Hokkaido, Japan: The northernmost of Japan’s islands remains a mystery to many. One of the reasons for this is its remoteness, especially when venturing beyond the prefecture’s cosmopolitan capital city, Sapporo. This model course brings you a taste of the treasures that Hokkaido has to offer if you dare to venture into the wildness. Specifically, we will be visiting the prefecture’s eastern flank. While the petite rural trains that serve this region do have their charms, for a true taste of the freedom that nature can provide we recommend undergoing this journey by car – unbeknownst to many, a relatively affordable option for travel in Japan. Indeed, driving through the grand landscapes of Hokkaido’s East, oftentimes without encountering another vehicle for long stretches of land, gives you a new perspective on just how vast this underrated part of Japan truly is. The course outlined below can be followed as a pre-made travel itinerary, or you can pick and choose those spots that scratch your travel itch!
We begin in Nakashibetsu Airport, which is actually the easternmost airport in all of Japan. It is a natural entry point for travel in this region, and from here it is only about a 30-minute drive to our first destination, the majestic Notsuke Peninsula. The Notsuke Peninsula is located on the eastern tip of Hokkaido, extending from the town of Shibetsu into the Nemuro Strait. It is known for its curved shape as well as Japan’s longest sandspit at about 28 kilometers in length, as well as the “ice horizon” phenomenon that sees large stretches of the inland sea frozen during winter. Aside from the beautiful views that driving along peninsula provides of both land and sea, you might find yourself stopping and taking out your camera for a different reason: deer. Indeed, Hokkaido’s famed breed of deer, ezo shika, love roaming around the peninsula, as it is rich in some of their favorite food: sasa bamboo and grass roots. Especially during the colder months, the peninsula is known attract hundreds of deer.
After having been immersed in some of eastern Hokkaido’s incredible nature right of the bat, we continue south to the town of Betsukai, which is about 45 minutes from the Notsuke Peninsula. Here, you can stop to grab some local delicacies at Jumbo Futaba, which has many awesome things to try if you are a budding foodie. Most famous is the scallop burger, which is exactly what it sounds like. Large, locally sourced pieces of scallop are stacked between two juicy pieces of bread. Alternatively, another dish Jumbo Futaba prides itself on is Sushi, as the chef has been trained in the art through his previous stints working in Tokyo and Kushiro. As we will continue to drive after the meal, we recommend washing down the food with a glass of locally sourced milk – you won’t regret the choice!
Next, we head south once more, down to Akkeshi, which will be the final destination of the first day in our trip. Another 50 minutes or so through Hokkaido’s beautiful nature, and you will arrive at this small city nestled along the beautiful lake of the same name. After a long day’s drive, you might be in the mood to unwind with a drink and more of Hokkaido’s local cuisine. For this, we have a special combination in mind. Aside from the beautiful scenery of the nearby forests, lakes and ocean, Akkeshi has become famous for its whiskey, with the appropriately named Akkeshi Distillery grabbing headlines for its many unique blends, creating a taste that seeks to reflect the region using traditional Scottish distilling methods. We recommend checking out the distillery, perhaps sampling some of their many offerings, and picking up a bottle that stood out. You will need it shortly, as our preferred spot for dinner in town is Grill Gomi. Here, the menu is all about oysters, whether they be grilled (their specialty), raw or fried. Now, pairing oysters and whiskey is one of our go-to moves when visiting the area – either have a glass with dinner or add some of the good stuff straight onto the oyster!
After sampling the many delights that Akkeshi has to offer, the next logical step on our journey is Kushiro. The largest city in eastern Hokkaido, this amalgamation of wetlands, lakes, and a port town is difficult to properly describe in just a few sentences. Another 45 minutes or so from Akkeshi will take you straight to city center, but not before enjoying another picturesque drive along Hokkaido’s eastern coast. While small in scale, downtown Kushiro does have a lot to offer to visitors, and it will almost feel like a metropolis after a few days driving through Hokkaido’s nature. Before checking out the city, however, we recommend heading over to the port, especially if you happen to arrive near sunset. The Nusamai Bridge is perhaps the best spot to indulge in the marvelous shades of red, orange, and purple of Kushiro’s sunset, which have been documented for centuries by word of mouth, with foreign sailors spreading the tales of its beauty. For dinner, there is no place like Sakaemachi, which is littered with dozens of restaurants, izakayas, bars, and snacks – local bars offering karaoke and drinks at a set price, oftentimes staffed by a talkative proprietor. You cannot visit Kushiro without trying the local specialty Robatayaki, charcoal-grilled fresh local seafood and produce, and this area has enough spots that offers this delicacy. As you might have been able to tell, to fully experience downtown Kushiro’s charms you will have to spend a night, which we heartily recommend.
We end our journey how we began it – by stepping back into eastern Hokkaido’s nature. However, instead of majestic peninsula we now venture off to a picturesque lake. Lake Akan, which while technically part of Kushiro, is a 2-hour drive away from the city center.We promise it will be worth the drive, however. The lake is a fascinating place, because it is known as one of the few areas where the culture of Hokkaido’s indigenous people, the Ainu, is still alive. More than 100 Ainu live in the area, many of which are sharing their culture through the various museums and small craft shops that make up the Lake Akan Ainu Kotan (kotan literally means settlement in the Ainu language), located on the southern bank of the lake. Furthermore, the nature of the lake itself and the surrounding forest is something to behold, as here you will find mud volcanoes. This rare natural phenomenon is created by the eruption of mud formed by subterranean hot water that can reach temperatures of 100°C. Finally, a trip to Hokkaido would not be complete without stepping into a hot spring, and there are numerous offerings on the bank of the lake, making for a relaxing end to our trip.
Shiretoko Natural Park,
From Lake Akan, you can head to nearby Memanbetsu Airport to exit the area, which offers connections to all the major hubs in Japan. However, if you just cannot get enough of the region, alternatively you could also extend your stay to take in Shiretoko Natural Park, a Unesco World Natural Heritage sight that showcases even more of Hokkaido’s powerful nature. Either way, we hope to have inspired you with this tour through Hokkaido’s magnificent eastern parts – happy driving!