Independent Travel to Hokkaido

, by Zac

Independent travel in Hokkaido doesn’t need to be intimidating! While a little more planning and flexibility is needed, Adventure Hokkaido Guide Zac is here to guide you through everything you need to know and to show you that travelling alone in Hokkaido is an unforgettable experience.

Admiring a fantastic view of Lake Mashu.

While Japan as a whole has gained an image of being a country fit for solo travellers, Hokkaido’s image isn’t quite there yet. Cities like Otaru, Hakodate and Sapporo are well-known, easily accessible tourist destinations, but Hokkaido’s more remote islands, trails and countryside are far off the beaten path for most.

The lack of foreign language information, combined with the amount of places to see spread out across Japan’s northernmost island makes solo travelling here a bit different to travelling on the mainland. Even as a Japanese speaker, planning my first trip around Hokkaido in 2019 proved to be a challenge, the likes of which I hadn’t faced when travelling to any other regions of Japan. For those who do decide to make their way up here, you’ll find that Hokkaido is one of the most rewarding and memorable locations in Japan. In today’s article, I will help you decide if travelling to Hokkaido solo is right for you and share advice from things to know before you book your ticket all the way to what to do after landing in Hokkaido.

Before You Travel

Going solo opens you up to many opportunities that travelling in a large group, or even travelling with close friends doesn’t. That being said, it certainly isn’t for everybody. If you find yourself struggling to make realistic travel plans, or are worried about the ‘what-ifs’ of travelling, particularly in a country where you don’t speak the language, you should take a step back and consider joining a small group tour. 

Joining a group tour allows you to let the guides handle getting from A to B, problem solving, and even deciding where to eat. It also allows you to make friends for life, especially in small groups with like-minded people. By the end of your time in Hokkaido, you may have a new best friend in Singapore and a hiking buddy in Australia! Another big benefit to joining a group is the ability to ask why. Having knowledgeable, passionate guides who can answer questions and provide the background knowledge to help you walk away a bit more knowledgeable of the scenery you came all the way to Hokkaido to see.

Three enthusiasts in one canoe enjoy Lake Kussharo's brilliant majesty.
A peaceful paddle is a good way to get to know your new travel buddies.

For travellers who are dead-set on exploring Hokkaido by themselves but want to be able to fall back on a “safety net”, self-guided tours are a fantastic option as well. Self-guided tours allow you to travel between hotels and hikes on your own with carefully-crafted itineraries. You’re provided with the documents, from hotel vouchers to make the check-in process at your accommodation seamless, map data for your hikes, and information including recommended train times and restaurant recommendations. In the event of any trouble or an emergency, we have staff on call to support you.

When you do choose to visit Hokkaido, whether it’s on a self-guided tour or a locally operated small-group tour, we recommend holding off on making any flight ticket purchases until everything has been confirmed by your tour provider. Many tour operators, including us at Adventure Hokkaido, require a minimum number of guests for a tour to run. In hotels in popular areas of Hokkaido - particularly rural areas where accommodation options are limited - it may not be possible to book a room for single occupancy. This is because hotels in Japan are charged not on a per-room basis, but a per-person basis, so setting aside rooms for one person when the same room could quite easily hold two or even three people isn’t in the hotel’s best interest. It’s not all bad news for single travellers though, as travelling solo means it’s easier to make alternate arrangements, such as moving to a tour that has a guaranteed departure . While the excitement for an upcoming trip and desire to book your flights as soon as possible is understandable, it’s always a good idea to wait until you get the ok from your tour provider before locking in inflexible flight deals.

Two single beds sit on a tatami floor in a Japanese style bedroom.
Most hotel rooms are set up for 2 or more.

It also pays (no pun intended) to think about money-saving tips before your trip. One way to bring down the cost of a group tour is to see if the option to share a room with another solo traveller is available. If you are willing to share a room with another solo traveller, many travel operators (ourselves included) are often happy to waive the single supplement applied to independent travellers in Japan. Sharing a room may also make it easier for the tour company to secure rooms! If travelling on your own, either on a self-guided tour or not, consider using public transportation as opposed to a car. Rental cars are expensive in Japan, and with destinations being so spread out in Hokkaido, you’ll likely be stopping by a petrol station once, if not twice, a day! It also goes without saying that driving long distances alone, particularly after a long day of hiking, isn’t the safest option either! Consider sacrificing some of the freedom of a car for the freedom to take a nap in the seat of a cosy express train or highway bus and wake up at your destination. Japan has no shortage of passes and discounts for foreign travellers, including the Japan Rail Pass and JAL Explorer Pass, which can potentially make travelling by public transport in Japan an even more appealing option. Check out our FAQ and determine for yourself whether the Japan Rail Pass will be a good option for you.

A view of Biei's Hills on a summer afternoon. There is a small hut and a group of trees in the mid-ground. In a valley in the distance, a two-carriage train runs along the JR Furano Line.
Catching the train is a relaxing way to travel through Hokkaido's rural landscape.

During Travel

The best advice we can give to any independent travellers on adventure holidays not just in Hokkaido, but anywhere in the world, is to make friends! Whether you're on a guided tour or travelling on your own, we recommend taking the time to chat with people at restaurants, in the hotel lobby and especially on the trail. Of course, meeting people is one of the joys of travel, but the hidden benefit as an independent traveller is getting the inside scoop on good restaurants, hidden gems and important information such as trail closures or train delays. Once you get that key information, we encourage you to pass it on to other travellers as well! Remember, everyone on earth knows something you don’t! Even if you don’t end up striking up a conversation with anyone, there’s a good chance a friendly local will strike up a conversation with you. Japanese people are known for their hospitality, so don’t be taken aback when someone asks you to join their meal at a restaurant, or asks if you would like to tag along on a hike or a bike ride. While the reality is that it is most likely an innocent invitation, it goes without saying that you should trust your gut, especially female travellers exploring Japan alone.

