Hokkaido Mon Amour!

By Denis Plamondon

Photos by Sandra D’Sylva and Denis Plamondon

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Rebun flowers with Rishiri volcano in the background

Rebun flowers with Rishiri volcano in the background

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Hokkaido is a very large and unique island, so planning is best if you wish to optimize your journey within a given budget. In a series of articles to come, I will share with you the itinerary we chose, the decisions we made and the discoveries we enjoyed. As it was our first time traveling to this magnificent place, I can only talk about the selected period of our trip, the summer period between July 31 and August 12. Hokkaido has four very distinctive seasons, so you should decide when to go accordingly. In subsequent postings, I will be commenting about the surroundings of Lake Toya (Toyako), the Samurai Festival in Datemombetsu, the thermal and sulfuric landscapes of Noboribetsu, the Ainu museum and its culture in Shiraoi, the winery, the flowers and farmlands of Furano, the end of the railway in Wakkanai, the world of fishery, seaweed culture and other wonders on Rishiri and Rebun islands, and finally, the interesting city of Hakodate. Let’s start with transportation in Hokkaido.

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Transportation

If you are a visitor to Japan, you will certainly benefit from the use of the Hokkaido JR Rail Pass,  but if you are already living in Japan you can only avail yourself of the more restricted Hokkaido Furii Pass or the popular seishun 18 ticket (seishun ju-hachi kippu). If time is not an issue, reaching Hokkaido on a ferry is an excellent option as well (Oarai to Tomakomai Ferry). The shinkansen and limited express trains will bring you there from Tokyo in 4 hours, but you can fly for more or less the same price with a few local airlines.

In reality, you are most likely to use different kinds of transportation, including taxis, during your holidays: we flew to Chitose Airport on the outskirts of Sapporo, and used the shinkansen only at the end on our way back to Tokyo (stopping in Matsushima for a little additional fun). In Hokkaido, the seishun 18 ticket, which allows you to use only local trains, served us perfectly since the slow pace gave us an opportunity to really feel the countryside and meet charming people along the way. From Wakkanai, we crossed by ferry to Rishiri and Rebun Islands. I highly suggest renting a bicycle to go around Rishiri Island, which is a great way to discover the region while keeping your body in shape. We even hitchhiked on Rebun Island after hiking for many hours in the wild. On the return from Wakkanai, we took the overnight bus to Sapporo, which allowed us to save on accommodation as well as time. However, on our way back to Tokyo from Hakodate, we were compelled to use an express train to make up some time.

Beside the great countryside and open spaces you see when taking the train in Hokkaido, the first thing you will remark is the people themselves. Unlike Tokyoites who are often busy with the matrix of their cell phones, Hokkaido inhabitants are happy to see you, help you and stop to chat. The second obvious thing you will soon realize is the smell of diesel (!) as very few lines are electric due the breadth of this island. The third thing about travelling in Hokkaido, and important to be aware of, is the relatively fewer connections and frequencies in the transport system. So plan your holidays well and don’t be in a rush. It’s Hokkaido; it’s huge, exciting and beautiful. There are mountains and volcanoes, rivers and sea shores, farmlands and rice fields, islands and fisheries to explore.

Lake Toya turned out to be a lovely starting point. We decided to start our journey in Toyako, a beautiful location which offers a fireworks display every night during the summer season. (Toyako Onsen was the venue for the recent G8 Toyako Hokkaido Summit). During our 12-day visit to Hokkaido, this is where we found the best value for accommodation at the Kawanami Hotel. We chose a Japanese style room with a fantastic view on the lake. The friendly personnel looked after us well. Facilities include interior and exterior thermal baths (o-furo) which we enjoyed after exhausting hikes in the vicinity, free internet access, a good value restaurant, a small art gallery and a cozy lounge. The hotel proved to be well located to visit surrounding volcanoes like Usu, Showa Shinzan and Nishi-Yama. So don’t hesitate to stay at the Kawanami Hotel; price starts at only 3900 yen per person. For the more information on our journey to Hokkaido, please come back to this site soon.

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Naka Furano, farmlands and Mountains In Hokkaido

Naka Furano, farmlands and Mountains In Hokkaido

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One man Train car going to Wakkanai in Hokkaido

One man Train car going to Wakkanai in Hokkaido

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The Crew's cabin in One man train car! Hokkaido

The Crew's cabin in One man train car! Hokkaido

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Trees in Highland country near Furano Hokkaido

Trees in Highland country near Furano Hokkaido

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Farm with rice fields in Hokkaido

Farm with rice fields in Hokkaido

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Date Samurai Matsuri and 2 horses in DateMembetsu Hokkaido

Date Samurai Matsuri and 2 horses in Datemombetsu Hokkaido

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Showa Shinzan near Lake Toya in Hokkaido

Showa Shinzan near Lake Toya in Hokkaido

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Flowers in a sailing boat on the island of Rishiri, Hokkaido

Flowers in a sailing boat on the island of Rishiri, Hokkaido

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Tunnel on the Hokkaido Raiway system

Tunnel on the Hokkaido Raiway system

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Sunset observed from the Ferry after Rebun, Hokkaido

Sunset observed from the Ferry after Rebun, Hokkaido

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Next article: Hiking in a disaster area