Exploring southern Hokkaido & northern Tohoku in 7 days
Hokkaido (top) and northern Tohoku (bottom). (Image credit: (clockwise from top left) Yasufumi Nishi, Hokkaido Tourism Organization, Akita Inu Tourism, JNTO / Aomori Prefecture)
Hokkaido (北海道) is the northernmost prefecture in Japan, and millions of people from all over the world come to visit it throughout the year. The most popular regions among visitors include central and southern Hokkaido, which include Sapporo (札幌市 Sapporo-shi), the capital city of Hokkaido; and Hakodate, located at the south of the region.
However, visitors need not only visit Hokkaido. The region neighbours with Tohoku Region (東北地方 Tōhoku-chihō) to the south, separated only by the Tsugaru Strait (津軽海峡 Tsugaru Kaikyō). With the latest Hokkaido Shinkansen in full service, it takes barely an hour to cross this strait.
Former Hokkaido Government Building in Sapporo. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Better yet, the JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass enable holders to explore the southern part of Hokkaido as well as Tohoku. With the pass, you can take the JR lines as many times as you like for 5 days of your choosing within 14 days from issue date and explore the two regions to your heart’s content.
JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass. (Image credit: JR East)
In this article, I would like to introduce to you a 7-day travel plan for those interested in exploring the southern part of Hokkaido as well as the northern part of Tohoku. This will be beneficial for light travellers who want to discover the best of both worlds but have time constraints, and a guide on how to fully utilise the JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass’s flexible 5-day validity period.
① Start off in Sapporo
Former Hokkaido Government Building (above) in autumn. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
We start with a flight into New Chitose Airport (新千歳国際空港 Shin-Chitose Kūkō), Hokkaido’s largest airport and one of the busiest in Japan. The airport is the most common gateway for foreign visitors to enter the prefecture, and it’s directly connected to the capital city Sapporo by JR Rapid Airport Express.
JR Sapporo Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
As the largest city in Hokkaido, Sapporo has something for every kind of visitor: food, shopping, events, and festivals, and even some beautiful sceneries. For a start, shoppers can explore JR Sapporo Station (JR札幌駅 Sapporo-eki), which is a hub that is integrated with the department store Daimaru; ESTA, a shopping complex; and JR Tower Nikko Sapporo, a 5-star hotel with an observation deck, and is also the tallest building in Hokkaido.
Susukino in downtown Sapporo. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
For night owls, food crawlers and those wanting to explore the nightlife, the brightly lit and lively Susukino (すすきの) remains to be the default choice. Visitors can also reach Susukino from JR Sapporo Station either on foot (10–15-minute walk) either on street level or via the underground mall Aurora Town, or by the local subway.
② Appreciate culture and history in Shiraoi
National Ainu Museum in Shiraoi. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Next stop, you can head southward to Shiraoi (白老町 Shiraoi-chō), a quiet and rustic town that serves as an epicentre for historical culture of Ainu, an ethnic group that is native to Hokkaido and some parts of Russia. Ainu culture is a significant heritage to the region, and 2020 is also an important year as it marks the opening of the UPOPOY National Ainu Museum and Park, a national centre for reviving and developing the culture.
UPOPOY National Ainu Park and Museum. (Video credit: ウポポイ民族共生象徴空間)
UPOPOY National Ainu Museum and Park (ウポポイ国立アイヌ民族博物館)
Address: 2-3 Wakakusa-cho, Shiraoi, Shiraoi District, Hokkaido 059-0902
Opening hours: 9am–8pm (20 July–31 August), 9am–6pm for weekdays, 9am–8pm for weekends (1 September–31 October), 9am–5pm (1 November–31 March)
Entrance fee: ¥1,200 per adult
(Note: the centre is closed every Monday , on national holidays, and from 29 December to 3 January for New Year’s holidays)
Shiraoi Poroto Kotan. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
③ Taking it easy at Lake Toya
Lake Toya. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
When it comes to hot springs in Hokkaido, Lake Toya (洞爺湖 Tōya-ko) would spring to mind for many people. The town has become famous as the go-to for hot spring resorts in Hokkaido for its numerous hot spring inns and picturesque lake nearby, which is also a volcanic caldera lake. Visitors would almost always come here for the hot spring inns, but outdoor lovers can also opt for the cruise ride. Better yet, I highly recommend visiting Nakajima (中島), the island in the middle of the lake, where visitors can witness amazing flora and fauna, including Ezo deers (エゾシカ Ezo-shika).
