Hokkaido for Ladies with Unladylike Appetites

If there is one image that summed up my one-week experience in Hokkaido with Ma Y, it is this:

hokkaido foodjournal

The meals you can have in Hokkaido are reason enough why anyone thinking of taking their mom on a holiday should put Hokkaido on the list of possible destinations. Especially if your mother enjoys her food and cooking as much as mine. Sure, Hokkaido is a tourist trap aimed at both domestic and foreign visitors. But hey, this means that the destinations are mostly accessible and visitor-oriented without losing too much of its authenticity.

So if you've scrunched up some savings and have set aside a week from work, here's a fairly typical itinerary for a reasonably-paced tour of the central parts of Hokkaido:

Day 1: Starters in Sapporo

Start the trip with a leisurely walk in one of Sapporo's many parks*. Without wandering too far from the city centre, there is the Hokudai Shokubutsuen (Botanical Gardens). The park is far from the carefully planned and neat Botanical gardens in Singapore, but it offers some quiet paths and over 40,000 plant varieties. The park also contains some old structures in Sapporo, including Sapporo's 1st museum.

When getting to the park entrance at North 3 West 8, stop first at the strikingly red building at N3 W4. The first Municipal Government Building in Hokkaido, its red facade makes for a great first photo! Plus it is also surrounded by a pretty park with two ponds that attracts the Salaryman-on-a-lunchbreak and the Japanese retiree alike. The Shokubutseun entrance is a short walk right behind the Municipal building. At the entrance is also Hokkaido Ainu Association, which has a small display of Ainu culture objects.

Slide sculpture

After the walk, stop for lunch at a cafe as you make your way southward towards the Tozai subway line or the Odori-koen. Odori park is a fairly narrow strip of green that marks the North and South ends of the city. It's another great place to wander around or even sit and people-watch while having a takeaway lunch (the 7-11 or Lawson's have good tasting sandwiches). This is because Odori Park has some fun sculptural pieces that double up as a kind of playground for kids. In summer, the Sapporo Jazz Festival and various beer/wine/cheese festivals also take place in tents set up around the park

Take the Tozai line subway from Odori Park (several stations are located alongside the Park) for your first Tourist Trap - the Ishiya Chocolate Factory! Get off at the Miyanosawa Station, which is the western terminus of the Tozai line. Check out the map in the station, which would show the location of the chocolate factory. The walk there should not take you more than 10minutes. Even if you don't spot the tour buses, you can smell the Ishiya chocolate biscuits once you are near the building.

Ishiya's oompa-loompas hard at work

The Factory, aka the Shiroi Kobito Chocolate Park, is really a glorified shop for the company's products. There, you can wander around the faux-English facades of the buildings, tour its faux-English rose garden and miniature houses (the kids love this), and make a 15-minute visit to its "museum". From the top floor, you can also look through glass windows down at the chocolate making facility - but that's about as close as you'll get. Still, the Park makes for a relaxing time for your mom taking photographs, watching the kids goofing around, and having a cup of coco. (The Ishiya chocolates are available everywhere in Hokkaido and even at the airports. Prices are the same, so you don't really have to make any purchases here)

After a short rest at the hotel, head on out to Susikino, Sapporo's party district for dinner! Other than Odori Park, Susikino is another venue for Sapporo's festivities. When we were there, the streets were closed to traffic and were filled instead with hawker stands selling beer, noodles and grilled food, and a traditional drumming competition! The Hokkaido folks sure love to party.

Sapporo, Penang-style

*If you have more time to wander further off the city centre, there are more impressive parks. For example, there's the Art Park or the beautiful Maruyama-koen (which has the Hokkaido Jungu temple).

Day 2: Start the gluttony already

The Nijo Fish Market at S2E2 is perhaps only one tenth the size of Tokyo's famous Tsujiki Fish Market, but Hokkaido's reputation for fresh seafood makes up for its small scale. Start the day with a walk to the Market. If you are walking from the North side of the city, take the chance to stop by the Sapporo Clock Tower at N1W3 for a photograph. It is supposedly the oldest working clock tower in Japan, but a clock tower's just a clock tower. At the Nijo Fish Market, try the Hokkaido hairy crab or snow crab, grilled scallops, and a bowl of rice topped with roe, sea urchin or the fish of your choice. If your mom is, like mine, a glutton lady of appetite, ask for the "Yakoburi-don", aka Glutton's don, topped with a variety of seafood. You can eat at the seafood stalls themselves; most have a table or two. That should settle brunch for the day.

Walk off the meal at the Tanuki-Koji arcade, the longest shopping arcade in Sapporo. It starts round the corner from the fish market at S2E1 and ends at S2W8. The shops are mostly souvenir stalls, eateries or rather dowdy boutiques. But it's a pleasant walk away from the sun. If not, exit and walk along W3 or W4 and you will find the Parco departmental store. Your mom will appreciate a toilet or coffee break there.


From there, it's a short walk to the Odori station along the Toho line, past the Odori Park. Take the Toho line to the Higashi Kuyakusho-mae stop to get to... the Tourist Trap of the day - the Sapporo Beer Museum and Bier Garten! Since the actual brewery has moved to a modern factory, the visit is not really going to shed much light on the brewing process etc. The museum's collection, however, does include an interesting display of Sapporo poster advertisements through the years while you fill up on the various brews at the museum bar. The grounds of this old brewery also makes for an enjoyable early evening walk. And as you wander around, decide on the setting for your dinner - you can have Hokkaido's famous grilled lamb in the old beer hall (men in suits), open air restaurant (families and couples) or a more modern annex building (groups of college/high school kids). There's an eat-all-you-can option (with a drink-all-you-can add on)... definitely for Ladies with Appetite.


