I did not like Hokkaido the first time I visited—no, I hated it. In fact, I believed at the time that my first trip to the island might be my last to Japan as a whole. That was how little love I had for Hokkaido back then, in early 2015.
I remember getting in the taxi from Jozankei to the airport (among the many things I disliked about Hokkaido was its comparatively awful public transport), and feeling excited to leave.
Of course, I’ve just wrapped up my sixth trip to the island. So, what changed?
The first step, for me, was realizing that Hokkaido is not really Japan. Well, not precisely. Ironically, I realized this in Hakodate, where I’d stayed two nights during my maiden voyage, and which had been my favorite stop primarily because of how much more Japanese it seemed that Sapporo and everywhere else.
As I sat atop the Mt. Hakodate lookout one mild evening in late September 2017, gazing down on Japan’s best “night view” (which had been totally obscured by fog on my first trip, because of course it had), I realized that in order to appreciate Hokkaido for what it was, I had to let go of what it wasn’t.
That proved easier said than done. The next summer, when I returned for the third time with the ostensible goal of traipsing through the lavender fields just south of Asahikawa in central Hokkaido, fate dealt me an incredibly unlucky hand. Heavy rain would fall nearly every day of the week in mid-July I was there, in spite of Hokkaido typically being dry around that time.
Although my misfortune was not enough to totally dissuade me from traveling to Hokkaido again, the next trip I had in mind was an incidental one: A few days at the tail-end of the epic, six-week sakura sojourn I had planned for 2020. (That didn’t happen, for obvious reasons.)
Well, at least not during the Worst Year in History™. In 2021, thankfully, I was living in Japan, leaving me unbeholden to the country’s years-long border closure; I saw the cherry blossoms in Sapporo and Hakodate (where it was, not surprisingly, the most impressive) as I’d planned to do the year before.
Afterwards, I remember flying from Sapporo back to Osaka’s Itami Airport excited, for the first time, at the prospect of going back to Hokkaido again in the future.
The idea had been to come back the following February, to correct the disappointing (and, I could see at this point, poorly-planned) first trip I’d taken seven years earlier. By that time, unfortunately, Japan will still closed—and I no longer resided there, leaving me locked out. So I pushed that trip (which did end up being transcendental) off another year.
A successful snow season swing through Hokkaido left just one major item on my bucket list for the item: Autumn—and you probably know how that went.
Now, I fully realize that Japan leans heavily (too heavily?) on the fact that it has four seasons; Hokkaido typically doesn’t, so I probably shouldn’t use this line of reasoning. But completing this particular sequence truly leveled up my love for Japan’s northernmost island in a way I definitely never saw coming.
Certainly not sat along the chilly coast of Otaru nine Februarys ago, tossing a frozen starfish toward the icy sea as I wondered what on earth I was doing there.