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Trip Report Hokkaido in October: Travel Tips / Questions Welcomed

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It's a long overdue trip report. I should have written it during the trip or soon after coming back when everything was fresh and I was still brimming with enthusiasm and had so many travel tips floating in my head to share. Once back home, work and daily life took over and I gradually I feel intimidated about starting a trip report. It seems so overwhelming and I don't know where to begin and how much detail to include.

So, here I'm timidly trying to start this thread. I probably won't go through a day-to-day account but just list travel tips that I hope will be useful to future travelers to Hokkaido. Surprisingly there wasn't too much information in English when I researched for my travel, and not too many trip reports on Fodor's either. The most resourceful poster on Fodor's who helped me tremendously with the trip was HawaiianTraveler (please see his trip report for the full description of his experience. Thanks again, HT!!).

* Overview / General Impression:
My DH and I spent the 2nd week of October last year driving a rental car for about 1400 km (almost 900 miles) on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan, starting from the northeast tip of the island (Shiretoko National Park) in “lands end” and ending up in Sapporo, the biggest city on Hokkaido on the west side. We went to 4 national parks (Shiretoko NP, Akan NP, Kushiro Shitsugen National Park, Daisetsuzan NP), did several hikes. Mostly beautiful weather, but it was too unseasonably warm so the fall foliage was not yet at its peak. The roads and hiking trails were mostly empty, as most Japanese liked to travel by tour buses and stick to the main tourist areas. The remote parts of Hokkaido look very much like rural America, but with some Japanese characteristics: many farms have rolls of hay with orange tarp covers -- they look like giant salmon nigiris dotting open fields--so cute and could be passed as a Christo / Jeane-Claude art installation.

As they say, the best part of Japan is bathing and eating, eating and bathing. The onsen resorts in or around the national parks were very nice, surrounded by mountains and trees or with views of the lake. At night, you could actually see the constellations while soaking in a rotenburo (outdoor onsen) – a very rare sight for Japanese city dwellers. In a Japanese onsen, we did as the Japanese tourists would do: wear the provided yukata and slippers (nothing underneath), soak in onsen (naked), go for buffet, repeat. People were walking around the onsen resort just in their yukatas and slippers all day long. (You'd think the Japanese eat little and daintily; not when it comes to all-you-can-eat buffets--they'd pile up just like Americans!)

My favorite onsens are actually the free ones (small pools maintained by volunteers) in the wilderness--lots of these in Hokkaido. Some are in the woods next to a running stream, or right next to the ocean. Most unusual is a place by a lake in Akan NP, where you could dig your own onsen. You dig up the sand and hot spring water just spurts out.

In terms of food, we sought out different Hokkaido local specialties--different varieties ofcrabs, sushi (very fresh, quite reasonable, and hopefully not radiation-contaminated), dairy products (addicted to Hokkaido ice cream, milk, yogurt), regional ramens (miso-based, soy-based, butter and corn). All good!

OK, running out of steam already, but will try to continue later...

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    So you did count those stars from the rotenburo as I suggested....beautiful aren't they?

    Close your eyes and take a deep breath and see yourself on that plane approaching MMB airport and take us on your journey from there. Remember that anxiety over where the rent a car would be located in the airport and how helpful the attendants were in showing you how to use the GPS even though he spoke no English? That first drive out into Abashiri on the wrong side of the road and driving along the wondrous coastline and finally through that little tunnel into the tiny village of Utoru? I know you remember....Hokkaido is unforgettable. A day or two at a time, little by little and you will be finished before you know it.

    OMG Hokkaido ice cream. Why did I read about that just now. I want some right now!!!

    Our hope is you will come back and tell us all about it so I can have a little taste of that Hokkaido ice cream to satisfy till we return to Japan in this fall.......kudasai?

    Aloha!

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    HT, wow, that's an accurate and good description of the beginning of my trip! You could very well write my trip report! :)

    Hokkaido ice cream--yum, yum. My DH said maybe Hokkaido milk products tasted so good was that we were eating them whole fat. At home, we mainly stick with the tasteless non-fat milk and non-fat yogurt, etc.

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    Below is a list of list of random travel tips that we hope will be useful to future travelers to Hokkaido:

    • Drive. Hokkaido is big and rural with very scant public transportation, so it’s best to rent a car and drive. Although you have to drive on the left side of the road, it’s not bad as the roads are well paved, low traffic except in and near Sapporo, and with an English GPS you know where and when to turn.

    * One-way Drive. A great tip we picked up from HT’s trip report was to do a one-way drive. He started in Asahikawa in the middle of Hokkaido, but we went as far east as possible in Memembetsu Airport (MMB). That was closest to Shiretoko National Park where we started our trip. We flew from Osaka to MMB on ANA. Since car rental, gas and your time is precious, a one-way trip saves you on all of the above.


