Travel Tales from Hokkaido: Exploring the “Wild West” of Japan
By Erik Lebs
As the plane makes its descent, the landscape below me comes into view; a stark contrast from the sprawling cityscapes of Tokyo or the dense green mountains that cover much of the rest of Japan. I’m looking down upon a vast patchwork of snow-covered fields and farmland. It’s a scene that seems more fitting of a place like the American Midwest than it does East Asia. I’ve come to the metaphorical “wild west” of Japan: Hokkaido.
Where is Hokkaido?
Within striking distance of Russia, Japan’s northernmost island sits like a fat diamond-shaped hat on top of the main island of Honshu and its southwest sister, Kyushu. While the history, esoteric customs, and proud traditions that we typically associate with Japan were developing on those two islands, Hokkaido was left more or less untouched until the mid-1800s. In fact, it was referred to as “Ezochi” (literally: non-Japanese lands) until after the Meiji Restoration, when the government decided to proactively expand northwards.
An adventure into the unknown
Today, Hokkaido has a population of around five million people. Its cities are growing both in terms of residents and visitors. The regional capital, Sapporo, is Japan’s fifth-largest city, while the number of tourists to the ski resort of Niseko has increased tenfold over the past decade.
But Hokkaido still retains that sense of exploring unknown lands, even for Japanese people. A vision of majestic natural beauty and untamed wilderness, this off-the-beaten-track destination inspires a yearning for adventure. If you’re looking to journey to an unforgettably unique and spectacular part of Japan, then Hokkaido is the place to set your compass to.
Flying to Obihiro
Flying courtesy of Japan Airlines with their money-saving Japan Explorer Pass which gets you comfortably there, as well as several other destinations in Hokkaido, for a mere ¥10,800 (around 80 bucks), I’m headed first to Obihiro.
Obihiro is located in the central part of the vast Tokachi Plain, in the southwest of Hokkaido. The town itself is known for its Butadon (pork rice bowl) and traditional horse racing, while also providing a great base for accessing the surrounding landscape – where it’s exceptional outdoor activities and winter sports galore. Canoeing, hot-air ballooning, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing are just some of what you can do there. Tonight, though, I’ll be staying 30 or so kilometers outside of town at Fujita Farm, surrounded by the very farmlands I viewed from the plane.
A moonlit farmstay
We bus for an hour along the snow-slicked road, and I watch the sun disappear to reveal a low-lit moonscape of white snowy plains. The driver makes an abrupt stop to let me off. Silhouetted on the side of the road are several structures, and a subtle smell of cattle greets my nostrils. It’s dark and the snow dampens the sound of my boots as I trudge up the driveway.
I soon spot a building marked “Reception” and find a woman inside – the first of many exceptionally friendly people I’ll encounter over the course of my trip – who helps check me into my own wooden cabin. As though we are all old friends, her husband gives me a lift to a nearby restaurant where, almost as soon as I arrive, the owner sets down a large plate of locally-produced steak. Happily full, I return to the cabin for an early sleep. Tomorrow morning I’m going dog sledding.
Waking early, I’m happy to see the bright blue sky that’s replaced the previously pitch-black landscape. I step outside where there’s an expanse of snow in all directions, and several dozen cows standing in the barn across from my cabin. The otherwise quiet surroundings are interrupted by the drip of a slowly melting icicle, and the cows’ docile moos. It makes me think of the picturesque milk cartons that stock the dairy sections of Japan’s supermarkets, each brand proudly declaring its origins in Hokkaido – the nation’s top dairy producer.
Dog sledding. Or is it hydroplaning?
I walk to the main road and from my left a pickup truck materializes. My guide for the day, Takeshi-San, steps out, resonating with an optimism that can only be attained by spending all day surrounded by dozens of dogs. When we arrive to the kennels, his partner is already sorting out the sled and snowmobile for our journey amidst a cacophony of gleefully-energetic huskies. I change into the heavy winter gear provided, and watch the dogs explode with joy or disappointment as they’re either selected or passed over for the day’s sledding journey.
