Is this really Asia!? In case you were wondering, Asia is not all white beaches, tropical drinks and bikinis. I myself didn’t realize this until just recently, when I landed in the airport in Sapporo, the capital of the northernmost island of Japan – Hokkaido. The island’s name sounds tropical, but it’s far from it. Hokkaido is a beautiful, cold, snow-covered island so close to Siberia that the climate is arctic! Before I left for Asia, I didn’t even realize that Japan had cold seasons. I guess I just thought of Asia as this extremely humid continent, where only Siberia stuck out as the extreme opposite. But I was so wrong – thankfully!
After a month of travelling through warm (and humid!) countries and big, crazy cities, I had been longing for the silent North. The Arctic regions are my favourite places to explore and I hadn’t expected to come across one in Asia. Compared to other Arctic regions, Hokkaido is very south, but because of the cold Siberian weather sweeping in over the island, the weather on Hokkaido is as extreme as any other arctic region. Hokkaido may not be officially classified as arctic, but the weather, the nature and the way of life reminded me in every way of what I love so much about the North: The serenity and being in touch with pure, unspoilt nature. The harsh, barren landscapes, the unforgivable weather and the cozy, warm home that I was invited into. I wish for nothing more than to be in an environment like that forever.
On Hokkaido, I had my first Asian Couchsurfing experience. My host Aki picked me up at the bus station and drove me to his house; the place that was going to be my base for the next four days. Before meeting Aki, I knew nothing about his home or where it was located, so as we were driving further up the mountains in Sapporo, I was getting more and more excited. And then, there it was. In the suburb of Miyanomori lies his beautiful wooden house, with a river flowing through the backyard. Located half way up the mountain, it has the most stunning view of the city from above. I was thrilled. The cozy interior of the house reminded me of a ski lodge; It seemed like the perfect place to experience the way of life on Hokkaido. It’s a slow way of life in a place that seems remote despite being located in the suburbs of Japan’s third biggest city. Inside everything was silent, warm and cozy. Outside the rain was falling and the wind was whistling. To me, it was like being in a dream.
For the first time in Asia, I felt completely at ease.
For the three full days that I had on Hokkaido, Aki took time off work to show me around to some of his favourite places. On the first day, he took me to the Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium, located on the eastern slope of Mt. Okura in Miyanomori. Since most of the snow had melted and the rest was being cleared to make way for the summer activities, it was closed, but the trail leading up to the Mt. Okura Observation Platform was still open, although we had our legs covered in snow at some points! From the top, there is a most spectacular view of Sapporo from a height of 300 metres.
The afternoon was spent in Maruyama Park, a large city park that offers both temples, greenery and beautiful reflection lakes.
In the evening, Aki took me to a small traditional Japanese restaurant, which is a tradition with his couchsurfers (and he hosts a lot!). The restaurant is called Denki Shokudou and is so far the best place I’ve eaten at in Asia! The owner was the friendliest man on Earth and his staff were lovely. The lighting was dim, there were old clocks, pictures, letters etc. all over the walls, there were oil lamps on the tables and there was even a cat running about.
The menu was only in Japanese, so I had to rely on Aki to order the food, but since we’re both vegetarians, that wasn’t going to be a problem! I think we had about 5 different dishes to share, all of which were delicious, despite being just a liiiittle bit spicy, but I’m also overly sensitive 😉 I can highly recommend this restaurant, it was a beautiful experience, but definitely bring a Japanese friend along to translate!
The next day, it was time for a little roadtrip. We drove about an hour south to Lake Shikotsu, a large crater lake surrounded by mountains, including the three volcanos Mount Eniwa, Mount Fuppushi and Mount Tarumae. We spent a few hours there, walking along the banks of the lake, watching wildlife and throwing flat stones across the water trying to get them to skip. It was a quiet day by the lake, a day where thoughts about the future were running through my head. By staying with Aki in his wooden house on the mountain, I came to realize how I want to live. I want to live a quiet life surrounded by nature. A natural life in a natural environment. I want to build a wooden house, I want to plant a vegetable garden and I want to be able to go hiking and connect with nature every day. Hopefully someday, when the time is right, that dream will be my reality.
On my third and last full day, Aki took me to the Gotenzan Park in the Fukui suburb close to Miyanomori. The area used to be a quarry, but because of the noise, which was an annoyance to the nearby citizens, it was turned into a park with many different kinds of facilities. The demolished mountain, Mt. Gotenzan, is now a part of the park and has an easily accessible observation deck half way up.
Half way wasn’t enough for me though, I wanted to go to the top, but in order to do so, we had to climb where we probably weren’t supposed to be. There was no actual trail leading to the top and I was constantly clinging onto trees in order to not fall during the steep ascend.
The view from the top was well worth the effort though – and the minor crime!
At one point, Aki saw something in the snow that he thought were bear footprints and I was really afraid that karma was about to hit us, but thankfully, we didn’t see any. It would’ve been cool to see a bear, as long as it didn’t get too close to me!
After we had safely arrived back on legal grounds, we got back in the car for a small drive around downtown Sapporo and he showed me some of the main sights in the city. This trip to Hokkaido wasn’t about getting to know the third biggest Japanese city though; it was about getting to know the last bit of completely untouched nature in Japan.
The last stop of the day was Asahiyama park, which gave us another stunning view of the city of Sapporo. It was a great way to end a beautiful day and a wonderful stay on Hokkaido!
I’m very thankful to Aki and his mum Machiko for welcoming me to their cozy home. I enjoyed spending time there just as much as I enjoyed exploring Hokkaido.
The days on Hokkaido flew by and although I was excited for my next stop, Kyoto, I wished that I could’ve stayed there for longer. It was very relaxing and I really enjoyed being back in the cold weather. It reminded me of home.
As Aki said when I asked him why he liked living on Hokkaido, “there’s a certain serenity about the North”. I can only agree. The North is and will always be my favourite region to travel in.