Co-Authored by Jonathan Mott & Anastasia Mayamsina
Photo Credits: Anastasia Mayamsina
Look up the word “hack” in a dictionary and the usage is pretty standard. As a verb, to hack is, first and foremost, to cut something with hard or heavy blows. The point is that the word hack, while used in many ways, has maintained clear-cut meanings. These days it’s a buzz word meaning “to use something well, in a conventional or an unconventional way.”
Before settling down in Sapporo, we spent years living out the highs and lows of backpacking around the world. Our own travel experiences taught us countless travel hacks – from customizing backpacks to fit your extra small body size, to knowing how to use cultural code words to ease your way across different countries, to endlessly cutting costs and saving money on activities and accommodation –travel hacks which are, in fact, a core principle for most long-term travelers.
With the sharp eye towards great travel hacks, we came to Japan and discovered the everyday reality of endless convenience and the best customer service in the world. So what more is there to hack in such a hacked country already, where you can buy 10kg bags of rice from a vending machine or enter a taxi with the back door opening like magic as you approach? As seasoned travelers, we’ve certainly found and cherished a few great hacks in our years spent living here in Hokkaido.
Hokkaido Hack #1: Convenience Stores
Like clean bathrooms you can use without making a purchase? Me too. Like 300 yen lunches and 500 yen dinners? Of course you do. Fresh ground and individually brewed coffee? Couldn’t live without it. How about beer or wine 24/7? Don’t mind if I do! Need free Wi-Fi, an ATM that reads foreign cards, a copy/fax/photo printing using-nearly-any-device machine, or an exact address in the neighborhood? A Conbini – short for convenience store – has all that and so much more.
How much time have we all wasted wandering around neighborhoods trying to navigate the archaic address system, until finally giving up and heading to the nearest conbini with a plea for help from the always-kind staff? At many conbinis, you can even order concert tickets, pay for flights, send your luggage across the country and countless other services that we have no idea about, all with stupidly good service which internationally is only expect at high-end retail. Lastly, conbinis are literally a life-saver as they’re often the only establishments open in Hokkaido’s depopulated countryside late into the night.
Hokkaido Hack #2: Super Sentos
Being on the road, even in Japan, can leave a traveler exhausted, less-than-clean and on a tight budget. In a country where watermelons can sell for as much as a 4 star hotel room, sometimes cutting corners is absolutely necessary to keeping the adventure going. Why spend 10,000 yen at a hotel, when you can stay all night in a giant public bathhouse for a fraction of the cost? Super Sentos (as they’re known) have all the amenities of a hotel, minus the beds. That’s OK though, because when it’s time to sleep, there are plush public rooms to do just that. Of course, there are also restaurant services, meaning you may never want to leave (at least until the typhoon has passed!).
Hokkaido Hack #3: Secondhand Stores
Go to a secondhand store in Japan and, assuming you’re flexible with colors and aren’t over two meters tall, you can walk out with almost anything you’re looking for. This is particularly useful for visitors staying more than a couple of weeks who are interested in exploring the great outdoors. 2,000 yen tents, 500 yen sleeping bags, 3,000 yen hiking boots, used skis/snowboards from beginner level to powder crushers, goggles, snow pants et al. Whatever the season, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find perfectly viable and great condition used outdoor & indoor gear at a fraction of what it would cost new. And if you haven’t destroyed your purchases while out in the mountains, you can even try to resell them to the same shop! A personal Sapporo favorite is Mandai: They’ve got everything from Nintendo 3DS games and anime figurines to old ceramic vases and original designer handbags. Even if you’re not equipping for adventure, there will no doubt be some funky knick-knack for you to take back home, or a unique gift that you may never find again.
Hokkaido Hack #4: Hitchhiking
Japan doesn’t really have a hitchhiking culture. But Hokkaido is pioneer country, and the pioneer spirit remains. Besides, it's a smart way to avoid ridiculously expensive domestic transportation costs. While you won’t see many natives with their thumbs out on the side of the road, it doesn’t mean that you can’t give it a try. Drivers are often eager for a bit of an international experience, and will no doubt try out their English skills. It’s also a great chance to practice your Japanese. Just remember to write down your destination in Japanese on a small sign. This will let drivers know that you’re not looking to move in for life and will increase your chances of begin picked up quickly, often in under ten minutes! But please don’t hitchhike on narrow, busy roads. Instead, choose a spot near a parking or service area where cars can easily stop without disrupting traffic or causing an accident (*err, learned from experience!).
Hokkaido Hack #5: Sapporo Bicycle Rentals
Available when the streets are free of snow (April – October), Sapporo city offers Porocle, a bicycle sharing rental service. Pay 1,080 yen for a 24-hour pass and you can rent any bike from a variety of downtown locations. Pick up a bike in Odori and drop it off at Nakajima Park or Sapporo Factory. Take one on a Saturday afternoon and return it the following day after cycling out for lunch. The bikes, while not suited for long-distance travel, offer a fun and slow-paced way to explore the city and its outer limits.
So whatever your favorite hack, keep exploring Hokkaido and as always, “Enjoy Nature, Be Happy!”
Our blog covers any and all topics of travel in Hokkaido - from the best gourmet oysters to off-the-beaten-track adventures - and everything in between.