The Hokkaido Wilds got its start in my 14degrees.org website; my personal blog about my travels around the world and within Hokkaido. But I felt it was time to split the Hokkaido content away from my personal blog.
It was time for Hokkaido’s very own English database of outdoor routes.
I’d been pondering this move for a long time. There were a few of reasons for the move.
- 14degrees.org was becoming more and more a resource for people wanting to explore Hokkaido either by bike or on ski.
- Hokkaido needs more decent information – in English – about the outdoors here. My blog as a personal blog didn’t feel like it was doing this justice.
- I wasn’t happy with the backend of 14degrees.org. When it comes to managing information about routes, a site really needs decent data management structures. That is, on 14degrees.org, everything about a route was hard-coded into a page. Route distances, elevation gain, length of route etc. This was all just typed into a WordPress post. This is not sustainable in the long run. In order to change anything in the design of the website, I’d need to copy and paste values for each route.
- Related to the above, I wanted to really revamp the route search system. This would require better data management.
- 14degrees.org was becoming less about me and my travels, and more about the place that is Hokkaido.
- I have vague aspirations to allow others to contribute routes or other information to the site. As a “Rob’s travels” site, this didn’t really make sense.
- In reality, many of the Hokkaido content and route guides that I produce aren’t a one-man-band production. Almost all the cycle touring routes, for example, were planned to a large degree by Haidee. This wasn’t reflected in the 14degrees.org website.
The Hokkaido Wilds is born
So I set out to create a new site, where I’d transfer all the Hokkaido-related content from 14degrees.org. It would be 100% focused on showcasing Hokkaido’s outdoors – ski touring, cycle touring, and hiking.
It didn’t start as The Hokkaido Wilds. I originally started creating a site focused solely on ski touring in Hokkaido. But then what would I do about the cycle touring content? Make a new site for that too? There’s also content that overlaps between activities, such as the content about displaying Japan topo maps on a smartphone, or submitting hiking and backcountry plans to the Japan police.
So it started to make sense to have a full site that included all activities.
I wanted the site to look really good, so I hired a designer. But I didn’t just want any designer. I wanted someone who understood the mountains. Who actually did the activities that the site would showcase. Ideally, they’d be passionate about ski touring. But where to find such a unicorn?
After a few months of giving up hope, a random Facebook post in late May 2018 from someone wanting a logo designer ended up with an unrelated person suggesting that this person contacted Dominika Gan. I checked out her work, and I was hooked. She was exactly the person I was looking for. Her exhibition of mountain-themed posters, as well as an overall sense of space and simplicity got me hooked.
I was blissfully ignorant going into this project. In an early email to Dominika in late June this year, I had set a completion date of the end of July. Dominika delivered on the front-end graphic design well ahead of the deadline I’d set her. But I was in charge of the back end. And the more I got into things, the more I realized that I wanted to do this right, as far as the back end was concerned. I started with off-the-shelf WordPress themes, which I wanted to edit to match the design Dominika had proposed. But it wasn’t going my way.
Then I encountered Elementor. This is a page-building plugin for WordPress that allows drag-and-drop designing not only of page and post content, but also themes. Ever since starting to use WordPress way back in 2005, I have dreamed of something like this. I could now build the site from scratch (in the figurative sense – it still had a lightweight theme in the background).
Now, after about five months of learning and re-learning, the site is running smoothly with a combination of the following WordPress tools.
- Astra Theme
- Elementor page/theme builder
- Advanced Custom Fields (for all the route data)
- FacetWP (for the route filtering)
- WPRocket (for caching)
- The SEO Framework (for SEO stuff)
Apart from The SEO Framework, I’m using the premium paid versions.
I’ve learned a massive amount of stuff about PHP coding, in addition to honing my CSS skills on this project. It has been a real learning process.
There were some things that I really couldn’t manage on my own though.
- Speed Optimization: There’s a whole bunch of recommendations out there regarding how to speed up delivery of webpages. I tried a few, but couldn’t get things to work well. I paid an excellent contractor (Derrick Hammer) to advise and work on this. He ended up moving me to a better server (hokkaidowilds.org is now hosted on Kinsta.com, on a server in Los Angeles) and doing some great optimization magic.
- The filter map route overlay: I really wanted to have the individual routes on the route maps to display on the filter page. This was particularly so for the cycle routes. I paid Anthony Graddy to sort that out, and we now have routes that appear on hover and click. This should help when browsing routes, deciding what routes might be able to be linked up to make a longer tour. Ski tour traverse of Hokkaido, anyone?