Hokkaido, Japan: Crystal Clear Lakes and Smouldering Volcanoes
By Sam Baldwin
The Great Escape
In my current homeland of Fukui in central west Japan, summers are unpleasantly hot and humid. Wandering out of air-conditioned zones is ill advised, and even a slow stroll to the local conbini (convenience store) results in an uncomfortable ‘shirt stuck to your back’ feeling.
Having already experienced a sauna of a summer last year, I had no intention of suffering through another, thus after a brief brainstorming session, a simple escape plan was hatched: I would assemble a team of experienced road trippers, pack a car full of beer, tents and tunes, and head north, fleeing the equator, to Hokkaido, the second largest of Japan’s islands and a land of crystal clear lakes, cool rivers, and smouldering volcanoes.
Japan has a multitude of ancient traditional festivals, but our first stop on route to Hokkaido was one of the newer additions to the Japanese calendar: the Fuji Rock Festival. Best described as a Japanese version of Woodstock or Glastonbury, Fuji Rock attracts the biggest names in the business. Last year the Foo Fighters, Fat Boy Slim, Coldplay and Beck were among the headliners and for the first time ever, all 100,000 tickets sold out three weeks prior to the festival.
Held in Naeba ski resort in Niigata prefecture, high in the Japanese Alps, with a backdrop of lush forest and cool rivers, this is the only music festival in the world where you have to take a ski lift to reach the chill-out zone – aptly named the place of “Day Dreaming and Silent Breeze”.
Camping at the Fuji Rock Festival
However, camping in a ski resort is not without its challenges. I was amazed at some of the steep angles that people deemed suitable to pitch their tent, perhaps out of desperation that they wouldn’t find anything better. Some were camped on what looked liked double black diamond runs, their possessions bulging out of the side of their tents, as gravity took its toll.
The mountain weather had a distinct pattern. At 6 a.m. on the dot, I would be roasted out of my tent, unable to bear the greenhouse effect in my humble two-man abode, to be greeted by a beautifully clear blue sky framed by forested mountain peaks. As midday approached the heat would rise to around 86° Farenheit (30°C), before the humidity peaked and then we’d endure a couple of hours of tropical downpours with huge, warm rain drops battering our gazebo, which held up well, providing a communal shelter.
The Japanese fans are some of the most devoted in the world, and we met many who had travelled six or seven hours, just to see a single band before catching the last train home. Another notable feature was the line up for the official T-shirt stall. I watched in amazement as Japanese fans disembarking from the bus made a bee line for the stall, enduring over an hour’s wait before even seeing a band, just to purchase their ‘must have’ proof of attendance.
In many ways it was like any other large music festival; a diverse collection of bands and DJ’s playing to big crowds across eight different stages, all in the great outdoors, but there were two differences that really stood out: lack of drugs and the lack of litter.
Anyone attending any of the big music festivals in Europe would find it impossible to avoid the call of the passing drug dealers, offering a wide variety of wares, from super skunk through to magic mushrooms. In comparison, the closest I came to any illicit substances over the four day period was a faint whiff of some Mary Jane, just once in the Red Stage tent.
The frequent litter and recycling points combined with the Japanese’s ability to follow rules, meant that I saw barely a single piece of litter on the ground. This attitude is taken to amazing lengths; rather than flicking ash on the ground, everybody carried portable ashtrays in which to deposit their ash and cigarette butts.
From Road Trip to Boat Trip
With the festival finished, but weary from three days of little shut-eye, we decided that rather than making the long arduous journey to Hokkaido by road, we would instead catch a ferry northward. Conveniently, just a couple of hours from the festival site in Niigata city, we were able to board a large passenger vessel that was to be our home for the next 21 hours.
Being on a budget, we opted for the third-class accommodation; a tatami room. This is simply a large room covered in rice-straw mats where around 20 people sleep side by side on the floor with a thin blanket and a square pillow. Here we met some of our fellow Japanese travellers; two young students, and a couple of old truck drivers, who provided us with much entertainment.
Breaking the “Japanese are shy” stereotype, the very first thing one of our new friends told us was that Japanese men had small “manhoods”, but that he had a big one. It was not the ice breaker that I would have chosen, but it served its purpose all the same.
We whiled away the hours of the sublimely calm and sunny crossing, watching dolphins arc out of the Japanese Sea, lounging on deck, and relaxing in the sento.
Rather than providing separate showers, Japanese ferries simply offer a huge, communal hot tub room, where passengers of the same sex, take a seated shower, before immersing themselves in a large hot bath, and watch the ocean waves crash past.
Not for the shy, it is Japanese etiquette to bathe in your birthday suit, and being the only foreigners onboard, we were subject to the inquisitive stares of Japanese men, whose wandering eyes were heading south to ascertain if the rumours about Western males were true.
The Last Oasis
We landed in the port town of Tomakomai, late afternoon the following day. The pleasant warmth and total lack of humidity was instantly noticeable. In a country that is 80% mountainous and so densely populated, almost every flat square mile of the other islands is either a rice paddy or a building. Hokkaido, in stark contrast, is the last remaining oasis of nature in Japan. Only colonized by the Japanese in the last 150 years, Hokkaido lacks ancient shrines and temples, but also the urban sprawls that fill the rest of the country.
The second largest of Japan’s four main islands, Hokkaido is home to only 5% of the population, so unlike Honshu, it’s a place where mountains have been deemed capable of standing up without the help of a concrete straight jacket, rivers are left to run free without being lined with cement, and there still exists vast areas of untouched beauty.
