Sunday, March 31, 2019

Hokkaido (Japan) Travel: 10 Tips for Planning

We visited Hokkaido (northern Japan) N years ago for our honeymoon trip during winter. This time round, we are travelling to Hokkaido with our children in June, which is early summer.

Hokkaido has 4 seasons, and each seasons offers different things to do and see! There is snow festival in February, cheery blossom and shibazakura blossom in May, Yosaiko Soran Festival (dancing event) and Hokkaido Shrine Festival in June, lavender blossom in July, sunflower blossom in August, autumn foliage in October, and you can enjoy the snow from December to February. The natural landscape is also spectacular during all seasons. Of course, the great food at Hokkaido - seafood, dairy products, ramen, soup curry and so on - is the reason to visit Hokkaido any time.

During our previous trip in winter, we joined group tour and visited Sapporo, Otaru, Asahikawa, Lake Toya, Noboribetsu, Lake Akan, Lake Kussharo, Lake Masshu and Sounkyo. For this upcoming trip in June, we are planning to visit Sapporo, Otaru and Asahikawa again, and to explore Biei and Furano.

base map: Google Maps

I was thinking of visiting Lake Toya again for the hot spring and summer fireworks at night. However, I am the only person in the family who enjoys hot spring in summer, so we will give Lake Toya a miss this time. I also considered Hoshino Resorts Tomamu for Unkai Terrace (Sea of Clouds), but based on our experience in our previous Japan trips in June (Okinawa, Kyushu, Central Japan), good weather was often not on my side, so we decided not to gamble away SGD400+ (accommodation for 1 room per night).

Many people would suggest self-driving in Hokkaido. However, during our self-driving trip in Okinawa, I was sick so DaDi had to drive most of the time. And we felt that it was rather stressful to whoever behind the wheel in the foreign land. Therefore, we decided to ditch the idea of self-driving for this trip, and go for free and easy on public transportation!

Lake Kussharo

Here are our 10 tips for planning a trip to Hokkaido:

Tips #1. How to get from Singapore to Hokkaido

There are many ways to get from Singapore to Hokkaido, you may read our post on Getting from Singapore to Hokkaido for details. For our upcoming trip, we are taking Thai Airways with transit at Bangkok, and we managed to get a promotional price for June 2019 at around SGD2k  for 2 adults and 2 children. Hokkaido is the furthest part in Japan from Singapore, yet the air fare is cheaper than that for our previous trips to other parts of Japan!

Tips #2. Booking accommodation in Hokkaido

For our upcoming trip in June 2019, to save cost, we booked Toyoko Inn in Sapporo and Asahikawa. Children under 12 years get to stay free when they do not occupy extra bed, and the whole family can enjoy free breakfast! You may read our post on Budget Accommodation for Family with Children - Toyoko Inn for more details.

In Sapporo, other than Toyoko Inn, there are some other hotels that offer free accommodation for children when they do not occupy extra bed. For example, children under 12 years old stay for free at Richmond Hotel Sapporo Ekimae, Comfort Hotel Sapporo Susukino and Mercure Hotel Sapporo, children under 18 years old stay for free at Vessel Inn Sapporo Nagajima Koen.

If you are also planning to visit Biei and Furano, there are some minshuku 民宿 in the area. However, it can be quite costly for a family with children as they charge per head for accommodation. For our family of 2 adults and 2 children, it would cost more than SGD200 for a room for one night, and the room does not have its own toilet. To me, having a private toilet becomes an essential as I grow older haha!

For hot spring areas like Lake Toya and Jozankei, you may consider experiencing hot spring ryokan. Again, it is quite costly as they charge per head for accommodation and meals.

