In contrast to Japan’s densely populated main island of Honshū, Hokkaidō is home to just 5% of Japan’s population on 20% of its land. With limited trains, the easy to navigate roads and wide open spaces for camping, make Hokkaidō simply perfect for a road trip.
Exploring with your own wheels, you’ll have the freedom to stop to dip in seaside hot springs, detour to sapphire-blue caldera lakes, and pull over wherever fresh seafood beckons.
Hakodate is a perfect road trip start point. You’re now able to arrive via bullet train from Tokyo and other points south through the Seikan Tunnel. The two big attractions here are the morning market and night view from the top of Hakodate-yama. From Hakodate there are a couple of onsen (hot spring) options, including Noboribetsu and Mizunashi Kaihin Onsen.
Then on to Sapporo. The capital of Hokkaidō and the only place on the island that feels city-like. The city is short on major sights but big on food and drink being the home of miso ramen and Sapporo beer.
Daisetsuzan National Park is Hokkaidō’s largest park, with volcanic mountain ranges, alpine meadows and a good deal of wildlife. You can base yourself for a couple of days at one of the three Onsen towns and hit the trails.
Another good option from Sapporo is to take the long northern route up to Wakkanai, especially for those with a fondness for stretches of desolate coastline.
You also cannot miss Akan National Park home to several brilliantly blue caldera lakes.
From Akan National Park head north and you reach the waterfall, Kamuiwakka-yu-no-taki. You can swim in the fall’s lower pool, the water is warm as the river above is fed from a hot spring.
Beyond is Shiretoko National Park, which is true wilderness as no cars are allowed in. If you want to pause your road trip, you could consider tackling the two-day hike that spans the park. Otherwise, you can enjoy the scenery while driving by mountain Rausu-dake and the beech forests.
From Nemuro you can go down to Kushiro to visit the Japanese Crane Reserve. Kushiro also has an airport with flights back to Tokyo. Or continue to Tomakomai, where you can catch the car ferry that runs to Oarai in Ibaraki (two hours north of Tokyo) in 17.5 hours.
When? You might want to give crowded July and August a miss. The best time of year to drive around is mid-May through mid-October, any later and you’ll hit snow.
How? Navigating in Japan is easier than you might think: rental cars come standard with GPS devices that allow you to program the phone number of your destination, which is much simpler than entering complicated Japanese addresses.
Accommodation? Hokkaidō has dozens of campgrounds – you can search the full list at the official tourism websites. Those on two wheels can also take advantage of the region’s network of rider houses, although these can fill up fast in the summer so ring ahead.