The charm of Hokkaido

Japan's northern island offers plenty of attractions, from powder snow to delicious food, natural beauty and rich culture

On a slope covered with white powder snow, a little Japanese boy teeters and inches forward during his first skiing lesson. A cloth band is tied around his waist, his father is at the other end imparting guidance. Teenagers with snowboards are in groups nearby, while others on skis are preparing to head down Asari Peak.

This is Akaigawa Village in Japan's northern prefecture of Hokkaido, an island with attractions for all seasons and a popular playground for Thai tourists.

Aside from skiing and snowboarding, there is the annual Sapporo Snow Festival in February, and you can always soak yourself in hot spring water, savour fresh crabmeat, seafood, sweet fruits, rich milk, chocolate, cheesecake and soft ice cream.

"Tasting delicious local delicacies made from safe and trusted ingredients is part of the fun of travel," Hokkaido Governor Harumi Takahashi said. "Hokkaido has beautiful flowers in spring and white powder snow, snowballs and ski in winter."

Hokkaido is famous for producing rich milk and dairy products, including soft ice cream sold for between ¥200 (70 baht) and ¥500 depending on the variety.

Another part of the charm is the prefecture's pure nature, which can be seen at the Shiretoko world heritage site and the Toya Caldera and Usu Volcano Geopark.

Hokkaido Tourism Organisation president Sakamoto Shinichi says nature here displays a different charm in each season. Spring, which lasts from March to May, is beautiful with the greens of newly budding leaves and colour from flowers in full bloom. In summer, from June to August, under the clear blue sky, visitors enjoy sports and outdoor activities in fine scenery. In autumn, from September to December, the leaves change and the mountains become stunning. It is also the harvest season for Hokkaido's most delicious farm produce. In winter, from December to February, the world turns white, and crisp, snow-covered nature awaits. All year round there are the pleasures of eating delicious food and soaking in hot springs.

Mori Hajime, director and CEO of Share Luxe which co-owns Kiroro Ski Resort in Hokkaido, said the number of Thai tourists visiting Hokkaido rose between 30% and 50% last year, up from 30,000, in part thanks to Thai Airways operating direct flights from Bangkok since Oct 31. Before, tourists had to fly to Tokyo first.

The northernmost island prefecture is home to about 5.5 million people, or 4.3% of the country's total population. There is a large temperature difference between seasons, with Sapporo's average temperature dropping to -3.6C in January and reaching 22.3C in August.

Different points on the compass also mark different attractions for visitors.

In the north, Hokkaido's second-largest town, Asahikawa, is home to the famous Asahiyama Zoo and renowned Sounkyo hot spring with views of a waterfall and cliffs.

Hokkaido is well known for seafood, especially giant crabs, which can be eaten either fresh or cooked as shabu, soup and more.

In the south, Hakodate town is well-known for its million-dollar night-time scenery, which can be seen from a 334m-high mountain or Hakodate Ropeway (cable cars), an old Russian-style Byzantine church, the bay area, and seafood, especially octopus dishes, at the Asaichi morning market.

In the east, the Shiretoko Unesco world heritage site is abundant with wildlife. In winter, visitors can join several snow festivals there and also see drift ice from the Okhotsk Sea.

In the central area, Sapporo _ the island's political, cultural and economic hub _ boasts numerous hot springs and hosts several festivals, such as the Sapporo Snow Festival and the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival, both in February. The nearby port town of Otaru is famous for a canal lined with old warehouses, century-old brick and stone buildings, a music box museum, a glass museum, seafood and cheesecake.

"Otaru is very beautiful. Eating, sightseeing and shopping can be done in Hokkaido. Fruits and vegetables are fresh. The air is fresh like the whole town is air-conditioned," said Chainid N. Sirimanee, CEO of Property Perfect Plc which co-owns Kiroro Ski Resort.

Last month, a Thai family of four, including lawyer Chansin Tangburanakij, spent five days on a driving trip in Hokkaido. Chansin's two children Phubordee (Jeng) and Nitchanart (Jing) loved riding a snow mobile and shopping for toys, especially Lego.

