I was given an opportunity to unearth the hidden gems of Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, under a special invitation from Hokkaido Tourism. After undergoing this exciting trip, I learned that this magnificent and under-the-radar Japanese island is a place worth visiting due to its delightfully dry and powdery snow, high-quality fresh food and drink, slow-paced lifestyle and stunning natural wonders.
Hokkaido At Glance
- Hokkaido is the northernmost prefecture in Japan and its capital city is Sapporo.
- Most people in Hokkaido speak Japanese (Nihongo) language. Take note that English isn’t widely spoken here.
- Hokkaido’s weather can get pretty harsh in winter with heavy snowfall, while the climate during summer is not as hot and humid as the rest of the country.
Reasons to travel to Hokkaido
- This region has many ski resorts, making it the most ideal ski destination in Japan.
- It is the perfect destination for travellers from tropical countries because Hokkaido enjoys a longer winter season compared to the other parts of Japan.
- Hokkaido is home to Japan’s finest dairy, fruit, cattle and vegetable farms, including best cheese producers too.
Getting to Hokkaido from Kuala Lumpur
- Air Asia X flies directly between Kuala Lumpur (KLIA2) and Sapporo (New Chitose Airport) four times weekly.
- Travellers may fly from Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo via various airlines and take a domestic flight or train (Japan Rail) to Sapporo or Hakodate.
Transportation in Hokkaido
Public transport widely connects popular places like Sapporo and Hakodate. However, lesser-known places are difficult to access by public transport. I highly recommend that travellers rent a car for a more fun and flexible journey. Car rental services are available near most train stations and airports. Approximate rental fees are ¥4,000 to ¥6,000 per day for regular-sized cars and ¥8,000 to ¥10,000 per day for vans.
Here are some things you can do when being in Hokkaido, especially its eastern part.
1. New Chitose Airport Terminal
New Chitose Airport Terminal (GPS: 42.800414, 141.780428) features a variety of attractions including a cinema, museum, onsen (Japanese traditional hot spring), various shops and mini theme parks in the airport. Travelling with kids? Be sure to drop by at Doraemon Wakuwaku Skypark or Hello Kitty Happy Flight (Entrance fee: ¥800 for adult and ¥400 for kids) for fun and interactive activities.
2. Garden Spa at Tokachigawa Onsen
Visit Tokachigawa Onsen (GPS: 42.933126, 143.301179) to learn how to make Sakura Mochi or simply relax at the refreshing Japanese hot spring known as onsen. The hotspring allows visitors to wear a swimsuit locally known as Yuami-gi when getting into the public bath. Visitors could also try various hands-on activities such as cooking workshop – learn how to make a Japanese sweet called sakura mochi (rice cake wrapped in a pickled cherry blossom leaf) with the help of an experienced food advisor.
3. Akan International Crane Center
Visitors must visit Akan International Crane Center (Entrance Fee: ¥470 for adult and ¥240 for kids) to see the Japanese crane called tancho, claimed to be the rarest crane in the world. According to the local guide, one of the best places to see this red-crowned crane is Akan, located in Kushiro sub-prefecture. Due to its significance, tancho is protected as a Special National Monument. The experience seeing this crane up close from the observation area is indeed surreal.
Tip: It is best for travellers to visit Akan International Crane Centre between November and March to see the wild cranes at the feeding station.
4. Kushiro Shitsugen Art Museum
If you are into art and history, a visit to Kushiro Shitsugen Art Museum (Entrance Fee: ¥500 for adult and ¥300 for university student) is a must. This museum is located just a few steps from Akan International Crane Centre and it attracts visitors with its permanent exhibition of artworks and personal belongings of the famous Hokkaido painter, Eisho Sasaki, also known as “the painter of marsh”.
Some of his masterpieces are Carnival of the Wetland (1974), Flora of Sunset (1978), and The Marshland in Kushiro (1987).
5. Lake Mashu
Located in Akan National Park, Lake Mashu (GPS: 43.583655, 144.532694) is 211 metres deep and considered by many as the clearest lake in the world with the visibility of 41.6 metres. Though going down the lake is not possible, there are two observation decks (Observation Deck Number 3 and Observation Deck Number 1) positioned around the rim for visitors to enjoy the sweeping lake view.
To see the striking contrast of white snow and the blue colour of Lake Mashu, travellers should visit during winter. However, travellers are advised to check on the weather forecast before going there because the lake is also frequently blanketed in heavy fog.
6. Ainu Village
Ainu Kotan or Village (GPS: 43.433869, 144.089144), located few metres away from Lake Akan, is a settlement of an indigenous community called Ainu that mostly lived in Hokkaido and some parts of bordering Russia. When wandering around the village, travellers get the chance to visit several shops that sell various traditional Ainu crafts such as woodcarvings and embroidered items.
7. Lake Akan
Participate in the early morning walk tour on Lake Akan (GPS: 43.460556, 144.104631) organised by Akan Tourist Association. Lake Akan is known for more than just its marimo (Moss Ball) and winter festival. This lake receives a high number of visitors due to its fascinating natural phenomenon called “frost flower” (delicate ice sculptures formed by nature that looks like flower).
This experience in a must when travellers are in Kushiro. The rate is ¥2,000 (adult) and ¥1,400 (children) for a one-hour tour. Visit www.lake-akan.com to book explore the tours on around Lake Akan.
Tip: During winter, travellers are recommended to visit Lake Akan Winter Festival that is held on Lake Akan. The festival stages various activities such as snowman and igloo-making, games and hands-on ice cutting that travellers can see or even participate. One of the highlights of this festival is the Winter Fireworks show that takes place every day during the festival.
8. Lake Akan Hot Spring Ski Gelande
For ski lovers or those who wish to obtain ski experience, do visit Lake Akan Hot Spring Ski Gelande to try some skiing activities. This ski resort offers a wide variety of facilities for beginner to advanced skiers. There are different ski slopes to choose from, including Left Wing with the distance of 900 metres and the maximum slope of 20 degrees, suitable for beginners and intermediates. Advanced skiers may try the Right Wing, with its 1,200-metre distance and maximum slope up to 26 degrees.
Browse www.akan-ski.com to explore more of Lake Akan Hot Spring Ski Gelande services and facilities.
9. Asahiyama Zoo
Asahiyama Zoo (GPS: 43.768673, 142.480080), said to be one of the reasons travellers flock to Eastern Hokkaido. Located just outside of central Asahikawa City, Asahiyama Zoo is the northernmost zoo in Japan that has become popular for offering travellers the possibility of observing the behaviour of each animal from various angles.
If you plan to visit Asahiyama Zoo, look out for unique moments like seeing penguins swimming in the underwater glass tunnel, seal passing through a glass pipe and encountering polar bear at a close range. Also, don’s miss the “Penguin Parade”, which takes place during winter.