In the center of Hokkaido lies a rustic wooden guest house among the woods. Where indoors, the smell of warm wood fills the cosy rooms, and outdoors, steam engulfs the guests as they drop their shoulders into the hot geothermal waters of the onsen.
Only 18.6 miles (30 kilometers) from the far-eastern shores of Russia, sits Japan’s Northern wilderness, Hokkaido. For outdoor enthusiasts, nature lovers, or even keen whisky tasters, the island offers a side of Japan that feels a world away from the crowds and neon lights of Tokyo. Hop on the five hour bullet train from Central Tokyo, pack your bento box lunch, and allow yourself to drift off as the train hurtles North, leaving behind the city lights to drop you off in the remote volcanic wilderness that is Hokkaido.
The Shinkansen bullet train currently extends as far North as Hakodate, the Southernmost point of Hokkaido island. While plans are in motion to extend the line to the islands’ capital Sapporo, for now it offers an opportunity to pick up a rental car in Hakodate and begin a road trip across the island.
World renowned for the winter snow and the famous Niseko ski resort, the town offers much throughout the year, particularly at either the Sakura cherry blossom or the colourful Autumn blossom later in the year. Photographers and hikers alike can enjoy the range of colours on show as the trees begin to turn orange and red, creating a vivid contrast with the lush green surroundings. The Goshiki-Onsen serves as a fantastic start and end point for many hiking routes, with the route up to Mount Niseko Annupuri offering views of the stunning symmetry of Mount Yotei volcano, and doubling up as a beautiful rural open-air onsen in which to soak your weary legs.
Moving North towards the capital Sapporo is the famous Nikka whisky distillery in Yoichi, started by Masataka Taketsuru and his wife Jessia Roberta (Rita) following a trip to Scotland in 1918. With a fantastic museum and tour of the whisky making process, it offers a helpful side of education with the main course that is the whisky tasting itself.
While it is well worth a trip in itself, on a road trip to explore the outdoors, Sapporo acts as a useful stop off to break up the long journey East on the way to the island’s largest National Park; Daisetsuzan. And of course, no stop off would be complete without delving into local cuisine, which is where the Jingisukan (Genghis Khan) BBQ comes to the rescue. The name derives from the slightly misguided belief that the powerful Mongol Army were partial to eating lamb that was cooked on their metal helmets, which led to the tradition of the meat being cooked over a special dome shaped skillet. But that’s just one of many legends behind the dish. Lamb is rarely eaten in Japan, however on this Northern island, it is famous for this fatty mutton and lamb dish that is grilled at your table to ensure each bite is as freshly cooked as can be.
Hokkaido rewards adventure and the few hours’ drive East of Sapporo, deeper into the wilderness, lies the island’s largest National Park; Daisetsuzan. One of the park’s many volcanoes is Asahi-dake, which is served by a cable car that takes you above the pine trees towards the steaming peaks, which are immediately apparent when the smell of sulphur wafts your way.
The volcano and the forests below are interspersed with a network of stunning hiking trails, which are worryingly and alluringly frequented by bears. The jingle jangles from a bear warning bell attached to your backpack will keep you safe until you reach the safety and comfort of your guesthouse.
The Nutapukaushipe Lodge is everything you could dream of for a place to relax. The rustic wooden guest house in the woods cannot be booked online, so dust off the Japanese phrase book and give the friendly owner a call. Inside, the smell of the warm wood that adorns every wall fills the cosy carpet laden rooms.
Outdoors, steam engulfs the guests as they drop their shoulders into the hot geothermal waters of the onsen, which is perched above a running stream overlooking the vivid colours of the pine tree forest. A deep exhale of breath as your muscles soak in the warm waters while listening to the sounds of nature will cement this moment in your mind forever. Not all road trips have an end destination, but this one is well worth the journey.
Explore more of the Land of the Rising Sun’s wide open spaces with our Japan Travel Guide.
This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.