Hokkaido, it’s a place that many people associate with skiing, snow festivals and the extreme cold. Being the most northerly island and prefecture of Japan, it is indeed the coldest. Many tourists put off visiting Hokkaido in the summer, as they believe wintertime is the perfect time to visit. Don’t get me wrong, for winter sports and skiing it probably is one of the best places in Japan, and the snow festival in Sapporo is a must see in your lifetime. However, I would encourage people to visit during the summer. Why? You get to see Hokkaido for what it is truly like when there are no touristy events happening, moreover, it is much more comfortable walking around with 20c heat than -5c!
Hokkaido is somewhere I have always wanted to go, since many people say it feels very different to the rest of Japan. I somewhat agree with this, the landscape is untamed, not tropical, there is lots more unpopulated space and everything, on the whole, feels a lot more quiet and calm. However, there is no question that you are still very much in Japan, especially in Sapporo. I would probably say the UK equivalent is Scotland compared to South-East England – it’s landscape is different, it’s not densely populated and it is more laid back, calm and arguably more friendly (plus they are both the northerly mountainous regions of each country) but of course, it’s still very much Britain and there isn’t too much difference between the two countries. Hokkaido is somewhere to go if you want to see more of Japan with the feel of being somewhere totally new.
Sapporo is Hokkaido’s capital city, and is the 5th largest city in Japan. Despite being 1150km away from Tokyo, it’s easily accessible with hourly cheap flights from budget airlines such as Peach, Vanilla, Skymark, and Airdo, the journey takes 1.5 hours. You can also take the Shinkansen to get to Hokkaido now, however, it currently only reaches the port town of Hakodate in the south as it only opened last year. The journey takes 7 hours, with 3 of those hours going from Sapporo to Hakodate. Thus it takes around 3 hours to travel 200km but only 4 hours to travel 900km – that is the Shinkansen for you. I really recommend flying if you can, but if you’re like me and a bit of a train buff, trying to hitch a ride on the H5 Shinkansen is a great experience (although my service was on the Tohoku E5, not Hokkaido’s H5…*cries*). Try flying one way, and rail the other, plus rail will allow you to see other destinations in Hokkaido. Rail is also a sensible option if you have a Japan Rail Pass – a pass which only tourists are able to purchase which gives you unlimited use of JR line trains, including Shinkansen. I had a 14-day pass and activated my pass in Hokkaido at the start of my trip.
- Guide to Domestic Air Travel
- Guide to Hokkaido Shinkansen
- Guide to the Japan Rail Pass
- Guide to Shinkansen
Regarding Sapporo city, it’s very similar to other Japanese cities, a larger more modern Hiroshima springs to mind for me. There’s wide avenues, street-cars and a decent amount of history to see. There is also a plentiful amount of entertainment and shopping without it being overwhelming (*cough Tokyo *cough*). It is a rather calm place to be, without crowds. For this reason, I fell in love with the place, I felt at home in this city, much like I did in Hiroshima.
THINGS TO DO
- Sapporo TV Tower – This is a great ‘first’ to do in this city. Located in Odori park (which is a sight in itself), it is very easy to find and gives you a great vantage point of the city. Costing only 700 yen, it’s exciting to go up in the glass lift and come up to the top and see the mountainous landscape wrap around the city.
- Mt Moiwa – This is one of the many mountains you can see from the TV Tower, catching a cable car up here for a different view is also a great activity. You can reach the ropeway via one of Sapporo’s streetcars and then when you get off at the right stop, you can either take a shuttle bus to the base station or walk. We walked and it is very steep! The cityscape view from the top was interesting, as I couldn’t believe how large Sapporo actually was because of the whole feel of the place! There is a lovely cafe at the observatory as well that faces the mountains.
- Hokkaido Government Building – One of the best-known symbols of the prefecture, nicknamed the ‘red brick office’. It was constructed in 1888, the start of the Japanese colonisation of the prefecture inspired by American neo-baroque architecture. Not only can you go inside, but the grounds are beautiful.
- Otaru – This small seaside town only 20 minutes away from Sapporo is a great day trip and is easily walkable. There a few sights to see such as the canal, the glass shops and the abandoned Temiya Line. There is not hordes of sightseeing to be done here, but it gives you a nice break from the same surroundings and is very easy to get to. The train journey too is very scenic, running along the cliffs next to the sea.
- Shopping – Although its clearly not the entertainment and shopping hub that Tokyo is, there is still much amazing Japanese shopping to be had here. Sapporo station itself includes three shopping malls bolted onto each other and a short walk away is Sapporo Factory, which is more of a designer outlet that used to be a Sapporo Beer factory!
- Nakajima Koen – One of Sapporo’s various parks, this park has a beautiful lake and is always very calm and quiet. You can rent out boats for a very small price. We actually stayed opposite Nakajima Koen and it is very easy to get around this area both walking and with public transport.
Hakodate was our second stop in the prefecture. We used Hakodate as an overnight stop on the way to Tokyo, its where you catch the Shinkansen. However, I really wish we spent more than one night as this town has much to offer. You can easily reach it by flying as well much like Sapporo as Hakodate too has an airport. The town itself probably feels the least ‘Japanese’ out of all the towns we visited. Red brick warehouses down by the port, western architecture built in the 1800s, old style streetcars, it was like being taken back in time. Throw in beautiful seaside views in the day and a spectacular cityscape view at night, it was a lovely town. The most Japanese thing about this place was simply the convenience stores, food and quite obviously the people living there.
THINGS TO DO
- Red brick warehouses – Hakodate is infamous for its red brick warehouses that have now been converted into various gift shops, restaurants, and a Starbucks! The whole area is really gorgeous and the shops are really unique compared to anything else in the country. Not to mention that its located right on the seaside, so its quite a tranquil place too.
- Mt Hakodate – Arguably the best sight in the whole town. Hakodate too has a mountain with a ropeway much like Sapporo does, except at Hakodate, the nightime view is much more spectacular, especially pared with the fact that Hakodate is on a peninsula and thus you can see the coast on both sides. It does get rather busy, however, if you head up an hour before sunrise, you should have enough time to get a spot and enjoy the view. Make sure to wrap up warm as Hokkaido can get quite chilly at night, even in the summer.
- Hakodate Morning Market – Personally, I think early morning fish markets are overrated. Everyone raves about them being a ‘must-see’ but to this day, four trips on, I still haven’t been to one anywhere. However, if you go to the market at a reasonable time of day, it is a great place to sample the local seafood if that is your cup of tea at an affordable price.
|The infamous night view of Hakodate|
|My first E5 Shinkansen. The fastest Shinkansen line in the country.|
Going to Hokkaido exceeded all of my expectations, and I am so glad I bit the bullet and threw it onto our itinerary this September. It’s somewhere that I have still only scratched the surface of and yearn to see more of in the future, and I’m sure that will be a possibility in the next couple of years. Until next time Hokkaido!
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