First-time visitors to Japan tend to focus their travels on the main island of Honshu, drawn to the sci-fi streetscapes of Tokyo, the traditional teahouses of Kyoto and, of course, Mount Fuji. However, savvy travellers are increasingly looking beyond the Golden Route and are rewarded by discovering the rich culture of Japan’s lesser-known locales.
Let me introduce Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands. Known for its wild scenery, wide-open spaces, active volcanoes and natural hot springs – it’s Japan’s last frontier. In fact, the island’s largest city, Sapporo, is closer in distance to Vladivostok than it is to Tokyo. The unique weather, wildlife and indigenous Ainu culture make the island distinctive from the rest of the country. So much so, that even Japanese tourists view Hokkaido as exotic.
From November until April, Hokkaido is a winter wonderland blanketed in snow. You can thank the cold winds blowing in from Siberia across the Sea of Japan. Sapporo’s annual Snow Festival, with its incredible ice sculptures, attracts over 2.5 million visitors each year. Meanwhile, Niseko is one of Japan’s most sought-after winter sports destinations; known as the ‘powder capital of the world’ with an annual average snowfall of 14m.
For many Australians a flight to Sapporo is synonymous with a ski holiday, but there’s a bounty of outdoor activities, culinary delights and cultural experiences to be enjoyed throughout the year. Nature-lovers will be enchanted by the stunning scenery; from the fragrant fields of lavender, to sulphur-spewing volcanic landscapes and dense forests roamed by brown bears.
Japan is gearing up for Asia’s first Rugby World Cup this September, where 48 games will be played across 12 Japanese cities. Sapporo is set to host two big games at its state-of-the-art stadium, the Sapporo Dome. Australia will play Fiji on September 21, followed the next day by England vs. Tonga. Whether you’re heading to Japan for the Rugby World Cup 2019, or just a holiday, we’ve come up with a guide for the ultimate week in Hokkaido.
Sapporo is the prefectural capital of Hokkaido, officially founded in 1868 – it’s a relatively young city by Japanese standards. Luckily the American-style grid layout makes it easy to navigate for those who’ve sampled a little too much of the city’s famous Sapporo beer.
What to see and do:
‘Ōdōri’ means ‘large street’ in Japanese, a fitting description for the 1.5 km stretch of greenery that runs through the city centre. This urban oasis is the setting for many seasonal events, including the Snow Festival hosted each February. The iconic 1950s-era Sapporo TV Tower at the eastern end of the park boasts sweeping views over the city.
The Sapporo Dome is the home ground for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, and it’s worth trying to score tickets to experience a professional Japanese baseball game. This seriously impressive, all-weather sports stadium looks remarkably like a spaceship. It is equipped with a high-tech ‘hovering system’ that moves an 8,300 tonne field using air-pressure, so they can switch between the turf used in baseball and soccer games. This is Japanese ingenuity at its finest and the special system will be used to transform the stadium in preparation for the Rugby World Cup 2019 matches this September.
Sapporo Beer Museum
It’s not hard to guess why this is one of Sapporo’s top attractions – it’s a museum dedicated to Japan’s oldest brand of beer, which was founded in 1876. The museum is housed in the former Sapporo Beer Brewery, where Seibei Nakagawa, Japan’s first German-trained brewmaster, perfected his craft. At the end of the tour, you’ll have a chance to sample beer in the tasting salon. Be sure to try the Sapporo Classic – it’s only available in Hokkaido.
Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium
Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium was designed as a venue for the 1972 Winter Olympic Games. Those with a fear of heights ought to avoid the 133 m ski jump built into the side of Okurayama Mountain. The rickety ski lift still operates to take visitors to the stadium’s viewing platform. At the base of the jump, you can explore the Sapporo Winter Sports Museum, which has an interesting exhibition, as well as an interactive ski-jump simulator.
Day trip to Furano and the Blue Pond in Biei
Furano’s farmlands are at their most magnificent in summer when a carpet of flowers cover the hillsides. Farm Tomita is the most popular of the flower farms as it has the largest lavender field in Japan. July is an ideal time to visit, when the flowers are in full bloom and the scent of lavender perfumes the air. On a sunny day, cool down with lavender soft-serve ice cream (made with the superbly creamy Hokkaido milk). If you haven’t had your flower fix for the day, Shikisai no Oka is a field where rainbow-coloured rows of flowers look like something straight out of a fairy-tale. If you don’t feel like walking, you can ride the tractor bus around the 7ha property.
