Thursday, 19 December 2013

Japan: Hokkaido,

Hokkaido has got to be one of the most beautiful countries I have ever step foot on, the untamed wilderness, bustling city of Sapporo and snowscape in her national parks. These pictures have been hiding in the cosy recesses of my virtual memory from 2007, and honestly don't do the beautiful landscape of Hokkaido any justice but rewinding through our past family travels prompted me to look through photographs of yesteryears - and it's such a joy to be able to relieve these precious moments over again. 

As Japan's second largest island, Hokkaido is split into four parts which in turn are divided into sub-prefectures. A large proportion of the island is dedicated to a vast national parks, which offers a fascinating perspective on Japan's countryside and wildlife. You should definitely expect long and windy roads from the city to the outskirts, and along mountainous routes; but it's worth the scenery! The roads are very well kept, but as you proceed higher in altitude, the roads start to get snow-filled and you might need snow chains to carry on the journey. Hokkaido is also often much colder than the rest of Japan, in fact some winter snow may even be brought over to spring! This trip was made during the winter season during December, and was the coldest temperature I have ever experienced, with the temperatures going all the way down to -20 deg celsius in the countryside cabin. Apart from the biting cold, it was nonetheless a memorable trip, with the highlight being the outdoors Japanese onsen - warm thermal waters below, snowflakes falling on us from above and the city lights glittering in the distance.

Even in winter, Hokkaido extends an array of activities and exploration - and equipped with the appropriate warm clothing, these outdoor activities are a must! Here are some of the notable places worth going:

Niseko ski resort
Bagging Japan's best ski resort award time after time, Niseko ski village is definitely the place to be if you're a ski junkie. They offer ski school for beginners and cross country skiing for advanced learners. My family did not ski this time round because we indulged in other snow activities such as snow mobile and exploring the surrounding snowscape instead - it's not any day a tropical being gets to experience a winter forest! Even without skiing, walking around the resort was a delight in itself, especially walking through the woods filled with bare trees and powder snow. They also had other activities as as snow rafting and reindeer sledding during winter, and Zipline obstacle courses during summer. As the resort was divided into various sections, and there was a mini monorail service that ran between these sections, which was a saving grace because it became too cold to walk around for an extended period of time.

We stayed in an isolated but cosy cabin (see picture below), and survived the cold with heated tatami mats and hot green tea. The stay was pretty comfortable, except that the bathroom window couldn't be closed and we all had to shower in the -20 deg celsius temperature with the cold draft blowing through the window and the shower head almost frozen.....horrible experience at that instance but hindsight bias makes it sound adventurous, yes?

Snow mobile
This was one of the many activities that Niseko ski resort offers during the winter season, and also one of the highlights of the trip. We rented 2 snow mobiles - my sister and I drove one and my parents the other, following the tracks of the guide in front who took us to various vantage points such as the stunning view of Mt. Yotei (also known as Mt. Fuji in Hokkaido), the scenery along the way were equally breathtaking. Silly me didn't adjust my helmet properly, and there were moments where we thought we were going to crash because I couldn't see and kept prompting my sister to help me adjust it from the back....this was extremely exhilarating, please try it if you're going to Hokkaido. It's available at ¥6,000/person for a small machine, ¥11,000/person for a large machine or ¥16,000/machine for tandem, and only open during the winter season. Please ignore our freezing faces and red noses below, we were extremely extremely cold and even had heat packs to warm our fingers to no avail.

Lake toya
People from all over the world rave about Lake Toya, and rate it as a must-see landscape in Hokkaido. Locals often hang out along the coast during summer with picnics and fruit picking, while fishing is a popular sport all year round. Unfortunately, it was quite a letdown because of the gloomy and rainy winter day that made the visit extremely dreary, but this might be different in other seasons. It was however, extremely fun to explore the abandoned island, walking through the tall woods, strolling along the black beaches and opening chestnut fruits that fell (yes, those spiky things are chestnuts), as well as enjoying the panoramic view of the lake during the ferry ride. The ferries often have two sections, an outdoor area to soak in the winter air and scenery and an indoor area with seats to retreat from the bitter cold. It's also quite amazing to know that the lake has never turned to ice, even through the coldest of winter! Check out ticket prices here.

Jigokudani, Hell valley
Aptly named as Hell valley, a walk through Jigokudani reveals sulphurous valleys, boiling bodies of water and steaming streams. This source then flows down to the hot spring waters of Noboribetsu. The vents spewing out steam and sulphurous vapour definitely makes you think twice about going too close, but exudes a thrill of unpredictable volcanic activity. Standing in the valley was extremely surreal, and the hills felt tall enough to envelope my tiny existence; while the biting sulphuric vapour smelt of danger lurking in the air (you might want to bring along a mask, saw many locals doing that).