Lake Toya in the morning. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Trekking in Nakajima, the island in the middle of Lake Toya. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
④ Discovering Yakumo
Funkawan Bay Panorama Park in Yakumo. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Usually, visitors heading south after Lake Toya would naturally go to Hakodate for their next stop. However, by doing so they forgo the small town of Yakumo (八雲町 Yakumo-chō). An unassuming and sparsely populated town, Yakumo is a hidden gem for anyone interested to explore lesser-known places. One spot to check out is Funkawan Bay Panorama Park, which offers an unexpectedly panoramic view of Uchiura Bay (内浦湾 Uchiura-wan).
Yakumo in the evening. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Mount Komagatake in Ōnuma Quasi-National Park. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
⑤ Heading down to Hakodate
Hakodate, as seen from above. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Hakodate (函館市 Hakodate-shi) is a port city located in southern Hokkaido and is the third largest city in the prefecture. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Hokkaido, and visitors drop by this picturesque city time and time again throughout the year as it offers something for everyone: food, beautiful scenery, and even some history and culture.
Hakodate after sunrise. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Best of all, most of Hakodate’s tourist attractions are within walking distance from JR Hakodate Station (JR函館駅 Hakodate-eki), located in the city central. Hakodate Morning Market (函館朝市 Hakodate Asa-ichi) would immediately spring to mind for most visitors as the ideal place for breakfast, with stalls opening early in the morning selling plentiful fresh (and affordable) seafood, fruits and produce.
Food at Hakodate Morning Market. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
If Hakodate Morning Market is a must-visit for the morning segment, then Mount Hakodate (函館山 Hakodate-yama) is the must-visit for the evening segment. Visitors would flock to the top of the mountain after sundown to capture the priceless shot of the city skyline gleaming below, and one’s trip wouldn’t be complete without a trip here. But be warned: it can get really crowded towards evening, so do plan your travel schedule carefully.
Mount Hakodate in the evening (above). (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
The other must-visit in Hakodate is Goryokaku (五稜郭), an iconic star-shaped fort that was declared a Special Heritage Site in the city. The surrounding park is also one of the best places for cherry-blossom viewing in spring, when the entire complex will be carpeted by cherry blossom petals. To have a full view of the fort from the sky, visitors must go up the Goryokaku Tower.
Goryokaku, as seen from atop Goryokaku Tower. (Image credit: Y.Shimizu / JNTO)
Limited Express Super Hokuto by Hokkaido Railway Company. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
Bridging Hokkaido and Tohoku: Seikan Tunnel
Hokkaido and Tohoku are separated by the Tsugaru Strait, and in the past people had to take a boat to travel from one region to another. Then in March 1988, the Seikan Tunnel (青函トンネル) was completed, an engineering marvel that enabled trains to travel between Hakodate in Hokkaido, and Aomori in Tohoku. What's amazing about the tunnel is that it runs under the Tsugaru Strait seabed, It's also the world's longest tunnel with an undersea segment, and also the world's second-deepest tunnel. In 2016, things improved further with the introduction of shinkansen services, further reducing travel time between two regions to merely one hour.
⑥ Onward to Aomori
Nebuta Museum WA-RASSE. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
The next part of the journey finally brings us to Tohoku Region, starting with Aomori (青森県 Aomori-ken). As the northernmost prefecture of the region, it is the common gateway for visitors accessing from Hokkaido by train and is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the region. If there’s one place visitors should make time to visit, it would be Nebuta Museum WA-RASSE (ねぶたの家ワ・ラッセ).