Don’t miss the Blue Pond, near the town of Biei. The man-made pond is famous for its brilliant blue hue and bare white birch tree branches that rise up from the water.
Where to eat and drink:
Ganso Ramen Yokochō
Ramen lovers rejoice. Tucked in the streets of Susukino, the red light district of Sapporo, there’s an alley that’s been lined with tiny ramen shop since it opened in 1952. Sapporo is the birthplace of the bold miso-flavoured broth (made with fermented soybeans and salt), so this is an excellent opportunity to try the local specialty. Opt for tasty toppings such as chashu, a rich braised pork belly, or buttered corn. Pro tip: you can judge the best ramen based on the length of the queue snaking out of the door.
This German-style beer hall serves a special Hokkaido dish called jingisukan, or ‘Ghengis Khan’ – slices of lamb, mutton and vegetables grilled on a dome-shaped metal skillet at the table. There are a few restaurants housed within the old malting plant, but the Kessel Hall is the most atmospheric. Order all you can eat lamb barbeque and drink for 100 minutes (there’s Sapporo draft beer on tap).
Where to stay:
Unwind Hotel Sapporo
Unwind Hotel Sapporo has cosy cabin-inspired interiors and is tastefully decorated with leather couches and sheepskin throws, as well as touches of wood, exposed brick and polished concrete. There’s a communal fireplace and guests can make use of the trendy rooftop terrace.
Niseko is about a 2-hour drive from Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport. Set against a magnificent backdrop of Mount Yōtei, Niseko has no shortage of beautiful natural scenery. Don’t be surprised if you’re greeted with a ‘G’ day’; during winter Australians descend on the ski-resort in droves. In recent years Niseko has begun to emerge as an all-year-round destination with plenty of adrenalin-fuelled activities in the warmer months. The region’s agricultural roots and reputation for high-quality, organic produce are at the very core of Niseko’s thriving food scene.
What to see and do:
Mount Yōtei (1898m) is an active stratovolcano in Shikotsu-Toya National Park. It’s known by locals as ‘Ezo Fuji’; as ‘Ezo’ is the Ainu indigenous word for ‘Hokkaido’ and the conical-shaped mountain resembles Mount Fuji. The hiking season is around mid-June through mid-October.
Action-packed outdoor activities
The snowmelt makes April the best time of year for white water rafting down the Shiribetsu River – one of the clearest streams in Japan. Just hope that you don’t get thrown into those icy waters. NAC Adventures offers kayaking excursions, as well as canyoning at the Sakazuki River canyon in mid-summer. From June to the end of October mountain biking and guided treks through the Niseko mountain trails are on the agenda.
Fruit picking is an idyllic outdoor activity that’s just as popular with locals as it is with tourists. Yamamoto Farm is an hour north of Niseko. Spend a sunny afternoon gathering seasonal fruits in the orchard. During summer you can pick cherries, strawberries, plums, and peaches. If you visit the farm in autumn, you’ll have a chance to pluck crisp, sweet apples straight from the trees.
Where to eat and drink:
You may recognise Shinichi Maeda’s name from his time at the two-hatted Wasabi in Noosa and later as head chef at Brisbane’s Sake Restaurant. Now he is at the helm of the stylish restaurant, An Dining, at Ki Niseko boutique hotel. He uses the freshest Hokkaido produce to create high-end modern Japanese cuisine.
SKYE Niseko’s on-site restaurant has breathtaking views of Mount Yotei. At night Kumo Restaurant transforms into a ‘Hokkaido izakaya’ serving favourites such as grilled rusutsu pork and the ikura kamemeshi; a hot rice pot brimming with chunks of cooked salmon and cured salmon roe. You can order sake served in a masu, a traditional wooden box that adds a subtle flavour of fresh cedar.
Where to stay:
The luxurious new ski-in-ski-out hotel, located on the slopes of Mount Niseko Annupuri, takes prime position at the highest point in the village. It’s perfect for an alpine escape at any time of year. The room interiors have a chic Scandinavian feel, with a neutral colour palette and exquisite stone and wood finishes. The heated oak floorboards are a welcome extravagance and you can snuggle up in front of the fireplace when the temperature drops. In some rooms, the floor-to-ceiling windows boast uninterrupted views over Mount Yotei. For a truly Japanese experience, the hotel offers both private and public onsens (hot spring baths).
