November 19, 2016

Hokkaido (South and Central Hokkaido Free & Easy)

My second trip to Hokkaido was in 2016, also in October. However, it seemed to be much colder than the previous trip, averaging about 5 degree Celsius, and there weren’t any sunflowers at all!

I took the opportunity to take the new Hokkaido Shinkansen that was launched in March 2016. At the moment, it runs from Tokyo station to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto station in Hakodate, south of Hokkaido. By 2030, it would be extended to Sapporo.

I bought the 7-day JR Pass that helped to save quite a lot of money, considering that I also took limited express trains between Hakodate and Sapporo. It takes 4 hours from Tokyo to Hakodate, and another 4 hours to Sapporo. As I have not been to Hakodate yet, Shinkansen was a viable option as I could do sightseeing in Hakodate and continue the journey to Sapporo the next day. So maximum traveling time per day was about 4 hours, still manageable for me.

Covered Hakodate(函館), Sapporo(札幌), Furano(富良野), Otaru(小樽)and Onuma Park(小沼公園)in 5 days. (Remaining 2 days of the pass were spent on a separate trip) The moment I stepped out of Hakodate station, felt like returning to Tokyo already, because it was so cold! Around 10-15 degrees difference. Hokkaido’s autumn feels like winter in other parts of Japan really :P

In Hakodate, the must-dos include going up the Goryokaku Tower(五稜郭タワー)to see the iconic star-shaped fort and city view, ascending Mount Hakodate to see 1 of the 3 best night views in Japan, and having breakfast/lunch at Hakodate Asaichi Morning Market(函館朝市). Those who have more time may want to consider one night stay at Yunokawa Onsen(湯の川温泉).

I may be wrong, but my impression of Hakodate is that it is rather quiet, without much activities/crowd, other than the sightseeing spots which are rather spread out. There are trams and buses to go around the city.

Fans of Uni (sea urchin) may want to try Uni Murakami in Hakodate Asaichi. It specializes in sea urchin with no preservatives, and is the highest-rated restaurant in that area on Tabelog. Other must-eats at Hakodate Asaichi include Nama-Ika (live squid) and Ikura (salmon roe). 

In Hakodate, Ramen lovers should not miss Shio Ramen, specialty of Hakodate which stands out from other regions in Hokkaido (in fact the whole of Japan) with mostly Shoyu/Miso/Tonkotsu-based Ramen.

In Sapporo, I went to conveyor belt sushi restaurant Nemuro Hanamaru(根室花まる)at JR Tower Stellar Place near Sapporo station. It is said that in Hokkaido, even the standard of conveyor belt sushi is extremely high. I can totally vouch for this, because the meal there turned out to be one of the best meals I had in this trip! Some of the fish like Buri (Japanese amberjack) and Ohyo (halibut) were so fresh and rich in taste they actually melted in the mouth like Ootoro (fatty tuna belly). Other seasonal sushi included the impressive Botan Ebi (Botan shrimp). The 1 hour queue (even though I arrived at 2 pm) was totally worth it~

Since it was my second time in Sapporo, and my main purpose was actually a concert (Spitz!), did not go to the sightseeing spots. I did a little shopping around Sapporo station though, and liked the wide variety of Japanese fashion brands in the vicinity, and many Hokkaido confectioneries at the basement of Daimaru. There is also a Ramen Republic featuring different types of Hokkaido ramen near the station. Most importantly, the area was not crowded at all!

The next day, I traveled to Furano (2 hour train from Sapporo) and went around Biei(美瑛)& Furano by rental car from Toyota. It cost around 10,000 yen for 24 hour rental, a bigger car (more than enough for 2 of us + luggages), insurance and 4WD. Online booking was in Japanese, though GPS was in English. The map codes and maps provided were really useful and the whole experience was easier/smoother than expected.

It would not be impossible to do sightseeing in Furano/Biei without a car, but public transport options are limited during off-peak, so rental car would be a much more efficient (and comfortable) option. 

Even though there were no longer any flowers, we enjoyed Furano’s fall foliage from the car. Blue Pond, flower fields, cheese factory and winery, everything can be covered comfortably in a day if you start early. We even joined a cheese-making workshop at the cheese factory and dropped by Furano Delice for the sinfully delicious Double Fromage.

For lunch, I highly recommend Kumagera Furano near Furano station, the second best meal I had in this trip. They offer a wide variety of dishes using fresh local produce. The most popular item is the raw beef bowl which was truly delicious. I also liked the melon + sake dessert~

We stayed in Furano La Terre Spa & Hotel Resort that night, around 10 minutes drive from Furano station. It costs around 18,000 yen per pax for a night's stay in a room with private outdoor bath, inclusive of 2 meals. The assortment of indoor and outdoor baths is quite impressive, as the onsen facility is opened to day visitors.

After returning the rental car the next morning, we headed to Otaru near Sapporo by train, which took around 3 hours. Stored our luggages in the station lockers and had lunch at Sankaku Ichiba(三角市場)near the station. Sankaku Ichiba is just a cramped and short stretch of fresh seafood stalls and eateries. Still, the lunch we had at Takinami Shokudo(滝波食堂)there was even better than the 3 meals we had in Hakodate Asaichi.

Otaru was my favorite during the trip 5 years ago, glad it still remains as my favorite 5 years later! I like the relaxing and artsy vibe of the canal area, the compactness, and the numerous top-notch Hokkaido confectioneries there, such as LeTAO, Hanabatake Bokujo(花畑牧場)and Rokkatei(六花亭). I'm a huge fan of Rokkatei's Marusei butter sandwich! Hokkaido's dairy products are just too good~

Traveling time was longer for that day, as we chose to cover the Otaru-Hakodate leg (near 4 hours) that evening, since we have to return to Tokyo from Hakodate (4 hours) the next day.

On the 5th day, we went to Onuma Park(小沼公園), located 30 minutes train ride away from Hakodate. It is famous for its autumn colors, which was more beautiful than I had expected.

Already started missing Hokkaido right after returning to Tokyo :P Hope I can check out the eastern and northern parts of Hokkaido someday :)


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