Many first time visitors to Hokkaido head straight for the usual tourist attractions in Sapporo, Otaru and Hakodate. On my first visit to Japan's northernmost island, I skipped all the above mentioned places and went somewhere totally different, which was eastern Hokkaido. The trip was an adventure itself, for it was the first time I was driving overseas. Being larger than Ireland or Tasmania, and nearly six times larger than the second biggest prefecture, Hokkaido is huge. There are a few regions in the east, and each is uniquely different in terms of landscape and culture. The entire area was just too big, and there wasn’t enough time in eight days to visit everything in detail.
My favorite is undoubtedly Nemuro city, on the easternmost side. Here lies Japan's first city to see the sunrise, and is a popular place where many gather to see the first sunrise of the year. I have a fascination with extreme points of Japan, and the easternmost here is Cape Nosappu, which houses Hokkaido's oldest lighthouse, built in 1872. Being close to Russia, there are russian signs on the roads and buildings. I took the chance to visit Higashi-Nemuro station as well, in search of the coveted sign that says ‘easternmost train station of Japan’. In fact, this station is the eastern-most station in of all Asia.
Further north of Nemuro is the Shiretoko Peninsula, which protrudes into the Sea of Okhotsk. Beware, as Shiretoko has the highest concentration of brown bears, a symbolic animal of the area that has been both feared and worshipped by the earliest inhabitants. The easiest way to see them is to take a sightseeing cruise that allows visitors to search for them from the sea. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are a few peaks in a mountain range providing photographers with numerous picturesque photo opportunities. There is an abundance of plants and animals, mountains, waterfalls and lakes. I could have easily spent a few days here if time had permitted.
Famous for their colorful flower fields, lavender is the name of the game here during summer when the lavenders bloom at its best. In Furano and Biei, different variations of crops are planted in each field, to form what looks like patchwork of hills. There weren’t plans to visit any of these farms at first, but whilst driving along the main road, many of these pretty hills came into view, and I couldn’t resist not stopping.
There were a few more cities I managed to visit, though they were mainly touch-and-go, dropping by for a few hours. Sahoro resort in Obihiro for big brown bears, Lake Akan for marimo moss balls, Asahikawa for its ramen village. All in all, the long distances covered in a short period of time, the local people we met, the amazing scenery, made my first overseas drive a memorable experience. It was something different, something not the norm, for a first timer to Hokkaido.
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I still clearly remember the day I first landed in Japan, and since then it has been my goal to set foot in all 47 prefectures. I try to look for less touristy areas, preferring the countryside to the city. I'm always amazed by the many Haagen Dazs and ice cream flavors available only in Japan.