Part I (general)
Hokkaido is the northernmost big island of Japan, and it is known mainly because its capital city, Sapporo, was the 1972 Winter Olympics host city.
Hokkaido is not a typical Japanese tourist destination. If you dream of visiting Japan because you saw on television the crowded streets and the manga-dressed youngsters of Tokyo or the geishas and big shrines of Kyoto and Nara, this is not your destination. Hokkaido is completely different than the rest of the country, maybe because it is not densely populated (the biggest city, Sapporo, considered very small for the Japanese standards), maybe because the Japanese did not really think much about it till the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century. During summer, the place is covered with beautiful flowers, and temperatures are enjoyable for hiking. Still, Hokkaido is mainly a winter sports destination, as it is covered in snow almost half of the year.
Hokkaido was known as “Ezochi” until the Meiji Restoration and took its present name in 1869.
Home of the almost disappeared Ainu tribes, Hokkaido is covered by thick forests. Personally, I cannot think of another place on Earth covered with so many forests, considering that it is not located in the tropics. Of course, this comes with a price: rain. When I say rain, I mean lots of rain, almost every other day!
Besides forests, the island is covered with many small and not that small mountains, which almost all of them are volcanos. Because of the volcanic activity, there are abundant hot springs scattered all over the place, so locals and visitors bath into them frequently, or at least they submerge their feet in there to take advantage of the beneficial properties of the mineral hot waters. Onsens (hot baths) are as important as hammams are for the arab world.
Surrounded by water and crisscrossed by rivers and streams, Hokkaido is the ultimate Japanese place for sea food. People are rivaled only by bears when it comes to salmon and trout hunting. Yes, bears! Hokkaido is the only place in Japan where bears still live and thrive outside cages. The big Brown bear is the symbol of the island, and you see them everywhere, either painted/curved on wood or as teddy bears or as stuffed dead bears (very creepy). When, you hike in the forests, you should always be alert because not all bears are stuffed.
Rich in dairy products (thanks to the Americans, who taught the locals to systematically farm and cultivate the island) and agricultural products, this is a food paradise. Or, at least this is what the Japanese think and advertise.
Hokkaido is large (the size of South Korea) and distances with even a car are long. So, during my 3-weeks stay on the island I managed to visit only the central Hokkaido area, which means I moved inside a radius of about 200km from Sapporo. This is the most densely populated area of the island. If you plan to stay more than 3-4 days, I strongly suggest rending a car.
Arriving on the island
Most tourists enter the island via the New Chitose Airport. The airport is relatively small and is located about 50 km S-SE of Sapporo. The airport is well connected to Sapporo by train, buses and taxis. Of course, you should consider renting a car (*): just proceed to the rent-a-car company office (it is wise to make a reservation well in advance before your arrival in japan) located at the arrivals and a free shuttle bus will take you and your luggage to the rentals building (located some distance from the airport) to collect your car.
(*): Remember to bring with you your International driving license, issued in your country before departure, which is issued according to the “Convention on international road traffic of 19 September 1949”.
Moving around in Sapporo
Sapporo is a small city for the Japanese standards and has a very good public transportation system of buses, subway (there are three lines), trains and streetcar (only one loop line). So, if you are planning to stay in the city and not travel around the island, you do not need a car.
The easiest way to move around in the city is by the SAPICA card. SAPICA is a rechargeable card, which can be used in metro, bus and streetcar. It costs ¥2,000 (¥1,500 can be used for fare, while ¥500 is a deposit) and you buy it (cash only!) from machines in every metro station and at bus terminals. Press the word "english" before doing anything else. The card can be recharged (also at the machines). That makes life easy. For more details on the SAPICA card visit the official site (do not expect everything from me😀!).
When you do not need the card anymore, refund it at any metro station help booth. It cannot be refunded from the machines. You get back in cash the unused money left on the card, as well as the ¥500 deposit.
Transport fair is not fixed and depends on the distance travelled. So, by entering the metro, streetcar or bus tap the card on the special plate and do the same before leaving the bus/streetcar or exiting the metro. On buses, passengers must enter from the back door and exit from the front door…it is amusing to hear the driver thank every single passenger exiting the bus…this is soooo Japanese to me😀!
Nevertheless, the city center is small, and you can visit most attractions on foot.