    * Car rental. We rented our car from this company (a local broker near Shiretoko), and everything worked out great.
    http://shiretoko-t.com/en/index103.html

    At first I was concerned about it, as it offered the lowest rate but I had never heard of it before. I checked with a Japanese colleague in Tokyo and he said if they had a business license then they’re legit. I exchanged emails several times with the manager, Mr. Ishida-san, and he reassured me everything will be fine. I called him to give him our Amex credit card # to pay for the reservation as it provides CDW. His written English is much better than spoken English. It’s best to email than to speak to Japanese on the phone, and write in straight forward simple English.

    It turned out that company was just a broker, and the actual rental was still through Nissan at the airport, but the rate we got was cheaper than from Nissan itself. We rented a Nissan March (Class S) – the lowest class—but they gave us an upgrade to the next class Nissan Note, which is a slightly bigger car. I think we had to thank Mr. Ishida-san for it, as I emailed him my concerns about the Nissan March being too small. I was worried about its puny 80 hp and how it would be able to climb mountainous roads in the national parks. Actually, now that we’d been there, I think the Nissan March would have been fine. (HT was right here too, but I was paranoid.) The roads in Hokkaido are all well-paved and maintained and not scary at all. But spoiled as we are from America, bigger is better. ;)

    We rented the Nissan Note for 7 days, one-way with a dropoff charge. Picked up from MMB airport on the east side close to Shiretoko NP, and dropped off in Sapporo. Total cost: JPY 33700.

    * GPS
    We requested for an English GPS, and the car came with a built-in one. A useful tip I picked up from folks on this forum was to enter the destination’s phone # on the GPS and it maps to a physical location. That’s the only way for us to input, as there’s no alphabet keyboard, only Japanese. Works very well, except that sometimes we couldn’t find a phone # of a location. Fodor’s and all guidebooks, please please list all phone numbers (visitor center, etc.) in your guidebooks, even of places that don’t speak English or you don't think anyone would call. I noticed several lapses in the Fodor’s guide. The GPS, like a dutiful, traditional Japanese housewife, would talk once and stay quiet for a long stretch at a time and only speak up again when you need to make a turn. Very disconcerting to us at first, as we were not sure if we're on the right track as the displayed map was all in Japanese. Once in a while, it'd flake out and revert to Japanese. We also supplemented it with Google maps on our Android phone which worked really well there, but the GPS burned up battery. We didn't bring a car charger with us, but had some spare batteries to replace. We had a grandfather plan with Verizon where you pay $30 extra to get unlimited data abroad—good deal.

    * Seicomart -- best convenience store in Hokkaido. Look for the orange sign with a white bird. I think it's a local chain as we didn't see it elsewhere in Japan, and it carries more Hokkaido products than other convenience stores. I got my daily Hokkaido milk and yogurt here, and occasionally Hokkaido ice cream fix. I like the frozen cone one--very creamy. Some stores have freshly made onigiri rice balls and fresh, locally made snacks. Other national chains, like Lawrence, 7/11, Family Mart had very few or no Hokkaido products.

    BTW, Japanese convenience stores are really convenient for snacks in the morning and at night. It was difficult to find any restaurant serving breakfast, and most restaurants don’t open until 10 or 11 a.m. Best is to eat breakfast in your hotel, but if you don’t, you have to search for McDonald’s or some fast food chain in the morning or hit a convenience store for snacks.

    ---
    OK, more to come...

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    We are still planning for an eventual Hokkaido trip so this is the perfect read. Wanted to head to Utoro but was afraid of it being too remote. Did you find Utoro a waste of time and what are the hotel/ryokan options there? Is it worth a couple of nights in the area?

    Waiting for more.

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    Hi ladytravels, thanks for reading my trip report.

    If you make it all the way to Hokkaido, why not go to Utoro as well. Shiretoko National Park is also a Unesco World Heritage site. To make the trip more manageable, we flew into MMB Airport, which is the closest one to Utoro and from there drove back west.

    We stayed one night in the Shiretoko hotel. The room was dated, the buffets so-so, but the onsen was decent. We found another hotel that seemed to be in a better setting, and wished we had stayed there instead. Don't remember the name now, but need to look it up. There are many onsen resorts there.

    Sorry, just on a short break here. Will write more later.