"I chose Hokkaido because I had heard of Thai Airways' new direct Bangkok-Sapporo flights and my family prefers travelling in Asia because the destinations are close," he said.

Driving did not prove difficult as their rented four-wheel-drive was equipped with winter tyres and GPS. That most Japanese do not speak English and that he could read almost nothing of the signs was not a major problem because he chose a hotel under an international chain where staff spoke English well and he used the GPS while driving.

According to Property Perfect's Chainid, Hokkaido is one of Thai tourists' dream destinations, and they hope to visit at least once in their lifetime.

"Premium quality snow, beautiful scenery, fresh air, good food, skiing, golf courses, flowers and onsen are outstanding in Hokkaido. In April, there is still snow here. This is suitable for Thais who want to flee the hot weather in Thailand to see different culture," he noted.

From a cable car, visitors can enjoy the stunning panoramic views of Akaigawa Village, Hokkaido, and see people skiing down from Asari Peak, 1,180m above sea level. The top of the mountain is where the famous Lover’s Sanctuary Bell hangs under a grey stone arch. The bell is believed to bring love and fortune to every couple who rings it. Akaigawa was recently named the country’s second most beautiful village by the Association of The Most Beautiful Villages in Japan. As of 2008, it had a population of 1,264, making it among the country’s least populated. The area it covers is 280km2. The village is famous for stunning scenery, powder snow, hot springs and rich dairy products.

Kitaichi Glass in Otaru has produced hand-made glassware for more than a century. The factory’s former company Asahara Glass was established in 1901, when founder Hisakichi Asahara started producing kerosene lamps. In 1910, he began producing floating glass balls for fishing, although nowadays similar balls are in demand as home decorations. The factory, which employs about 200 people, also has glassware designs ranging from key chains to wine glasses. The Kitaichi Glass Sangokan Building was built as a warehouse in 1891 with a timber frame inside and stone exterior. It was first used to store fish, including dried herring. Later, the road expansion on the south side claimed several storage spaces. The remaining spaces were renovated in 1983 for use as a glass warehouse, but have changed again to become a shop and two cafes. The warehouse is open from 9am to 6pm daily. Admission is free.

Hokkaido Jingu is a major shrine dating back more than 140 years. It enshrines the statues of four deities who have protected Hokkaido and blessed it for development. Many people come to the shrine to make wishes, especially for improving health. Before praying and making a wish, each visitor must toss a coin into one of the boxes in front of the shrine building and clasp their hands according to tradition. This shrine is renowned for selling various talismans, including ones with the cartoon character Hello Kitty. Japanese visitors usually tie talismans and sheets of paper with written wishes to the shrine’s wishing trees. The current wooden building of the shrine was rebuilt after the original was destroyed in fire in 1955. Before entering the compound, visitors must clean their hands and mouth using water from a well near the entrance.

The Otaru Music Box Museum presents exhibitions worldwide and in Japan and displays antique and new music boxes and mechanical dolls. Music boxes were first introduced to Japan by a Dutch trader in 1852 and referred to as ‘‘orugeru’’ after the Dutch word meaning an organ. Over time, the pronunciation changed to orgel. The museum building itself holds architectural and historical significance. Built in 1912 as the main office of grain and rice merchants in Hokkaido, this two-storey red-brick building with a wooden frame has arch-shaped windows in Renaissance style. It features a fine contrast of red bricks and layers of natural stones. The interior is made of zelkova wood and has a large hall with a 9m-high vaulted ceiling. It serves as a store featuring more than 25,000 music boxes, including Otaru’s popular glass music boxes. The museum opens daily from 9am to 6pm. Admission is free. Visit www.otaru-orgel.co.jp.

Shiroi Koibito Park near Otaru is where visitors can see the production line of the well-known Shiroi Koibito biscuits, enjoy the Chocolate Carnival, an hourly parade of singing and dancing mechanical dolls at the park’s Sapporo Mechanical Clock Tower, and see the collection of chocolate cups, gramophones and classical toys from the Meiji, Tiasho and Showa periods from 1868 to 1989. The park opens from 9am to 6pm daily. Admission to the museum and factory costs ¥600 for adults.

