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Beyond the brochure: Hokkaido Rail Pass

Beyond the brochure: Hokkaido Rail Pass

Of all the 47 prefectures that make up the country of Japan, Hokkaido (北海道) is by far the largest and among the most popular of them all. As the second largest of the four main islands of Japan, travelling to Hokkaido can often feel like you’re visiting an entirely different country altogether, with its own distinct seasons, environment, and culture. Because of this, it can be very difficult to plan for a trip to Hokkaido as many of its attractions are heavily reliant on the time of year and can be rather challenging to reach with trains alone.

To ease the burden of figuring out your route and expenses, the Hokkaido Rail Pass will help to simplify your rail journey through Hokkaido. The pass comes in consecutive 3-Day, 5-Day, and 7-Day validity periods, along with a special Flexible 4-Day Pass which enables you to travel for free on any 4 days within a 10-Day period. The recommended itinerary in this article is based on the Sapporo Hokkaido Golden Route, which promises a fulfilling journey through the southern region of Hokkaido regardless of season.

 

Day 1: Noboribetsu

The JR Information Desk at New Chitose Airport Station. (Image credit: JR Hokkaido)

 

Upon arrival at New Chitose Airport (新千歳空港 Shin-Chitose Kūkō), you’d want to first head over to the JR Information Desk at the New Chitose Airport Station. At this desk, you will be able to exchange or purchase your Hokkaido Rail Pass. 

 

Once your paperwork is sorted out, you will then be ready to set out on your trip in earnest! Before leaving the airport, get the essentials ready: purchase or charge up your prepaid IC card (Hokkaido folks use Kitaca!), grab your onigiri fix at LAWSON, and set up your tourist SIM card if you have one. If you’ve pre-ordered a Mobal SIM card, make your way down to Sapporo Station for the Hokkaido-Sapporo Tourist Information Centre to collect it first before heading to your first stop.

 

Our first stop will be Noboribetsu (登別), one of the most famous hot spring resort towns in Japan. Take a 3-minute rapid airport train from New Chitose Airport Station (新千歳空港駅 Shin-Chitose Kūkō-eki) to Minami-Chitose Station (南千歳駅 Minami-chitose-eki). From there, transfer for the Limited Express Suzuran to Noboribetsu Station (登別駅 Noboribetsu-eki), and then board a 15-minute bus to get to the town itself. The bus ride costs ¥350 and is not covered by any Rail Pass.

Noboribetsu is blessed with abundant hot water and astounding spring quality. (Image credit: Flickr / Nao Iizuka)

 

A nice, long soak in the rejuvenating waters of Noboribetsu would be the perfect way to unwind after the long plane ride to Hokkaido. Booking a stay at any ryokan or hotel across town would grant you access to their in-house onsen, but many of them are open to day visitors for an entry fee, regardless of where you stay. An official list of the available lodgings and bathhouses can be found here.

 

Day 2: Hakodate

Once you have had your fill of onsen-soaking, make your way to the next location of our guide, Hakodate (函館). From Noboribetsu Station, board the Limited Express Super Hokuto for Hakodate Station (函館駅 Hakodate-eki). The trip will take around 2.5 hours, so you might want to bring an ekiben along if you get hungry easily.

 

The night view from Mount Hakodate. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

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Fort Goryokaku from the observation tower. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Hakodate is a unique Japanese city as much of its history is steeped in western influences. Popular sights in the city include Fort Goryokaku (五稜郭 Goryōkaku), which is a large European-style Star Fort, and Motomachi (元町), a scenic street littered with churches and colonial architecture. In the early morning, the Hakodate Morning Market (函館朝市 Hakodate-asaichi) boasts the largest seafood and fruit stall selection in Japan. At night, the view of the city from Mount Hakodate (函館山 Hakodate-yama) is said to be reminiscent of a glittering jewel box and has earned a prestigious three-star rating in the Michelin Green Guide.

 

Day 3: Niseko or Toyako

Regardless of where you go, a gorgeous mountain view awaits. (Image credit: photoAC & JNTO)

 

The third day of our Hokkaido Rail Pass travel will be a bit of a wildcard, as it depends on the season you are visiting, as well as your own preference. In the colder months around winter, we highly recommend the powder snow mecca of Niseko (ニセコ), whereas in the warmer months of the year the scenery of Lake Toya (洞爺湖 Tōyako) is not to be missed.

 

The Long Run Fireworks Festival—a stunning display of fireworks that are enough to last for two summers. (Image credit: Hokkaido Tourism Organization / JNTO)

 

If you choose to travel to Toyako, you can take the Limited Express Hokuto directly to Toya Station (洞爺駅 Tōya-eki) in under two hours. From there, you can take a bus to the main hub of Toyako Onsen (洞爺温泉). A beautiful caldera lake formed after a volcanic eruption, Lake Toya’s claim to fame is its legendary Long Run Fireworks Festival (洞爺湖ロングラン花火大会 Tōyako Ronguran Hanabi-taikai). For the past 38 years, Lake Toya has hosted an incredible fireworks display which runs from April 28th all the way to October 31st. For 20 minutes every single night at 8:45pm, the night sky is lit up with a gorgeous display of lights, which you can view from anywhere in the resort town. We recommend catching the fireworks display from your open-air onsen bath or from a romantic boat cruise in the lake for an unforgettable night!