Nebuta Museum WA-RASSE is a museum that is specially dedicated to Nebuta Festival, Aomori’s famous yearly summer festival that is held on the first week of every August. The museum celebrates the 300-year history and culture of the festival, with galleries showcasing photos of past festivals and halls featuring actual floats that were previously used.
Floats from past festivals at Nebuta Museum WA-RASSE. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
Nebuta Museum WA-RASSE (ねぶたの家ワ・ラッセ)
Address: 1-1-1 Yasukata, Bunka Kankou Kouryuu Shisetsu, Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture 030-0803
Nearest station: JR Aomori Station (JR青森駅)
Opening hours: 9am–7pm (May–August), 9am–6pm (September–April)
Admission fee: ¥620 per adult (¥550 per adult for groups of 10 or more)
Hakkoda-maru. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
Another attraction that's only a stone's throw away from JR Aomori Station and Nebuta Warasse is the Ferryboat Memorial Ship "Hakkoda-Maru" (八甲田丸). The ship was formerly used to ferry people between Aomori and Hakodate across the Tsugaru Strait, before the *Seikan Tunnel was completed. Since the tunnel's completion, the ferry was decommissioned and was turned into a museum. Visitors can have a closeup look at the inner workings of the ship, and there's even a 'Seikan World', where they will travel back in time and experience a recreations of the Aomori morning market in the 1950s.
Preserved interiors and facilities inside Hakkoda-maru. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
Ferryboat Memorial Ship "Hakkoda-maru" (八甲田丸)
Address: 1-112-15 Yanagikawa, Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture 038-0012
Nearest station: JR Aomori Station (JR青森駅)
Opening hours: 9am–7pm (April–October, last entry at 6:30pm), 9am–5pm (November–March, last entry at 4:30pm)
*Opens daily, closed every Monday (or Tuesday if a national day falls on Monday), 31 December–1 January, second week of March for ship maintenance
Admission fee: ¥510 per adult
A-FACTORY in Aomori. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
And of course, when it comes to Aomori, eat apples! The prefecture is famous for being the no. 1 producer of apples in the country, so much that it's part of their identity. Apple lovers can check out A-FACTORY, a duty-free department store that specialises in local Aomori produce (including apples, of course). The highlight of A-FACTORY is the Apple Cidre, where you can check out apple cider being manufactured right before your eyes.
Address: 1-4-2 Yanagikawa, Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture 038-0012
Nearest station: JR Aomori Station (JR青森駅)
Opening hours: 9am–8pm (shopping floor), 11am–8pm (1F restaurants), 11am–8pm (2F restaurants)
Admission fee: free
⑦ Exploring grandeur of Hirosaki
Hirosaki in Aomori. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
When it comes to Aomori, a city that visitors must explore is Hirosaki (弘前市 Hirosaki-shi), where the majestic Hirosaki Castle (弘前城 Hirosaki-jō) is located. An imposing piece of architecture from the 17th century, this castle is visited by people from all over the world, especially during cherry blossom season in spring and is even considered as one of the best cherry blossom viewing sites in Japan.
I also covered this place in a previous article, so do check it out.
Cherry blossom viewing in Hirosaki Park at night. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
Also, if you missed out on A-FACTORY in Aomori, you can check out Hirosaki Apple Park (弘前市りんご公園) in Hirosaki. It is home to over 1,300 apple trees with 65 different varietes, and visitors can even take part in the harvesting process. The highlight of the park is Ringo no Ie (Apple House), where over 1,250 products from apples products to apple-themed souvenirs are sold.
If you like to know more about the apples of Aomori, I've also written about them in a previous article so do have a look at it.
Hirosaki Apple Park, with more than 1,300 apple trees of 65 different varieties. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
Hirosaki Apple Park (弘前市りんご公園)
Address: 125 Terasawa, Shimizutomita, Hirosaki City, Aomori Prefecture 036-8262
Nearest station: JR Hirosaki Station (弘前駅)
Opening hours: 9am–5pm
Admission fee: free (¥200 per kilogram of apples picked at Hirosaki Apple Park)
(Bonus: if you fancy a unique train ride from Aomori to Hirosaki, check out Resort Shirakami, a Joyful Train by JR East. The train runs from Aomori to Akita with a stop at Hirosaki, and features a marvellous seaside view of the Sea of Japan. You can learn more about the train here.)