While we encourage meeting people, even in Japan you will have to use your better judgement and remember that not everyone has your best interests at heart. Of course, as a solo traveller you won’t just need to be more vigilant with people, but places as well. With no-one travelling alongside you, be sure to let someone know where you’re heading. Your accommodation staff are the best option for this, but you can also give rental car employees a heads up as to where you're going or letting other travellers know your plans. If travelling on a self-guided tour arranged by a local operator, you can travel with at ease knowing that at least your operator has knowledge of your day-to-day plans and lodging.

Advertising banners light up an intersection in Susukino, Sapporo's night life district.
The night lights of Susukino may feel far removed from Hokkaido's wilds, but you shouldn't let your guard down.

If you’re visiting Hokkaido, chances are you’re coming for the nature, but on the nights when you find yourself in the cities of Hokkaido, particularly the Susukino district of Sapporo or parts of Asahikawa, you may be approached by touts trying to get you into their Izakaya or bar. In my experience, Hokkaido’s touts are less persistent than big cities on the mainland, such as Tokyo or Osaka, but they are still a hassle nonetheless. These touts tend to pull a bait and switch, or take you into a restaurant that upcharges heavily for food and drinks. While back-alley bars and dives in Japan may be home to some hidden gems, there are an equal amount of dodgy bars and places that should be avoided amongst them. Trust your gut, and when you don’t know what your gut is trying to tell you - a quick look at Google Reviews can help! 

Remember that the risk of hiking solo is greater than the risk of hiking in a group. Of course, carrying a first aid kit (and knowing how to use it!) is a great first step, but being able to avoid needing a first-aid kit is a skill in-and-of itself! Don’t take any unnecessary risks and avoid unmarked hiking trails.

A hiking register box and signs at the trailhead of Mt. Monbetsu near Lake Shikotsu.
You will find registration forms at many trailheads.

Before you start hiking, be sure to fill out the hiking register at the trailhead of each hike. These hiking registers will ask your name, how many people are in your group and what trail you are using going up and coming down (if there are multiple trails). You may also be asked to write the time that you began the hike, so that if you have not returned to the trailhead by curfew or nightfall, rangers can raise the alarm and start a search.

Finally, once you're on the trail, be sure to make ample noise as you hike to avoid a sudden encounter with wildlife- brown bears in particular! When you’ve finished this blog, check out our full article on hiking safely in Hokkaido here.

Higuma bear on display at the Higuma Information Centre, Kogen Numa, Hokkaido
"Surprise!" might not go down well with all bears...

Helpful Phrases

______Ittekimasu!  “I’m going to ______!” 
Good for letting hotel staff know where you’re heading!

Sumimasen, chotto ii desu ka?  “Excuse me, could I borrow you for a moment?”
A nice, polite way of letting someone know you need some help.

Maigo desu.  “I’m lost.”
A useful phrase for cities and trails alike!

Kekko desu!  “That’s enough!”
A firm but polite way to let pesky touts know you’re not interested.

Other Useful Tips from the AH Team!

If travelling independently or on a self-guided tour, we highly recommend having something to help with translating, whether it’s the ‘USEFUL PHRASES’ section of a guidebook or your smart-phone. Pointing at pictures on menus and hoping that you find an English speaker nearby will get you surprisingly far, but for when it doesn’t, having a means to communicate can sometimes quite literally be a life-saver!  If you’ve read our A Local’s Guide to Eating out in Hokkaido article, you’ll know that travelling around Japan with dietary restrictions comes with its challenges, so having a means to help communicate your dietary needs clearly is a must! For those of you who have already booked your trip to Hokkaido, be sure to check out our guide for setting up your phone for Japan to make sure you can use your phone for translation from the moment you arrive.

A bather soaks in a wild onsen on the shore of Lake Kussharo. There is ice on the surface of the lake and a pair of Whooper Swans float in an open patch of water. It is sunset and the suns rays are backlighting the steam rising off the hot spring pool.
There's nothing more relaxing than being alone, soaking in a scenic onsen.

If you’re visiting Japan alone for the first time, we also recommend taking the opportunity to get used to the hot springs, or onsen! Many visitors tend to be a bit shy about being naked around strangers, and even more shy about stripping off in front of their friends. Unfortunately that shyness can lead to a missed opportunity to enjoy one of the most relaxing things about Japan. When you’re on your own, however, there’s nobody travelling with you to feel embarrassed by, so you’re spared of that shyness! To help get yourself acquainted with Onsen etiquette, we have a blog for that too!

Lastly, we also encourage you to record your time in Hokkaido with a blog or a video of your own solo trip. By creating a blog, you aren’t just documenting your travels for yourself, you’re helping inform others about your experiences as an independent traveller in Hokkaido, and information about which trails you found difficult and what food you found mouth-watering is a great way to help future single travellers!

A Rewarding Challenge

To wrap it all up, journeying to Hokkaido presents some unique challenges for solo travellers, but with careful planning and the right mindset, it can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Whether opting for a group tour for added comfort and the freedom to sit back and relax or heading off on a self-guided adventure for the freedom to travel in a way that works for you, taking time to connect with people and learning to exercise caution both on and off the trail, will help make your trip to Hokkaido safer and more memorable.

Dreaming of an independent adventure in Hokkaido?

Take a look at our Self-Guided Tours.