 

Skiing in the shadow of Mount Yotei (Image credit: Jun Kaneko)

 

If winter is more your thing, then you can head over to Niseko. While on the Limited Express Hokuto, make a stop at Oshamambe Station (長万部駅 Oshamambe-eki) instead, before swapping over to the JR Hakodate Line to get to Niseko Station (ニセコ駅 Niseko-eki). As the largest ski zone in Japan, Niseko is a massive mountainous region dotted with a myriad of ski resorts and snow activity areas. This entire area is overlooked by the impressively symmetrical Mount Yotei (羊蹄山 Yōtei-zan), a beautiful mountain which would give Mount Fuji a run for its money. From the station, make your way to your snow resort of choice, among which include the Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village, or the Annupuri Resort. If you’re worried about losing your phone connection up in the mountains of Niseko, consider getting a Mobal SIM card which uses the extensive Softbank’s tele-network. Having a trustworthy and stable SIM card coverage helps you stay connected to your loved ones, so why not snap a photo for the ‘gram and tell everyone about the slopes that you’ve just conquered?

 

Day 4: Sapporo/Otaru

The largest city in Hokkaido, Sapporo is famous for its Snow Festival and its beer. (Image credit: Yasufumi Nishi / JNTO)

 

We recommend using the last travelling day of the Hokkaido Rail Pass to return to Sapporo City (札幌市 Sapporo-shi), with a day trip to Otaru City. From Toya Station, you can take the Limited express Hokuto straight back to Sapporo City in roughly two hours. From there, perhaps after settling in your accommodations, you can ride the JR Hakodate Line from Sapporo Station for 45 minutes to get to Otaru Station. If you came from the Niseko direction, it would make more sense to visit Otaru first since Otaru Station is just one stop away on the JR Hakodate Line.

 

A stroll by the Otaru Canal makes for a relaxing end to any day. (Image credit: JTA / JNTO)

 

As a small port city, Otaru City (小樽市 Otaru-shi) is yet another that was once heavily involved with western trade and influence, and as such this quaint town has a uniquely beautiful atmosphere to it. It is most well-known for its iconic Otaru Canal (小樽運河 Otaru Unga), a romantic promenade lined with old warehouses and museums. The Otaru Canal also serves as the location of the Otaru Snow Light Path, a special event in February which hundreds of candles illuminate the waters of the snow-lined waterway at night. Combining this event with the famous Sapporo Snow Festival which runs at around the same time is sure to make for an unforgettable winter wonderland experience.

 

Day 5: Asahikawa

True to their name, the King Penguins parade like royalty through the Asahiyama snow (Image credit: Yasufumi Nishi / JNTO)


For the last day of our rail pass, we will be taking a trip up north to Asahiyama Zoo! To get there, first we’ll have to take a Limited Express train from Sapporo to Asahikawa (旭川市 Asahikawa-shi). Once in Asahikawa Station (旭川駅), you can board the Asahiyama Zoo Bus at Bus Stop 6. The trip takes around 40 minutes and costs ¥450 each way. 

 

The Asahiyama Zoo (旭山動物園 Asahiyama Dōbutsuen) is a very popular showcase of animals kept in an environment similar to their natural habitat. Here you can find a large variety of animals from all across the globe, though the stars of the show here are arguably the adorable King Penguins, who go on a Penguin Parade through the zoo in the winter months from December to March. Other notable residents of Asahiyama Zoo include other arctic animals such as polar bears and seals, and the native wildlife of Hokkaido itself including wolves and cranes.

 

Entry tickets cost ¥1,000 per adult, and are free of charge for any children under the age of 13. For more information on the Asahiyama Zoo, you can visit their official website here.

 

How much do you save?

Information based on Hyperdia

 

Total cost (Toyako Trip): ¥36,660 

- Hokkaido Rail Pass (5 Days OR Flexi 4-Day) price: ¥23,480

= Savings: ¥13,180!

 

The itinerary above is tailored using the 5-day pass in mind. However, it is also achievable with the flexible 4-day pass, by either opting out of one of the destinations in the itinerary or by choosing to not use it on day one, which would set back your savings by ¥3,920. Along with saving a significant amount of yen on travel expenses, the convenience of not needing to purchase a ticket at every station makes having a rail pass a worthy investment. Additional non-train benefits with the rail pass, including discounts on JR-Rent-A-Car, are listed here.

 

Alternatively, another pass to consider that guarantees greater savings in its own way is the Tohoku South Hokkaido Rail Pass! For only ¥19,750, this flexible 5-day pass will cover your train journeys between Sendai in Tohoku to Sapporo in Hokkaido. As it doesn’t cover the train journeys to Central Hokkaido, this pass is more suited towards visitors who are intending to visit mainly cities like Hakodate and Sapporo in the southwest of Hokkaido.

 

Both the Hokkaido Rail Pass and Tohoku South Hokkaido Rail Pass are available for purchase online and at selected overseas travel counters, including the JTB Rail Pass Counter available at JAPAN RAIL CAFE. If you’ve ordered a Mobal SIM Card online, you can choose to collect your SIM card at JAPAN RAIL CAFE before heading to Hokkaido!

 

Of course, this is only one of the many non-exhaustive itineraries Hokkaido is capable of offering. There is far too much in Hokkaido to ever cover in the span of a single trip, and a different experience awaits every time you decide to return. Take some notes, research more and start planning for your next trip to Hokkaido today!

 

JAPAN RAIL CAFE
Address: 5 Wallich St, #01-20, Singapore 078883
Opening hours: 11am–8pm (daily)
(JTB Rail Pass Counter and Travel Communicators' Desk are temporarily closed due to Phase 2 measures)

 

Header image credit: JR Times / Afiq

 

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