
- Produces one fourth of the seafood in Japan. King crabs are a local delicacy and must try
- The best ski and winter sports destination in Asia, which hosted the winter Olympics in 1972 and will host the 2017 Winter Asian Games
- On a clear day, you can see across to Vladivostok, Russia from the ridge of Mount Annapuri. Niseko is closer to Vladivostok than Tokyo
- Most of the national parks are found in Hokkaido region, which mostly remain unvisited
- Bubbling Onsens (hot spring) are found almost everywhere, thanks to the spiky mountains, primeval lush forests, volcanic eruptions and caldera lakes