Located in the shikotsu-toya national park, Jigokudani also offers walking trails in the heart of nature, but this depends on the season and many may be closed during winter. While the surrounding was slightly warmer around the valley, it got colder as we steered these are probably better in the seasons of spring or summer.

Noboribetsu Bear Ranch
Also in the renowned Noboribetsu area, the bear ranch houses over a hundred bears in various enclosures. They are extremely lively and would play and interact with each other, they would also make begging actions as visitors walk past (not a fan of the action but they really do look very adorable and are very well fed). For a small fee, you can purchase bear food to feed them and see them up close. Also, there's a mini museum to explore and find out more about them. It's also not a very modern or large facility, so unless it's on the way, you're not missing much.

 Sapporo Ramen
No pictures (food photography wasn't rampant then) but sapporo ramen is really authentic and amazing! I remember the thick flavoured broth and QQ texture of the ramen at Susukino ramen alley, which really packed a punch with a small bowl. Pair it with a pint of beer and you're up in Japan heaven.

Other food that you might want to check out in Hokkaido would be seafood. Having majority of its population living in coastal areas, the seafood industry is blooming and much of the catch is extremely fresh! The sashimi is a must-try, along with the king crabs and scallops - which are raved by the whole of Japan. Dairy products are also very popular, such as cream cheese, butter and milk, and you can easily find confectionery such as pastries or the famous Shiroi koibito biscuits (more commonly known as 白い恋人) which can only be found in Narita airport and Hokkaido then....but you can probably find it easily elsewhere now.

Oh yes, and please try the fresh fruit sold by street peddlers! They are amongst one of the juiciest produce I have ever tried, check out these Hokkaido strawberries. They are quite pricey though, this box of strawberries cost us ¥1300, but the prices do drop at the end of the day when they are clearing stock.

Kaiseki dinner
What's a trip to Japan without a Kaiseki styled dinner? Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese dinner which consists of various courses and select food served on individual trays, carefully prepared by the chefs.

That being said, many Japanese inns often have sets of yutaka prepared for guests, these are comfortable light robes for you to wear around the ryokan or to prepare yourself for a dip in the relaxing onsen. The tricky bit is knowing how to put on the yutaka as folding the left side flap in first is often used for the deceased, so do check your attire before you step out to ensure you don't offend any locals (but I'm sure in a hotel, the locals will just smile and remind you). This is paired along with wooden shoes called geta to complete the traditional get up.

Ninja village
Again in the Noboribetsu region, this village is more of a theme park which mixes both modern amusement with traditional cultures and folk tales. They offer performances such as traditional dances and ninja fighting, but the rest of the park didn't really piqued my interest as it was slightly too commercialized. The surroundings were beautiful though, and we got a glimpse into local houses and Japanese traditions we never knew.

Shopping Destinations
Hokkaido is popular for shopping arenas such as Mitsui Outlet Park Sapporo Kitahiroshima, and Tanuki Koji shopping arcade which is Hokkaido's longest shopping street. The streets get cold by night, but the indoor stores are equipped with heaters that are life savers on a cold winter day. Japan also carries the blue label for burberry, which can also be found in Hokkaido. And of course, in true Japanese fashion, there are many Pachinko parlours at the corners of shopping streets if you're feeling some lucky streak! I find it incredibly hard to stay in the parlour over 10 minutes because of the constant crackling sounds of a thousand Pachinko balls clanking together.

Just a half hour drive away from Sapporo, Otaru offers a slightly more laid back charm than the bustling city of Sapporo. It houses many historical buildings and the street shops tend to have an artsy cultured tweak to them. The most prominent landmark of Otaru is definitely the romantic Otaru canal, which are lined with Victorian styled street lamps and century-old stone warehouses. The Otaru music box museum nearby was quite an insight into the history of music boxes which goes all the way to the Renaissance period. They also offer beautiful selection of crafts, some of which are exquisitely handmade (unfortunately I don't have many pictures as photography was prohibited).

Hakodate market
Located close to the JR Hakodate station, this morning Hakodate market (or more fondly referred to as Hokadate Asaichi to the locals) runs from early morning 5am to noon. They sell a wide range of fresh seafood, produce and dried goods - which include crabs, salmon roe, sea urchin and dried longans. It's a huge market so you can probably fill up your entire morning walking through and treating yourself to some sashimi for breakfast or work for your own food by trying your hands out at squid fishing. It was quite a delight to walk through the market, albeit a fishy affair - and it was also incredibly cold because it was winter.

The Japanese never fail to impress through their high-tech perks such as heated restroom seats and ramen vending machines (which were surprisingly tasty) as well as their range of confectionery and pastries (hello strawberry cream cake)! I just wished that the temperatures weren't as whooping low as -20 degree celsius, which was terrible when the draft came....biting cold sensations weren't that thrilling after the first few days. I hope to be back to visit Hokkaido during autumn or spring for the full bloom of Sakuras and when more National park trails open up, perhaps next time :)


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