Hokkaido (Sapporo / Otaru) Travel Guide
Took our chance with affordable tickets and a vacant week that we had in November, booking our flights from Singapore to Hokkaido! To be fair, we didn't manage to do a lot of the things we wanted during this trip as November is the month where there's the change of season. And after considering the flight time, we only had about 3 days in Hokkaido in which we spent 2 days in Sapporo, and 1 day in Otaru.
Hokkaido is an island at the Northernmost part of Japan. Hokkaido is best known among ski-lovers for its powder snow where ski resorts abound. For travellers looking for a relaxing time, they stay in a Ryokan where they can enjoy the natural hot springs (indoors and outdoors) while being pampered by their Japanese hosts who would serve their Kaiseki dinners in their rooms. Several beautiful lakes including Lake Toya and Lake Shikotsu are popular tourist attractions. Hokkaido is also home to the Blue Pond in Biei which is the one of the Mac wallpaper.
Hokkaido in November is not exactly the best time to visit if you would like to ski or sightsee since it was the change in season (from Fall to Winter). Most ski resorts were not quite open yet, many of the sightseeing tour buses were not operating, some attractions were closed in preparation for the winter high season and driving was also not an option for an unseasoned winter driver.
Nonetheless, if you are just looking at exploring Sapporo and Otaru city, it is still an awesome time to visit as there were not that many tourists in all of the sites we visited. We also enjoyed nice weather: clear blue skies in the morning, and snow in the evenings! So it was perfect for us! :)
In our opinion, it was best visiting Hokkaido in late December to February for Ski-ers and Snowboarders. Many of the winter activities such as the Ashiyama Zoo Penguin Parade (Jan), Ice Fishing (Jan-Feb), Sapporo Snow Festival (Feb), and the Otaru Snow Light Festival (Feb). Another amazing time of the year to visit would be during Japan's Cherry Blossom Season. It happens in late April for Hokkaido and starts from end March for the southern regions in Japan.
Otherwise, visit during summer or fall to view the natural landscapes of Hokkaido: lakes, waterfalls, fruit picking at Farm Tomita!
What to wear in Hokkaido?
In November, there will be snow! So do pack appropriate winter wear:
1. Uniqlo's Heatech Base Layer
2. Knitwear (consider Fleece or Merino Wool for extra warmth)
3. Uniqlo's Ultralight Packable Down
4. Windproof and Waterproof Outerwear
Do get waterproof footwear too! There will be snow everywhere and if you would like to play in the snow, you'll need waterproof shoes! Even better if you can get shoes with good grip on the sole. There were so many times where we almost slip on the melting snow (even the locals were slipping while crossing the road).
Alternatively, you can purchase the attachable snow spikes from Don Quixote when you are there!
Getting to Hokkaido
Even though the capital of Hokkaido is Sapporo, most travellers enter Hokkaido by flight to Chitose, or by train to Hakodate.
We flew to New Chitose Airport via Scoot. They had an awesome deals in which we paid only $205 each for a direct flight! We knew we had to book it because direct flights to Hokkaido are uncommon. Even full fledge carriers usually require a transit in Tokyo. What's more, $205 is almost the price of a flight to Bangkok! (We booked it during a sale and after a quick check, you can still get these tickets from $380 per pax.)
To cope with the demand for winter travel to Hokkaido, Scoot flies direct to New Chitose Airport twice a week. From what I understand after reading their in-flight magazine, it is only available for a limited time (winter)! #notsponsored
After getting to New Chitose Airport, it is only a 45 minute ride via the Airport Express to Sapporo. Click here for the JR site on how to purchase tickets.
2. Hokkaido Shinkansen
Some travellers to Japan also have Hokkaido as their stop, as it now takes about 4 hours to get to Shin-Hakodate - Hokuto Station. But to get from Hakodate to Sapporo, it takes another 3.5 hours.
View outside APA Hotel Sapporo Susukino Ekimae
There are many hotels in Sapporo and some of the chains in Japan include APA hotels and resorts, toyoko-inn, and Hotel Sunroute. If you're looking for Ryokan stays, you will need to visit the smaller cities outside Sapporo.
For our 4 nights, we stayed at APA Hotel Sapporo Susukino Ekimae (24,800 yen / about 300 sgd for 4 nights). The location was superb. It was only 2 stations away from Sapporo station on the Toho Line. And it is located right outside exit 3 of Hosui-Susukino subway station.
