It’s officially Obon break for most folks in Japan! This year I lucked out and Mr. J was allowed to take a few days off for us to take a trip together to Hokkaido. Of course, being the holiday week everyone else was traveling, flights and hotels were pretty pricey. Still it was nice to get away from the heat and the incoming typhoon for a few days, and we had a really nice time. If you find yourself over that way, here’s some suggestions for sightseeing in the Sapporo/Otaru area of Hokkaido.
Before I had complained about Haneda Airport’s lack of facilities when traveling to Singapore. It turns out Haneda Airport has a number of nice facilities, but they’re all located in the domestic flight terminal, where as the international terminal has squat to offer flyers. It’s really silly how vast the difference between the two are, and I hope eventually they’re able to build the international terminal up to par to with the domestic one. But even with its abundant domestic terminal facilities, I still stand by my comment that overall, Narita is the better airport to hang around in.
We flew into New Chitose Airport (Sapporo) with All Nippon Airways, or ANA for short. Check in was pretty smooth. They had a speedy security check for those departing soon, and no limits on liquids as long as they fit into your carry on. Plastic bottles were OK if they cleared the check. Nobody checked our IDs at any point in time after we got the tickets, nor went through/measured/weighed our carry-on luggage. Pretty much everything was running on the honor system code.
Because we didn’t check any luggage, getting out of the Chitose Airport was a breeze. You’ll want to ride the rapid towards Sapporo/Otaru, and be sure to line up about 10-15 minutes before the rapid you’re catching if you’d like to sit. The trains are ridiculously local-ish with limited seating in each car. If you’re really adamant about sitting, you can purchase a reserved seat in a special car for a few extra hundred yen.
Since we only had a few days in Hokkaido, we had to hit the ground running. The first thing we did when we arrived in Sapporo was put our luggage in a coin locker and head out to the Ishiya Chocolate Factory/Shiroi Koibito Park. From Sapporo Station, head to the underground bus terminal and take the express bus headed towards Otaru from the #1 boarding area. Get off at Nishimachikita 20 (nijuu) chome stop, and the park is a short walk from the bus stop.
When visit the admissions desk and purchase your ticket to tour the grounds, the first sight you’re greeted with in the main building upstairs is the Aurora Fountain. The park accepts credit cards for admission/course fees, and pretty much everywhere throughout the facility, so that was really convenient.
I’m a big fan of the shiroi koibito (white lovers) cookies that are a famous souvenir from Hokkaido. At the park you have the opportunity to not only see how they’re made, but to try your hand at making your own special memorial cookie. If you make a reservation by phone or at the park (granted there’s still time slots available), there’s a couple cooking/decoration courses to choose from. It was a really fun experience for not a lot of money, so I definitely recommend it if you’re keen.
In addition to showing how the factory sweets are made, they have some interesting collections and exhibits on the history of chocolate, chocolate/tea cups, and gramophones. There’s a cafe located on the 4th floor of the main building that serves up delicious parfaits.
If you get seated by the window, you can view the whole grounds from above. They have another restaurant, a rose garden, some kids areas, and a toy shop. In the souvenir area is a conveniently located post office stand for mailing gifts, postcards, etc. Here’s a view of their clock tower from the garden area:
Including the cooking course and having parfaits, about three hours was adequate to have a good look around and experience the park on a so-so busy day. We made the mistake of catching the local bus back instead of the express. Both buses are the same price (220 yen each way), but the local bus makes a lot more stops and takes almost twice the amount of time to reach Sapporo Station.
We went on to get our stuff and check into the hotel we were staying at, the Vessel Inn at Nakajimakoen. Check in was quick and easy, and the hotel is situated about a minutes walk from Nakajimakoen Station exit #2. Rooms were your standard Japanese business hotel-type affair, but we couldn’t hear any noise from next door. They offered one of the best buffet breakfasts I’ve ever had for a hotel charging around $50 per person per night. Other nice things nearby included a weekday operating post office, two convenience stores, and of course Nakajima Park.
We’d planned on checking in and then heading back out to visit a few other famous spots around Sapporo before enjoying some genghis khan (a Hokkaido favorite) at a very scenic night restaurant, but it started raining and then we found out that my old Tokyo home stay mom and dad were just down the street staying at another hotel with a tour group leaving on a cruise around Hokkaido the next day. So Mr. J and I changed our plans to meet up with them and some old schoolmates of host dad for some good food and drinks. They were even nice enough to take us our for really good genghis khan afterwards, too. 😀
Hokkaido is famous for its beer gardens, and there were certainly a lot of them out in full swing with festival dancers making their way through some of the main streets.
It was a good night, lots of fun, and we pretty much hit the sack the minute we got back to the hotel.
We got up and hit some of the sights we’d abandoned yesterday, like the Sapporo Clock Tower.
For lunch we had ramen nearby. Hokkaido is famous for its dairy products and farms, so it’s no surprise they even had milk ramen with locally grown potatoes and corn. I’m not even a summer ramen kind of person and it was delicious!