Built in 1923, the 1.5km Otaru Canal is a symbol of the peak of prosperity Otaru reached during the late 19th and early 20th century. This harbour town flourished in the Meiji period (1868-1912) due to herring fishing. In that era, many settlers began migrating to Otaru and northern-bound ships carried various kinds of commodities to this town. It began growing as a major commercial port. In 1880, the railroad between Otaru and Sapporo was built as Japan’s third railway. This made the town a commercial and transportation hub for Hokkaido. At that time, more than 100 timber-frame and stone warehouses were constructed. Nowadays, they have been turned into stores and are a symbol of the town, especially those along the canal. They include glassware and music box stores and bakeries like the famous Kitakaro and La Tao cheesecake shop. Every February, the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival takes place around the canal.

In the vicinity of Otaru’s Ironai-dori street stand rows of red-brick and stone buildings dating from the mid-Meiji to the Showa period. This was once called the Wall Street of Hokkaido. These stone buildings, belonging to the Bank of Japan and other major banks as well as many stone warehouses, reflect Otaru’s past prosperity. Opposite the museum’s main building is the Otaru Steam Clock which emits steam every hour.

Built in 1956 and opened in 1957, Sapporo Television Tower is Japan’s fourth-tallest tower at a height of 147.2m. It not only provides TV broadcasting but also allows visitors to enjoy the 360-degree panoramic view of Sapporo. Its 90m observation deck features commanding views of Odori Park, the surrounding mountains and the sea. Covering 1.5km from east to west across Sapporo’s city centre, Odori Park, a symbol of Sapporo, hosts many events throughout the year, including the Sapporo Snow Festival in February, the Lilac Festival in May and White Illumination from late November to late December. The tower is open daily from 9.30am to 9.30pm. Admission costs ¥700 for adults and ¥100 to ¥600 for children of different age groups, with a 50% discount for the elderly and people with disabilities. Visit www.tv-tower.co.jp.

Sapporo Beer Museum is the only beer museum in Japan. Opened in 1987, it features exhibitions on the history of beer and brewing in Japan. In June 1876, Kaitakushi (the Government of Hokkaido Development Commission) appointed Seibei Nakagawa, who had learned the art of brewing in Germany, as brewmaster. A picture taken at the opening ceremony of Kaitakushi Brewery on Sept 23, 1876, shows a high stack of kegs with the words: ‘‘Barley and hops are fermented to so-called Biiru’’. In 1877, Sapporo Reisei Beer was launched, bearing a label with an image of the pole star. Besides the history of beer and brewing, the museum displays a collection of antique signboards and ads mirroring the relationship between beer and historical periods. A must-see is a huge wort kettle used at Sapporo Brewery for cooking malt juice, or wort, before adding hops to create the desired bitterness and aroma. Each day, Sapporo Beer produces 300,000 bottles of beer, equal to two wort kettles. It also has breweries in Vietnam and Canada. The museum’s main building is listed as a Hokkaido heritage. This red-brick building was constructed in 1890 as the Sapporo Sugar Company factory. The museum is open from 9am to 6pm daily except Mondays and year end and New Year holidays. Admission is free. Visit www.sapporobeer.jp.

TRAVEL INFO

- Thai Airways International operates a direct flight between Bangkok and Hokkaido’s Chitose airport daily. Visit www.thaiairways.com
- It is convenient to travel in Hokkaido by train and bus and in Sapporo by subway and taxi. Foreign tourists can save money by using a Hokkaido Rail Pass. 
- Travelling between Chitose airport and Sapporo by airport express train costs ¥1,040 (370 baht) and takes 36 minutes. The train departs every 15 minutes. 
- Travelling between Sapporo and Otaru by airport express train costs ¥620 and takes 32 minutes. The train departs every 30 minutes.

For more info about travel in Hokkaido, visit http://en.visithokkaido.jp/.

About the author

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Writer: Pichaya Svasti
Position: Life Writer