Driving Through the Heart of Hokkaido

As I mentioned in the post about Tokyo, my husband, Adam, and I decided to go to the northern island of Hokkaido in order to experience the rural side of Japan. Our first choice was actually the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route, south of Osaka, but you reach a point in life when you want/need a certain level of hotel—particularly after hiking all day, in what could be inclement weather.

There isn’t a whole lot online about Hokkaido, at least in English, and the only friends of ours to have been there didn’t venture much beyond their hotel. So we cobbled together a list of hotels that looked like they might suffice, along with hikes that seemed worth traveling across the Pacific for. And that’s how we ended up flying from Tokyo to Memanbetsu Airport, outside Abashiri in the island’s northeast.

The plan was to make our way to Zaborin, the hotel our friends recommended, which is west of the island’s biggest city, Sapporo. That meant driving, on the left, in a country with a different language and customs.

But first, we had to get International Driving Permits. While it’s a racket—$20 per person, plus the cost of having passport photos taken—I enjoyed the visit to the AAA office on upper State Street, which was like a trip back in time.

I insist you download the Google Translate app if you’re headed somewhere people are unlikely to know much English. You can speak or type words to be translated; shift to conversation mode, which splits the screen so both languages show up at once; and use the camera to overlay translations on an image. It was a lifesaver at the car rental agency, especially when we need to ask them to set the GPS to English. Google Maps worked well for navigating in Hokkaido, but it was nice to have the car’s GPS as a backup, because you can enter the phone number of your destination—handy when the name of a business isn’t in Western characters.

For all our anxiety about driving, we needn’t have worried. The roads were rarely busy, and the speed limit is typically 50 kilometers per hour (30 miles per hour). Locals pushed it quite a bit, particularly on the highways, but when you’re used to driving in the fast lane on the 101, going 80 kpm (50 mph) hardly feels reckless. And driving on the left, which we hadn’t done since visiting Cape Town a decade ago, was a breeze. The only tricky part was remembering that the turn signal was to the right of the steering wheel. For the first few days, whenever we were about to turn, we’d start up the windshield wipers.

As with so much in Japan, there were innovations: tunnels and passing lanes have signs indicating how long they are; speed limit signs on the highways are digital, so they can be changed, I assume, in the event of construction or poor weather. And there were quirks: people in Japan almost always back into parking spaces. And there were mysteries: we had to look up the reason for the arrows over the shoulder (snowplow guidance) and the dispensers that look like newspaper boxes (they hold bags of sand, in case your vehicle gets stuck).

Sometimes, a rest stop—indicated by a “P” parking symbol—was a lot with vending machines. Other times, it was an extravaganza known as a michi no eki. We never ate at one, but we did become fans of the canned coffee sold from machines, and eventually we learned how to determine in advance whether it was hot or cold.

Our itinerary included three stops, two nights each, with hotels getting nicer as the trip went on. (It’s always better that way.) First up was Hotel & Spa Resort La Vista Akangawa, near Lake Akan in the island’s northeast. The room had a large window facing a river, and it all looks better in my photos than it felt in person.

We loved the handout that explained everything, although we didn’t take advantage of any of the amenities, including the communal or private onsen (bath); the one in our room was made of wood and a little grotty, and we knew we’d have plenty of opportunities in the coming days.

More quirks: the phone and the mirror were draped with fabric. And there was a little wooden box by the door with a can of big spray—along with a pair of tongs to dispose of the victim.

Everywhere we stayed, we were surprised how insular the properties were: visitors seem to spend their time not just on the premises, but inside the building. To be fair, that made sense at this particular hotel, given the warnings that bears are everywhere. We planned on a big hike for our one full day, but first we went to see Lake Akan and inquire about bear spray. Google Translate didn’t quite come through: when I showed a 7-Eleven clerk my request in Japanese, he directed me to the hair spray.

The hike was up Mount Meakan. See what I mean about the usefulness of Google Translate?

We hiked straight up, starting with a difficult, gorgeous section over root-covered earth, then shifting to small pine bushes. It was a holiday, so we saw other hikers every 15-20 minutes, and most had bear bells. People were friendly, although I was not amused when a woman asked if Adam and I are brothers. (Memo to straight people: resist the urge.) I was tempted to make the international hand gesture for sex in response.

The reward was a view on to one side…

…and, to the other, an active volcano with steam hissing out and an acidic pond. It was like something out of Dune. The trail continues along the rim, where you come upon more steam and another otherworldly pond.

I was in heaven. I like hiking for its own sake, but I love a good payoff. Rather than return whence we came, we decided to loop around the volcano. Happily, that did not include the zigzag spur up neighboring Mount Akanfuji (or “Mount Doom,” as Adam called it).

The long way back was much longer than we expected, with only a handful of other hikers, so the bear threat was top of mind. If you don’t have a bell, you’re supposed to talk loudly and/or sing. I made the grave mistake of mentioning “Which of the Pickwick Triplets Did It?”, which Adam sang—the line and a half he sort of knows, anyway—on repeat.