Dogs readied, Takeshi-San gives me some instruction on what I’m supposed to do to avoid injury, but as soon as I step on the sled I forget all of his directions. The dogs – noticing that I’m now onboard – are hit by a shot of excitement, and all of their pent up energy explodes downwards into their legs.
Across the snow we go, from 0 km/h to 25 km/h in zero seconds. The unexpected jolt of acceleration sends my body flying backwards as my hands desperately grasp for the handlebar of the sled. I thought dogsledding would be something akin to cross-country skiing, but it’s more like hydroplaning a motorcycle. For 12 kilometers, we cut through rows of trees, race alongside a river, and run laps around unused vegetable fields.
A bit of Buta
After, Takeshi-San drives me to the nearest village to wait for the bus back to Obihiro. I fantasize about the town’s famed Butadon on the way and eat it immediately upon arriving.
I decide to spend the remaining daylight hours exploring the horse racing tracks. Obihiro is a small town of some 150,000 people, with a city center modeled after the checkerboard layout of Washington D.C., meaning that you can easily walk between its attractions.
Shortly into the stroll, a local approaches. He says he’s doing some sort of academic research on the indigenous Ainu population, whose numbers are lingering but who have a rich history in the region, much like the Native American tribes in the American West. The researcher enthusiastically chats with me for the remainder of the walk. That stereotypical generalization of rural folk being friendlier than their urban counterparts certainly seems to be ringing true in Hokkaido.
Discovering the tradition of Ban’ei horse racing
Arriving to the Ban’ei Tokachi racetracks, my travel companion departs, and I approach the group of half-dozen structures. Aside from the main track and stands, there are several cafes, shops, and a museum. The actual races won’t start until Saturday, so I settle on the museum, where I learn about the traditional competition style practiced in Obihiro in which plow-like sleds are attached to the horses and the jockeys ride on the rear. The races were first popularized in the Meiji period, and peaked in the 1950s, where for a time over four cities in Hokkaido were regularly hosting races. Now, only the Obihiro racetrack remains.
An evening with the locals
As the sun begins to grow dim, I walk back to the hotel. Takeshi-San spoke of a collection of drinking stands in Obihiro, known as Kita no Yatai. Despite the cold weather, people gather here to eat and drink inside the makeshift heated tent-structures, each of which seats no more than ten patrons.
After a few hours of rest, I venture out into the cold to partake in the festivities. I poke my head into a cozy, half-filled stall serving Chinese-style small plates and beers. Drinking alone can be intimidating but after ten minutes of initial awkwardness at the first establishment, we’re soon engaging in animated conversation.
Over the course of the evening, I meet a potato farmer, a spice dealer, a beautician, a group of magazine writers traveling from Sapporo, doctors, nurses, and more. I learn of a furry white pig famous to the region, and then proceed to eat the salt-cured leg of said pig. The famed local Tokachi wine collectively renders all of us the most sociable people in town. By one in the morning, everyone parts ways and I stumble back to my hotel.
Tomorrow I will go west for the town of Biei, known for its picturesque winter landscapes. But now, sleep.
Flying from Tokyo Haneda Airport to Obihiro Airport is a quick and comfortable 90-minute journey on a Japan Airlines flight. From the airport, ride the Takushoku Bus bound for Obihiro Station, the main bus and train terminal in Obihiro. The surrounding countryside can be traversed via bus or by renting a car through one of the several rental car services adjacent to the station.
The station is surrounded by hotels, which serve as the easiest and most convenient point of accommodation. Feeling adventurous? Accommodations at a countryside ranch or farm (like I did) are also possible. Horse racing takes place on Saturday, Sunday and Monday at the Obihiro Ban’ei Tokachi Horse Racing Center. I did my dog sledding with Mushing Works Dog Sledding Tours, who offer tours in both English and Japanese.
Stay tuned for Part Two where Erik discovers a frozen lake made famous by the Apple Mac, marvels at exercising penguins and goes snowshoeing at night.