Creating Unique Core Memories:
We believe in travelling together as a family because of the global exposure it provides for ourselves and the kids. Despite the hassle and costs involved in travelling with children, many of these can be mitigated through early, careful holiday planning. We’ve travelled the world with our daughter since she was 7 months old and she’s since gained a travel buddy in her brother three years ago.
We’ve heard so much about the powdery snow in Hokkaido; besides, the temptation to experience Japanese hospitality and cuisine was too much to resist. From the wife’s meticulous research, she discovered that Hokkaido is very much DIY-able as that would cut down cost quite a bit. So, for our inaugural trip to Hokkaido in December 2016, it would be a very much walk on our own and drive on own trip. It turned out to be simply splendid. You may view more of our Hokkaido travel photos on Instagram if you follow us at @lifestinymiracles and @doting_dad. Click on this hashtag #ohanadoeshokkaido.
The Complete DIY Itinerary:
Here’s our DIY itinerary:
Day 1: We flew JAL which transited in Tokyo. Upon arrival in Chitose Airport, Hokkaido at 8pm, we realised that the airport shuttle busses have ended their services so we made our way to Sapporo via train. A little more tiring but at least we don’t have to spend a bomb on taxis.
Accommodation: Keio Plaza Sapporo Hotel
- Even though it was more convenient to stay right above the Sapporo Station, we decided to save costs by picking Keio Plaza Sapporo Hotel as our base for 3 nights in Sapporo. It turned out to be a wise choice as the hotel was very comfortable (we opted for a 4-bedder family room which was huge) and it was just 3 blocks away from Sapporo Station. The staff was very competent, friendly and attentive to our needs. Read our complete review of this fantastic hotel here.
- From Chitose Airport, we took the Airport Rapid Train to Sapporo Station (a 40 min train ride). From the Sapporo Station, Keio Plaza Sapporo Hotel is a brisk 10 min easy walk.
- Since it was winter, the day turns dark (and cold) early by 4+pm. Do pack the necessary winter gear in your carry on luggage and have some lose currency ready for food/drinks when you arrive into Sapporo.
- The Sapporo Station is connected to the Sapporo Stellar Place, the largest shopping mall in Japan. The shopping center has approximately 220 stores including dining and cafes, cinemas. It also has a basement food street (much like Singapore’s Takashimaya) so you can get food easily. The price is pretty comparable to that of typical Japanese restaurants here in Sg.
- Our car rental company (Toyota Car Rental) is situated right at Keio Plaza Sapporo Hotel’s basement. This makes it super convenient for us to load our luggage into the car and drive off on the day of check-out. To find out what to anticipate in a DIY Self-Drive Trip in Hokkaido during winter, read our post here.
Day 2: Day Trip to Otaru
We decided to take the day slow and went on a DIY day trip to Otaru using public transport. Famed for its canal, food and quaint shops and not forgetting the legendary Le Tao Cheese Cake.
How to get to Otaru From Sapporo
There are multiple trains per hour between Sapporo and Otaru along the JR Hakodate Main Line. The one-way trip costs 640 yen and takes 30 minutes by rapid train or 45 minutes by local train. Most of Otaru’s attractions are located less than a 30-minute walk from Otaru Station, making the city convenient to explore by foot. Otaru offered us a glimpse into the local life in Hokkaido. We spent a relaxed afternoon there and headed back to Sapporo before dusk. Do remember that its winter so it gets dark and cold around 4+pm.
Highlights from Otaru:
- The train station: A quaint train station with a charming character of its own. Lots of good photo opportunities and kids can have fun with the stamping activities. Note: Bring notebooks for kids to collect stamps at various tourist spots and train stations.
- Otaru Canal: Scenic and relaxing. Like walking along a Dutch canal. A must visit photo stop.
- Sakaimachi Street: A street lined with wares from local life and cuisine. Worth trying their fresh seafood sashimi.
- Music Box Museum: Not to be missed. Lots of exquisite and fine music boxes displayed and for sale.
- Studio Ghibli: Situated right next to Music Box Museum, this place sells and exhibits soft toys and souvenirs from popular characters like Rilakkuma and Moomin. Think cutesy stuff. Lots.
