Hokkaido Japan Travel Review: Exploring Hokkaido

by - April 29, 2017

Japan is one of the most beautiful places in the world, so there's no wonder it welcomed approximately 2.04 million tourists in February 2017. I was blessed to be able to visit Japan in December with my family, and we visited four of Hokkaido's most popular destinations which included Noboribetsu, Toyaku, Otaru and Sapporo.

Out of Japan's four main islands, Hokkaido is the second largest island and the least developed of them all. Hokkaido's weather can get rather harsh during the winter with lots of snowfall, chilly below-zero temperatures and frozen seas which attract numerous visitors from June to September.

FIRST STOP: NOBORIBETSU

Noboribetsu was our first pit stop on the way to Sapporo. We stayed one night at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel, Hokkaido's most famous hot spring resort with the infamous Jihokudani (Hell Valley) located directly north of the resort.


The Hell Valley is the main source of Noboribetsu's hot spring waters and displays hot steam vents, sulfurous streams and even volcanic activity. There are numerous walking trails leading from the valley through the wooded hills and if you walk further down you can even enjoy a natural food bath (Ashiyu) in the forest.


There wasn't much to do at Noboribetsu so we spent most of the day enjoying ourselves at the Noboribetsu Onsen (Japanese hot spring). As it was my first Onsen experience, it felt quite awkward having to strip naked in front of all those strangers, but no one really cares since everyone is in the same naked situation. The hotel features three different types of hot spring water (sulfur, salt and iron), and their main attraction is the outdoor Onsen that looks onto a beautiful garden and a man-made waterfall.


SECOND STOP: TOYAKO


Like Noboribetsu, the Toyako region also has numerous hot springs as well as an active volcano Mount Usu which erupted in 2000. Toyako's main attraction is 'the lake that does not freeze' -  Lake Toya, a circular lake about 10 kilometers in diameter. Lake Toya was formed by the eruption of a volcano about 100,000 years ago and is second most 'transparent' lake in Japan.


In the afternoon we had our lunch at a restaurant beside the lake enjoyed authentic Japanese cuisine such as bento sets, ramen and sushi.


We also visited the Volcanic Science Museum which provides a wide range of audio-visual materials, exhibition and experience devices on volcanic eruptions between 1977 and 2000.


Outside our hotel at Toyako was a small hand bath believed to bring longevity and joy. My sister and I often made excuses just to go out into the freezing night and dip our hands in the warm water. I mean, it's supposed to make you live longer right? I'm taking my chances!


THIRD STOP: OTARU


Otaru is a small harbor city about half an hour northwest of Sapporo. I was very excited to visit Otaru because it is rumored to be one of the most romantic cities in Hokkaido. It looks very much like the Universal Studios Singapore during Christmas time with the white snow, cute buildings and street food - perfect for couples on their honeymoon.


Otaru's main attraction is the beautiful Otaru Canal, which was once a central part of the city's busy port in the first half of the 20th century. 63 Victorian-style street lamps run through the Otaru Canal promenade and are lit up every evening, proving a romantic atmosphere to tourists.


We also took a stroll along Sakaimachi Street, Otaru's historic merchant street full of glassware shops, bakeries, ice cream and seafood. My family and I settled at a cute green shop selling Macha desserts and got ourselves two green tea ice creams. After that we visited one of Sakaimachi's delicious sweet shops - LeTAO which offers a variety of 50 cakes and sweets.


Towards the Southern end of Sakaimachi Street is the Music Box Museum which consists of multiple buildings, one of which houses a small museum with almost 15,000 music boxes on display. You can also have a go at making your own music box at an additional fee.


The snow was slightly heavier at Otaru so my family and I had to carry umbrellas when we went out because it poured so much and wet your hair. Messy, but a fun experience.


FOURTH STOP: SAPPORO

After four days of traveling we finally reached Sapporo, Japan's fifth largest city and the capital of Hokkaido. We stayed there for three days at Sunroute Hotel.


As seafood is very popular in Sapporo, we had lunch at Kitanogurume, a Sapporo central wholesale market. Their in-shop seafood restaurant, Kaisen-Shokudo Kitano Gourmet-tei sells fresh Hokkaido fish and shellfish, crabs, urchin, salmon and shrimps... served raw, grilled or in any other way your request. Free shuttle services to Kitanogurume are available from Sunroute hotel.


One the first night, we went to the German Christmas Market at Odori Park. The market was held in Sapporo since 2002 when the city marked its 30th anniversary of its sister-ties with Munich, Germany. Open daily from November 26 to December 26, the market boats an impressive number of stalls selling Christmas items, hot wine, commemorative mug cups and German food.


On the second day, we visited the Sapporo Beer Museum which is home to Japan's oldest and most popular beer brands - Sapporo Beer. Opened in 1987, the museum introduces the history of beer in Japan and the beer making process. Beer tastings are available at an additional fee for those 18 and above.


As the third day was a Sunday, we had mass at Kitaichijo Church, a Catholic cathedral offering english mass to foreigners.


Oh, and did we mention the Pokemon Center at Sapporo?


To summarize my Hokkaido trip, I have to say it was a wonderful experience and the people there are really, really friendly and polite.  I was also astonished at how clean Japan is, though there are hardly any trash bins in sight! Upon coming back to Singapore, I can't help but notice the distinct difference in the way Singaporeans communicate and interact with each other as compared to the Japanese. After this trip to Japan, I understood the how important it is to have good manners as citizens as it not only reflects ourselves but the culture of our country.

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