A waterfall in Hokkaido
In Deep Water
A mere hour’s drive from the ferry port, the shore of Shikotsu lake was the destination for the night. Arriving under the cover of darkness we pulled up at a campsite, found a spot under tall pines, and set up for the night. It was here, that the Japanese yet again showed their amazing kindness and generosity towards foreigners.
Although we had a barbeque, we’d forgotten charcoal, and the only shop near by had long since closed leaving us with no way of cooking our food. I humbly went to explain our predicament to some nearby campers, (who judging by their campsite set up, looked like they had moved in for the week!) and in broken Japanese eventually got the message across.
No sooner had I requested a little charcoal, when immediately a full scale famine relief effort was in effect! Our neighbours rallied round, not only providing us with charcoal, but with their own barbeque set-up, a huge gas light to cook by, a grill, cooking implements and offering beer and food too. We gratefully, but slightly guiltily accepted their kind offerings, vowing amongst ourselves to buy them a crate of beer come morning, but by the time we had risen from our drunken slumber the next day, the entire family had left without trace.
A glorious sunny day showed off the lake in all its glory when we arose. Japan’s second deepest lake, this pristine body of water is as clear as glass and edged by several volcanoes, some of which are active and can sometimes be seen smouldering on the horizon. We spent the day swimming in its cool waters and watching schools of fish dart past our feet among the underwater gardens, before hiking up Tarumae-zan, a 3400-foot (1038m) mountain that on a clear day offers a fantastic view of the lake below. Unfortunately for us, the clouds rolled in as we were ascending, robbing us of our prize.
After two lazy days by the lake, we headed east, inland towards Daisetsuzan, Hokkaido’s largest national park, situated in the centre of the island.
A burst radiator
It was here that I laid eyes on a smouldering, active volcano for the first time. It was also here where we experienced some technical difficulties with our not so trusty Jeep (No road trip story is complete without a breakdown!). The hot weather, combined with the steep mountainous roads, was too much for the Cherokee, and the radiator burst, sending out a plume of steam, and drenching the road in radiator fluid.
Luckily, we had Englishman Danny G on board who was specially selected for this mission due to his mechanical skills. After an hour with his head under the bonnet, and various trips to the public toilet for water refills, the radiator was patched up, and we were ready to roll out.
That night we camped at the foot of Tokachidake, an active volcano. Though I’d heard that active volcanoes existed in Japan, it was an impressive sight to actually see the smoke bellowing out of the crater and hear the rumbles and hissing emanating from the depths of the earth.
To get a closer look at this beast, we decided upon a hike up to the peak of Tokachidake, which overlooks the fuming creator. Rising early, we quickly stocked up on snacks, my fodder of choice being horse katsu (breaded horse meat) and we were soon making good progress on the barren trail.
As we climbed, it occurred to me that hiking up an active volcano, perhaps might not be the greatest idea ever born. What if it the mighty mountain were to decide that today was the day to vent Mother Earth’s anger? The last explosive eruption was in 1988, and its legacy is very obvious today; most of mountain is a bare, Martian landscape, devoid of flora, but displaying a unique and colourful terrain all the same.
As the mighty smoking creator loomed, billowing sulphurous toxins into the atmosphere, we passed a few patches of snow, sheltered in north facing crevices. Reaching the summit after about three hours of climbing, we broke for lunch on the sun-drenched peak, snapping photos of the mountain of fire as we ate, before making our way back down to earth.
Hiking the summit
Our last night on this pristine island will be remembered for experiencing the very worst of Japanese culture and the very best of Japanese culture in the space of five minutes.
We drove into an empty campsite and strolled into the office to book in for the night. It was here that they dropped the bomb: we weren’t permitted to stay at the site. The reason? We hadn’t booked three days in advance.
At first, I just thought we’d heard wrong. The three-acre campsite was completely devoid of campers, aside from one family staying in a couple of cabins. Not a single tent was present, yet we were being turned away due to a ridiculous rule? I expressed my non-comprehension of the situation.
“Zenzen wakarimasen, I don’t understand at all, you have space…”
But the one-word reply from the staff, in one foul swoop, summed up the stereotypical Japanese trait of strictly adhering to the set protocol.
We left the office in disbelief, pissed off, and in low spirits. It was getting dark, and we didn’t know of any other campsites in the area.
But then, the flip side of Japanese culture presented itself to us. The family who were staying in the log cabin had witnessed the whole scene and beckoned us over, motioning to their abode. The next thing we knew, they were kicking grandma and the kids out of one of their cabins, and squeezing the whole family under one roof, just to make way for a bunch of foreigners who they’d met only a few minutes before!
It took us a while, but once we’d realized what was going on, we had to refuse their generous offer. It was a crazy situation: denied entry to an empty campsite due to a pedantic rule, then shown an amazing gesture of kindness, which went as far as evicting their oldest and youngest for strangers.
The following evening, we boarded the ferry and set sail for the mainland once more, leaving the cool clime of Hokkaido and heading for the sticky air of Honshu. I was sad to be leaving this Japanese gem, and as I plugged ¥300 into a vending machine, releasing a can of Kirin beer, I stared out over the calm Sea of Japan and wondered if I’d ever return to this smouldering island paradise.
is currently living in Fukui, Japan. He has written for Whitelines (the UK’s leading snowboard magazine), The World Snowboard Guide, and Student Traveler. He also owns and edits snowsphere.com, an online travel magazine for skiers and snowboarders.
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