Despite the natural beauty, we were beginning to drag, and I fantasized out loud about how delightful it would be to chance upon a little snack bar selling Hokkaido’s famous milk-flavored soft-serve. A half hour later, lo and behold: an outpost of the UPI outdoor chain—like a chic little REI, but with ice cream. Sometimes I think I should put my powers to better use.

And then we amused ourselves for the last hour by taking photos of mushrooms.

Since we didn’t relish the prospect of more time at the hotel, we briefly explored the village on the shore of Lake Akan. It’s not a very pretty place, the main attraction being spherical moss balls called marimo. We were tempted to visit them in person until we learned they max out at a foot in diameter. Friends and relatives can consider themselves lucky we didn’t stock up on cans and jars of marimo for Christmas gifts.

I don’t think many people reading this are likely to follow our footsteps to Lake Akan, but if you do, we quite enjoyed dinner at Bar de Pan. Not because the food was amazing, but because it felt like a Western restaurant, which we craved after consecutive disappointing meals at the hotel. For a nightcap, we bought cans of beer from the vending machine off the hotel lobby, because the bar was inexplicably closed.

More than most trips I can remember, this one was a series of ups and downs. After the delightful day of hiking, we had a middling day of driving. We went to Kushiro Shitsugen National Park, hoping to see cranes, but they were elsewhere for the season. We did spot a few by the side of the road on the way there. And then we went to the Akan National Crane Center—we don’t have a thing for cranes, it just seemed like there wasn’t anything else on the way—where the highlight was this drawing.

I was fascinated by how the farm buildings in Hokkaido have a distinctive shape, and how it even carried over to a temporary structure outside a tunnel.

The towns were kind of crummy, architecturally speaking. If you’re imagining timber and stone and moss, think again. (“This is what I imagine Alaska is like,” said Adam.) But we did have a memorable meal at a soba restaurant in Shiranuka on the southeastern coast, where the only available seats were on the floor. (Many restaurants in Hokkaido offer both floor and chair seating.) The elderly women sitting nearby found our awkwardness rather amusing.

The down day of driving was followed by an up: the Tokachigawa Moor Onsen Seijyakubow, a ryokan in the island’s southeast. We really enjoyed the hotel, even if we couldn’t think of anyone we knew who would like it as much as we did. The architecture by Hikohito Konishi is fascinating: it looks like a bus station from the outside, but inside is contemporary and cool. At the center is a courtyard, which is surrounded by a ring of public rooms (lobby, restaurant, spa), which is surrounded by an interior hallway, which is surrounded by a ring of 24 guest rooms. The courtyard struck us as an opportunity—we wished someone would crack a window—but like I mentioned before, Japanese guests seem content to stay inside.

The room was big and attractive. (Kudos for hiding the TV.) And the bathroom was stocked with an insane amount of amenities, from three different beauty companies. One caveat about the room: the aerial images of verdant farmland on the website are disingenuous. The hotel is actually on a commercial strip with other hotels as neighbors. That wouldn’t have mattered except our room was on the building’s western edge, with a parking lot for buses—which would fire up their engines before 7 a.m.—on the other side of the fence.

Every room has an indoor onsen and an outdoor one. (You bathe first in the adjacent shower; the tubs are for soaking when you’re already clean.) The outdoor tub didn’t have much of a view, but it was large enough for me to stretch out in, and you could press a button to get super-refreshing cold water to come out of the spout. The color of the water, however, was a surprise. I felt like a teabag. (From a guide to the area’s onsens: “Since the hot spring water is deriving from reed and other native plants, which have accumulated deep in the ground together with groundwater over the ages, and is heated by geothermal heat before gushing out in the area around the hot spring resort, it is gentle to the skin and has a higher content of natural moisturizing ingredients compared with ordinary hot springs. […] A red-brown hot spring like amber contains abundant natural moisturizing ingredients and is said to be effective for beautiful skin.” All I know is that it was terrific, and I wished yet again that my house had a hot tub.

Having been to a traditional ryokan years ago, we had an idea of what to expect and how to behave. You leave your shoes in the foyer of the building and wear socks or slippers everywhere, including the dining room. The hotel provides pajama-like garments (to be worn anywhere in the building), sandals, and socks with creepy toes.

The food was excellent, and very Japanese, including at breakfast. Faced with an array of fish at 7 a.m., I kept thinking what an appetizing lunch it would make. And the staff couldn’t have been sweeter with us, even though we must have unwittingly violated the etiquette now and again.

For our second meal, we reserved seats at the teppanyaki counter, where a chef cooked food on the grill in front of us. There was another couple, which was a treat, although the chef consistently gave them larger portions than us, as if we wouldn’t notice. (We had more than enough to eat, so we found it amusing.)