Tips #3. What to wear in Hokkaido

During our previous trip to Hokkaido and Kansai area in winter, we dressed in layers, so that it is easier to remove the clothes when going into indoor areas where can be quite warm with the heater.
  • Base layer: wool thermal inner wear or Uniqlo heattech
  • Middle layer: long-sleeve T-shirt and fleece jacket
  • Outer layer: waterproof down jacket for the top
  • Bottom: wool thermal leggings or Uniqlo heattech leggings,  and long pants (not jeans!)
  • Feet: wool socks and waterproof boots / shoes
  • Others: gloves, beanie, neck scarf and earmuff. And bring heat packs!
We also learnt a lesson that once we enter the indoor area, quickly wipe away the snow on our body, otherwise the snow melts and we become wet. Another lesson learnt is that to prevent slipping on roads coated with ice (not just snow), get detachable non-slip cleats and attach them to your shoes or boots. You can find them in 100 yen shops or convenience shops.

For our upcoming trip in June, though it is early summer, the temperature ranges from 13 to 24 degree Celsius, it is colder in the early morning and at night, as well as at rural area and coastal areas. Therefore, don't forget to bring some long-sleeved clothing, jeans or pants, and jacket!

Update in June 2019
The temperature variation in June 2019 was big during our visit in June 2019. We experienced 9 to 24 degrees Celsius in 8 days! When we were at Asahikawa, there was one day that the children had to wear light down jacket as it was raining and windy!  Even when the temperature at Sapporo was 20+ degree Celsius, it became very cold whenever the wind blew!

Tips #4. How to get from New Chitose Airport to Sapporo

There are a few airports in Hokkaido, but many visitors would land in New Chitose Airport as it is the largest international airport in Hokkaido.

I personally do not like the idea of driving immediately after landing, because it can be quite tiring and stressful to drive in a place that I am not familiar with, especially after a long flight. In fact, it is very convenient to get from New Chitose Airport to other places via public transportation like buses or Japan Rail (JR).

To get from New Chitose Airport to Sapporo, the largest city in Hokkaido, you can take JR from Domestic Airport level B1. Take the Rapid Airport Express, which would take 37 minutes to reach Sapporo. The fare is 1070 yen for adult, and 540 yen for child. You can choose to pay additional 520 yen per person for reserved seat.

Tips #5. Money-saving for taking public transport in Sapporo

Travelling around Sapporo is quite convenient with Sapporo Subway and Sapporo Streetcar (see route maps here). Considering that the minimum subway fare and streetcar per trip fare being 200 yen for adult (~SGD2.40), if you are visiting a few places within Sapporo in a day, then consider the following one-day passes:

One-Day Ticket for Subway Use: adult 830 yen. child 420 yen
Donichika Ticket (One-day Subway Pass for Weekends and Holidays): adult 520 yen, child 260 yen
Where to buy: subway ticket-vending machines, commuter pass sales offices and other place

Dosanko Pass (One-day Streetcar Pass for Weekends and Holidays): 360 yen per pass
where to buy: streetcars, Odori Station Commuter Pass Sales Office

There are a few types of IC cards (similar to EZ-Link card in Singapore), you may consider SAPICA, as it offers points that are equivalent to 10% of your fare, while other IC cards (e.g. Kitaca) do not offer any discount on the fare. When you have accumulated enough points to cover the transport fare, the points would be used automatically to pay your fare. You can purchase SAPICA at 2000 yen (1500 yen for transport fare, 500 yen for deposit) from Sapporo Subway ticket machine or ticket office, and bus terminal ticket office. You can use this card on subway and streetcar systems, JR Hokkaido Buses, Jotetsu Buses and Hokkaido Chuo Buses.

Tips #6. Tips for taking public transport around Hokkaido

If you are covering a large area in Hokkaido, you may consider getting Hokkaido Rail Pass, which is one type of Japan Rail (JR) Passes. There are 4 types:
3-day: adult 16500 yen, child 8250 yen
Flexible 4-Day: adult 22000 yen, child 11000 yen
5-day: adult 22000 yen, child 11000 yen
7-day: adult 24000 yen, child 12000 yen

You can purchase the Exchange Order in Singapore from travel agencies like JTB, Klook and so on. After arriving in Japan, exchange your Exchange Order for Hokkaido Railway Pass at designated counters in Hokkaido. Alternatively, you can purchase the pass directly at the designated counters in Hokkaido.

