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So-ya've been to Hokkaido: A rail trip across southern & northern Hokkaido

So-ya've been to Hokkaido: A rail trip across southern & northern Hokkaido

The year is 2018 where, while planning my upcoming trip to Japan, I find myself with a week in Hokkaido (北海道). A week in Hokkaido puts you in a rather peculiar position—it's too long to just spend time in Sapporo (札幌) and neighbouring Otaru (小樽), but too short to go darting around the many wonderful places the Great North has to offer. 


So after careful consideration, with a pinch of YOLO-ness, and a desire to prove that I can, I decided to get a Hokkaido Rail Pass and set off on a rail trip across Southern and Northern Hokkaido to explore the cities of Sapporo, Wakkanai (稚内), and Hakodate (函館).


This article is a recollection of this week-long journey, covering the highlights, food (mainly food), and some of the challenges one might face when travelling by rail in Hokkaido.


It’s a Sapporo thing

(Image credit: John Ong)


My first stop brought me to Sapporo, the capital city of Hokkaido. Sapporo and its attractions, festivals, and beer are known to many, so I will talk about something else—food.


Meeting a Sapporo-native friend of mine for dinner, I was introduced to soup curry (スープカレー)—Hokkaido’s soul food, as well as an up-and-coming trend at that time called “shime-parfait” (締めパフェ).


Enjoyed every bite (Image credit: John Ong)


Known for its unique combination of light broth and zingy curry spices, soup curry can be found across a plethora of restaurants throughout the city—each different types of soup base and spiciness levels to suit your fancy. A taste of the warm, hearty (spicy too, if you choose) broth topped with a generous amount of ingredients is sure to leave appetites sated, and stomach satisfied. It’s comfort food especially if you’re travelling during the cold, winter months. 


I had the exact same thing. (Image credit: cowboywoodybb / Instagram)


Derived from the Japanese word shime (締め), meaning “to conclude/end”, and “parfait (パフェ)”, a shime-parfait is what Sapporo-natives have after dinner or a night-out drinking—eating parfait. Many cafes and restaurants have hopped onto this new trend to serve some of the most delicious and Instagram-worthy parfaits you can find. 


For my personal recommendation, restaurants like “Soup Curry Okushiba Shoten (スープカレー奥芝商店 実家)” and “White Cosy (ホワイトコージ)” are some of the many restaurants serving soup curry and parfait located within Sapporo Station (札幌駅).


So grab yourself some soup curry and parfait the next time you are in Sapporo. It’s… a Sapporo thing to do.


Soup Curry Okushiba Shoten (スープカレー奥芝商店 実家)
Address: PASEO WEST 1F, Kita 6 Jonishi 2, Kita-ku, Sapporo 060-0806
Nearest station: Sapporo Station (札幌駅) 
Opening hours: 11:00–22:00 (L.O. 21:00)
Price range: ~¥1,000
Tel: +81-11-213-5660


White Cosy (ホワイトコージ)
Address: PASEO WEST B1F, Kita 6 Jonishi 2, Kita-ku, Sapporo 060-0806
Nearest station: Sapporo Station (札幌駅) 
Opening hours: 11:00–22:00 (L.O. 21:30)
Price range: ~¥1,000
Tel: +81-11-213-5261


Imi Wakkanai 

Wakkanai Station: Japan’s northernmost train station. (Image credit: John Ong)


The following day, setting my sights towards the north, I began my Hokkaido adventure proper. My first destination: Wakkanai City (稚内市 Wakkanai-shi). 


(Image credit: John Ong)


Overseeing the sea of Okhotsk (オホーツク海 Ohōtsuku-kai), Wakkanai is Japan’s northernmost city and it’s within reach in 6 hours from Sapporo Station via the Limited Express Soya (特急列車宗谷). Yes, 6 hours


Not many know of this humble town, but to disregard it entirely would be ill-advised, for this city is blessed with some breathtaking scenery (and strong winds). Directional signs in Wakkanai are in Russian too! 


