Postcards from Japan: Accessible wilderness, Hokkaido how-to's and why Tohoku should be next, with Rob Thomson of The Hokkaido Wilds

Japan’s northern island is famous for its beautiful wilderness, world class powder snow, delicious seafood and fascinating indigenous culture. Just a short flight or swift bullet train ride from Tokyo, Hokkaido is the perfect escape in all seasons. It also regularly ranks as the favourite region for UK visitors, after the Tokyos and Kyotos of this world. And yet, Japan's largest prefecture can still feel like an intimidating place to plan a holiday for.

Enter, Rob Thomson, your new Hokkaido hero!

Could you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m a New Zealander who has lived in Japan for 14 years, ten of those in Hokkaido. My day-job is a lecturer at Hokusei Gakuen University, a small private university in Sapporo City. My hobby is running and maintaining along with my wife Haidee and two other awesome adventurers and authors (Rick Siddle and Chris Auld).

What is Hokkaido Wilds exactly?

The Hokkaido Wilds is a not-for-profit website that exists to inspire English-speaking people to explore and enjoy the outdoors in Hokkaido and surrounding areas in an informed and responsible way by ski, bicycle, foot and canoe. In addition to providing hiking, skiing, cycling, and canoe route overviews in English, we also produce free printable PDF topographical maps for each route.

You currently hold the Guinness World Record for the longest journey by skateboard so you’re obviously quite the adventurer! What have been your biggest adventures until now (can be Japan or in general)?

Definitely travelling around the world by human power. In 2006 I quit my job here in Japan (Kyushu at the time) and started cycling to England, crossing the sea by ferry. Over nine months, I travelled just over 12,000km across China, Central Asia, and on to Europe. The highlight of this cycling journey was Tajikistan - cycling across 4,000m high plateaus, and cycling along the remote Afghanistan border. When I arrived in Switzerland, I wanted a new adventure. I sent my bicycle home to New Zealand, and carried on to England on a skateboard, with a backpack full of gear. From England I sailed across the Atlantic to the US on a yacht with two other people. Arriving in Florida, I then skateboarded across the US to Los Angeles. To finish the trip off, I flew to China, and skateboarded across China too, from west to east - a total of 12,159km, a Guinness World Record.

What first got you enthusiastic about Japan?

My enthusiasm began and continues with the constant stimulation of the Japanese language and culture. When I was 13 years old, a Japanese boy was put into my class at school. He didn’t speak any English, but somehow we became friends. I then did an AFS exchange to Fukuoka when I was 16; I spent a whole year living with a Japanese family and going to a Japanese high school. In university in New Zealand my major was Japanese language and culture. So all throughout my life I’ve had some sort of connection with Japan. And I’m still learning about the depths of Japan’s history, culture, and more recently, its topography.

Where have you visited within Japan so far? How did you end up settling in Hokkaido?

I’ve lived in Fukuoka and Oita (Kyushu Island), as well as Nagoya and Hokkaido. I loved Kyushu for it’s lush green forests, deep valleys, and abundant onsen culture. For a Kiwi who grew up in southern New Zealand with its cool climate, however, Kyushu was just too hot for me - I still love visiting Kyushu, but I was always looking for a place in Japan ‘closer to home’. For me, that was Hokkaido. Here, we have the best winters in the world. Abundant, world-class snow. Incredible access to Japan’s most expansive and wild wilderness areas. And, onsen to die for. It’s an outdoor lover’s dream. At first it was the winter that brought me here - the promise of a lifetime’s worth of exploring Hokkaido’s deep powder snow backcountry skiing locations. Now, it’s the green season that keeps us here too - massive diversity in birdlife and fauna, pristine rivers prime for canoeing, and world-class hiking.

How would you say outdoor exploration differs in Japan, compared to other parts of the world?

In Japan, it’s hard to find what I call ‘true’ wilderness. In my home country of New Zealand, there are some parts of the country where you could hike for weeks and not see any sign of civilization. In contrast, even here in Hokkaido, it would be difficult to walk for more than a week before hitting a road of some sort, for example. 

How easy is it to access wilderness in Japan?

