I highly recommend you do Hokkaido with an iPhone (for Google maps, Spotify, translation apps, and if you need multiple random Google searches in your life each day, like me!) and a car. If you are terrified of driving on the otherside of the road with limited Japanese, perhaps like a certain someone…, find a good friend with a car and advanced Japanese language skills.
[Pssst, my friend Eric LIED, his Japanese is amazing.]
Once your stars align, throw confetti. Lots of confetti. You’re about to have an absolutely awesome vacation.
If you’ve never ever been to Hokkaido before and want to circumnavigate the northern part of Japan’s northernmost island in a week, I highly recommend our route with reservations.
GETTING THERE –>
If you want to take the fast route to Hokkaido, fly into Sapporo’s Chitose airport, which is a few miles south of the city. You can start your adventure there. If you are low on cash and coming from mainland Japan, you have the option of taking a ferry into the southern port-city of Otaru. Like us.
The downside: the ticket is the most confusing thing ever to purchase. You must find someone who knows good enough Japanese to book you a ticket on the telephone, they will give you a numerical code, then you have to take that code to a konbini within a certain number of hours and pay for it, the konbini will give you a piece of paper that still isn’t your ticket, then on the day you leave, you take that piece of paper into the ferry office to get your “real” ticket. Oh, and the ferry takes 18 hours. Gasp! But Hokkaido is otherworldy and out-of-the-way. Embrace it.
Longest ferry ride ever. We watch two movies, go to the onsen, eat crappy curry, and sleep for a little bit with headphones to drown out the loud school children who are on a rare break and never stop running around the ship.
It’s 5 a.m. and we’re on land again, kittens! Bypass Sapporo and keep driving five hours north to the city of Wakkanai. In retrospect, stop for food near Sapporo because there is NOTHING between Sapporo and Wakkanai. To be honest, Wakkanai doesn’t have much either, although I do try Sukiya for the first time. (Fast and delicious.) There are ferries headed to the tiny northern islands of Rebun and Rishiri multiple times a day. We leave our car in Wakkanai, and in a little over an hour, we can hear the yells of our Momoiwaso hostel friends on Rebun Island.
[Note: I would suggest sleeping if you can because once you get to Momoiwaso, there will be little downtime.]
Our hostel guide meets us at the ferry to load our gear into a covered truck, we huddle in the back as well, and off we go to Momoiwaso. It is a flood of Japanese on the way there, instructing us on the Momoiwaso way of life, so Eric has to do a lot of translating for me. It is actually kind of an intense experience for me: to be tired, confused, totally co-dependent on someone else, and bouncing in the back of a blacked-out truck having no idea where we I am going.
There is one point as we “supposedly” pass through a tunnel, that we need to set our clocks 30 minutes ahead to Momoiwaso time.
~AND WELCOME TO A REAL ALTERNATE REALITY~
Along the way, we are prepped on certain phrases that we will need to use at the hostel. The van stops in front of this gorgeous wooden compound – I think it was a former fishing house – at the bottom of these large, vertical rock formations, but still high enough that we perched on a cliff overlooking the sea (STUNNING!!!!!), and we must all yell, “TADAIMA (I’m home)!” before running into the main room. A big group of hostel workers and guests are waiting for us and yell back, “OOOKKAAAEERIINASAAAAAAAIIII!!!”, meaning “welcome home” in Japanese.
After setting our gear down on our beds, we eat seafood curry at the hostel. Cooks serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner and guests are required to wash and dry dishes.
At dinner, we’re interrupted by hostel workers – who never seem to tire or lose their voice – banging drums and shouting, “MEE-TING-U, MEE-TING-U, MEE-TING-U.” They are beckoning us to a two hour mandatory meeting, which includes skits, singing, and more yelling. This happens every night.
If you are doing the Hachi-Jikan, the famous island hike that literally traverses the island, you need to attend another meeting that night. We are taken upstairs and given instructions and a map of the course. I’m tired and my Japanese is poor, but the gist I get is to bring food, plan on 8 hrs, and call at certain check-points. Luckily, I’m not the leader.
Oh, and we’ll start our day at 5 a.m.
By this point it’s like past 10:30 p.m., I grumble to Eric – make crazy eyes pleading I’M TIRED – and we leave the hiking meeting a little early. I have been up since 4 a.m., on a road trip, on two ferries, and participated in a two hour meeting in Japanese, so I stumble up the stairs and immediately fall asleep that first night face-down on my futon.
