Wild Camping Hokkaido
After relaxing (and eating cheese ice cream) for a few days in Sapporo, it was time to explore the rest of Hokkaido, Japan’s wild northern island. Persuaded by a brochure in the local tourist information office, we set out from Sapporo to Kushiro by early morning train.
Our first stop in Kushiro was the local fish market: a wonderland of fresh cut sashimi sold by adorable (and aggressive) ladies. As soon as we walked in, eyes full of wonder, one group beckoned us over and explained the process, “Go buy rice [points to corner of market]. Come back here.” We followed instructions and ended up with two big bowls of rice covered in tasty toppings for just under $10.
Thus fortified, we set out for the evening’s accommodation: Shirarutoko Campground along Lake Shirarutoko. The description sounded perfect – lakeside camping with multiple hot springs nearby – and the short ride there was lovely. Forty kilometers (25 miles) through natural wetlands, along lakes and streams filled with the “Nature experience” and “Wild bird” promised by our brochure.
Unfortunately, upon arrival, we were told that the campground was “closed due to water.” Based on our limited Japanese and the campground-keeper’s limited English, we never got a better explanation than that. But we were able to ascertain that the (somewhat grungy) hotel near the campground had rooms for only $50 per person… and that we’d probably be happier wild camping.
We had wild-camped a bit on Shikoku, but camping Hokkaido is a different proposition. First off, Hokkaido is much less densely populated than the rest of Japan. The island has 22% of the country’s total land mass, but only 5% of the country’s total population. Second, less population density means less convenience store density. The area of the island we were in was the boons – a few farmhouses and abandoned-seeming restaurants, but no open businesses. Third, the wildlife on the island is totally different and much more prevalent. We weren’t overly worried about running into a bear in that area, but we knew foxes are common. In short, we knew we’d have better luck finding wild spots to camp in, but it might be a skosh scarier than camping in the well-traveled areas where we’d slept on Shikoku.
And so we set out. We’d stocked up on camp food before leaving Kushiro (cup’o’noodles-type items that we could prepare with our JetBoil camp stove) and hard-boiled eggs to add protein. But we were about 30 minutes away from the closed campground when we realized we had failed to fill our water bottles.
Dry cup’o’noodles was not an option, so we began frantically searching for somewhere – anywhere – we could get water. The little train station we saw on Google Maps? Nope, that turned out to be a spider-web-filled shipping container. Shops? All closed and seemingly abandoned. We were on the verge of riding to a farm and knocking on the door when we saw the cyclist’s salvation: a vending machine in the middle of nowhere. 440 Yen later we had enough water to last for breakfast and dinner, and could finally settle into a campsite.
It was just getting dark when we spotted our site: a flat clearing on the shoulder of a dirt road, close enough to the main road to feel relatively safe, but well-camouflaged. We covered ourselves in mosquito repellent, set up the tent, and made dinner. It wasn’t the lakeside campsite and hotsprings that we’d planned for, but we did get a spectacular sunset. [Dmitry says: “Sorry for the cell phone pics… was too busy dodging mosquitoes and searching for life-giving water to take proper photos.”]