This month’s travel feature takes us to the north of Japan, where ski-lovers flock during the winter months. But what about off-season? Chris illustrates why Hokkaido is the place to visit once the snow has cleared.
Japan’s northernmost main island is best known for its delightful combination of mountains and snow, which form some classic Japanese-style ski slopes. But the skiing over there is different to what you may be used to; it’s slower, more relaxed. The winter months also mean that it’s tourist season, which sees a hike in prices, so why not give the off-season a chance, when the snow and the crowds have thawed and the hotels lower their prices? Now you are free to explore the natural beauty of Hokkaido. The volcanoes, natural hot springs, and fields of lavender await you.
Unlike the thousands of years of history that the rest of Japan is soaking in, Hokkaido has only been under Japanese rule for about 150 years. The indigenous Ainu people were forcibly assimilated into Japanese culture, leaving behind their own language, culture, and religion. In 2008, Japan formally recognised the Ainu as indigenous to the land as well as the years of discrimination that followed. Nowadays, less than a hundred people speak the native language.
Getting to Hokkaido is simple enough, with the easiest option being to take one of the many flights between Tokyo and Sapporo – apparently one of the busiest flight paths in the world. Sapporo is the biggest city on the island (and Hokkaido’s capital), and is relatively relaxed when compared to Japan’s megacities of Tokyo and Osaka. Most of the city centre is built in blocks, which makes getting around nice and easy. Humans tend to enjoy finding the highest structure in any given city to peek out from the top and snap that obligatory panoramic pic, and Sapporo offers this in the form of its 150 metre high TV tower. It also doubles up as a handy point of reference for if you somehow manage to get lost!
The best thing about the city is its ambience. Spend a few days walking around, breathing in the fresh air, admiring the bright blue skies, and chatting with the friendly locals. There are plenty of parks around with one of the main attractions, Odori Park, stretching across the city centre from east to west, with an array of greenery, flowers, and fountains. If you find yourself here in February, you’ll be able to catch the ice and snow sculptures that attract a couple of million visitors each year for the Sapporo Snow Festival. Your exploration of the city should take you to the government office; a picturesque red brick building with a few free exhibition rooms inside. If you’ve been traipsing around Japan for months on end wondering where all the beer museums are, you’re in luck. The converted factory is Japan’s only one, and entry is free! The beer, regrettably, is not.
About an hour’s train ride west from Sapporo lies the idyllic port town of Otaru. A stroll along the town’s canal during the day makes for pleasant passing of time, but you’ll also want to return after sunset where the walkway is illuminated by gas lamps which reflect romantically off the water. The Otaru Music Box Museum is high on the list of things to do for tourists, which exhibits the development of these boxes and displays a variety of artistic designs. There’s also the enticing option of having a crack at making your own. Outside the museum is the Steam Clock, powered entirely by… you’ve got it, steam! The clock chimes every fifteen minutes, and sounds its steam whistle on the hour. Before you leave this beautiful port town, head to Kitakaro, where downstairs you can pick up any food-based souvenirs you might want to buy. Even if you’re all souvenir-ed out, go anyway and head straight upstairs for a pretty cheap and very delicious cream puff and a coffee. The best in Hokkaido… maybe the world.
Further on from Otaru is a place that’s becoming well known during the winter months for people who love their snow sports but in the summer months you will find that everything is a lot more tranquil and friendly on the wallet. Niseko’s main event in the warmer months is Mount Yotei, which has obtained the nickname ‘Ezo-Fuji’ (‘Ezo’ was the name historically given to Hokkaido and the lands north of Honshu) because of its striking resemblance to its better known big brother. The best thing about visiting the area outside of the winter season isn’t the deflated prices, nor the fact that you can climb Yotei. The reason is Pure. Pure at Niseko Village is the place to go to fill out all your outdoor adventure based needs. Hiking and biking through the countryside is always great in areas of natural beauty, and of course you should partake in a spot of this, but why go by bike or foot when you can go on horseback, zip wire, or hot air balloon? It’s also home to one those treetop trekking paths made up of elevated platforms and hanging bridges, allowing you to view nature from a fun, new perspective.
South of Niseko, and your point of entry if you’ve decided to take the underwater railway from neighbouring island Honshu, is the city of Hakodate. Once the capital of the Republic of Ezo (albeit a republic that lasted only six months or so), Hakodate was one of the first Japanese cities that opened its doors to trade after their long period of seclusion. Nowadays the city boasts numerous tourist attractions. At the foot of Mount Hakodate is the historical district of Motomachi, where you’ll find a shrine to the imperial warriors who died in the battle of Hakodate, the old public hall, and a smattering of churches. The top of the mountain apparently holds the coveted title of being in the top three best night views in the world. There are also a couple of forts and the Goryokaku tower, which offer an insight in to the history of Hokkaido, including the short lived Ezo Republic. The local dish is squid stuffed with rice as part of a ramen dish, or however else you want it, but there are a couple of rogue restaurants in the area who offer alternatives to squid and seem to have no limit on how spicy food can get. Approach with care. There’s also a market crammed with lots of seafood, including the island’s famous ‘hairy crab’.
