JAPAN’S most northern island of Hokkaido is a snow lover’s paradise which is attracting more skiers and snowboarders from the West with every season.
The remote region offers smaller mountains blanketed in deep snow all winter which give perfect soft powder descents. This can be followed by bathing in the bath temperature natural pools found in this volcanic land. One mountain – the 2,291 metre high Mount Asahidake – has the added hazards of searing steam vents and a boiling-water stream.
Despite being remote Hokkaido is also blessed with a fabulous capital city in Sapporo which hosted the Olympic Winter Games in 1972. Right now the locals are enjoying one of their annual highlights – the Sapporo Snow Festival which this year is staged from February 5 to 11. It started off small but grew into an international ice statue competition and a celebration of the snow that attracts nearly 2 million visitors every year.
The hop from Tokyo to Hokkaido’s capital city is more than 500 miles but well worth it. There are plenty of budget flights to Sapporo but beware transfer costs between airports as most international flights arrive at Narita while flights to Sapporo are usually from Haneda airport (see footnote}.
Sapporo is uniquely different from the rest of Japan’s cities. First of all, you have to be an idiot to get lost in it as it was designed by American town planners working on their familiar grid system. A town map is all you need to walk the grids.
Secondly, Sapporo is a city with an outdoors feeling. Surrounded by mountains and peppered with parks, gardens and tree-lined avenues, it has none of the jostling of Tokyo’s pavements. It provides comfortable breathing space with ease despite being Japan’s fifth largest city.
Because of its longer winter, Hokkaido is the last of Japan’s five main islands to celebrate the sakura – cherry tree blossoming – which usually begins around March in sub-tropical Okinawa, the southernmost island, and works its way up through Kyushu, Shikoku, and Honshu arriving in Hokkaido last, usually in May.
This is a traditional time for open air picnics and enjoying a drink under the trees. People bring home-cooked meals, do BBQ, or buy take-out food to celebrate the blossoms and the coming of the summer.
Sapporo is a great place to visit winter or summer. The beer gardens of the Sapporo Brewery are well worth a visit and you have to try its famous miso ramen noodles in a local noodle bar. Soup curry is another favourite local dish and the popular Genghis Khan style restaurants offer a unique dining experience where raw meat is brought to your table for you to cook on a hotplate.
The number one attraction in Sapporo city centre is the Tokeidai clock tower built in 1878. The clock came from Boston and the building smacks of the USA colonial mid-west. It houses a museum with displays about the building”s history and Sapporo.
Near to Sapporo, Hakodate and Otaru are also worth visiting. The old port town of Otaru has a pretty canal area online casino spiele which stages its own snow festival in winter and some atmospheric sushi and sashimi restaurants. Hakodate boasts a star-shaped fort and wonderful night views.
From June to September Hokkaido is invaded by hikers, cyclists and campers who come to enjoy its great outdoors. It has fabulous national parks and near to Sapporo is the picture postcard perfect Lake Toya and Mount Usu, an active volcano.
Tokyo-Sapporo is one of the world”s busiest air routes with dozens of flights per day. The distance from Narita airport to Haneda airport is around 50 miles and often poses a headache for travellers from the west. Some of the taxi services can be expensive and add hundreds of pounds to the cost of travel for a couple or family. Using the train service is cheap but time taking and needs to be planned in advance.
*The cheapest way to make the transfer between Narita and Haneda airports is to use the Keisei electric railway access express. It takes and hour and a half and costs 1,740 yen but it doesn”t run all day. Look up times on the web.
Japan National Tourism Organisation recommended two other routes costing a little over 3,000 yen. One is from Narita station and taking the Keisei Skyliner to Nippori station then the JR Yamanote line (outer loop) to Hamamatsucho station and then the Tokyo rapid monorail (90 minutes). The other is to take the Narita Express 18 train to Tokyo arival line 1 and the JR Keihin-Tohoku/Negishi rapid line to Hamamatsucho station and the rapid monorail. (two hours). There”s also a limousin bus service at 3,000 yen.