Enjoy winter in Hokkaido with the Hokkaido Rail Pass!
Hokkaido (北海道) is the northernmost island in Japan, and it has many things that attract tourists, such as magnificent nature, fresh seafood and delicious sweets. Winter is a particularly popular season to visit Hokkaido. You will love the scenery with snow and there are many winter activities to enjoy. However, the first thing to consider when making a travel itinerary is transportation. Of course, you have to think about transportation carefully since Hokkaido is really big. For example, Sapporo, Hokkaido’s largest city, and Hakodate, a city famous for its night view, are 300 kilometres apart.
Map of Hokkaido (left) and Hokkaido Rail Pass (right). (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
So, what is the best way to travel in Hokkaido? It is with the Hokkaido Rail Pass, which is specially created for foreign visitors travelling in Hokkaido. It is highly recommended as it provides unlimited travel on JR trains, and it is available in consecutive 3-day, 5-day, and 7-day periods; and a flexible 4-day, where you can choose any 4 days within a 10-day period. The price ranges from ¥17,400 to ¥25,710, and seat reservations are free for the pass holders. In this article, we introduce to you a recommended route using the 7-day Hokkaido Rail Pass. Let’s go and explore right away.
(Note: this course is based on the recommended winter travel itinerary here.)
Day 1: Sapporo
After arriving at New Chitose Airport, we will first head for Sapporo (札幌). Sapporo is Hokkaido’s capital city, with a population of around 1.97 million. There are subways and buses running in Sapporo, so you can visit sightseeing spots easily. Also, there are some spots you can reach on foot in the city centre. The most famous one is the Sapporo Clock Tower, which was built as a facility of the Hokkaido University (formerly Sapporo Agricultural College) and was originally called the 'Military Drill Hall of the Sapporo Agricultural College'. The clock tower operates from day to night without stopping, and a bell in the clock rings every hour. In fact, it rings incrementally every hour: once at 1pm, twice at 2pm, all the way up to 12 times at 12pm. Altogether, the clock rings 156 times a day. If you’re interested in hearing the bell ring, please drop by at the right time.
Sapporo Clock Tower. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
The next spot we will introduce is the Odori Park (大通公園 Ōdōri Kōen), which is quite near the Clock Tower. It is about 1.5km long from east to west, and various events are held here based on the season. For example, from late November every year, the Sapporo White Illumination is held with many colourful and romantic illuminations, and you will find yourself taking lots of photos. Also, the biggest event in Sapporo, the Sapporo Snow Festival, is held here in February every year. The numerous large snow statues and small snow statues attract many tourists every year.
Odori Park in different times of the year. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
Other than the places mentioned above, we also recommend JR Tower T38 for the ‘white night view’ during winter, and the Takino Suzuran Hillside Park if you want to play with snow.
Day 2: Sapporo → Hakodate
Next, we head southwards to Hakodate (函館). From Sapporo to Hakodate, it takes about 3 hours 40 minutes by Limited Express Hokuto train. About one hour after leaving Sapporo, you will get to see the mountains such as Mount Tarumae (樽前山Tarumae-zan), Mount Usu (有珠山 Usu-zan), and Mount Showa-Shinzan (昭和新山 Shōwa-Shinzan) from the train window. You can also see the Uchiura Bay (內浦湾 Uchiura-wan) clearly from a close distance, and the coastline continues for a while. When the train gets closer to Hakodate, Mount Komagatake (北海道駒ヶ岳 Hokkaidō Komagatake) comes into view which, when covered with snow, is breathtaking.
En route from Sapporo to Hakodate on the Limited Express Hokuto (left) and Mount Komagatake (right) from the train window. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
Hakodate is primarily popular for the night view from Mount Hakodate (函館山 Hakodate-yama). However, there is one more recommended place to see the view, and that is Goryokaku Tower (五稜郭タワー) located at Goryokaku Park. The original tower was built in 1964 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the construction of Goryokaku Castle. The second and current one was built in 2006. The name Goryokaku means “star-shaped pentagon”, and as the name suggests, the shape of the fort resembles a star. This type of fort can be seen only at two places in Japan, one of which is in Hakodate. It’s definitely worth seeing the panoramic view from the top of the tower.
