Blessed with breath-taking nature, picturesque landscape, picture-perfect settings and lovely powder snow make Hokkaido ideal for travellers to experience during winter. The destination offers many unique experiences to be enjoyed not just by the Japanese but also people from other parts of the world. Hokkaido truly offers an unforgettable Japanese white season that all travellers must experience at least once in their lives!
Courtesy of Hokkaido Tourism Organisation, Gaya Travel Magazine team was able to personally witness the spectacular Sapporo Snow Festival for the first time! Though we have covered Hokkaido before, our trip this time was more special because we were taken to different places and experienced new things that are bound to amaze travellers.
What is also special about this trip is the fact that the organiser highlighted on the facilities and conveniences available in the destination that meet the needs of the modern Muslim travellers such as prayer rooms and halal meals. Gaya Travel Magazine truly appreciates and salutes the painstaking efforts taken by the Japanese tourism players, especially Hokkaido Tourism Organisation, in making the destination as friendly as possible to Muslims.
Come and follow us as we explore Hokkaido’s winter wonderland…
We arrived early morning at New Chitose Airport, where we were required to take a domestic flight to another. As soon as we arrived at Memanbetsu Airport, we were immediately taken to a small fishing town of Abashiri, where the ice-breaker ship, Aurora is docked.
Tip: Before proceeding with their onward journey, Muslim travellers can perform their mandatory prayers at the New Chitose Airport on the second floor of the International Terminal Building.
The Aurora Icebreaker Ship that we boarded in Abashiri, Hokkaido, offers a unique experience. It takes passengers slowly sailing through drifting ice blocks over Okhotsk Sea. Abashiri Drift Ice Sightseeing Tour on Aurora Icebreaker Ship operates only between 20 January and 2 April every year; the best time to actually see these drifting ice blocks is in February.
Various wild animals can be seen during this tour such as naked sea butterfly (sea angel; a type of sea slug), seal, Steller’s sea-eagle, swan and occasionally red fox and deer along the coastline. Drifting through the sea covered with blocks of ice was memorably surreal and a sight to behold.
Adult: ¥3,300 per pax; Child: ¥1,650 per pax
It is important to note that travellers need to make a prior reservation to join this tour.
Our accommodation for the first night was the ryokan-style Abashirikoso Hotel, located right beside Lake Abashiri. It has a nice onsen with outdoor spring water pool. First-timers should really experience hadaka no tsukiai (socialising in the nude), an interesting Japanese culture where you get to soak in a public pool filled with natural spring water to relax and refresh your body and mind. However, we recommend that first-timers read the Japanese Public Bath Etiquette first.
At first, I felt uneasy walking on the frozen Abashiri Lake. However, I was assured by Miss Sumie from Hokkaido Tourism Organisation that the surface of the lake forms a layer of ice about a metre thick when frozen. The lake’s frozen surface turns the lake into a large white field that is safe to walk upon and even set up a tent.
For us Malaysians, fishing on a frozen lake is undeniably an extraordinary experience. Apparently, this is a popular winter activity amongst the people in Hokkaido. There are many frozen lakes throughout the island and Lake Abashiri is one of them. The operator at Lake Abashiri offers friendly English-speaking staff, which is definitely a plus. The best time to experience this activity is from mid-January, when the winter is not too harsh, up until early April.
Tents are set up in the middle of the frozen lake. A heater is also provided for those who couldn’t stand long hours being outdoors during winter. Cooking utensils are provided to cook the fishes caught, which are usually 10 centimetres in length, suitable to be prepared as tempura. Enjoying the taste of smelt fish tempura with a glass of hot green tea on the frozen lake is definitely an unforgettable experience.
Adult: ¥800; Child: ¥400
Pole: ¥150; Chair: ¥100; Hook weight: ¥250
Bait: ¥200 / Hole Drill: ¥300
After lunch, we had visited Okhotsk Ryuhyo Museum, located on top of Mount Tento. It was only about 10 minutes’ drive away from Lake Abashiri. What makes the visit memorable was the fact that we enjoyed an amazing 360-degree panoramic view comprising Lake Abashiri, the surrounding mountains all the way to the Okhotsk Sea from the Tentozan Observatory located on the museum’s rooftop.