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    SHIRETOKO NATIONAL PARK

    I just stumbled upon this Japanese song about Shiretoko. Probably an old song, and this youtube video has some images from Shiretoko that might give you an idea of what it looks like:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=htJgBBjGEhU&feature=endscreen

    In terms of scenery, I wouldn't say Shiretoko is really spectacular, as I've seen many more majestic landscapes in the U.S. and other parts of the world. But it is definitely well-kept and maintained for a national park, and esp to keep up its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The roads looked newly paved and no trash and not even a stray leave on the road. For the Japanese, Shiretoko is considered pristine wilderness as it gets with no or very minimal development in the park. We didn't do the boat tour, but heard people said the coastline look really nice too.

    What we did there:
    * After landing in MMB airport, we drove directly to the visitor center (via Abishiri and past Utoro without stopping), so we can get the last tickets to hike around the Five Lakes.

    * At the visitor center, we had to register and watch a video about bear safety and how to conduct ourselves in the park.

    * FIVE LAKE HIKE. We headed out on the hiking trail starting at the 5th lake and walk back to 1st lake--it's a one-way hike and took less than an hour. Easy hike. At first we didn't see anyone on the trail, and watching that video showing bears bearing their scary teeth and smashing up tents, we were a bit concerned. We carried bear bells with us and shouted out "hey bear" at every blind turn. But it's probably too late in the season to encounter bears anyhow. After some time, we saw another couple on the trail, and later another couple. Only when we got to the firt lake then we saw the crowds. It looks like most tour groups just take people to the first lake, or most people just go there only. Around the first lake is a spectacular wooden path on a high platform above the ground with electric fence running around underneath. Wow, really secure area. In the summer, this is the only area open to tourists for free. Otherwise, you're required to join a tour group to go to the rest of the lakes. I hear the price is like $50 USD per person for the tour, and wouldn't think it worth it.

    Anyhow, when we were there in early October, the fall colors hadn't started yet because of unseasonably warm year, except for a red tree here and there. Otherwise, the reflections in the water would have been more beautiful. We also saw Mt Rausu towering above at a distance above one of the lakes.

    * It was about dusk when we headed back to Utoro and check into our hotel. (More about our onsen resort later.)

    * DRIVE TO RAUSU: Next day, we checked out hotel and drove to Rausu. You climb up to the highest point on Mt Rausu, and then down to Rausu town--about an hour. It was a beautiful and pleasant drive with hardly any cars around. The sun was shining brilliantly, reflecting silver off the underside of leaves. I was almost in a trance, as if I was in one of those movies, where they shot everything through a filter to make it look golden and happy.

    Along the way we saw signs for onsens set in the wilderness, in the woods, next to a stream. We just stopped and took a look, but didn't jump in. We dropped by the national park visitor center in Rausu, and the young staff there were really helpful and eager to show us many things. A young park ranger showed us a new species of fish discovered by a Rausu fisherman just last year! He was trawling the deep trench of the ocean off Rausu, and found this fish. It was all pale and had no eyes. The visitor center also had exhibit about other flora and fauna of the area. I was surprised to learn to know there are ring seals in this area. They look so cute. Had never seen them on NatGeo or any nature program! Google “ring seals” if you’ve never heard of them. I want to see one in the wild, but they said I’d need to come here in the winter. If anyone could, coming to Hokkaido in the winter would be really awesome.

    RAUSU: The town of Rausu we thought was cute, right on the ocean and from above you see the houses painted in different bright colors with mountains in the backdrop and the ocean in the front, like one of the Swedish towns in photos at Ikea. We first went to the bridge where you could look down and see adult salmons trying to swim back to its birthplace to spawn. Saw several here, and even better 2 groups of local pre-school kids in cute yellow or blue uniforms with matching color caps, going on their field trip to see the salmons. We konichiwa them and they all laughed and teachers welcomed us to take photos with them.

    We drove up a place on a hill with a great view of Kunishiri, the island in dispute with Russia. Kunishiri is so close by! That place also has a free, powerful telescope where you can look through to see boats on the ocean.

    Afterwards we drove all the way up the coast until there’s no more road. There’s an onsen right on the ocean. Water was really hot, and we just looked but didn’t try it.

    On the way back, we wanted to eat sushi or sashimi, but couldn’t find a place that’s open at that time. A local directed us to a fancier place, and the price was a bit high, but the fish was very fresh and good. We got a mixed combo of sushi, a bowl of crab soup, and a bowl of raw salmons and salmon roe on rice. Compared to other places in Hokkaido that we ate later, the roe here was probably the best—very pearly red.

    To be continued…

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    Thanks, HT, for following along, and sorry for my delinquency. I'm starting to forget the details of my trip -- too many trips I've taken since and behind on all my reports. Yikes.

    If anyone have questions about Hokkaido, please feel free to ask me and I'll see if I could help answer.

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