- Le Tao Café: Hokkaido is famous for its cheesecake, chief of which is Le Tao. Here, you get it fresh off the Le Tao shelves so go grab some, eat and buy lots home. Do send some to us if you do.
- Ice-Cream: Hokkaido is famous for their dairy products and when in Otaru, you really need to sample their ice-cream made from farm-fresh Hokkaido milk.
- When in Otaru, must try the seafood, cheesecake or anything to do with Hokkaido milk. No regrets!
- At the music box museum, there’s an old clock heater outside, it plays tunes at the hour with the steam from the heater. Quite a sight!
- Do be prepared to walk a lot in Otaru but be careful of ice on the road. Walk slowly.
- Strollers: If you have young kids (preschoolers), bringing a stroller helps heaps as they may asked to be carried after some walking.
- Cab: We ended our walking trail at the Music Box Museum and took a cab back to the Otaru Station, a 10 mins drive which costs about SGD20. We boarded the train back to Sapporo Station and had dinner at one of the restaurants in Sapporo Stellar Place before walking back to Keio Plaza Hotel to rest for the night.
Day 3: Day Trip to Asahiyama Zoo
This zoo gave us one of the best zoo experiences with its wide range of ‘arctic’ animals in its natural landscape. We spent a full day there and only managed to cover half the exhibits. Read our comprehensive review of the Asahiyama Zoo in this post.
Day 3 Night: Sapporo Winter White Illumination
We read from online forums that the Winter Illumination in Sapporo is quite phenomenal so despite spending a full day at the Asahiyama Zoo, we commuted to Odori Park to see the winter lights and German Christmas Market.
- Walking, Walking, Walking…lots of it. The awesome light displays are spread across a large outdoor park. Lots of beautiful photo opportunities but be prepared to walk A LOT. In fact, we clocked more than 15,000 steps daily in Sapporo.
- Toilets: At the Winter Illumination, toilets are scarce. Do use the conveniences at the train stations before you exit.
- Night photography: You would need either a flash or tripod or both to capture these exquisite light displays.
- The Chill: Temperature drops drastically after sunset so it can get biting cold, esp. for young children. Dress them warmly and don’t forget the scarves and gloves.
- The German Christmas Market offers wares and light bites by vendors from Europe. Lots of exquisite Christmas decorative souvenirs, worth a visit. We liked it so much we returned for two consecutive nights.
Day 4: Self-drive to Lake Toya (from Sapporo)
Finally, the day came when we were to take our rented car to start our self-drive journey to Niseko. We stopped at Lake Toya and Noboribetsu to break our journey. Driving in Hokkaido during winter is neither for the faint-hearted nor inexperienced. You are driving on the opposite side of the road and the icy, snowy conditions can reduce visibility and make it difficult to control the vehicle. We share our winter self-drive tips in this post. Do read if you’re planning on a self-drive holiday too.
Lunch at Lake Hill Farm
Seeing this place was like seeing an oasis. After a nail-biting introduction to winter driving in Hokkaido (through the heaviest snowfall in 50 years no less), I was really pleased we could stop and get something warm for our tummies.
This little quaint cafe serves really delicious custard-filled cream puffs that are baked crisp on the outside but oozing sweetness from the inside. It was seriously delicious. We loved their pizza and coffee too. The environment also so scenic we were reluctant to leave if not for the fact that we had to locate our hotel before the sky gets dark. Highly recommended pit stop!
Accommodation: Lake View Toya Nonokaze Resort
Lake Toya is one of many volcanic lakes in a caldera of volcanic lakes which never freezes even in winter! We arrived at the Lake View Toya Nonokaze Resort in the late afternoon and were immediately awestruck by the view. The Lake View Toya Nonokaze Resort is a luxury boutique hotel but alas, we found its service impersonal. Anyway, the view and its rooftop onsen did make up for the shortfalls. We enjoyed dining in the hotel’s restaurant with high floor to ceiling windows, offering us an unobstructed view of the scenery outside. So picturesque and calming. Before checking out, we took a quick family photo using the camera’s self-timer mode in our Japanese-styled room which turned out to be a keeper!
Lake Toya Volcano Museum
- Stay at a hotel that faces Lake Toya. If possible choose one with an open onsen. It makes an unforgettable experience. If you are an onsen ‘virgin’, read my post on how to navigate the Japanese onsens!