Driving in Hokkaido
Driving in Hokkaido is very easy, because the place is not crowded. It can also get very boring because you may drive for kilometers and not meet any other car at all.
For drivers coming from the Americas or Europe, at the beginning driving on the left side of the road can get stressful. It took me, though, just one day under heavy rainstorm to get used driving on the “wrong” side of the road. Coming back to Greece it took me more time to get used to drive on the “right” side again. You can check all the useful information on driving in Hokkaido at the special publication issued by the Authorities: the “Must-have Handbook for Driving in Hokkaido” which can be downloaded in pdf format here!
The information given there is good and detailed, so I will not give more details on driving, but I will point at a couple of things I noticed after driving all this time there:
👍Yes, if you want to be legal and avoid any possible penalties follow the official speed limits of 40/50/70/80 km/h. In this case you can not go very far away though. Just imagine to be on an expensive “expressway” (tolls are very expensive) and drive to a place 350km away on the speed limit of 70/80 km/h…. forget it! I have driven well above the dedicated speed limits all the time: the typical speed I kept was 120km/h and looking around I can verify that many cars were going much faster than that. The roads are good and safe, so what makes them have such low limits I do not know. It’s up to you to get into the wild side!
👍There are no roundabouts, so the trickiest movement while driving is the right turn. It seems impossible at the beginning, but jus follow the other cars and you will master this, too.
👍Fully stop the car at a stop-sign. Be careful: the stop-sign is very different than the one in Europe or in most countries.
👍As I said earlier Sapporo and other towns have very few traffic. So, one could think it is fast to drive in the cities or through the cities: wrong! In Sapporo almost every single road crossing has traffic lights! You may have to stop at least 30 times to go to your destination. There must be a reason for this, but it was a real pain in the ass.
👍There is no street parking in Hokkaido. There are free parking lots in far away places, but for most of the time you must pay. Most cafes and restaurants have free parking for guests, but not as many parking places as needed. In parks and attractions outside the city, most of the time there is a flat rate of ¥500. In the city it depends on how long you stay.
👍Gas (fuel) is much cheaper than it is in most European countries. This is a pleasant surprise.
👍Rented cars take "regular" gas, so be careful to use the red-colored fuel hose at the self-service stations.
👍Pay at the gas stations with credit card, not cash! You will find out yourselves why 😎.
👍At the toll booths you have to follow the green lines/light and not the ETC/blue ones. Tolls can be paid either by cash or credit cards.
It's all japanese to me
I would like to point out some of my experiences (in brief), while in Japan. Things that have to do with the Japanese psyche and the way of living and may seem strange, funny or bring into awkward situation the Gaijin (外人; "outsider", "alien", "Non-Japanese", “foreigner").
From the very first trip to Japan, the visitor feels that this country is way much different than almost every other country on this planet. There are probably many reasons for that, and certainly I am not an expert on this matter, but maybe the most important reason is that Japan has been isolated from the rest of the word for more than two centuries. When it finally opened up in the second half of the 19th century, following the era we call Meiji Restoration, it “had already missed” all the years that brought people together (not always for the good, though) and shaped the modern word we see today. When other islanders, like the British, were conquering the world and imposed their law and order and spread the “European civilization” to the edge of the world, Japan was guarding its sea borders in the most austere way. And when it finally opened up, it embraced the new brave world’s developments in the most hungry and efficient way, but kept its psyche and inner order rather intact. Japan today is a peaceful country, but its neighbors cannot forget the atrocities and the crimes the country committed in the first half of the 20th century. Maybe, even that, has to do with the different way of thinking of this apparently gentle, but tough people.
Japanese are crazy about onsens, which is part of their traditional life. In a modern world, where virtually everyone has a private bath at home, the number of traditional public baths has decreased, but the number of sightseeing hot spring towns has increased it is amazing.
Onsen is a Japanese hot spring; the term also extends to cover the bathing facilities and traditional inns frequently situated around a hot spring. As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsens scattered throughout all of it.
Onsens come in many types and shapes, including outdoor and indoor baths. Baths may be either publicly run by a municipality or privately, often as part of a hotel, ryokan, or bed and breakfast. An onsen can just be a natural or artificial pond in the middle of a town, where you can put your tired feet to relax after a day shopping.