It is walking distance to Susukino, Tanukikoji Shopping Arcade, and Odori Park where the Sapporo TV tower is located. There are many amazing restaurants nearby as well! We thoroughly enjoyed staying here where we could visit Don Quixote and play at the Round 1 Arcade till late!
Travelling within Hokkaido
One can certainly drive to take you to the different sites outside Sapporo, but as we were only visiting Sapporo and Otaru, we got around fine with the JR and Sapporo's public transportation. In winter, it will also be good to hire a driver if you would want to venture out of Sapporo as the conditions can be quite tricky for tropical drivers who are not used to driving in snow. We saw that even their local cars skidding as the roads were wet and slippery with built up snow.
Alternatively, when the high winter season is up and running, you can also find many one-day tour buses that bring you to the famous attractions. One tour agency that we found prior to our trip (but didn't utilise it) was chuo bus. They were the most affordable and offers multiple tours in various seasons.
Purchase the SAPICA card at any of the machines at the subway line. This is a card like our EZ-link, where you can tap in and out to pay the fare on the subway, buses, and the streetcars. Although there isn't any discount, this provides you with the convenience of not having to purchase the fare every time you board the subway.
For travellers who will be using a lot of the subway, consider also getting the one day ticket for subway use (830 yen) which gives you unlimited travel on the subway for the entire day. We calculated and if you intend to take the subway about 4 times, this ticket is definitely more worth it. Each trip is about 200 to 370 yen, depending on the distance travelled.
There's also the Donichika Ticket for unlimited subway travel (520 yen), and Dosanko Ticket for unlimited streetcar travel (360 yen) for weekend travel, including national holidays and year end holidays from Dec 29 to Jan 3.
Most of the sights in Otaru is walkable by foot. Alternatively, you can also purchase the ticket for the red stroller bus at 210 yen per trip, or 750 yen for unlimited travel. The bus runs every 30 minutes.
4G in Japan
1. Starhub Prepaid Travel Sim Card
If you are not a Starhub user, we do recommend getting the Starhub Prepaid Travel Sim Card. For $15, it comes pre-loaded with $18 credit, and free 5-days of unlimited 4G usage in Singapore. It is also valid for 180 days.
With the $18 credit, you can then add the Happy Roam Data Roaming Service. For short trips, we recommend the $7 for 1GB plan (7 days), and for long trips, $15 for 2.4GB (30 days). We got the 2.4GB plan and it was able to use the 2.4GB over our travels across Asia in 3 weeks.
For heavy users, you can also get the $32 Sim card (which comes with a 10-day 2GB data roaming), or the $50 Sim card (which comes with a 30-day 5GB data roaming). You can then add on another 3.6GB using your $20 credit.
We found that this option is much cheaper than if you were to get a SIM card in Japan itself. Also, using the wifi egg sometimes can be quite a hassle if its just for one person.
** Do note that you should first download the app and get the Starhub Profile to use the data roaming with the SIM card.
2. Starhub Data Travel
If you are a Starhub user, we recommend just getting the data travel. The benefits include not having to change out your Sim Card and it is fuss free. Just dial *100*54830# or enable it via the Starhub app. It costs $15 for 2GB, or $20 for 3GB. Both are valid for 30 days.
We found that only Starhub had data travel that made sense. Being a Singtel user, enabling data roaming add-on packs in Japan meant that I had to pay $20 for 1GB.
3. 4G Pocket Wifi Router
If you are travelling in a large group, consider getting a 4G Pocket Wifi Router. It can connect to 5 devices at one time so that you can split the costs among your friends! Conveniently collect it at CTS airport too!
With 4G, you can also consider downloading these Japan Travel Applications to help you while you're in Japan!
Shopping in Hokkaido (and Japan)
The prices that you see in the price tags in most stores are usually the prices BEFORE taxes. So do not be alarmed when the prices rocket when you bring them to the cashier. Japanese charges consumers 8% taxes on all goods and products. However, for tourists, when purchasing items over a certain amount, you do not have to pay the 8% taxes in tax-free stores. So do look out for banners or posters outside the stores if you wish to enjoy these services.
Hope this helps give some background and useful information to your upcoming trip to Hokkaido! We also wrote: