Spending a week, hitchhiking and camping in Hokkaido in one of the last great wildernesses.
Hokkaido is the northern most island in Japan. It is an untamed land of brown bears, hot springs and national parks. Being the second largest island in Japan and covering 22% of the land mass, Hokkaido is much bigger than you’d think. There is a big seismic presence with five active volcanoes on the island, creating hot springs and smoking sulfur rocks that make quite a stink throughout the island!
The second largest population of Black Bears in the world live on the Island, who were revered in
ancient Ainu culture. The majority of these bears reside in the Shiretoko Peninsula. Measuring 20 kilometers long and five kilometers across, it is home to 500 Black Bears.
Thinking about camping?
With Japan having a popular camping culture and hotels being expensive, it made sense to camp during my stay. Japan has a strong outdoors culture and you can find camping grounds throughout the country, even in the center of Tokyo. Camping in Hokkaido also means really good amenities, including showers, laundry service and running water. People don’t often see many foreigners camping, so will be intrigued to know why you are here.
Buses and trains are also pricey (e.g. the Bullet Train from Sapporo to Tokyo is 28,000 Yen which is about £250 for a four hour ride), so it made sense to give hitchhiking a go. A man I met at a hostel in Tokyo told me that Japan is maybe one of the easiest countries in the world to hitchhike in, so I thought I would try my luck.
Being short on time and travelling on a budget, I wanted to see as much as I could, in the cheapest way. National parks are scattered around the island and I wanted to spend one night in each of them. Attempting to hitchhike whenever I could, as well as camping, was the much cheaper option. Having a rough idea of where the campsites are is also important.
What to bring
- I brought a tent and sleeping bag (an airbed would have been a much better idea)
- Warm clothes (even though it’s the summertime it still gets cold, especially around Lake Akan)
- Small stove (instant noodles are everywhere!)
- Make sure you have enough food (there are restaurants in most of the campsites, but bring something to see you through the night)
- A torch
Flying into Chitose airport, I had a campsite in mind that I wanted to get to which was 10 kilometers away. After taking a taxi and getting my head around the exchange rate, I realised, “wow! this country is expensive.” I camped at the Izumisawashizennomori campsite, which is set in a valley. With the rain pouring, I questioned why I was doing this trip. But looking out over the forest the morning after, I became aware of just how peaceful and wild Hokkaido is. Currently, I live in Ho Chi Min City in Vietnam where the nature is non existent, so this was a pleasant change!
The next morning I made my way to the roadside and attempted to hitchhike all the way across the island. After waiting for 20 minutes, a lady picked me up. She took me to the road which heads to Kushiro, roughly 200 kilometers away. Eventually getting a lift in a guy’s truck, we set off. On the whole, locals in Hokkaido don’t have a high level of English, so be prepared for lots of google translate and actions to get your message across! On arrival in Kushiro, I took a train all the way up to Kawayo Onsen, and then a bus to Lake Kusshiro. This is the biggest lake on the island and where I set up camp. This campsite was set alongside a lake with a hot spring on the shoreline, which made the freezing cold night bearable.
After exploring Lake Akan National Park, I made my way to the Kushiroshitshugen National Park to make camp for the night. The map said there weren’t any national parks, but I thought I would gamble and see what I could find. With the night drawing in quickly, I put up my tent on a grass bank (which isn’t strictly legal). This was perhaps the scariest night as I read there were bears in the area, so going to the toilet in the night was a sharpish affair!
The rains were lashing down in Kushiro the morning after, so I made the decision to either take the train or the bus. I found the buses to be a third cheaper, and they turned out to be very comfortable with great wifi! Arriving in Sapporo, I made the journey down to Lake Toya to camp for the night. Tayoko Onsen, a town on the lakeside, was where I camped. This was a difficult night as I couldn’t find a campsite. I had to sneak into the garden of one of the hotels to set up camp while engulfed by the darkness. With absolutely no light to set up the tent, a sailor on a boat coming to shore came to help me.
Tayoko Onsen is a popular resort town and is full of hotels. The nearest camping grounds are two kilometers outside of town. The bus doesn’t stop until it reaches Tayoko Onsen, so be prepared for a lengthy walk back out of town until you arrive at the grounds.
From here, I hitchhiked the six kilometers over the mountain ridge into the seaside town of Toya, where I took the train down to Hakodate. From here, the Bullet Train leaves for Honshu.
Would I recommend it?
Japanese people are extremely friendly which makes hitchhiking easier than in other countries, so it is definitely possible. The scenery around Hokkaido is so stunning. To witness it first thing in the morning as you step out of your tent is absolutely breathtaking. So for those two reasons alone, I really think people should try this.