Day 3: Lake Toya
Next, we make our way back northward to Lake Toya (洞爺湖). From Hakodate, take the train bound for Sapporo and get off at JR Toya Station (JR洞爺駅 Tōya-eki), and transfer to a local bus bound for Toyako (Lake Toya). The bus ride takes about 20 minutes. Lake Toya is part of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park, and is the third largest volcanic caldera lake in Japan, followed by Lake Kussharo (屈斜路湖 Kussharo-ko) and Lake Shikotsu (支笏湖 Shikotsu-ko), both of which are also in Hokkaido. It’s the northernmost unfrozen lake in Japan created from a huge eruption about 110,000 years ago. However, part of the lake freezes over sometimes these days because it is getting colder in recent years. You can take a cruise around Lake Toya even in winter, so enjoy the scenery which is unlike that during other seasons.
Lake Toya (left) in winter and Nakajima (中島). (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
Day 4: Asahiyama Zoo in Asahikawa
The Asahiyama Zoo (旭山動物園 Asahiyama Dōbutsuen) is located in Asahikawa (旭川), and is Japan’s northernmost zoo. It takes about 1 hour 25 minutes by the Limited Express Lilac or Kamui to travel from Sapporo to Asahikawa. Once at Asahikawa Station, you can take the bus in front that is bound for the zoo. The bus ride takes around 40 minutes. The Asahiyama Zoo is a behavioural exhibition, meaning visitors observe animals’ natural behaviour.
Marching penguins (left) and seals (right) at Asahiyama Zoo in Asahikawa. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
The most exciting event at the zoo is the penguin parade, available only in winter, where you can see the penguins marching slowly in front of you. Other than this, you can see seals swimming through the transparent glass tanks, or polar bears eating during "mogu-mogu" (feeding) time.
Polar bears in Asahiyama Zoo (left) and the Limited Express Lilac / Kamui (right). (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
Day 5: Asahikawa → Abashiri
Next, we head on to Abashiri (網走). From Asahikawa, you can take the Limited Express Okhotsk train to Abashiri, and then upon arrival, transfer to the Ryuhyo Monogatari Train. The train journey from Asahikawa to Abashiri takes about 3 hours 50 minutes. The Ryuhyo Monogatari Train is a sightseeing train connecting Abashiri and Shiretoko-Shari Stations, and it runs only during winter. The train has 2 cars: one in blue, and the other in white. Illustrations such as sea angels (clione), drift ice, and Shiretoko (知床), a mountainous range registered as a UNESCO World Heritage in 2005, are painted on the car body.
The Ryuhyo Monogatari Train (left) runs from JR Abashiri Station (right) to JR Shiretoko-Shari Station. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
The train runs along the Sea of Okhotsk (オホーツク海 Ohōtsuku-kai), where you can see drift ice. The formation of the drift ice always changes depending on the wind and sea waves, and often times the drift ice come remarkably close to the coast. The Sea of Okhotsk is the only place that you can see the drift ice in Japan.
The Sea of Okhotsk (left) seen from the train window, and drift ice (right) near the shore. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
Day 6: Abashiri → Kushiro
Next, we move to Kushiro (釧路) by train, and the train ride from Abashiri to Kushiro takes approximately 3 hours 10 minutes. The train will pass through the Kushiro Wetlands (釧路湿原 Kushiro Shitsugen) about two hours after leaving Abashiri, and once here, you can gaze at the white natural view from the train window. Often you can spot wild animals such as deer and red-crowned cranes.
Kushiro Wetlands (left) and red-crowned cranes (right) seen from the train window. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
As Kushiro is a port town, the fish here are very fresh. There is a fish market called Washo Ichiba (釧路和商市場 Kushiro Washō Ichiba), which is a 5-minute walk from JR Kushiro Station (JR釧路駅 Kushiro-eki). The most popular food here is katte-don (sashimi rice bowl), where you can select your own seafood. First, you buy rice at the deli and put it in the bowl. After that, walk around seafood shops, find your favourite ingredients and put them on the rice. You can challenge yourself by trying out fish that you’ve never had before, and it’s fun to choose what to eat. Finally, your original sashimi rice bowl is ready. If you don’t fancy raw fish, there is a restaurant in the market that serves grilled fish too, so buy the fish want to try and bring it to the restaurant.
