It was early afternoon, and I was sitting on the train going from Tokyo to Hakodate, the first of three trains to Sapporo where I was planning on spending the night. Relatively well organised for once, I already had a couchsurfing host organised for this part of my trip round Japan. I sat back in my extremely cosy seat on the Japanese Shinko high speed train, and Google mapped how to get from Sapporo train station to my host’s apartment. The answer: an 8 hour train to the far North of the island. Shit.
Maybe it’s just me, but I have an unfortunate traveller’s habit of looking at a country on a map and vastly underestimating the size of the country and the time it will take to cross from one end to the other. I’ve done this countless times, and it’s resulted in some rather frantic and exhausting situations – from a 36 hour bus journey from Bogota to Quito to attempting to hitchhike Berlin to Munich when I didn’t start out until early afternoon, and having to spend a night in a tent by a gas station somewhere in rural Saxony.
On this occasion, I was lucky enough to have reliable data on my phone and I spent the next half hour sending out a frantic copy and paste couchsurfing request to around 12 hosts in Sapporo – which pretty much exhausted the remote city’s supply of active users with references. It certainly didn’t help that I was travelling during Golden Week, a holiday in Japan where Japanese head back to spend time with their families, and foreigners living and working in Japan use their rare time off to go travelling themselves.
Sure enough, the replies soon started coming in: “Sorry, but no…” “Sorry, I’m not here…” “Sorry, I’m going camping in the North…” until, about an hour after I sent the request, I received a “Yes! You’re welcome!” Just in time, too, I was Googling fields around Sapporo that were suitable for camping in, and the local laws on the legalities of doing so.
A shy, sweet, quiet girl who barely came up to chest height on me (she was so tiny that when I weighed myself on her electronic scales, they had her height programmed and so told me bluntly that I’m obese) my host met me at the station that evening. When I explained that I had been thinking of nothing but food for the past 5 hours, she kindly drove me to a supermarket where I bought tofu, noodles, some vegetables and a few things to take with me when hitch hiking and camping that weekend. We got back, I cooked, we talked a little and then slept.
The next morning I set off a little later than planned, and found myself waiting extreme amounts of time for the trains. I was heading for two lakes, lake Toya and lake Shikotsu. After taking the train (free using my Japan rail pass) to a more remote area a little out of Sapporo, I found a likely looking piece of road where plenty of cars going in the right direction and a spot where they would be able to pull over. Then I stood with large smile on my face, and my thumb held jauntily out.
After barely 5 minutes, a jovial middle-aged American lady with a large car full of Japanese children pulled over and asked where I was going. “Lake Toya,” I replied. “Oh, we can go that route,” she replied, and rearranged the children to make room for me. She introduced them as her foster children, adopted children, and children of her foster daughter from twenty years ago. Now a widow after her Japanese husband of 20+ years died suddenly from a heart attack five years previously, she clearly had no shortage of love in her life and was happily integrated into the sleepy North island of Hokkaido.
When she dropped me off at my first lake, I felt much happier about my decision to hitchhike. I arrived at golden hour, and it was beautiful. I wandered around for a while, although my large bag stopped me wandering as much as I would have liked. Do hikers who are on the go for months at a time get used to these things?? I ate a late lunch. Then I decided it was time to hitchhike out before it got too dark.
Apparently, the route I wanted to go was the opposite of the one drivers go in. Eventually, after a lot of cars stopped and were sent on their ways without me, I decided it would be best to be taken to a train station, any train station, from where I could catch a train to the next place. I had wasted a lot of time at this point, and it was really beginning to be dark. Unperturbed, I cheerfully answered the curious questions that the Japanese couple asked me using their translation app. The questions started out simple: “where are you from?” “How long are you here?” But soon got more complex: “You are how many years without people?” “Why you climb mountain don’t catch squirrel?” (I may have made that last one up, but you get the idea – the questions got weird).
By the time I had been dropped off at the station and then waited for a while for a train, it really was getting dark. I cheerfully forged ahead and arrived at the other end, in the town closest to Lake Toya. Using my phone I navigated my way out of the city and onto a road leading out towards the lake. It was a very dark road – it was now around 9pm. Occasionally a car would pass and I would turn around and stick out my thumb hopefully. A man stopped and indicated he’d take me to the campsite I pointed out to him. I told the voice inside my head saying I was silly to get in the car with a man at night in rural Japan to be quiet, and I hopped in the car. It was fine. And he gave me a map when he dropped me off at the other end (a map that I carried for longer than I wanted to before guiltily throwing it out a week or so later).
A man with no English (I was getting used to this) checked me in took and my 400yen for the night. As he walked me to my spot he pointed out the bathroom (toilets and sinks with freezing water, no showers) and I sidestepped round the Japanese children running around everywhere with sparklers. Much like the campsites of my childhood that we went to in Wales where everyone else was British, everyone else here was Japanese. I pitched my tent (I have a little one like this) and climbed into my sleeping bag with my kindle and my head torch. The wonderful thing about really tiny tents is they warm up fast.
After breakfast of soy milk I’d brought in a bottle and cereal (about all I could find in a Japanese supermarket that was vegan, but you can read about being vegan in Japan here) I packed up and went on my way. I could not. Get. Into. The. Lake. There were bushes, fences, and private land signs everywhere. So much for my idea of waking up and just wandering down to the water. I stuck my thumb out again and a family picked me up ten minutes later, and drove me for fifteen minutes to another campsite where I could finally get access to the lake. It was beautiful, and peaceful, and tranquil.
I hitched back in the early afternoon, managing to get a ride with a man who took me most of the way and even bought me tea at a convenience store. We couldn’t communicate with anything other than okay, and after a while he gave up trying to speak Japanese to me, but it was a pleasant enough ride. He put me out at a lay-by by the side of a mountain pass when it was time for him to go a different way, and ten seconds later two students pulled up and took me right into the city. They had been driving up for the past two days, something I didn’t envy, but I had come across them at the right moment. They took me back to my host in time for dinner.
If I went back did it again…
This weekend was one of my favourite parts of my three weeks in Japan, but here are the things I would change:
I’d plan my route better. I’m not the most organised person at the best of times, but waiting for an hour between trains, getting lifts in the wrong direction because I’d become stranded, not knowing where the entrance to the lake was… it all added to the adventure, but wasted a lot of time.
I’d give myself more time. Maybe this is a bit of a no brainer considering what I said above.
I’d use that time to hitchhike over the whole island. Because Hokkaido is really, truly, beautiful. And peaceful. And friendly. Actually… I just want to go back and hitchhike all of Japan.
I’d carry less. If possible. But that’s a general life goal of my travel. Still, I was carrying a ridiculously heavy bag for a lot of it.
If you want to be really organised and book places in advance, you can do so through booking.com, which has a good selection for Hokkaido.
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