In the late spring I traveled up to Hokkaido with Heather on a trip meant to relax. Usually my travels around Japan center on seeing as much as possible in limited time. The trip delivered on relaxation. Hokkaido is a beautiful and open island, covered in rolling hills and endless greenery. I drove for the first time Japan, and after getting used to driving on the left hand side of the road I was having a blast. Japan has some confusingly low speed limits (80kmph on the highway… about 50) that everyone seems to ignore, which suited me just fine. The green hills rolling past reminded me of the Shenandoah valley in Virginia, with the added excitement of steam from geothermal activity and fog here and there.
It’s famed in Japan for its agriculture, and all of the fresh fruit and vegetables we ate on the island attest to that. The milk from its cows is exceptional too, due to diet or perhaps the lifestyle choice of the cows (there is a very low smoking rate among Hokkaido dairy cattle). If you do go, definitely get yourself some hot Hokkaido milk at some point.
We stayed at a nice hotel in a room overlooking lake Toya, formed in a volcanic caldera. The hotel had a public bath which I utilized as much as possible. Onsen and public bath houses are an essential part of any trip to Japan. I can’t stress this enough. The experience can be a bit disconcerting for westerners, but there aren’t many better ways to relax for an hour. They are typically less than 500 en ($5) to stay as long as you like and have everything you need to get clean and relaxed. When entering an onsen or public bath, the first thing you do is strip naked and clean yourself while sitting on a tiny stool in front of your own showered area. It’s really important to scrub thoroughly here, so as not to contaminate the communal bath (don’t be a dick). After rinsing any soap/shampoo you step into a large spa essentially. These can be heated at various temperatures, but 40 is a pretty standard temperature. There’s a rule that you can measure the tubs temperature by eyeballing the age of the people in the tub… in celcius. Some baths even have a cold tub you can dunk in after a good hot soak, but not here.
Lake Toya itself is gorgeous. Clear blue waters surround a large island that you can take a ferry to. The island has a floating shrine and some really relaxing footpaths, just be careful not to crush the giant snails that like to hang out on it (guilty). You can rent anything from speedboats to rowboats on the shores of the lake as well, for reasonable rates. Around 8 pm every night fireworks are launched over the lake as well. You can watch them from the shore or take a night ferry which is styled as a floating castle to enjoy them in style. We opted for the former.
The food around lake Toya is great as well. There are some excellent restaurants in town that are really cheap for the atmosphere and food quality. I had a dish of baked pasta and mussels for half of what it would cost anywhere in the US while in a gardened restaurant.
There is plenty of quality hiking around the area as well. Mt. Showa-Shinzan is an active magma dome that is an awesome shade of ochre. You can hike (or cable car) up some nearby hills to see it from above and enjoy some stunning views. The hike is a lot of work, but we met a 70 year old man hiking up, so you have no excuses. There are also some ruins from a mudslide you can explore. A school was completely enveloped by mud up to desk height, and there are several apartment buildings in down that had to be evacuated. Seeing modern buildings vacant reminded me of the constant dangers that the islands of Japan faces with regard to natural disasters. In a moment, you might have to change your entire life.