Previous Travels in Japan
We love Japan. I’ve visited Kyoto and Tokyo twice with my daughter. I’ve traveled around Hiroshima, the Iya Valley, Miyajima and Naoshima Island with National Geographic and I dove deeper into Tokyo with AFAR. When I had my family rate the 60+ countries we’ve visited, Japan finished in the top 10.
As I had already experienced a lot of the more popular Japanese destinations, and have a good feel for Japanese culture and tradition, I was excited to hear that my favorite travel event, the Adventure Travel World Summit (ATWS), would take place this year in Hokkaido. A perfect excuse to see a new area of Japan!
Hokkaido is Japan’s largest and northernmost prefecture. While there are a number of cities, including Sapporo, Hokkaido is more about islands, forests, mountains and lakes than urban areas. It would take months to see the majority of Hokkaido, and unfortunately I only had a week, so this blog post is only intended to give you a taste.
Sapporo is the easiest place to start in Hokkaido. With almost two million people, it’s Hokkaido’s largest city by far. Sapporo hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics and is famous for its namesake beer, and it’s a fun city – kind of a mini-Tokyo. The airport is large, with both domestic and international flights. I arrived from Perth, Australia, via Singapore and Nagoya (Japan), and then departed directly to Taipei, continuing on to Los Angeles. There’s a rapid train that connects the airport to Sapporo Station – the journey takes 37 minutes. There are plenty of JR employees in the stations to help you purchase tickets.
Over the course of a week in Sapporo I walked a lot and rode the Subway a lot. As with most of Japan, there’s not a lot of English, either spoken or on signs. Once you become comfortable with that, you’ll have a great time. Google Maps is amazing when it comes to navigation, including the Subway, and you can always figure out how to order food and how to pay without speaking the same language.
My visited coincided with Sapporo Autumn Fest, a three-week celebration with hundreds of food stalls in Odori Park. Sapporo doesn’t get a lot of tourists, even for events like this, so we were usually the only non-Japanese lining up for ice cream, curry, noodles and everything else. I love being places in the world where you get to jump into the real culture, rather than being served a tourist version!
Maruyama Park was my favorite place in Sapporo, and it’s easy to reach, only three stops from Odori (my base) on the orange Tozai line. Just exit at Maruyama Koen Station and walk right – you can see the park from the Subway exit. The park is an oasis in the city, with a mountain (easy to climb at only 225m), a wooden walkway through the forest, a Shinto shrine, lots of smaller temples and shrines, and a zoo. I reached the top of Mount Maruyama exactly one hour after leaving my Odori hotel, so a visit/climb isn’t a big time commitment.
Sapporo Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium
The conference I attended in Sapporo had its opening event at the Ski Jump Stadium, so that was an easy opportunity to visit. Highly recommended even outside of a conference setting, as you can see one of the sites of the 1972 games (there’s a museum) and you can take a ski lift to the top of the jump for amazing views over Sapporo. Take the Tozai line to the same stop as Maruyama Park (Maruyama Koen Station) and then board the JR Hokkaido bus (Okurayama Line) to the stadium.
It would be a disservice to Hokkaido to spend a week in Sapporo and not see some what makes Hokkaido amazing – the nature outside of the cities. So I booked a one-day trip with North Star Travel to head to Lake Shikotsu, roughly an hour away. The train took us halfway to the lake (to Chitose, just before the airport), and then North Star arranged for a shuttle bus to take us the rest of the way.
We started at the Lake Shikotsu Visitor Center to learn about the national park and lake (it’s Japan’s second deepest lake and said to have the purest water). We then rented e-bikes and cycled from the Visitor’s Center partway around the lake to the Moss Corridor (10km).
The Moss Corridor is exactly what it sounds like – a canyon covered in moss. There are actually 30 different types of moss in the corridor, and it was a stunning walk – even in the rain. North Star provided guides to walk us through the corridor, pointing out the different volcanic layers and mosses. One of my all-time Japan highlights!
We biked back to the Visitor’s Center, had lunch nearby (really good fish/sushi from the lake), and then rented see-through kayaks from Ocean Days. We kayaked out onto the lake, but with reduced visibility the lake wasn’t exciting, so we kayaked through the river to the dam. My first time kayaking in Japan and it was a great couple hours – easy kayaking on still water.
Where To Stay in Sapporo
I booked the Tokyu Stay Sapporo Odori. I wanted to be near Odori, as the Tozai subway line stops there, the Autumn Festival takes place there, and there’s a large pedestrian area, including Ramen Alley. As a base in Sapporo, Odori is perfect! I found Tokyu Stay on TripAdvisor and it looked ideal. I paid around $90/night. My room was small but comfortable, and it had a full washing machine! Given that I was visiting Sapporo after traveling around with the world, with stops in Qatar, Zanzibar and Perth, I knew I would want to do laundry. There’s also a coffee machine in the lobby, which I used a lot – even though it doesn’t start operating until 6:30am.
I booked my room through Hotels.com. Because of my Hotel.com/Expedia status, I was able to check in early and check out late. My friends who booked though other websites didn’t have the same perks. The room didn’t come with breakfast. There’s a Starbucks a block away though, and I found an excellent French bakery at the Maruyama Koen Subway station (Pain Au Traditionnel). Or you can pay for breakfast at the hotel.
Where To Eat in Sapporo
For a very fast lunch/dinner in Sapporo, or anywhere in Japan, head to a convenience store. Seriously. Lawson’s has good sandwiches, and 7/11 has good fried rice bowls and dumplings. Otherwise just go into the first small place that you walk past that looks good. If you Google Ramen Alley, there are a dozen ramen places there. We loved Ramen Sora in Odori. But really, it’s easy to find inexpensive, good food throughout Sapporo. And again, don’t worry about the language barrier – just point to pictures on the menu to order.
Hokkaido – Summary
I loved Hokkaido and Sapporo. This isn’t touristy Japan – it’s the Japan for locals, and adventurers, and it’s a perfect addition to your Japan itinerary after you’ve visited the main cities. When I return I want to explore outside of Sapporo. There are sake distilleries that invite visitors. There are islands to bike around. There’s skiing in winter. There’s kelp harvesting. There’s a lot of amazing hiking. There’s more than enough to do for a month!
I took the long way to Sapporo, stopping in Zanzibar and Perth first simply to complete my goal of visiting every continent in the same year. I used Qatar Airways points for tickets from LA to Zanzibar to Perth. I booked Singapore Airlines from Perth to Sapporo, and EVA Air from Sapporo to LA. It works well to book around the world tickets that way – as lots of one-way tickets, using a combination of points and money. Five flights were in business class and four were in economy.
I got by with a carry-on and a backpack. But more often than not the airlines made me check my carry-on because it weighed more than 7kg, even though it easily fit their measurements. Annoying! I took a few shirts from Unbound Merino, two pairs of pants, two pairs of shoes, a sweatshirt and toiletries.
I always park at The Parking Spot at LAX.
Hokkaido – Your Turn
Have you visited Hokkaido? What were your favorite adventures?