The north island of Hokkaido is one of Japan’s best places to enjoy the outdoors and see nature. Being the second largest island of Japan, it is filled with multiple sights and natural wonders that are nicely spread out making it a perfect escape from the crowded cities. Hokkaido is a destination that can be enjoyed year round; the winter brings snowfall attracting skiers and snowboarders and in the warmer summer months it is great for hiking and camping.
With the Japan Rail Pass we reserved a seat on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Hakkodate at our local JR Travel Center at Ikeubukro station. The rail route and it’s super fast bullet trains is one of Japan’s newest that only started service on March 2016. The Shinkansen currently terminates at Hakodate on the Southern end of Hokkaido, the journey from Tokyo took only 4 hours and connections on regular trains are available when you arrive at Hokodate. There are plans to extend the Shinkansen service to Sapporo and Asahikawa in the future.
OUR 7 DAY ITINERARY IN HOKKAIDO
We created our own tour, starting from Hakodate and went as far as Monbetsu (at the north of the island) before backtracking to Sapporo. Our plan was to visit towns and natural attractions where our JR Rail Pass could take us. In between we hired a car to discover the outskirts of Asahikawa to see the mountains and the spring flowers. We had just missed the annual Sakura (cherry blossom season) by a week, Hokkaido is one the last places in Japan to catch the late Sakura blooms in early May due to its northerly location. We spent a week here with my family in the spring exploring Hokkaido’s wonders and here are the places we visited:
HAKODATE (1 night)
A sleepy fishing town, Hakodate was our first stop. After spending a few warm days in Tokyo, the weather here is noticeably cooler and fresher. We visited the star shaped Goryokaku Fortress, hoping to see some cherry blossom flowers but most had fallen. Still this is an impressive site and best viewed from above at the top of the Goryokaku Tower.
The Morning Fish Market is one of our best highlights here in Hakodate, my parents loved it and found it hard to leave. Hakodate is renowned for it’s squid and if you are feeling adventurous you can try the live Squid Sashimi…
LAKE TOYA (day trip)
Heading East from Hakodate, we made a quick detour to Lake Tōya, a volcanic caldera lake. In July 2008, the area hosted the G8 Summit. We stored our luggage at the luggage lockers at Toya Station and took a local bus towards the lake and returned just before sunset. A very picturesque, tranquil place with few tourists – we only wished we stayed here overnight but accommodation was limited and very pricey.
NOBORIBETSU (1 night)
One of Hokkaido’s popular Onsen destinations, the nearby Jigokudani (Hell Valley) feeds all the surrounding hotels with hot spring water to fill the onsen pools. An amazing site with bubbling streams and steam vents, there are various hiking trails around the valley with short and long routes (beware of the harmful gases and keep to the trails).
SAPPORO (2 nights)
Hokkaido’s capital city, see it from the top at the Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium – where it once held the ski jump events for the Sapporo Winter Olympics of ’72. The stadium is opened to the public, as well as the viewing platform (small fee to use the chair lifts) there is a free museum.
Don’t leave Sapporo without visiting the famous Sapporo Beer Museum, this is the original brewery and at the end of the museum you will enter a small beer hall to where you can sample the different brews.
ASAHIKAWA (2 nights)
We spent the final two nights in Asahikawa, Hokkaido’s second largest city. The city itself is one of the cleanest and spotless places we have seen, we rented a car (not the pink below…) to explore nearby Biei and Furano to find spring flowers and discover the parks and farms. We ran out of time, but if you are in this area check out Shirogane Blue Pond – an amazing scenic area. In the summer months, look out for the fruit picking farms near Furano.
Our road trip lead us to to the most northerly point of our Japan trip at Monbetsu…
WHERE TO STAY
Here are the names of the accommodation of where we stayed in Hokkaido:
Hakodate – Hotel Heart Inn
Noboribetsu – Takimoto Inn
Asahikawa – Fujita Kanko Washington Hotel
WHERE TO EAT
There is a lovely small food area at the basement level of the Muji store in Hakodate – it’s a good place to have lunch and a coffee there. In the evening we had a dinner at the Hakodate BeerHall restaurant in the old Red Brick Warehouse District. Sapporo is the city to try the popular table barbecues, eat barbecued lamb and down it with Sapporo beer, you will find many resturants in the city centre offering the famous regional lamb. We had mixed feelings for the eateries situated on the main high street of Asahikawa, one cafe stood out and they do really good western style cuisines at All Times Cafe (オール タイムス カフェ). The new Aeon Mall by Asahikawa JR station has an amazing food court, with various choices that satisfied my family’s taste – Pepper Lunch and an Udon restaurant were our favourites.
- The Shinkansen train service to Hakodate is reservation only. You must book a seat a day or so before you travel at a JR station. If you have the Rail Pass go to the JR reservation counters or the JR Travel Centers in the station.
- To catch the Sakura in Hokkaido, go in April or possibly earlier. Seasons can differ each year and it is difficult to predict when the optimum time is to see the flowers due to climate change. You can check this website http://sakura.weathermap.jp/en.php on Sakura forecasts to help you plan your travels and hopefully see them in full bloom.
- We highly recommend you try the onsens whenever you get the opportunity, it is an incredibly relaxing and invigorating experience especially after a long day of sightseeing or hiking. There are certain etiquettes in using the shared onsens, if this is your first time please familiarise yourself before going (sometimes your hotel will have guides and rules written in English).
- If we had more time, we would have loved to visit the north east tip of the island for the scenic Shiretoko National Park and Shiretoko Five Lakes.
- Car rental was easy with Toyota Rent A Car (which are almost everywhere in Japan). You can book online at https://rent.toyota.co.jp/eng or walk in to pickup a car. For busy periods around public holidays we recommend you book in advance. You will need an International Driver’s Permit (IDP), in addition to your regular driver’s photo ID card and your passport. For UK visitors, you can apply for a IDP cheaply on the same day at selected post offices across Britain.
- Some of the main highways have tolls (have spare cash ready) or you can purchase an unlimited Hokkaido Expressway Pass if you plan to have a car for longer stays. Take extra care if driving in the winter as heavy snowfall and slippery roads can be expected.
- There is an International Airport on the island – New Chitose Airport (CTS) located outside of Sapporo with regular train connections into the city.
- Good mobile apps to use to plan your rail travel and see train schedules are Google Maps and Navitime for Japan.