The northern most island in the Japanese island chain, Hokkaido is also the largest island and is largely undeveloped compared to the other islands. More well known for its beautiful scenery and ski resorts, as well as, the source of Sapporo beer, Hokkaido is still not as popular a destination as the rest of Japan for tourists. Well, I think that first of all it is not easily accessible. You can travel there by car, plane or train, but flying is the easiest and fastest. Secondly, the cost of travelling to Hokkaido itself is pretty expensive.
Update: As of March 2016, the Shinkansen or bullet train now goes to Hakodate from Tokyo in around 4 hours, making it more convenient to travel there. More information on the Shinkansen service can be found here. And for visitors to Japan, we can use the Japan Rail Pass for this ride, making it even more economical to travel.
We went to Hokkaido in the winter of 2009 because some of my family members wanted to have some skiing activities. Hokkaido is well known for its fine grade of powder snow which is perfect for skiing. Before this trip, I didn’t know that snow had different grades. Getting to Hokkaido meant that we had to transit in Tokyo for a domestic flight. Due to the irregularity of the flights to Hokkaido, we had to stay the night in Narita to catch the transiting flight the next day. The flight from Tokyo lands in New Chitose Airport near Sapporo. You can travel in Hokkaido on your own with a rental car and GPS, but since it was winter and we were not familiar with driving in snowed out roads, we followed a tour from Singapore.
The local people of Hokkaido are called the Ainu and they have a different culture compared to the rest of the Japanese. We were brought to see a traditional Ainu village. Well, it’s not really traditional but more of a replica village to showcase the Ainu culture..
Hokkaido has a lot of volcanic activity just like the rest of Japan. In the town of Noboribetsu, we could see a volcanic valley. There are also numerous hot springs located here.
We visited a samurai theme park. This looks like some kind of Japanese samurai film set. I think because it was winter and temperatures were freezing or below, there weren’t that many visitors.
This was our premier onsen (hot spring) stop with a stay at a luxury hotel with outdoor onsen facilities. Lake Toya is itself a volcanic crater with an island in the center. There are numerous hotels around the edge of the crater lake, each with its own onsen.
For those who are unfamiliar with Japanese customs for onsen bathing, you have to be completely in the nude. No swim trunks or suits are allowed for hygiene reasons. Of course, for most of us this is quite a novel experience, but to the Japanese, this was normal. There are separate onsen facilities for males and females. I could see fathers and sons, and sometimes grandfathers all completely naked and soaking in the hot springs together. Same for the ladies.
So there I was soaking naked in the outdoor hot spring in the night. The air temperature was below freezing, snow flakes were falling on my face and I could see the stars in the night sky. As long as I kept my body submerged in the warm water, I wouldn’t freeze. The Japanese recommend that you soak yourself in the hot spring, then jump out and soak in the icy cold water, and repeat. This is supposed to improve your blood circulation, but I didn’t try it since that would probably put me in hospital.
Rusutsu Ski Resort
There are many ski resorts in Hokkaido. The one that we stayed at is called Rusutsu. Prior to skiing, we had a snow shoe walk in the park around the resort. This was my first experience walking in snow shoes and also a snow storm. Walking in snow shoes requires you to walk with a certain technique to avoid getting stuck in the knee deep snow. Very soon, we all had aching muscles due to the unnatural gait.
After the snow walk and experiencing a snow storm, I felt that I had enough of snow for a life time. Sure, for folks like us from the tropics, snow is something exotic and something that we can only dream of. But in reality, it gets stuck into your hair, clothing and socks. After that it melts and everything gets wet and uncomfortable.
This is a small harbor city and is well known for its picturesque architecture. It was quite a joy to walk the snow filled streets amongst Victorian era looking buildings. It certainly made me feel like I was in some European village instead of Japan.
This is the largest city in Hokkaido and also its capital. Most of the population of the island lives here and almost all of the commercial and industrial activities takes place here. The train and bus services from other parts of Japan also end here.
Overall, Hokkaido offers a lot of activities all year round. The scenery changes from summer to winter. You can read a complete guide produced by HotelsCombined on where to stay during each season. The rugged wilderness of the island also offers a change of scene from the orderly and congested city life of Tokyo. I would probably make a visit again in summer season when opportunity arises.