DAY 3: HACHI-JIKAN, THE 8-HR COURSE THAT TAKES US 11-HRS
In the weeee morning hours, a sweet Japanese girl gently pats my arm, telling me to okiru (wake-up). We eat breakfast and catch a bus to our drop off point. As I’m hiking I realize that this is a 20-mile long hike and it takes us well over 8 hours. 11 hours to be exact. Beyond gorgeous, beyond windy, and beyond long, but I felt like I was in a place that was a close relative to Ireland. Lush green rolling mountains against this coarse blue sea. We finish – so happy to have done it – and then move onto dinner, shower, and more MEE-TING-U. I get the nickname Imo (potato)-san.
My honest opinion: At more than one point during my stay in Momoiwaso, I thought, “I need a Xanax” – and I might have whispered it out loud to Eric – even though I’ve never ever taken one in my life, but I’m so happy that I had this crazy-cool-super-busy-high-energy hostel experience. We met a few people during our stay that come back every year or had worked at the hostel years ago. Seriously, it has a cult-like following, and I truly think it’s one-of-a-kind experience. However, plan for a rest day or two post hostel visit:)
097-1201 Aza Motochi
PRICE: 3850 yen
DAY 4: GOOD-BYE MOMOIWASO/ON TO SHIRETOKO
Momoisawo gives is the MOST ADORABLE send-off by the entire hostel staff. Warm and fuzzy feelings. They are waving good-bye and singing until the ferry pulls away and we can hear a slow fade out of their voices but no longer see them.
[Eric is a celebrity on the boat with a group of Japanese school girls.]
Once in Wakkanai, we get the car. Drive and drive and drive to the otherside of the island. Set up camp. Fall asleep.
DAY 5: SHIRETOKO REST DAY
It’s rest day! I sleep in. Lounge in the tent and read, while Eric fiddles with all his outdoor gear. Eat oatmeal for breakfast. We see a deer. Go back to reading in the tent. Do laundry. Read some more. Go to the fancy hostel’s onsen down the road. Visit a waterfall. Eat ramen. Repack for our big hike the next day. Watch a documentary on our laptop. Go to sleep super early.
DAY 6: MT. RAUSE
We were originally going to do a multi-day hike, but the weather forecast was poor. So early that morning, we repack for a one-day hike up Mt. Rausu in Shiretoko. AKA, bear country! We get to wear our bear bells.
The irony: it’s gorgeous weather. So hot that I have to rig my t-shirt as a bandana around my head. Ha!
(Picture two: extreme Japanese hiking gear. Some of the best people watching is on the mountains, friends.)
Later that night, since we weren’t subjected to eating dehydrated food like if we had done a multi-day hike, we went out and splurged for yakiniku or grilled meat. I try kimchi hormones, blah!
DAY 7: FURANO, FIELDS OF LAVENDER
Just because I wanted to see lavender. I wish I could transport how magical this place smelled.
BUT, the real highlight is this little farmhouse hostel we stay in that has THE BEST ORGANIC CAFÉ EVER. One of my top five meals in Japan. Toasted whole wheat bread with roasted vegetables and a bean hummus spread with a pretty pink pureed roasted beet soup (and I’m not even a huge fan of beets) and a side of Hokkaido berry yogurt. Hands down brilliant lunch. Go Furano!
DAY 8: SAPPORO
I think we both miss nature. Sapporo is cool, but feels so urban – shockingly so – after days spent in the wilds of Hokkaido. Yet, we enjoy ourselves. We visit a chocolate factory, check out an adorable pet store, and then eat ramen with Eric’s friend Kenji, who came in to travel with Eric as I was headed out.
Kenji found us this sweeeeeet deal on a hotel in central Sapporo that was the largest hotel room that I’ve ever seen in Japan. We come back from our ramen dinner and have spa night. (My suggestion, mwahaha.) We all chill out on our respective beds for face mask/relaxation time.
This is IT. I wake up early and sort of sadly float through my day. I say good-bye to Eric and Kenji. I pack. I walk to the Sapporo Museum, feeling like drinking beer and eating cheese crackers by myself at 10:30 a.m. I eat ramen one last time. I sit in a park and people watch. Then I go to the SoftBank phone store – which I can BARELY find – and can BARELY cancel my contract. I leave the store and it feels weird to be alone and without a phone. It was the last thing on my to-do list. I feel….so untethered and disconnected. And it hits me that I’m going home.
I think back to the ups and downs of the past year, and ultimately feel really thankful for the experience. Like my time in Hokkaido, Japan was such a unique experience, especially for someone like me, a Midwestern girl at heart.
JAPAN….honto ni, domo arigato gozaimashita. I hope to see you again, someday.