Hokkaido: camping without the mosquitoes!
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When I first moved to Nagoya from Canada I clearly remember thinking how exotic it was. There were palm trees in the parks. Little tiny trucks and cars buzzed around the streets. Businessmen and women on bicycles. Busses that “talked” to you at each stop in a language I did not yet know. And the food! Fabulous though it is, finding kiosks at the side of the road selling tasty little balls with octopus in them was, to say the least, a surprise I had not imagined.
It was this exoticness that left me somewhat cold at the prospect of travelling to Hokkaido. I had heard that Hokkaido was much like Canada. Forests, vast farmlands, and tonnes of snow! I was happy to escape snowy climates for a while, so Nagoya was just fine for me.
After a few years, however, and especially hearing of friends who had made the trip up I decided it was time to see why it was so popular with Japanese and foreigners living in Japan alike. Friends returned to Nagoya raving about it. Skiers and snowboarders longed for their next trip up there to get into the powder (Hokkaido snow has some of the lowest water content in the world). The sheer number of motorcyclists who see Hokkaido as the holy grail of touring in Japan speaks to the beautiful riding delight of the open road. In fact, Hokkaido is affectionately nicknamed “Dekaido” (big road) by those in the know.
Chances are, particularly in the east side of Hokkaido, you’ll find deer in abundance.
On my first trip to Hokkaido I drove up from Nagoya to Sapporo (it took four days), and camped along the way, setting up my tent by a river or nice view as soon as the sun started setting. Since that trip I have camped all over Hokkaido, in a variety of different settings. Some were actual campsites and some were secret hideaways tucked in by the side of the road.
Camping styles for everyone
There is every style of camping in Hokkaido, from gorgeous camping (I like to call it golf course camping) which has neat, brick driveways for each lot and meticulously flat and tended lawns, to totally natural camping in the wilderness, where there is sometimes nothing between you and the bears but a few trees, and hopefully a deep river. In fact, Hokkaido annually produces a camping guide with more than 300 sites listed on over 300 pages. The newer editions also have a separate listing for hot springs. Most of the campsites, however, have a hot spring on site or very close by.
My hands-down favourite spot is the Nakatoya Campjo (Nakatoya Campground), which is located on the east side of Lake Toya (the same lake as last year’s G8 summit). This is paradise on earth – at the unbeatable price of about 400 yen per adult, right on the shore of the lake – and since my first visit I have likely spent over a hundred days there in total. The camping is reasonably rugged in that there are no marked sites, and the only signs that it’s a campsite are the few washrooms and food preparation and clean up areas in amongst the trees. That said, directly across the road and owner of the camp site is a hot spring in a Norwegian style log building, so even though you’re roughing it, you can have a bath to clean up and get warm just before lighting the campfire and watching the fireworks across the lake at the “touristy” side of Lake Toya (Town of Toya-ko Onsen), where the hotels, boat tours and souvenir shops are all situated.
Poor for the environment though it is, this is the one time of the year that I allow myself to cook over an open log fire. Ahhh! A flame broiled burger in front of the lake as the sun sets and the moon rises, shimmering on the water. The soft breeze and the hush of evening as the kids around the site finally stop their exploring and tuck in for the night. If you go during the summer vacation, it is inevitably crowded, as its popularity has grown exponentially over the years. I have gone as early as May and as late as November, however, and have often been the only one there. Even staff, other than at the hot spring across the street, had left for the season.
Toya is a volcanic lake, and that means that not only is swimming in the water like swimming in a heated pool, it is also one of the clearest lakes in Japan. The view of the stars at night is spectacular, and you can wake to the gentle sound of the water lapping the shore steps from your tent. While there, you can easily day-trip to any one of several active volcanoes in the area, including Usuzan, where you can tour the devastation caused to the town of Toya-ko Onsen (across the lake) from the last eruption in 2000.
Just down the road from Toya (about an hour by car) is Lake Shikotsu, whose name is from the Ainu language meaning “hollow” but in Japanese sounds like “Dead Bone Lake”, and carries with it various rumours and ghost stories. There are two or three large campsites on this lake, as well as one “hidden”, more natural site on the north side, which is small and much less touristy but offers stunning views. I would recommend Bifue Campground for relatively “normal” camping. It has a small store in the main lodge and pay showers.
Lake Shikotsu, in contrast to Lake Toya, can be very cold, in part due to being the second deepest lake in Japan, but is none the less extremely popular for both day trips and long stay camping for Hokkaidoites. The famous Marukoma Onsen is situated right at lake level, and so you can sit in the hot natural bath and look out over the rocky barrier at the serene lake in front of you, much like the sunset picture below.
Tomakomai (a “golf course camping” example)
One of the “golf course” campsites that is very clean and orderly is “Auto Resort Tomakomai Arten” near Tomakomai. During summer reservations are necessary most of the time, as it is a very popular site. Camp fires are not allowed here, but there is a communal fire pit for everyone to share. It is one of the pricier campgrounds, starting at 3000 yen for a “semi-auto” site. Cabins are also available.
On one camping trip I toured Hokkaido by bicycle with who is now my wife. We went by ferry to Tomakomai from Nagoya, and then set out for ten days from there, doing a small 300 km loop, with an extended stay at Lake Toya. Both Lake Shikotsu and Tomakomai Arten campsites can be reached within a day by bicycle from the ferry terminal, assuming you start early. On our first night we slept in a huge city park in Tomakomai.
Other sites around Hokkaido
These are just a few examples of the many places to explore during the summer months of Hokkaido. The combination of volcanic lakes (warm water for swimming), lack of mosquitoes (arghh!) and hot springs within walking or driving distance make this great island a true oasis in the world, and a must see destination for camping enthusiasts. Getting to the campgrounds can be a challenge for those without a car, but rental cars are available for less than it would cost for some hotels, and bicycle touring or hitch-hiking is a real viable option, as well. There are camp sites even within the city limits of Sapporo and the ferry port cities such as Tomakomai, so even bussing is sometimes an option. In an age when we are fighting for the preservation of our natural earth, getting back to the simple life of camping is a real treasure.