Wonder if they sell Soya milk here at Cape Soya... (Image credit: John Ong)


A 50-minute bus ride along the coastline will bring you to Wakkanai’s main highlight—Cape Soya (宗谷岬 Sōya-misaki).


Latitude 45 degrees, 31 minutes, 22 seconds. (Image credit: John Ong)


Cape Soya highlights the northernmost point of the Japanese mainland, marked by a triangular monument. With an undisturbed view of the surrounding, one might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of neighbouring Sakhalin of Russia on a clear day. Remember to form a line while waiting for your turn to take a photo of the monument. 


Should have waited another minute. (Image credit: John Ong)


Equally popular is the gift shop right to the monument where you can purchase a certificate to commemorate your monumental journey to the northernmost point of Japan. 


Far from civilisation, at the very top of Japan, Cape Soya to me, symbolises the ambition of adventure: to go where no one has gone before, to see it with your very own eyes, and to tell the tale upon your return. Indeed, Cape Soya is a place worthy of your Japan bucket list. 


Cape Soya (宗谷岬)
Address: Soyamisaki, Wakkanai, Hokkaido 098-6758
Nearest station: JR Wakkanai Station (JR稚内駅) 
Opening hours: 24 hours
Admission fee: Free
Tel: +81-162-23-6161


The home of the lucky pierrot

The city where east meets west. (Image credit: John Ong)


Hakodate (函館) will always have a soft spot in my heart, and it’s not just because I nearly had an opportunity to intern at a traditional ryokan (旅館) located in the Yunokawa-onsen (湯の川温泉) district. This city is really mesmerising.


Taking roughly 3.5 hours via the Limited Express Super Hokuto (特急列車スーパー北斗) from Sapporo Station, Hakodate heralded the early stages of Westernisation in Japan. 


(Image credit: John Ong)


Take a walk along the city’s Motomachi district (元町), visit pristine western houses such as the Former British Consulate of Hakodate (旧イギリス領事館 Kyū igirisu ryōjikan), and Old Hakodate Ward Public Hall (旧函館区公会堂 Kyū hakodateku kōkaidō).  


(Image credit: John Ong)


After sipping some English tea, hike up some of Hakodate’s Instagram-worthy slopes and visit Mount Hakodate (函館山 Hakodateyama) and feast your eyes on the highly-acclaimed panoramic view of the city.


There’s a Starbucks here somewhere… (Image credit: John Ong)


(Image credit: John Ong)


Across the bay area and towards the city centre, you will pass by the famed Kanemori Red Brick Warehouse (金森赤レンガ倉庫 Kanemori akarenga souko), the Hakodate Morning Market (函館朝市 Hakodate Asaichi) and Goryokaku Park (五稜郭公園 Goryoukaku kōen). Travelling around Hakodate is a treat—attractions are in close proximity to one another and the well-established city tram network makes sightseeing a breeze. The trams itself are a sight to behold, with some dating back to the 1910s.


Pierrot means Clown in French (Image credit: John Ong)


But perhaps the most unique attraction in Hakodate (to me) is the local burger chain called "Lucky Pierrot (ラッキーピエロ)".


Reasonably-priced and eye-catching. (Image credit: John Ong)


Exclusive to this city and boasting a total of 17 stores, Lucky Pierrot is crowned as Japan’s “Best local burger”, a title, befitting of not just their burgers but of the many items on their menu as well.


(Image credit: John Ong)


I tried the “Rank No.1” Chinese Chicken Burger, and to my surprise, it's one of the best I have ever tried. Tangy and sweet, the fried chicken cushioned between the sesame buns is not only chunky, but juicy and piping hot. I enjoyed every single bite of it. If only I had the stomach to try out the other items on the menu.


Each restaurant is also distinct and overflowing with character, centring around a theme—I’ve heard there’s even an Elvis Presley one! The Goryokaku outlet that I visited featured an angel theme, and while it's no circus, it sure is pretty heavenly...


Dining in Lucky Pierrot is definitely a fun experience, and one that should not be missed while in Hakodate.