The fishing town of Abashiri looked stunning when covered in white snow, similar to being blanketed by cotton candy. The view of the nearby mountain range that seems to dissolve into the coastline of Shiretoko Peninsula is equally breathtaking.
8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (May to October) / 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m (November to April)
Adult: ¥750; Student: ¥640; Child: ¥540 per pax
Later that day, we headed straight away to Lake Akan, about two hours’ drive from Abashiri. Akan is surrounded by majestic mountains and primaeval forest.
We were lucky that we arrived just in time for the fireworks display on top of the frozen Lake Akan. In February, there are winter festivals almost everywhere and Lake Akan, located in Kushiro, is one of them.
There were many activities being done on the frozen Lake Akan including snowmobile-riding, ice-sliding, igloo-making, concerts and even smelt-fishing. However, the most exhilarating experience is the fireworks displays showcased for several nights during the festival. Travellers need to check on the exact date and time on when the next Lake Akan Ice Aisu Festival is held.
Time: Fireworks begin at 7:30 p.m.
Date: Usually from the first week of February until the first week of March
Entrance Fees: Free. However, do take note that travellers need to pay for some of the activities.
Later that night after having a wholesome dinner, we took a walk along the small town of Akan. After 10 minutes of walking, we arrived at Ainu Folklore Museum, a small house transformed into a small museum to showcase tools, furnishings, clothing and how the Ainu tribe (the aboriginal community of Hokkaido) lived in the past.
For a country that is so developed and rich in modern technology, it was heartwarming to see how local culture, traditions and customs of the native tribe is being preserved and appreciated.
Ainu is an indigenous community believed to have migrated from Rusia through China and Mongolia and eventually settled in Hokkaido since the 13th century. It is a community of farmers, hunters and fishermen. These days, the tribe has now fully assimilated into Japanese society. Sadly, many from the current generation are not even aware of their Ainu ancestry.
Early next morning, we arrived in Otofuke Town in Obihiro after driving for about two hours from Lake Akan. I love Otofuke Town at first sight! It is a smallish quaint town surrounded by mountains blanketed in snow with patches of white vastness that seemed like football fields, presumably farms covered in snow.
Along the way, we realised that there were hardly any cars on the road; once in a while, we would encounter pedestrians along the walkway. Being devoid of bustle and traffic, Tokachi is calm and organised. I have a feeling that I might be happy living here.
It was a great morning for a walk around Tokachi Ranch. It was not as cold as the day before and I remembered the temperature was around -5° Celsius. Because this place is not big enough to accommodate tourists coming in big groups, the ranch remains peaceful, allowing travellers to enjoy tranquil moments while witnessing the ranch horses doing their routine morning exercise, which I was told crucial in maintaining their health. If travellers are interested to catch these horses exercising, they should arrive at the ranch by 9:30 a.m. on weekdays. The exercise routine takes about 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the weather and horses’ condition.
Leaving the ranch, we drove along a beautiful road flanked on both sides by tall Japanese white birch trees, creating an utterly picturesque and Instagrammable scenery. We stopped for a few minutes, of course, to make sure that we have some shots to upload on Instagram.
Winter in Hokkaido is all about having outdoor fun in the powdery white snow, thus Tokachigawa Nature Centre offers activities for travellers to do so. During winter, it offers sports and outdoor activities such as snowshoeing, snowmobile-riding, dog-sledging, skiing, trekking, snow-rafting and even banana boat-riding. Here, we learned how to ride snowmobiles and ended snow-rafting, which was as much fun as rafting over water, except that we landed on ice rather than water everytime we flew up in the air.
The centre also offers different activities during other seasons.