You can do some calculation before deciding whether it is worthwhile to purchase Hokkaido Railway Pass. If you are not covering a large area in Hokkaido, then you may consider getting Discount Ticket instead.

As we are visiting Asahikawa, Biei and Furano, we will be getting Furano Biei Free Ticket, which consists of a one-way ticket from Sapporo to the free area between Takikawa, Asahikawa and Furano, unlimited use of JR in the free area, and a one-way ticket from the free area back to Sapporo. The ticket is valid for 4 days. The ticket is 6500 yen for adult and 3250 yen for child, and it is available in late April to October.

To explore the area between Asahikawa and Furano, there is also Lavender Bus.

To explore Eastern Hokkaido like Kushiro, Akan, Shiretoko and so on, your can check out buses available from Eastern Hokkaido website.

Do take note of the schedule of the bus and train as they do not operate very frequently! So please plan ahead!

Tips #7. Things to note for self-driving 

For those who find self-driving more suitable for you, here are some of our tips based on our experience in Okinawa.

Remember to apply for International Driving Permit from Automobile Association Singapore before you go!

We found out that renting car from can be quite easy. You can compare the prices between different car rental companies on this platform. We also compared the Japanese and English versions of the website, and found that renting from Japanese version is much cheaper!

If you are using expressways frequently, you can consider getting Hokkaido Expressway Pass from the car rental company. There are 2-day to 14-day passes from 3600 yen to 11300 yen.

In addition, here are information that are useful for driving in Hokkaido:

I personally do not encourage others to do self-driving trip in Hokkaido during winter. Even as an experienced driver in Singapore for a decade, I would not drive in foreign land in snowy weather condition, when the road is slippery and the visibility is low.

Tips #8. Joining day tour 

Forget all the hassles of planning, you can consider joining day tours. This is especially easy if you are visiting Hokkaido in winter.

One of the bus operators in Hokkaido, Chuo Bus, organises different day trips departing from Sapporo.

We are planning to visit Biei, a small town surrounded by beautiful landscape. Many visitors choose to cycle or drive in this area. For us, we will consider joining day tour. There are two options, either bus tour organised by Hikari Koutsu departing from Asahikawa, or Biei View Bus departing from Biei. To join Biei View Bus tour, you can either book online with payment by credit card, or book with JR Travel Service Centre (Twinkle Plaza) at major train stations.

For Eastern Hokkaido, there are sightseeing buses from Akan Bus, as well as winter sightseeing tours from Eastern Hokkaido website.

Tips #9. Seeking medical care in Hokkaido

Just in case you need to seek medical care in Hokkaido and you can't understand Japanese, here is the list of medical institutions with English or Chinese-speaking staff.

Tips #10. Useful websites and apps for Hokkaido travel

As usual, I do my homework by reading travel blogs from Taiwan and Hong Kong, as there are more travel information about Hokkaido in Chinese as compared to English. 

In addition, here are some websites for Hokkaido travel:

Here are some websites I find useful for travelling in Japan:

Here are some apps that I find useful:
  • Google Translate (iOS / Android) - You can snap a photo or speak, and the app will translate for you
  • Japan Connected-free Wi-Fi (iOS / Android) - Sign up an account or log in on the day before you travel to Japan, then you can connect to free Wi-Fi in Japan for the next 90 days
  • Travel Japan Wi-Fi (iOS / Android) - Another free Wi-Fi connection app in Japan
  • Gurunavi (iOS / Android) - Search for good food when you are planning your trip, or when you want to locate nearby eateries when you are in Japan
  • Google Map (iOS / Android) - Build your Google Map before your trip, so that you can use your customised map to locate the places that you want to visit
  • (iOS / Android) (Japanese) - You can set the areas that you are visiting, and check the weather on the go
  • Jorudan (iOS / Android) (Japanese) - Transit planner which searches for the route, fare and schedule of trains and airplanes in Japan
  • ロケスマ (iOS / Android) (Japanese) - It can locate eateries, shops (e.g. convenient stores, supermarkets and 100 yen shops) and service facilities (e.g. petrol stations)

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