NOBODY believed me when I said I was going to drive in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island.
Ms Hakamada Teruko serves a great cold soba in her eatery in Toyako-cho in Abuta-gun prefecture.
With less than a year of road experience and totally clueless when it comes to reading maps, even I was doubtful if I could do it.
So, when Prime Travel & Tour proposed a nine-day, seven-night fly and drive Hokkaido trip, I accepted the invitation with much trepidation.
Fortunately, I would be travelling with my colleague Jamie Koh, who, besides sharing the driving experience, would document our week-long adventure through her lens.
The adventure begins
After a restful overnight flight that took us direct to Chitose city in Hokkaido, we were whisked off to the Toyota Rent-a-Car centre.
Like the rest of the more than 100 Singaporeans who were on the same itinerary, Jamie and I were allocated the hybrid car Toyota Prius, which is twice as big as the car I drive at home.
One look at it and my heart sank.
Great ice-cream at Lake Hill Farm
Our enthusiastic tour manager Matsuki Yoshihiro hopped over to show us how to use the Global Positioning System (GPS) attached with the car.
It seemed pretty easy because all we had to do was to key in the mapcodes of the places we were to visit, and the GPS would guide us to our destinations.
The only problem was the system in our car was a Japanese-language one. So I asked for a smaller car with an English-speaking GPS. Much to my relief, the helpful team at Toyota Renta- Car managed to find a smaller Corolla, which was to accompany us for the rest of the journey.
As I sat in the driver's seat and keyed in the mapcode of our first stop at Lake Shikotsu, I felt a sense of exhilaration.
Upon the GPS's prompting, I stepped on the accelerator, made a first left turn, and from that very instant, my apprehension dissipated and I knew it was going to be a lot of fun.
Flower power at Farm Tomita
In Hokkaido, where the speed limit is 50km per hour on average, and where cars are few and far between, driving is a pleasure.
In the countryside, where the roads seem to stretch endlessly, one can enjoy a leisurely drive while taking in the breathtaking scenery.
Although we were given a fixed itinerary with mapcodes of places to visit each day, we made several 'unofficial' stops to walk around small towns and to capture scenes that would have been missed by the typical tourist. That is the beauty of a self-drive trip.
On Day 2, after taking some spectacular shots from atop Cape Chikyu, we decided to stop at a small town in Abuta-gun called Toyako-cho.
It was close to midday - the air was still, there was hardly a soul in town, and most of the doors were closed. But there was one small family- style eatery along a quaint narrow road that drew our attention with its chatter and laughter from inside.
Testing the water at Jigoku-dani Valley's hot spring. The volcanic area's rocks give off a sulphur-rich yellow-grey gas that smells like rotten eggs.
A matronly-looking woman greeted us with a cheerful Irrashai masei ('Welcome' in Japanese). I asked in halting Japanese if we could have a cup of ocha (green tea) or water, to which she merely smiled, obviously not understanding what we wanted.
But when Jamie took out her camera and started snapping away at a customer who was slurping up cold soba, everyone loosened up and gamely posed for the camera, amidst much laughter and good cheer.
The owner of the small restaurant, 63-year-old Hakamada Teruko, listed ramen and katsu curry among her specialities.
Although we were not hungry, we felt obliged to order a plate of cold noodles to share. At 500 yen ($6.20), this was the cheapest and the best noodles we ate on the entire trip.
Places that made a lasting impression include Jigoku-dani Valley on Day 1, whose odorous sulphur smell is unforgettable, and Bay Hokkadate on Day 2, which offered a bird's eye view of Hakkodate city at night.
Lake Hill Farm on Day 4 was where we had the best homemade ice cream against the backdrop of Mt Yotei; and Farm Tomita on Day 7, where fields of lavender and other flowers such as the oriental poppy, peony and oxeye daisy made us feel we had found a piece of paradise.
But the most picture-perfect scenery we came across had to be the undulating mountain range that was our companion as we drove from Sapporo towards Furano on the second last day.
As we stopped by the roadside to take pictures of the highlands that stretched right across the horizon, with fields of soft green below, I knew our trip had been a success.
This trip to Hokkaido was sponsored by Prime Travel & Tour. For more information, visit www. primetravel.com.sg\
Survival tips for a road trip
- Have music, will travel. Due to the hilly terrain, you don't always get radio reception, so bring along your favourite CDs.
- Have a travel companion. Driving 400km a day can be mentally and physically draining. Having someone else for company and to share the driving is a great help.
- Stock the car with water and snacks.
- Take frequent breaks. Making a stop every 30km or so allows you to refresh yourself and prepare for the rest of the journey.
- Make stops at small towns. While the suggested itinerary will take you to must-visit sites, you'll be surprised to discover many gems at "unofficial" stops along the way.
- GPS and mobile phone. Do not leave your hotel without these two tools. If possible, get an English-language GPS. Those who read Chinese can probably navigate with a Japanese GPS because the script is similar. Prime Travel & Tour provides a mobile phone for you to contact the tour leaders should you need assistance at any point in time.