Onsens (by definition) use naturally hot water from geothermally heated springs. Onsens are different from sentō, indoor public bath houses where the baths are filled with heated tap water.
As I hate hammams (due to the steam inside them), I was very reluctant about visiting one. At some pointe I decided to visit one, but of the open air type. I must admit, if I was living in Japan, I would visit them often. For the best experience choose an open onsen and if possible, located in the woods or with good vistas.
The rules to enter an onsen are very strict and you will see many posters or read many blogs especially about the little towel you must hold and cover your nudity. I recommend reading them carefully before visiting an onsen, but do not stick to them endearingly if locals don’t. You better bring your own towels , so you do not have to pay for them and after cleaning yourself at the washing room, cover your private parts with the small towel. I did the same, but when I entered the onsen itself I realized than almost no one else did the same. People were walking around or leaning against the walls completely naked in a rather sensual, but not sexual, way. So, when in Rome do as the Roman do… at your own risk of course!
Japan has four seasons. So what? Don’t we all of us living away from the tropics have four seasons? The Japanese believe that only they have distinct seasons and the rest of the world lives in an endless summer or winter. The reality is that they pay too much attention in season changing and they celebrate everything that has to do with it: I do not believe there is another nation on this planet that celebrates every single color change of the foliage and every tree blooming!
There are convenience stores in almost all countries in the world. We call them “evga” in Greece. But nowhere else the convenience stores have reached such an iconic status, as the conbini in Japan. Convenience stores (コンビニエンスストア, konbiniensu sutoa), shortened to conbini (コンビニ) are almost synonymous with Japanese modern way of life.
In these small shops one can find almost everything. During my stay In Sapporo, I used to visit my next door conbini at least once a day, mainly for snacks and the necessary matcha Hagen Dazs ice cream cup, an after-dinner treat.
It is said that in Japan there is a conbini for every 2.000 inhabitants. They are found literally at every street corner in the cities but are also present in smaller towns and rural areas. The conbini stores are so widespread that people are surprised when they hear of a place without a conbini. (if there is such a place).
In Hokkaido exist the widespread brands, but also some local ones. The most usual brands are the: Seven-Eleven, Sunkus, Lawson, FamilyMart, Seicomart and Hasegawa Store (local convenience store chain in Hakodate).
The original purpose of the conbini is selling snacks and food for busy people at every hour of the day or night (usually 24/7). While the variety of foodstuffs you'll find at a conbini can be overwhelming, there are some basic categories that you'll find at any location of any chain (*): the sando (sandwiches), the onigiri, the bento, buns, instant noodles and, of course, the candy. You can also find fresh products like eggs or fruits, but the supply is very limited (the only fruit available is usually banana and apples), and quite expensive.
Since there are usually seats inside conbini, you can often eat on the spot, and hot water is available upon request for instant noodles. If there isn't any seating, just take your food outside and eat right in front of, or close to, the store — eating while walking isn't considered polite, but if you're doing it in front of a conbini, no one will be offended. The most important thing to keep in mind is how conbini food appear and disappear without notice. Keeping an open mind and trying anything that catches your interest is the way to avoid any regrets.
Besides food, the conbini stores sell all kinds of products like band aids, pens, toilet paper, batteries, umbrellas, clothes, some mainstream medicines, CDs, etc. It is also possible to buy alcohol and cigarettes, but only in stores that indicate it on their signs with the Japanese “タバコ" or "酒". You can also find small toilet kits that come in handy when you are unable to go back home, or prepaid cards for cell phones. The conbini stores offer many services like bank, postal or transportation services and almost all of them host an ATM.