⑧ Last stop in Ōdate
The last stop in our travel schedule is Ōdate, which may surprise some readers. Why Ōdate? Well, that’s because the quiet city is the place of origin for the widely loved Akita dogs (秋田犬 Akita-inu), a breed that is native to the region. The dogs are a beloved breed known for being independent yet friendly towards humans, and the most famous Akita dog was Hachiko (ハチ公), who waited for his master Ueno Hidesaburō (上野 英三郎) for nine years even though he died much earlier.
Ōdate is the place of origin for the Akita dog. (Image credit: Akita Dog Visitor Center)
Visitors (especially dog lovers) can pay a visit to Akita Dog Visitor Centre, where they get to learn more about the origins of the breed, and even get Akita Dog-related souvenirs. There’s a surprise waiting for visitors too: a statue of Hachiko awaits at the entrance, just like the famous one outside JR Shibuya Station in Tokyo.
Live dogs and interiors of Akita Dog Visitor Centre. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Akita Dog Visitor Center (秋田犬の里)
Address: 1-13-1 Onari-cho, Ōdate, Akita Prefecture 017-0044
Nearest station: JR Ōdate Station (JR大館駅)
Opening hours: 9am–6pm (April–October), 9am–5pm (November–March)
Admission fee: Free
(Note: the visitor centre is closed from 31 December to 1 January for New Year's holidays)
How to use the JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass
The JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass enables holders to explore southern Hokkaido and Tohoku Region by train, with unlimited train rides on JR lines in the regions for 6 consectutive days. Pass holders stand to save money on train fares if they plan their schedules carefully.
Here’s a guide on how to make full use of the pass, using the 7-day travel plan above:
- New Chitose Airport → JR Rapid Airport express (approx. 37 minutes, ¥1,680) → ① JR Sapporo Station (spend 2 nights and stay in Sapporo)
Total train fare: ¥1,680
Use the first day of the pass for the airport transfer from New Chitose Airport to Sapporo.
- ① JR Sapporo Station → Limited Express Super Hokuto / Suzuran (approx. 60 minutes, ¥3,780) → ② JR Shiraoi Station
- ② JR Shiraoi Station → Limited Express Super Hokuto (approx. 50 minutes, ¥3,360) → ③ JR Toya Station (spend 1 night and stay in Lake Toya)
Total train fare: ¥7,140
Use the second day of the pass for the train rides from Sapporo to Shiraoi, and Shiraoi to Lake Toya.
- ③ JR Toya Station → Limited Express Super Hokuto (approx. 50 minutes, ¥3,360) → ④ JR Yakumo Station
- ④ JR Yakumo Station → Limited Express Super Hokuto (approx. 65 minutes, ¥3,570) → ⑤ JR Hakodate Station (spend 2 nights and stay in Hakodate)
Total train fare: ¥6,930
Use the third day of the pass for the train rides from Lake Toya to Yakumo, and Yakumo to Hakodate.
- ⑤ JR Hakodate Station → Hakodate Liner / Hokkaido Shinkansen / JR Ou Line (approx. 120 minutes, ¥8,360) → ⑥ JR Aomori Station
- ⑥ JR Aomori Station → JR Ou Line (approx. 45 minutes, ¥680) → ⑦ JR Hirosaki Station
- ⑦ JR Hirosaki Station → Limited Express Tsugaru (approx. 36 minutes, ¥2,020) → ⑧ JR Ōdate Station (spend 1 night and stay in Aomori)
Total train fare: ¥11,060
Use the fourth day of the pass for the train rides from Hakodate to Aomori (via Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto and Shin-Aomori).
- JR Aomori Station → JR Ou Line / Hokkaido Shinkansen / Limited Express Super Hokuto / Airport Line (approx. 300 minutes, ¥14,450) → New Chitose Airport
(Optional: if you want to take a domestic flight out of Tohoku Region, you can consider flying out from Aomori Airport instead. There is an airport shuttle bus service between JR Aomori Station and Aomori Airport, and the journey takes 35 minutes. More information can be found here.)
