Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Beyond the Narrow Road to the Deep North

I'm drawn to places at the end of train lines.

Today, my backpack and I head to Wakkanai in the north of Hokkaido. It's as far north as you can go without entering Russia.

Until about 150 years ago, Hokkaido was almost completely wilderness. The indigenous Ainu were able to live somewhat traditional lives while under the thumbs of small groups of Japanese.

In the late 1800's, settlers were encouraged to colonize the island, and they came in droves. Today, most of Hokkaido's population is concentrated in the southwest in the cities of Hakodate, Otaru and Sapporo. I visited those fine cities in April 2013, but deep snow prevented me from exploring the countryside beyond.

1880's settlers' home, Historical Village of Hokkaido (museum), April 2013

Before I go on a trip, I sometimes sample the literature of the area I'm visiting. I'm not finding much fiction based in Hokkaido, available in translation.

Consequently, I'm not looking for literary settings. Neither am I looking for ancient temples and other ancient (Japanese) cultural artifacts: there isn't much. By contrast, the natural environment seems rich, so I'm going to sample Hokkaido's national parks.

Here's my plan:

1. Airport World: MSP--SFO--HND--WKJ (Wakkanai)

21st century jet-setting glamour, unknown traveler, Haneda Airport, April 2016

Wednesday (today): 75 cents senior fare from home to the airport. Nonstop from Minneapolis to San Francisco, then nonstop San Francisco to Tokyo's Haneda Airport. Both flights are with United.

Thursday, towards midnight: Arrive Tokyo Haneda. Check in to a hotel connected to the domestic terminal, ready for the next morning's flight with ANA.

Friday morning: Two hour, nonstop flight to Wakkanai.

2. Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park

Boat to Rishiri Island in the Sea of Japan. I've written about a 19th century American who landed illegally on this island.

After a couple nights on Rishiri Island, I'll take a boat to Rebun Island and spend a night there.

3. Interior Hokkaido

Hike three national parks: Akan, Daisetsuzan and Kushiroshitsugen.

4. In the Steps of a 19th Century Traveler

I've written about Isabella Bird who explored part of southern Hokkaido's coastal areas in 1878. She wrote enthusiastically about Mount Usu which is in today's Shikotsutoya National Park. I'll walk in the park and perhaps trace part of her route by train.

5. Homeward Bound: CTS--NRT--MSP

Morning: Hokkaido's New Chitose Airport to Tokyo Narita on ANA.

Narita departure gate, April 2014

From Narita it's nonstop on Delta, arriving Minneapolis early afternoon that same day. My final stretch is a 75 cents ride home on public transit.

  • In 1689 the writer Matsuo Bashō went on a five-month trek to areas north of today's Tokyo. He gives glimpses of his journey in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I've traced small parts of his journey. Bashō got as far north as Kisakata, Honshu, which was pretty far north at the time. (See the map at the top of this post.) My explorations, today, start much further north, thanks to modern aviation.
  • I purchased all flights with frequent flyer miles. I selected travel days where there was availability for the minimum number of frequent flyer miles.


  1. Do you know of this resource?

    1. No, I did not. Thank you so much. I see it was published in 1888: early times for Western travelers. I've downloaded a copy, which I will enjoy on my flight from Tokyo to Wakkanai in the morning. Again, thank you.