Japan’s sakura wonderland makes for a perfect autumn getaway sans kids. Here’s what to do and what to eat in Hokkaido!
What’s your impression of Hokkaido, mama? Sakura, onsens, seafood? For someone who’s just been there for the first time in late-October, I’m telling ya – it’s all true. Perfect sweater weather, not too cold, and incredible views everywhere you look. My husband and I were in Hokkaido for a total of seven days in fall, spent between the sleepy mountain town of Niseko and seaside city, Hakodate. Read on for the perfect getaway-for-two itinerary!
How we got there
We took a Singapore Airlines flight to Narita Airport in Tokyo, Japan, and then transferred to a Jetstar flight to New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido. There we picked up our car for the week, a Nissan Dayz that was perfect for the two of us with two huge luggages stowed in the back (obviously I overpacked, oops!). We booked the car online via Rentalcar.com and paid a deposit before making the rest of the payment once we arrived at the airport. Before you depart for Japan, make sure to get your International Driving Permit from AA Singapore.
Afterwards we drove the 2.5 hour route (guided by Google maps with our pocket wifi booked via Changi Recommends!) to our resort in Niseko. We actually got very lost due to a road closure and ended up having to reroute, in turn making the drive a total of 5 hours instead of the predicted 2.5. If you don’t intend to drive, you can take the JR line train from Chitose to Kutchan, then get on the shuttle bus that will take you straight to Niseko. Be sure to give the front desk of your resort a call or drop them an email to check on the shuttle bus availability, and if you need help obtaining a timetable.
Niseko is famed for their soft ‘powder snow’. Combine that with steep hill tops and you’ve got a ski lover’s paradise! While throngs of people flock there during the winter, we arrived at the perfec end-of-‘summer’ period right before the resorts were due to close in November to prep for the December snowfall. This meant there was virtually no one (save for a few other Chinese tourists) and we had most of the place to ourselves!
When we finally arrived at our resort, Green Leaf Niseko Village (as recommended by our friends at The Luxe Nomad!), we were so impressed by how spacious our Corner Suite was. The next morning, we were pleasantly surprised to see the beautiful leafy hill right outside our room! Huge living area, a super cosy bed and luxurious bathrooms – we couldn’t have asked for more. Breakfast every morning at the restaurant was a visual treat, as the wide floor-to-ceiling windows always gave us beautiful views of the hills and blue sky. While you’re there, don’t miss the chance to hit the onsens, available both indoor and outdoor. Soaking in there for 15 minutes is all it takes for you to feel lighter, more rejuvenated and glowing!
What to eat
Niseko Village sits behind Hilton Niseko just down the road from our resort, and is home to two retail shops and four food establishments – Crab Shack, Two Sticks, Yang Shu Ten and Village Patisserie. Our fave? Village Patisserie, which serves the absolutely amazing Cremia ice cream. In Hokkaido you’ll see this soft serve confectionary everywhere, and I highly suggest you get a cone every chance you get! The ice cream is deliciously sweet and milky and the cone is made of the signature thin biscuit that makes it so enjoyable to eat, right till the last bite. Be sure to pop by Crab Shack for a seafood shabu-shabu dinner too, loaded with clams, scallops, crab claws, mushrooms and fish, perfect for keeping warm on a cold evening.
Our first stop the next day: Milk Kobo. This famous sweet shop offers a variety of ice creams, cheese tarts and my personal favourite – chou puffs. These cream puffs with a smooth milky filling are a must try. It can get a bit messy, but is worth every bite. If you don’t have a sweet tooth, a visit to Milk Kobo will not be in vain. Enjoy a stunning view of nearby Mount Yotei with huge green fields just behind the patisserie. We had plenty of awesome photo ops here!
If you’d like a taste of some of the fluffiest pancakes around, head down to nearby Kutchan where you’ll find Za Hotcake, a lovely little pancake cafe that’s famous for its sweet and savoury pancakes. We had the chocolate and banana pancakes, but heard that the Carbonara pancakes are one of the best-selling items on the menu.
For fresh local produce, visit Niseko View Plaza, where you can get fruits and veggies (and pastries from the mini Milk Kobo stand). Right outside the market you’ll see pictures of all the farmers with explanations of what crops they produce!
For a bit of adventure, we headed for a short trek up to Lake Hangetsu. It was so peaceful and having the top of Mount Yotei peek out behind the lush forest was the icing on the cake!
Fukidashi Koef Spring Water Park is worth a visit for a taste of fresh Hokkaido spring water. The nearby park also made for a pleasant walk, and the steps to the top, although tiring, treated us to beautiful views of Niseko’s mountains at sunset.
The nearby port town of Otaru makes for a fabulous day trip! After driving north from Niseko to Otaru for about 1.5 hours, we cruised down the famous Otaru Canal for ¥1,500 (approx. $18) per person, with an English audio guide. Afterwards we headed for a meal along Sakaimachi Street and did some shopping.
After our three-night stay in Niseko, it was time for us to discover the south of Hokkaido. We drove down to the stunning seaside city of Hakodate, which was an interesting change after a few days in the quiet hilltop areas. The drive was pleasant as always (be sure to abide by the speed limit though, because the traffic police are always on the lookout for speeding cars) and we arrived at Danshaku Club Hotel & Resort before nightfall. Yet again we were met with a very large room to ourselves with a great view of the city and port. The room had a wonderful full-service kitchen where we prepared a few meals, and was decked out with a comfy sofa and decent-sized dining table. Later on we found out that the hotel has a dedicated floor for guests with disabilities and is even pet-friendly too!
Apart from the various museums on the indigenous Ainu people of Japan, one of Hakodate’s main attractions is Goryukaku Tower, a 107-metre tall building with an observatory to view the unique star-shaped Goryukaku Park. The park is stunning in all seasons. It was filled with the warm tones of autumn when we visited but it’s also equally beautiful in spring when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.
Nearby Ōnuma Quasi National Park is well worth a day’s visit for stunning pictures, lovely walks and a chance to ride on a swan boat among the resident ducks! The park’s entrance is lined with plenty of ice cream joints for you to get your fix.
One of our favourite sites was Mount Hakodate. From our hotel we took a 20-minute bus ride to the top of the mountain, and witnessed the sunset before getting a stellar night view of Hakodate. There’s a cable car you can take, but it’s not operational all year round so it’s best to check with your hotel on its availability. It gets crowded at the mountain top very quickly so be sure to come early!
Although we were there in autumn, Hokkaido is a wonderful place to visit all year round and is especially lively during the thick of the summer and winter months, where a lot of kid-friendly attractions and activities will be open. Time to plan your next getaway to Japan, mama…