After that we took the train out to Otaru to catch a shuttle to a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan, we had booked called Musashitei. Basically this was our day to relax, read, and take dips in and out of the hot springs.
Unfortunately due to a booking error through the travel site we used, we weren’t marked down for the luxurious seafood dinner we were looking forward to enjoying, but luckily there was a classy hotel a short walk down up the road and that we enjoyed a nice candlelight dinner at instead.
I don’t think our stay was very good money for the value without the dinner included, so I’d recommend other hotels in the area over where we stayed. However the staff was very friendly and the hot spring areas were very nice. We liked that you could reserve a private hot spring room, although it did cost an extra 1,500 yen ($15 USD) or so.
We had a very traditional-style Japanese breakfast at the Japanese inn and then checked out early because we had a lot to do our last full day.
Mr. J and I both like aquariums, so we took a bus to the Otaru Aquarium from the station. Usually you pay your bus fare when you get off (or when you board if you live in Tokyo), but in Otaru they have bus ticket vending machines at the bus terminal for you to purchase before you ride.
The Otaru Aquarium is doing quite well for itself despite only being a small town aquarium. They have a number of animal feeding shows scheduled one after the other for convenience, although the stands to watch fill up pretty fast.
There’s also a children’s amusement park on the grounds, so if you’re visiting as a family so you can really make a nice day of it.
They have a cafeteria-style restaurant on one of the upper floors where you can lunch at, and they have really cute kids plates like this sea lion one:
After our visit we returned to the station and caught another bus out to the Nikka Whiskey/Yoichi Distillery that Mr. J had been really looking forward to. The train to nearby Yoichi station is much faster than the bus, but because of the irregularity of the train it was a little faster and more scenic for us to take the bus there rather than wait for the train.
We took a guided tour with many other patrons around the distillery and finished the tour with some whiskey and apple wine sampling.
The souvenir shop on grounds sells everything from beer flavored chocolates to whiskey and fruit jam, so if you’re looking for something unusual to bring back this is probably your best bet.
We took the train back to the station, retrieved our luggage from the coin lockers, and took a taxi down to the canal area. The canal area is the main highlight of the city. We stayed at the Sonia Hotel, which directly overlooks it.
If you want an interesting angle to take photos from, a guided tour of the area, or just something romantic to do, try hiring one of the rickshaw drivers that offer their services on any corner of the canal area.
If you visit Otaru, it’d be a waste not to try any of its famed sushi restaurants. There’s a sushi street of pretty much nothing but sushi restaurants, and also some good sushi eateries by the canal area.
On our rickshaw driver’s recommendation we visited Tatsumi, and we weren’t disappointed. Upon entering it seems like a normal Japanese style izakaya where you take off your shoes and are led to a private tatami mat booth area, but after placing your order you’ll see that part of the booth wall is really a sliding window where the master sushi chef (taisho) appears and prepares your order in front of you.
The sushi was superb! And the personal chef experience was something interesting and new. Even though at a traditional sushi restaurant the chef will always prepare your meal in front of you, you’re sitting at a counter alongside other customers so it lacks any kind of intimate setting.
After our meal we took a night stroll along the canal before turning in for the night. It was really lovely.
Our last day in Hokkaido! We had an early breakfast at the hotel (really good mix of Japanese and Western foods) at the hotel restaurant. We’d missed going to the Music Box Museum/Emporium before, so we decided to take another walk along the canal and visit it before we went. Contrary to what we were lead to believe, it wasn’t too impressive unless you really like music boxes.
Across the street was the Otaru Canal Bus Terminal where they had a nice souvenir shop and a nice cafe serving a mysterious delicacy called panjū. Turns out the name comes from pan (the Japanese loanword for bread) + manjū (a type of traditional Japanese sweet). They were so good we wanted to bring some home to share with friends, but unfortunately they go stale within a day so we couldn’t. 😦
After our little tea break we went back to the hotel to collect our belongings and check out.
I have mixed feelings about the hotel. It was in a very convenient spot and the rooms larger than most regular Japanese hotels, but the rooms are in dire need of renovation with stained/hardly functioning furniture everywhere. At least the bed looked new and clean, or we might have canceled our reservation and gone elsewhere. When you consider the cost of the room, it’s just bad business to have such shabby rooms, and sort of cancels out the nice things about the hotel like having a sushi restaurant that does room service sushi/the morning buffet, the friendly staff, and the location.
Our train ride back to the airport went smoothly and soon we were on our way back home. Hokkaido was such a lovely (and cool!) place to spend our holidays that I wish we’d been able to stay a little longer. Still, nothing beats that feeling of getting home and sleeping in your own bed after many days on the road. 🙂
If we have another chance to return, I’d like to explore the Niseko and Hakodate area. Being the biggest island in Japan, there’s just so much to do if you have the time (and money, lol).
If you’ve been to Hokkaido before, how did you like it? What did you find most enjoyable?