10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m
Banana Boat: Adult: ¥600; Child: ¥500
Snow Rafting: Adult: ¥600; Child: ¥500
Snow Mobile (short tour): ¥3,780 per person (Not suitable for children)
Snow Mobile (open ride): ¥11,000 per pax (Not suitable for children)
Snow Mobile (20KM cross country): ¥8,640 per pax (Not suitable for children)
Tokachi is mainly famous for moor hot springs, famously known as ‘the hot springs for beauty’. Moor hot spring is goldish in colour and people love it because of its moisturising effect on the skin. Unlike the other spring water in Japan, the water at moor hot springs in Tokachi is not volcanic but alkaline and welled from deep underneath depositional plains.
Garden Spa Tokachigawa Onsen is one of Hokkaido’s heritage institutions. Opened in the year 1900, this unique garden spa allows travellers to enjoy the hot spring while clothed in bathing suits. Muslim travellers, particularly ladies, will find this comforting and enjoyable.
Those who are pressed for time can instead opt for the foot spa, located outdoors, allowing travellers to admire the magical Hokkaido winter scenery while dipping their feet in the moor hot spring.
We arrived at Sapporo the next morning after a two-hour drive from Hotel Mount Racey in Yubari, where we spent the night before to rest. Mount Racey is a great destination for those who love skiing or wanting to learn the sport. Lessons here are provided for both adults and children.
In Sapporo, we visited several icons such as Daimaru Sapporo Store, Sapporo Clock Tower, Red Brick Building (formerly Hokkaido Government Office) and Sapporo Factory. For Muslims, Daimaru Sapporo Store offers a proper praying room so that Muslims can perform their prayers in comfort. Though it is actually a multi-faith prayer room, it is readily separated into a male and female section with carpeted flooring and a proper place for taking ablution. There’s a multi-faith prayer room at Sapporo Factory too, but not the same as the one in Daimaru Sapporo Store.
Like every other city in Japan, Sapporo is well planned, clean and organised. Although it is the fifth most populated city in Japan, it still maintains its charm with well-preserved nature and local culture. The people are also generally kind and friendly.
Though blanketed in thick snow, Sapporo seems to be more cheerful and warm compared to Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto – so I guess it must be due to the legendary Hokkaido hospitality!
Back in 2015, Sapporo was chosen as one of the Three Most Beautiful Nightscapes of Japan, along with Nagasaki and Kobe. The perfect place to witness this beautiful nightscape is from the altitude of 531 metres on Mount Moiwa, which offers a 360-degree panoramic view of Sapporo from the mountain ranges towards the city and then it vanishes in the horizon.
Mount Moiwa is also perfect for a romantic getaway. Its restaurant, The Jewels, is designed with glass walls, offering a breathtaking 270° panoramic view of the city. The Lover’s Sanctuary at its summit invites lovers to write their love messages on padlocks and then ring the “Bell of Happiness” to celebrate their mutual feelings.
The ropeway is equipped with features to fully assist disabled people.
11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Return Ropeway Fees:
Adult: ¥1,700; Child: ¥850
Sapporo Snow Festival typically takes place 12 days within the first week of February every year. There are so many sparkling ice sculptures from the size of a football to giant walls as tall as a four-storey building being displayed along the Odori Park, stretching as far as one kilometre and a half.
The festival began in the 1950s when a bunch of high school students built a few snow statues in Odori Park. Over the years, the activity became commercialised and turned into a spectacular event. In 2018, it attracted over two million visitors from Japan and all over the world, making Sapporo a must-visit destination during winter.
This festival also sees the participation from all over the world, including countries that never see snow, which showcase fascinating ice sculptures. One that attracted our attention was this giant Final Fantasy XIV Online wall sculpture.
Besides Odori Park, the festival also takes place at Tsudome and Susukino Ice World. At the Community Dome, Tsudome, large snow slides and snow rafting areas are open for children and adults to enjoy the exhilarating recreational activities.
If you plan to visit Sapporo during this festival, we totally recommend that you make sure your trip is well-planned, especially when it comes to your transport and accommodations. Last time we checked, almost all hotels are fully booked during the festival.
Sapporo Snow Festival 2019 will take place from 4 February until 11 February 2019.
Gaya Travel Magazine deeply thanks Hokkaido Tourism Organisation for making our writers’ memorable trip to Hokkaido during winter a reality.