Former British Consulate of Hakodate (旧イギリス領事館)
Address: 33-14 Motomachi, Hakodate 040-0054
Nearest station: Suehirocho Station (末広町駅)
Opening hours: 09:00–19:00
Admission fee: ~¥300
Tel: +81-138-27-8159


Old Hakodate Ward Public Hall (旧函館区公会堂)
Address: 11-13 Motomachi, Hakodate 040-0054
Nearest station: Suehirocho Station (末広町駅)
Opening hours: 09:00–19:00
Admission fee: ~¥300
Tel: +81-138-22-1001


Mt. Hakodate (函館山)
Address: Hakodateyama, Hakodate 040-0000
Nearest station: Suehirocho Station (末広町駅)
Opening hours: 10:00–22:00
Admission fee (Ropeway): ~¥1,500 (Round trip)
Tel: +81-162-23-6161


Kanemori Red Brick Warehouse (金森赤レンガ倉庫)
Address: 14-12 Suehirocho, Hakodate 040-0053
Nearest station: Jujigai Station (十字街駅) 
Opening hours: 09:30–19:00
Admission fee: Free
Tel: +81-138-27-5530


Hakodate Morning Market (函館朝市)
Address: 9-19 Wakamatsucho, Hakodate 040-0063
Nearest station: JR Hakodate Station (JR函館駅)
Opening hours: 06:00–14:00
Admission fee: Free
Tel: +81-138-22-7981


Goryokaku Park (五稜郭公園)
Address: 44 Goryokakucho, Hakodate 040-0001
Nearest station: Goryokaku-Koen-Mae Station (五稜郭公園前駅) 
Opening hours: 09:00–18:00
Admission fee:  ~¥900
Tel: +81-138-21-3456


Lucky Pierrot Goryokaku Park Store (ラッキーピエロ)
Address: 30-14 Goryokakucho, Hakodate 040-0001
Nearest station: Goryokaku-Koen-Mae Station (五稜郭公園前駅)  
Opening hours: 10:00–01:00 (Daily)
Price range: ~¥1,000
Tel: +81-138-26-2099


Some rail tips and tricks

So…….ya, go to Wakkanai? (Image credit: John Ong)


If you plan to travel by rail across Hokkaido, be prepared for a long ride. Sapporo to Wakkanai takes roughly 5 to 6 hours, whereas it takes 3 to 4 hours from Sapporo to Hakodate. This is not including the occasional animal crossings, which gets more frequent as you proceed further away from the cities. In addition, services to Sapporo Station are less frequent depending on where you are in Hokkaido. 



(Image credit: John Ong)


That being said, rail travel in Hokkaido is safe and efficient, and hassle-free. If sightseeing is your thing, rail travel is the way to go, and since the scenery by the train’s windows are surely impressive. If you are lucky, you might get a glimpse of the Ezo Brown Bear (エゾヒグマ Ezo Higuma), a Hokkaido native itself.


Your best friend in Hokkaido (Image credit: John Ong)


For that, the JR Hokkaido Rail Pass is a must! Offering unlimited rides onboard JR lines all around Hokkaido, you can explore Hokkaido in your choice of a 3-day, 5-day, 7-day, or Flexible 4-day Pass at a fraction of the cost. 


Lastly, if you do not wish to rush through your itinerary, I would recommend staying a night before proceeding to the next destination.


A journey of endless discovery

I will go to you like the first snow. (Image credit: John Ong)


People were baffled—some even called me mad (the same guy who travelled 2,300km from Okinawa to Ibaraki)—when I decided to take a half-day long ride to Wakkanai. 


I still question myself on the decision to this day: “なぜ稚内に行くのかはわっかない (Naze Wakkanai ni iku no ka wa wakkanai I don’t know why I went to Wakkanai).” The train ride up was some of the most daunting experiences—sitting in a train for hours on end is tough—but with the beautiful vastness that greets you along the way, this trip remains one of my greatest and most rewarding achievements. 


Across north to south, rail travel in Hokkaido is challenging yet eye-opening. With good planning and an open mind, Hokkaido is a land ripe for exploration—a journey of endless discovery being your only sure reward.


Header image credit: John


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