(*) Bento. Though bento, like most conbini foods, change seasonally, they come in a few basic forms. The donburi (rice bowls) include gyūdon (thin strips of marinated beef over rice), katsudon (deep-fried pork cutlet scrambled with eggs over rice), and oyakodon (chicken and scrambled eggs over rice). There's also curry rice (Japanese curry is sweet and thick, bearing little resemblance to other curries around the world) and pastas, which are often legitimately al dente. It's worth noting that you can have any bento heated up to eat right there in the conbini, if you want, and at just a few hundred yen, it's an extremely cheap meal. Oden. Near the registers of most conbini there are often large, heated metal trays or pots. Inside the trays are different ingredients (tofu, daikon radish, boiled eggs, and fish cakes) floating in a hot, fragrant dashi broth. This is oden, Japan's winter comfort food. While the absolute best typically comes from chefs who have spent a lifetime perfecting their broth and curating the ingredients to pair with it, the conbini version is fun to try. Instant Noodles. There are generally two types of instant noodles: ramen and yakisoba (pan-fried noodles), and dozens of variations of both styles. Each conbini offers different flavors. New flavors are frequently introduced to keep fans interested, but there is one constant: the bigger packages are generally of higher quality and come closer to matching the taste of the real thing. Buns. These are the typical Chinese soft and white bread snacks filed with meat or vegetables. Even though, the most common bun is the pork bun, some of the fillings in the Japanese bun are unconventional: Japanese curry with cheese, marinara sauce and cheese, red bean paste.
“Convenience Store Woman,” a novel by the best-selling Japanese author Sayaka Murata, is the first of her ten novels to be translated into English.
The book centers on a thirty-six-year-old woman named Keiko Furukura, an oddball who is endlessly puzzled by human behavior. But, the real protagonist of the novel is the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart, a “transparent glass box” in a pristine and anonymous business district.
The author herself worked at a convenience store for nearly eighteen years. It is a short and easy to be read novel, that gives an indiscreet glance of the “life” inside a conbini.
Cash and tipping
What I really like in Japan is that there’s no need to tip in Japan. I always thought that it is at least awkward to have to leave a tip. The ridiculous American necessity to tip is both offensive for the employees who do not get paid enough and it is expected from you to complete their salary by tipping and also offensive for the customer who is forced into a situation where he should not be. It is even worse in Europe, where people get paid for their service, but got spoilt by the extra money they may get as tipping. No need to tip anyone at all in japan. People get paid for what they do and may even take offense to customers leaving a tip. Oh, I love Japanese pride!
One should think that in a technologically developed country like Japan, cash has disappeared from everyday life as a form of payment. In the contrary! Make sure your wallet is stoked full of yen to avoid the awkward situation where the restaurant you just had a tasty meal does accept cash only (“kyasshu” in Japanese). Hotels, large department stores, convenience stores and most gas stations accept cards, but most restaurants, bars and cafés accept CASH ONLY. So, make sure you regularly visit an ATM to draw plenty of these colorless and boring Japanese banknotes!
Otaku (おたく/オタク) is a Japanese term for people with obsessive interests, particularly in anime and manga. Its contemporary use originated with Akio Nakamori's 1983 essay in Manga Burikko. Otaku may be used as a pejorative; its negativity stems from a stereotypical view of otaku and the media's reporting on Tsutomu Miyazaki, "The Otaku Murderer", in 1989. According to studies published in 2013, the term has become less negative, and an increasing number of people now self-identify as otaku. Otaku subculture is a central theme of various anime and manga works, documentaries and academic research. The subculture began in the 1980s as changing social mentalities and the nurturing of otaku traits by Japanese schools combined with the resignation of such individuals to become social outcasts. The subculture's birth coincided with the anime boom, after the release of works such as Mobile Suit Gundam before it branched into Comic Market. The definition of otaku subsequently became more complex, and numerous classifications of otaku emerged. In 2013, a Japanese study found that 42.2% self-identify as a type of otaku. This study suggests that the stigma of the word has vanished, and the term has been embraced by many.
A place of meeting for the Hokkaido otaku is the Sapporo branch of Mandarake shop. Mandarake founded as a used bookstore specializing in manga in 1980 and today has several branches all over Japan. The company focuses on the purchase and sale of a wide range of collectables and otaku-related goods, including anime- and manga-related items, DVDs, CDs, toys, figurines, trading cards, video games, cosplay items, animation cels, and dōjinshi (self-published works). The place is really interesting to visit, even for the non-otaku customers and certainly a place to visit in the center of Sapporo. The bookshop is located on the 2nd floor (2F, in Japan the ground floor is called 1st floor, so actually the 2nd floor is the first floor above the ground level) of a small shopping center at the Susikino area.
hey friend, I absolutely loved the deedication with which u wrote the whole experience of ur travels in hokkaido. can I contact u via email..? if possible, pls send me mail
Cannot wait to read this article!