With that said, Japan’s wilderness is incredibly accessible. Here in Hokkaido, there’s world class backcountry skiing just 20 minutes bus ride from central Sapporo City, a city of 2 million people. There’s good ropeway access to some of Japan’s most dramatic volcanic scenery in central Hokkaido. On some rivers here, it’s easy to forget you’re canoeing through farmlands - despite flowing through relatively built-up areas, you’re surrounded by greenery, wild native deer, and red-crested cranes. What Hokkaido lacks in ‘true’ wilderness, it makes it up with its ‘accessible’ wilderness.

What would you say makes Hokkaido special? Do you have any recommendations?

Hokkaido is not like the rest of Japan. The Japanese only fully settled across the island 165 years ago. Before then, it was the domain of the Ainu indigenous people. Even now, many place names in Hokkaido are of Ainu origin, including Sapporo. This alone sets it apart as a frontier, even today. The climate is harsh, stark, and beautiful. South of Hokkaido, humans have, relatively speaking, tamed nature, with perfectly manicured gardens, spotless city infrastructure, and a refined culture. In contrast, in Hokkaido, nature is in charge. Cities and roads here bear the scars of snow-clearing machinery, and the locals are more strong willed and individualistic - a melting pot of domestic immigrants, open and friendly.

My passion for Hokkaido stems from its grandiose nature. So, I’d recommend visiting the Daisetsuzan National Park in central Hokkaido. Or, the Shiretoko Peninsula, a World Heritage Site. For true adventurers, however, I’d recommend a visit to Rishiri Island in the far, far north. Here, you’ll eat the freshest seafood you’ll ever eat. You’ll climb one of Japan’s most beautiful free-standing volcanoes.

Do you have any favourite memorable experiences from your time in Hokkaido?

Approaching Mt. Rishiri from the southeast in winter is something I will never forget. Our party was on a spring backcountry skiing mission, and we were not prepared for what we’d see that day. The forecast was for somewhat misty conditions, so we were resigned to not getting decent views. But as we crested a rise, there she was. A great wall of couloirs and spines greeted us as they made their way top to the summit of Mt. Rishiri, or Ri-sir in the indigenous Ainu language (literally tall island). It was a scene to rival that of the peaks of Patagonia, or the summits of the Himalayas. And yet, so accessible.

Some of our readers will be avid adventurers - others will be more casual hiking enthusiasts. How would you suggest both types of visitor approach the task of planning a trip to Hokkaido?

For the avid adventurers with plenty of time up their sleeves, we’d recommend making use of English language guidebooks and good quality topographical maps (such as those we provide for free on to plan your forays into the Hokkaido outdoors. For more casual hiking enthusiasts, as well as avid adventurers keen to make the most of their time in Hokkaido, we’d recommend hiring a certified outdoor guide. The Hokkaido Mountain Guide Association, for example, has a list of local expert guides who can speak English. Besides being experts in Hokkaido climate and safety concerns, local guides can make a huge difference for arranging transport, translation, local recommendations etc.

Hokkaido Wilds makes a point of featuring names of locations in Ainu (the language of the indigenous population), as well as Japanese and English. How can international visitors to Japan experience and help contribute to the preservation of Ainu culture?

Wherever possible, ask your hosts and/or local information centers about where you can experience or learn about Ainu culture. Part of preservation of Ainu culture is raising awareness that indigenous cultures are important and valued. As a New Zealander who has grown up with Maori culture being part of my national identity, I feel that this sense of appreciation for indigenous cultures is, for the most part, more developed in my own country compared to Japan. So, wherever possible, I try to communicate that value through learning about the Ainu heritage of the places I visit here in Hokkaido.

'This month we're looking at the word 'tabigokoro' meaning 'the innate urge to travel'. Where is it that you are most keen to travel to next within Japan and why?'

It feels like I could spend a lifetime in Hokkaido and not fully experience the totality of what it offers - the next challenge for is to document Hokkaido’s sea kayaking destinations. Outside of Hokkaido, however, we’re keen to get back to the Tohoku region in northern Honshu. It’s a short overnight ferry away from Hokkaido - get on the ferry at night, and wake up in Aomori Prefecture. We visited some of Aomori’s backcountry ski destinations in winter last year, and were blown away by the volume and quality of snow. The traditional Japanese culture and ancient onsen were amazing too. Tohoku is the last frontier in backcountry skiing in Japan, and we’re keen to get back there to experience some more of it.

Thanks for your time, Rob!

If you're looking to dip your toe into the wilderness of Hokkaido and need some help make sure to check out The Hokkaido Wilds on their site, or their social media channels!



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