On your way back up into the centre, stop off at Noboribetsu, where you can fulfil all of your onsen-based desires. (‘Onsen’ traditionally refers to Japanese hot springs, but now more widely refers to the numerous bathing facilities offered around Japan. You might even find one in your place of stay! Ease yourself in… the water is usually hot enough to relieve you of a layer of skin.) A main attraction here is Hell Valley, a network of steaming geysers and volcanic pits. The name is apt considering you can relax yourself in water varying in temperature from really quite hot to roughly the temperature of the deepest circle of hell. These onsens are traditionally public and separated by gender, but if you’re feeling shy, there are options to have one to yourself. If you stay overnight, don’t be alarmed at the sight of everyone sauntering about the place in bathrobes, it’s customary to wander around the town wearing your yukata (a lightweight kimono).
Further into the mainland of Hokkaido lies another potential hub for your travels. Asahikawa is used by many visitors as just that, but while you’re in the area, take the opportunity to check out some of the city highlights. Most Japanese tourists head straight for the zoo, but zoos are something you can find in any country, whereas sake brewing museums aren’t! I know you’ll make the right choice. The Otokoyama sake brewery lets you in for free and gives you a little taster of Japan’s world-famous rice wine. Couples should head to the so-called Romantic Road leading in from the nearby Kaguraoka forest which, in season (which is off-season in broader Hokkaido terms), sees the trees on either side meet above the road in the middle, creating a tunnel of greenery. Various traditional izakayas (Japanese-style bar/restaurants) are dotted around the city to quench your hunger for the Japanese version of tapas, dubbed by some (me) as ‘Jappas’, and sate your thirst for beer.
A bus ride from Asahikawa is an area made up of little farming towns – Furano. Finally, an area which receives more tourism during the summer than the winter (although Furano too is a hotspot for snow sports).The reason for this is its valleys of flora, in particular the vast fields of lavender that usurp the landscape. Being Hokkaido, there are plenty of hiking trails to pursue, but make sure one of your treks ends at the Furano Winery. Meander through the vineyards, up the hill, and into the main building where you can find out more about the production of the wine in this area. Once done, nip up to the restaurant overlooking the vineyards while you enjoy a bottle of the local good stuff. Don’t expect it to be particularly good stuff though. It’s the experience that counts. Elsewhere in Furano you can visit the cheese factory, where again, you can view the production downstairs and sample the goods upstairs. The speciality here is a kind of cheese coloured by cuttlefish ink, and in true keeping with other attractions in Hokkaido, you can have a crack at getting your hands dirty and making your own. Furano is located in the centre of Hokkaido, and therefore known as the ‘belly button’ of the island. This nickname has led to an interesting festival being held here every July, where paint faces onto their belly buttons and perform a dance. New experiences are to be relished. Before you leave, make your way to the Blue Pond of Biei (Aoiike). If you think you’ve seen this stunning deep blue body of water before, you probably have! This man-made pond is the subject of one of Apple’s desktop wallpapers.
Nemuro and Wakkanai
Lesser-visited places on the island include two cities of geographical superlatives: Japan’s easternmost city of Nemuro, and northernmost Wakkanai, Nemuro boasts views of the Kuni islands, and the opportunity for a quaint postcard photo with the lighthouse against the sea. Wakkanai, the northernmost city in Japan, is known mainly for its transit connections to Russia. There are a few tourists site spread out throughout the area, and a couple of onsens for you to visit while you’re up there.
Anybody who is interested in their whiskey knows that Japan has the tipple to topple Scotland from the top spot in the world. About a hundred years ago, Masataka Taketsuru went to Scotland to learn the art of whiskey making, picked himself up a nice Scottish lass, and headed back to Japan, where he realised his dream of opening a distillery. Evidently he chose the sleepy town of Yoichi because it looked and felt like Scotland, as well as experiencing similar weather. Nowadays we have the option of visiting this distillery and sample a taste of Taketsuru’s dream. A must-do for all whiskey lovers.
There’s an extensive list of things to do considering this is a part of Japan that isn’t always on people’s radar, and during a time of year which is considered ‘off-season’. If you’ve already seen the traditional highlights of the country, or are simply looking to explore Japan from a different perspective, Hokkaido is the place for you.