- Visit the Lake Toya Volcano Museum. We made an impromptu stop and learnt quite a fair bit about the volcanoes as well as the wildlife and nature surrounding the place. An educational pit-stop as we rarely get to visit a volcano museum!
Day 5: Self-drive to Noboribetsu (Sulfur Place)
This is one of the places I can’t forget…In fact, it hits you the moment you are near: the unmistakable smell of sulfur. Yes, welcome to Hokkaido’s Hot Spring Hell Valley – the nearby attraction of sulfur steam and surreal landscape that attract hordes of tourists to this hillside town. However, for us (families with young children), Noboribetsu offered a better surprise – the Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe! Read on.
Accommodation: Hotel Mahoroba, Noboribetsu
We chose this hotel for its hot spring / onsen baths but found them quite basic. The staff are generally helpful although they were struggling to converse with us in English. The onsen facility in the hotel is one of the biggest we’ve seen but not surprising as it is Hokkaido’s Hot Spring town. But the onsens are a tad dark and dinghy, particularly their ‘outdoor’ onsen, which has an indoor concrete slide that slides into the murky onsen. I didn’t feel it was safe. The outdoor onsen was also nothing to shout about as it was covered and fenced up (yes, it was outside but so fenced up and steamy, it felt indoors). It’s dark and slippery. Consider yourself warned.
- Food: We arrived at the hotel in the late afternoon. After checking in, we asked for a venue for lunch and were asked to take a walk across the streets facing the hotel to look for a ramen store. Minutes later, in the middle of the 2nd street facing the hotel, we found the unassuming ramen eatery ‘Aji no Daio Noboribetsu‘. Typical Japanese: cramped but the ramen was heavenly!! Home made and apparently famous for its Jigoku (Hell) ramen. We waited for about 15 mins for a vacant table. The service is nothing to shout about but the piping hot ramen is just sublime. The elderly chef disliked people photographing his eatery and flashed us some stern glances. One staff also explicitly told us not to take photos. The hotel buffet dinner which was included in our accommodation was good though, great variety and eat to your heart’s content.
- Hell Valley aka Jigokudani: I personally think this place is overrated if you do not intend to trek to the sulfuric hot springs and geyser. With kids in tow and the strong smell of sulfur in the air, we stood at the entrance, took in the general view, snap a few shots and left after 15 minutes. There are directions to trek closer to the various geysers but the smell can be quite overpowering. Besides, the hotel staff had recommended us somewhere which was originally not in our itinerary which might be more suitable for kids – Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe.
- Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe: For a start, we would return to this place again. It was compact and yet offered an educational experience in learning about the marine animals of Hokkaido. Better still, they have a penguin parade in early December and right in the middle of the day. Excellent! For more info, you can download the English map of the park here.
Highlights of Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe:
- The winter Penguin Parade: we were quite disappointed that the Penguin Parade in Asahiyama Zoo starts only in the middle of Dec. Imagine our joy when we discovered that this Marine Park Nixe has one that suits our schedule!
- The Penguin Parade: Yes, it was so awesome seeing Emperor Penguins waddling just mere centimeters away! Every kid and adult was enthralled. It was truly an experience not to be missed!
- One can really get to see up close some rare and unique marine life that exist in wintry Hokkaido. From shellfishes to seals and sea lions, they are all there. Truly educational!
- The Galaxy Pool: This is so rare and so special and it’s a must see. Thousands of sardines swim and ‘dance’ to sound and light. We can’t really find the word to describe it except…surreal and beautiful! Must not miss!
- The Dolphin show: See some rare and beautiful dolphins perform in their cosy habitat.
After visiting Sapporo, Lake Toya and Noboribetsu, it was time to drive to our final destination – Niseko, where we would spend the next 5 nights skiing, café-hopping and soaking in more onsens! Read about our Niseko experiences below:
DIY Winter Holiday to Hokkaido, Japan (Dec 2016)
Post 1 – Self-Drive Hokkaido: Winter Driving Tips
Post 2 – GoSnow Niseko: Ski School for Kids
Post 3 – Ki Niseko Hotel Review
Post 4 – Keio Plaza Sapporo Review
Post 5 – Asahiyama Zoo, Hokkaido
Post 6 – Hokkaido – The Complete DIY Itinerary
Post 7 – Where to eat in Niseko