Journey to the Great North, kind of

The island of Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. It is viewed much like the Alaska of Japan: a mountainous frontier populated with wild animals such as foxes and brown bear. In winter, Hokkaido transforms into a legendary winter wonderland when the cities host snow festivals and the northern coast along the Sea of Okhotsk develops sea ice. That’s right, I said sea ice.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I realized that Japan’s Great White North was at a mere 44 degrees North latitude, which puts this drift-ice-laden island south of Portland and even Rome. It’s not exactly the North Pole.

The other remarkable thing is that Hokkaido wasn’t developed by the Japanese government until the 1800s, though there was of course a native population and remote outposts long before then. This means that the island doesn’t have the 1,000+ year old temples and other historical sites typical of Japan’s other islands. Instead, Hokkaido has farms and cities that are modeled after western countries, due in part to American agricultural consultants that were hired during the formal development years.

All of this gives Hokkaido a flavor very unlike the rest of Japan – and we had to go see it.

We flew directly into the eastern area of the island, which is the most remote region of Hokkaido. After picking up our rental car (which, to our delight, was a buttercream-colored Nissan box), we set out on a sightseeing mission without much of a plan – much to the consternation of some of our local friends, who couldn’t imagine a vacation without a bulletproof plan and a tour guide and a schedule. This vacation was going to be done “American-style”. We had hotel reservations and a basic idea of where to go – the rest of the “plan” was to stop on a whim anywhere that happened to look interesting. This turned out to be wildly successful.
Our first impression was that Hokkaido was refreshingly green. Driving with the windows down, I realized that I hadn’t smelled green in a long time. Weeds, pollen, and other allergens never smelled so good! Dairy cows meandered through lush pastures while John Deere tractors plowed through fields of barley and potatoes. More than once I had to stop and remind myself that I was still in Japan.

The bear-proof gate to the boardwalk at Shiretoko Goko

Eastern Hokkaido has a healthy selection of National Parks. Our first target was Shiretoko National Park, which is a long peninsula that stretches northeast into the Sea of Okhotsk. The rugged interior of this peninsula is considered unexplored and full of wild animals. In fact, the fear of the brown bear is so strong that one destination, Shiretoko Goko (Five Lakes) closed all ground trails due to bear sightings. We were instead restricted to a boardwalk that towered over the meadow, complete with electric fencing to keep any hungry bears from scaling the support structure to eat the humans. Yellowstone must give foreign tourists a heart attack.

It looked like a fisherman was living in this tiny car for the fishing season. Joe was beyond jealous.

The island is dotted with fishing villages that haul in impressive catches of sea urchin, salmon, salmon eggs, crab, and kelp. We dutifully ate our way around the coastline by sampling delicious seafood served in cafes at the marinas. I learned that I actually do like salmon roe when it is ridiculously fresh (hint: it shouldn’t be the least bit salty) and that kelp slime is a surprisingly delicious addition to miso soup. It’s tough work, being on vacation.

Handrails not required, of course

We stumbled upon a marshland park that was criss-crossed with boardwalks, offering outstanding birdwatching opportunities for all kinds of shorebirds and wading birds. I probably could have stayed there forever with a pair of binoculars, but I was lured out with Hokkaido ice cream topped with wild rose syrup. Did I mention that we ate our way around the island?

The following day, we took a sightseeing boat along the coast of the Shiretoko peninsula. We spotted two Hokkaido brown bears lumbering along the rocky beach as well as a group of dolphins swimming near the boat. I can’t tell you how good it was to finally see abundant wildlife in Japan. I had been starting to seriously doubt that there were many wild animals left at all.

The camera gear was actually more impressive than the salmon attempting to leap several body-lengths on their spawning run

In one of the visitor guides, I noticed a section called “Best Kept Secrets”. One of these “secrets” was a waterfall that presents an enormous challenge for the Cherry Salmon on their upstream spawning run. We enjoyed finding this out-of-the-way spot and cheering on the salmon along with a half-dozen retirees toting thousands of dollars in camera equipment. We never did see any salmon actually make it to the top, but it sure wasn’t for lack of trying.

Upon returning to our hotel, we saw that the police had barricaded the street and crowds were starting to gather. A crime scene, perhaps? No way, it was a festival! We joined the masses and found a spot along the curb for the parade, which was a spectacle of beer-drinking men in yukata robes pulling enormous floats topped with lights, traditional scenes, and women beating on drums. It seemed that the entire town of Shari was in the parade, which begged the question – where in the world did the crowds on the sidelines come from?

Each float was preceded by a man screaming “ya-ya-do!!!!!!!” into a megaphone, which was echoed by the marchers. I still have no idea what that means (my dictionary wasn’t much help). Being the only white people for many miles around, we garnered a lot of attention on the sidelines, and Joe was even offered the megaphone to scream his own rendition of “ya-ya-do!!!!!!”. A shame I missed taking that picture.

As for the rest of the trip to the western side of the island and our epic journey home, well, you’ll just have to stay tuned for the next edition.

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