Hokkaido’s third largest city is located in the shadow of Mount Hakodate at the southern tip of the island. Hakodate was one of the first ports in Japan to open for international trade after the Kanagawa Treaty in 1854, which ended the ‘sakoku’, or ‘closed country’ policy. This explains the fascinating blend of Japanese and Western architecture, as well as the European-style buildings, churches and streetcars that characterise this charming seaside city. Sometimes referred to as the ‘gateway of Hokkaido’, the opening of the Hokkaido shinkansen high-speed rail between Shin-Aomori and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto in 2016, has made visiting Hakodate easier than ever before.
What to see and do:
If there’s only one thing you do in Hakodate, take a cable car on the aerial ropeway up the 334m Hakodate Mountain. The ropeway service runs every 15 minutes. Locals will tell you to time your visit for sunset and stay for the glittering night view over the peninsula.
Goryō-kaku Tower and Park
The Goryō-kaku Tower is an observatory that overlooks Mount Hakodate, the Tsugaru Straits, the Yokotsu Mountain Range and the Goryō-kaku Park.
The Goryō-kaku Park is an imposing star-shaped 19th Century fort surrounded by a moat that was built in the European tradition. The best time of year to visit the park is during sakura season in April, when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.
Catch a tram from Hakodate Station to Suehiro-cho. Discover one of the prettiest pockets of the city on the slopes of Mt Hakodate. Motomachi is the former residential neighbourhood of foreign-traders from Russia, China, America, and Europe who came to Hakodate after the period of isolation. Be sure to wander the gently sloping streets and check out the Old Public Hall, as well as the unique convergence of churches of different denominations – Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican.
Kanemori Red Brick Warehouse
The historic red brick warehouses by the harbour were constructed in the early 20th Century, when Hakodate was flourishing as an international trading port. It’s now a touristy part of town, as they have been transformed into restaurants, cafes, bars, and boutique shops.
Hike Mount Esan
It’s certainly worth exploring this ethereal landscape located along the eastern coastline of Hakodate. At first glance you might be mistaken in thinking that you’ve arrived on Mars. Hiking Mount Esan takes about 2 hours. It’s best if you visit the still-active stratovolcano with a guide. Beyond the bright red signposts that warn of ‘danger’ in Japanese, there are steaming volcanic gases rising from the blistered earth. Nearby is the Mizunashikaihin hot spring where, if the conditions are right, you can take a dip in the unique ocean-side onsen.
Located half an hour north of Hakodate, this quasi-national park is a pleasant spot to spend a day by the lush island-strewn lakes with Mount Komagatake in the distance.
Where to eat and drink:
Hakodate Morning Market
Hakodate Morning Market is one of the highlights of a trip to Hakodate. Bring your appetite, as there’s an abundance of fresh seafood caught in the deep, cold and plankton-rich oceans off Hokkaido. Browse over 350 stalls offering delicacies such as squid, abalone, sea urchin, salmon eggs, scallops and four species of crabs caught in nearby seas – including the giant king crab from Russia.
There are sit-down restaurants serving kaisen-don, finely sliced mixed seafood sashimi on rice. Stop for a bite at Oukei, this teeny eatery has been serving seafood for 37 years.
Onuma Tsuruga Resort Epuy
You’d be hard pressed to find a more pleasant place to stop for lunch. Epuy restaurant has vast windows overlooking the resort’s flower gardens. Expect French flavours and dishes that focus on local produce sourced from the Onuma area. Choose a main course and then select whatever takes your fancy from the seasonal buffet. Try the ikameshi, a delicious dish of squid stuffed with rice.
Tea Shop Yūhi
Secreted away along the coastline of Hakodate is a traditional little teashop that serves matcha (green tea) and wagashi (Japanese sweets). The historic, wooden teahouse takes the form of a converted 19th Century quarantine station that overlooks the ocean. The shop is decorated with an unusual antique collection, including a German Polyphon music box that can still play a tune.
This is another one of Hakodate’s hidden gems. At 11am Endeavour opens as a coffee shop and by the evening it transforms into a homely craft beer bar. The beer is brewed in-store and there are ten choices on tap. The casual restaurant serves an international-inspired menu, and the chefs make ingredients, such as mozzarella, from scratch.
Where to stay:
Yunokawa is one of the most recognised hot springs resorts in Hokkaido. It can’t get more relaxing than bathing in a mineral-rich onsen right by the seaside. Heiseikan Shiosaitei is a large upscale onsen hotel that has 22 Japanese-style rooms with a personal hot tub. These rooms face the ocean and you can fall asleep to the sound of the waves.