Total train fare: ¥14,450 (for return flight from New Chitose Airport)
Use the fifth (final) day of the pass for the train rides from Aomori to New Chitose Airport (via Shin-Aomori, Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto and Minami-Chitose).
Grand total train fare: ¥40,860 (New Chitose Airport) / ¥26,410 (Aomori Airport)
JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass: ¥19,750 (bought outside Japan) / ¥20,790 (bought inside Japan)
With the JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass, you can save more than ¥20,000 in train fares. So why not explore southern Hokkaido and Tohoku Region with the pass; not only will you get the best of both worlds, you also save a lot more money and get to ride as many trains as you like!
More details on Hokkaido and Tohoku
Sapporo: the capital city is located less than an hour away from New Chitose Airport by the rapid train service. The JR Rapid Airport Express departs every 15 minutes, and pass holders can use the JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass for this train. Within Sapporo, visitors can get around using the local subway trains (not valid under JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass).
Shiraoi: the UPOPOY National Ainu Museum and Park is located 500 metres from the JR Shiraoi Station. Visitors can take the North Exit of the station and take a 10-minute walk to the museum.
Lake Toya: the lake is located nearest to JR Toya Station, and visitors can take the Toyako Onsen bus outside the train station to reach the resort. The bus ride takes 15 minutes, and the fare is ¥340 per adult. For the Lake Toya cruise, it operates from 8:30am to 4:30pm during summer (late April to 31 October). In winter (November to early April), it operates from 9am to 4pm. The cruise departs every 30 minutes. For visitors planning to visit Nakajima, they can only do so in the summer. The fare is ¥1,420 per adult during summer.
Yakumo: visitors can drop by Yakumo via JR Yakumo Station, and get around the town via taxi. To reach Funkawan Bay Panorama Park, visitors can take a taxi from JR Yakumo Station (approx. 15 minutes, ¥2,000).
Hakodate: the port city is in southern Hokkaido and can be reached via JR Hakodate Station. To reach Mount Hakodate, visitors can take the direct bus from JR Hakodate Station to the summit of the mountain. This bus service is available only during non-winter season (late April to mid-November), and the journey takes 30 minutes with a fare of ¥400 per one-way). Alternatively, they can take Hakodateyama Ropeway from Motomachi District, which can be reached by bus from JR Hakodate Station (¥210 per adult). The ropeway ride is ¥1,000 per one-way.
To reach Goryokaku, visitors from JR Hakodate Station can take the tram to Goryokaku Koen Mae (五稜郭公園前) which is a 10-minute ride and costs ¥230 per one way. From there, they can walk for 10 minutes to the fort.
Aomori: the Nebuta Museum WA-RASSE is a 1-minute walk from JR Aomori Station.
Hirosaki: the Hirosaki Castle is located in the city of Hirosaki, and is open from 9am to 5pm, with extended hours during the cherry blossom festival. It is closed during from 24 November to 31 March for the winter, but the surrounding park will remain open during that period. The entrance fee to the castle keep is ¥310 (castle only), or ¥510 (castle, botanical garden and Fujita Memorial Garden).
To visit Hirosaki Apple Park, visitors at JR Hirosaki Station can proceed to Central Exit No. 6 bus stop and take the Konan Bus bound for Kawaharadaira / Tashiro / Daishu / Soma. Get off at Tokiwazaka Entrance bus stop and walk to the park for 7 minutes. It is a 20-minute bus ride, and the fare is ¥290 per adult.
Ōdate: the Akita Dog Visitor Center is approximately 160 metres from JR Ōdate Station. Visitors can reach Akita Dog Visitor Center on foot in approximately 2 minutes.
JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass
The new JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)
The JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East and JR Hokkaido lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area. It's a 6-day pass that costs ¥24,000, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free. For more information on the JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass, you can visit the link here.
NOTE: From 1 April 2021, there have been some changes in the validity and pricing of the JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass. For more information, please check here.
Header image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company