Our plan was to hike at Daisetsuzan National Park, but the trail went straight up a mountainside, and we were still hurting from the volcano, so we aborted it after a half hour. Instead, we sought out a natural onsen built into the side of a river. There’s nothing quite like bathing au naturel with a stranger to make you feel part of humanity as a whole. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a business called Milk & Cheese & Surprise!, because how could you not, only to discover that it serves top-notch Neapolitan-style pizza. One of the things I love about Japan is that it’s not just the Japanese food that’s good. And one of the things I love about travel is how something magical and random can catch you utterly by surprise.

It rained most of our last big day of driving, thankfully stopping in time for us to get a nice view of Mount Yotei. And we had lunch at a chichi little mini chain called LeTao, where we bought some boxes of cookies afterward. The clerk made a plastic cover to protect our shopping bag from the rain.

The third and final hotel was the one our friends had stayed at, Zaborin, west of Sapporo. As we approached, I could understand why it has received coverage the world over. The exterior is a little Brutalist, the inside like something out of a magazine. I loved taking photos of the public spaces, but we found it rather strange that there was never anyone in them. Even the front desk was unmanned, unless you rang a bell.

The bar is straight out of my dreams, but the first night, when I asked whether one might be able to get a drink, I caused a commotion. A waiter had to be summoned from the restaurant downstairs, and then he had to go back down to get the glass of wine. (There’s no hard alcohol.) Why build a bar if you’re not going to use it?

The 15 guest rooms are arranged in a diamond shape, around a soothing courtyard, with big windows in the hallways. If you look closely at the floor plan, you’ll notice how the rooms don’t share walls with each other.

We stayed in the one called Tsurarayuki. On one hand, it was big and private and quiet, and that was splendid. On the other hand, the main living space was generic and oddly underfurnished—I felt like I was at an executive-stay hotel—and the bathroom was about as far as it could be from the bedroom. Surfaces were a bit run-down, and we agreed that the interiors are ready for a refresh. (The hotel opened in 2015.)

The day before our arrival, the hotel informed us that the pump for all of its onsens was broken, and we were given the choice of 50% off the rate or a room at the nearby Park Hyatt. The discount was great, but when we saw our private onsen, we were bummed. It would be a swell place to soak, and there was a neat outdoor shower nearby. (The bathroom proper worked fine.)

Basically, ryokans are about two things: soaking and eating. And the food at Zaborin was truly excellent, a more sophisticated take on traditional kaiseki. I do have to admit that by this time in the trip, I was tired of eating in a little room alone with my husband. Breakfast, at least, was quicker, and Zaborin’s Western breakfast was just about perfect. You have to love the touch of putting hot stones under the basket of toast, to keep it warm.

For our last full day, we went for a short walk to a stunning green lake, ate more soba, and stopped for one more soft-serve.

And in the afternoon, I took the hotel up on its offer of a ride to the Goshiki Onsen. Having enjoyed a private onsen and a natural onsen, it seemed only right to also try a public one. It was a little funky, but the men’s and women’s sides both have indoor and outdoor pools, with views of the countryside, and there was only one other guy in my pool. I was taking a break from the heat by sitting naked on the edge of the pool, facing the hill, when I noticed a fence running along the crest. (In the photo below, the onsen is the building to the left, and the fence is to the right.) And then I noticed two people walking up the hill. I wasn’t too perturbed, as they were far enough away, until one of them took out binoculars—after looking straight at us, he then handed them to his companion!

P.S. Rather than leave you with that image, here’s a striking one of Mount Yotei.

P.P.S. I lied about that soft-serve being the last one.


Previous travel coverage:
••• Tokyo Is a World Unto Itself
••• Paso Robles, Pinnacles National Park, and Beyond
••• A Review of the Inn at Mattei’s Tavern
••• Another Quickie in L.A.
••• Sitting Pretty at the One & Only Mandarina
↓↓↓ The Mysteries of Istanbul
••• Palm Springs: Midweek at the Oasis
••• A Summer Swing Through the Northeast
••• Why Is Everyone Going to Portugal?
••• Patagonia Made Easy
••• A Quickie in L.A.
••• From Penthouse to Pavement in Mexico City
••• Do Greek Islands Live Up to the Fantasy?
••• Splendid Isolation at Utah’s Lodge at Blue Sky
••• Three Reasons to Visit Paso Robles Now
••• The Rebirth of the Cuyama Buckhorn


Sign up for the Siteline email newsletter and you’ll never miss a post.




“I was not amused when a woman asked if Adam and I are brothers. (Memo to straight people: resist the urge.)”

Memo to white people: resist the urge to assume two non-white people standing together are married. I cannot tell you how many times people assumed my brother and I were a married couple (ewwww).

Erik Torkells

The moral here is not to make assumptions about people; assumptions are just generalizations on a smaller scale.


And to both extend grace to others as well as have personal humility since we all use heuristics to help our brains navigate the world. Unfortunately that leads to stereotyping, whether it’s racial, heteronormative, or others.