Kushiro Washo Market, where you can even enjoy katte-don. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
Day 7: Kushiro → Obihiro
The journey continues to Obihiro (帯広) next, and from Kushiro you can take the Limited Express Ozora and get off at JR Obihiro Station (JR帯広駅 Obihiro-eki). Reason for visiting Obihiro: good food. The first food to try here is buta-don (豚丼, Obihiro pork rice bowl), which is charcoal-grilled pork smothered in sweet-and-salty sauce, and served with steaming rice. Once you start eating it, you can’t stop. There are some pork bowl restaurants near the station, but the waiting time may be long depending on the crowd, so check your train schedule and make sure to leave extra time for dining.
JR Obihiro Station (left) and buta-don (pork rice bowl), a specialty of Obihiro. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
If you’re in Obihiro, don’t forget to try the sweets as well. The city is in Tokachi (十勝), a region that is famous for its agriculture and dairy farming thanks to its vast plains. There are many confectionery factories here that use locally grown ingredients such as wheat, sugar, red beans, milk, and eggs. You can find some sweets shops on the west side of JR Obihiro Station, so look for your favourite ones and have them on the train.
Obihiro is famous for its sweets (left) and visitors can enjoy them at Tokachi Shoku Monogatari (right). (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
Day 7: Obihiro → New Chitose Airport
Now we’ve finally come to the last day of the trip. If you still have time, you can go to Sapporo and get your souvenirs. One recommended place to visit near Sapporo Station is the Former Hokkaido Government Office Building. It is made out of red bricks, and local people call it the 'red brick office' (赤レンガ Aka-renga). This historical building was used for about 80 years until the new government office building currently in use was completed. In winter, the roof of the red brick office and the trees around the office are covered with snow, and this picturesque view is unlike anything you would during other seasons.
Former Hokkaido Government Building (left) in Sapporo, and Hokkaido’s powder snow (right). (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
Finally, to reach New Chitose Airport (新千歳空港 Shin-Chitose kūkō) from Sapporo, you can take the Rapid Airport Express. The train is divided into two sections: reserved seats and non-reserved seats. The seats in the reserved car have more spaces and comfortable compared to the ones in the non-reserved car, and there is plenty of space to store big luggage as well. Tip: check your flight time and reserve seats for the Rapid Airport Express in advance so that you don’t have to worry about seat availability when you leave for the airport.
JR Sapporo Station (left) directly connects with New Chitose Airport via the Rapid Airport Express (right). (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
How much would you save with the Hokkaido Rail Pass?
|2||Sapporo → Hakodate||Limited Express Hokuto||¥9,440|
|3||Hakodate → Toya||Limited Express Hokuto||¥5,920|
|Toya → Sapporo||Limited Express Hokuto||¥6,360|
|4||Sapporo → Asahikawa||Limited Express Lilac / Kamui||¥5,220|
|5||Asahikawa → Abashiri → Shiretoko-Shari||Limited Express Okhotsk / Ryuhyo Monogatari Train||¥9,220|
|Shiretoko-Shari → Abashiri||Ryuhyo Monogatari Train||¥970|
|6||Abashiri → Kushiro||Local train||¥4,070|
|7||Kushiro → Obihiro||Limited Express Ozora||¥5,220|
|Obihiro → Sapporo||Limited Express Ozora / Tokachi||¥7,790|
|8||Sapporo → New Chitose Airport||Rapid Airport Express||¥1,680|
^ Information based on JR Hokkaido’s timetable and ticket price search
Total train fare = ¥55,890
Hokkaido Rail Pass (7-Day) = ¥25,710
Price difference = ¥30,180
If you use a Hokkaido Rail Pass 7-Day, you can save more than ¥30,000. Although Hokkaido is cold in winter, there are a lot of attractive places to see and good food to eat, consider Hokkaido as your next holiday destination!
For more details on the Hokkaido Rail Pass, you can have a look at the link here. If you would like to know the train schedules and ticket prices for other routes, you can look up the timetable and ticket prices here.
Header image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company