Day 3: A Venetian Cuppa

Venture out of Sapporo for the day. Otaru is a port town about 30-40 minutes away by train, and touts itself as the "Venice of Japan" (read Major Tourist Trap). It is a scenic train ride. During the 15mins approaching Otaru, the tracks run right beside the coastline, so it feels just like that scene in Spirited Away - a train floating on water.


Once at Otaru, take your time to wander through the streets towards the warehouses closer to the coastline. The town is a mix of preserved old warehouse structures (wooden skeletons completely clad in heavy stone), Victorian buildings and modern concrete shophouses. Once you reach a stretch of canal lined with warehouses that have converted into eateries, take a couple of photographs (yes, it is picturesque) before filling up on an early lunch.

For the rest of the day, visit the many glass studios and shops. You can even try to make your own glass at the K Glass Studio. There's also the Music Box Museum (aka a very large shop) where even if you're not keen to make a purchase, your mom can spend a good hour or so just fiddling around with the various designs. In between, remember to take a break at several dessert and cake shops in Otaru where both of you can have a coffee before your mom fills up the shopping basket. There's the famous Rokkatei, Nii Kuraya and Kitakaro. I won't describe the confectionaries you can find at these places...but they will definitely make you wish later you had left some space for dinner.

Sushi is a relatively inexpensive option at the dedicated Sushi Street. If not, wander into the Sun Shopping Arcade on your way back to the train station. Midway through the arcade, there's a little street that has some 5-6 small bars/eateries that are more like the owners' extended kitchen. Either way, your mom is not likely to be disappointed with her meal.

Day 4: It's Japan Hour!

Hokkaido has many onsen towns. Some are nestled deeper in the nature parks, while others, such as Noboribetsu, are located more accessibly for less adventurous folks. An overnight stay in one of the onsen hotels provides a good break in the middle of your trip for mom to recharge.

Noboribetsu is a 1hr train ride away, south of Sapporo. Leave your luggage at the Sapporo Hotel and pack enough for the next 3 days before heading out. We checked into a "Japanese style" room at the popular Daiichi Takimotokan at Noboribetsu, but I'm sure if you make your bookings early enough, there are a lot more options. Try to see if the hotel offers a dine-in option where they will serve the 8 to 10 dishes in your room. Very Japan Hour, no?

To work up an appetite for dinner, take a walk around Noboribetsu's "Hell Valley" - the source of its sulphuric heat. If your mom has the stamina, extend the walk by trekking to see the crater lakes or the foot bath. The pre-dinner programme can therefore take anything from 20minutes to 2hours or more. There are, of course, other programme options, if your mom is into visiting the cheesy re-created Edo village or the cruel (and smelly) Beer Park nearby. If not, unwind after your walk with an ice cream at the street of shops leading to the hotels. While at the shops, you can also load up on beer, sake or any other drinks for your dinner (warning: prices in the hotel are at least double).

Back in the hotel, spend the next few hours before dinner soaking any tiredness away and warming up your stomach muscles for the stretching it'll get with the dinner!

OnsenMeal This is just for starters!

Day 5: Not for Teetotalers

Sufficiently refreshed after the onsen experience, travel by train to central Hokkaido to visit some of Hokkaido's farmlands. We made Asahikawa, Hokkaido's second largest city, our base. Why? Because it is the location of several sake breweries!

The train journey from Noboribetsu to Asahikawa will take you right through lunch. Once you've checked into your Asahikawa hotel, you may have 2 hours or so to see at least one of the sake breweries.

We went to the popular Otokoyama Sake Brewery via the public bus. It's a 20minute ride on Bus #67, 68, 70, 71 667 from Bus Stop 18 by the Seibu departmental store 5 minutes away from the train station. At the Brewery, there's the usual explanation in Japanese of the brewing process, observation windows into the factory spaces, an outdoor display of the traditional tools, a fountain where you can fill up your bottle with the spring water used in Sake making, and... the tasting room! The ladies in the shop will let you taste most types of Sake, except the priciest ones, and are able to give you some simple explanation in English.

Take the same bus back to the city centre. The central pedestrian avenue from the train station is a pleasant pre-dinner walk, sometimes with lively college buskers. There are lots of Izakayas (little bars that serve a wide variety of seafood and grilled meats) in Asahikawa, so as you wander down the Avenue, look out to the streets on your left or right for Izakayas. We had a delicious meal of grilled meats and gyoza with our ice cold beers!

*Most visitors to Asahikawa go to the Asahiyama Zoo, supposedly the most popular zoo in Japan. If your mom is interested, you may have to put up for one more night in Asahikawa.

Day 6: Fruits of the Land

Furano and Biel are 20-60 minute train rides from Asahikawa where you can recreate those postcard shots of Hokkaido - a field of endless lavender, a patchwork of greens, that lone tree against a bright blue sky... You can start the day at Furano, and stop by Biel on your way back to Asahikawa. If you want an even more leisurely look at this side of Hokkaido, it is worth spending an extra day here. Hey, take things slow - it's a holiday! There's even the Norokko Train (literally 慢吞吞) to both places that travel at a pace deserving of the label "slow coach".


Furano has several food-themed Tourist Traps destinations. There're hourly buses from the Furano station to most of these: the Cheese Factory, Chateau Furano Winery and Grape Juice Factory. They are fairly disappointing, being no more than retail shops where you catch just a glimpse of the actual process. But your mom will likely be rev-ed up by the food shopping. If you haven't tasted Hokkaido milk, the Cheese Factory retails milk in single serving bottles. The same bus will also take you to Farm Tomita, the most visited Lavender farm. Needless to say, photo opportunities abound.

Ma Y was too tired at the end of all this to stop by Biel. But if you make good time at Furano and the weather is pleasant, a 1hour stop at Biel is recommended. If not, head back to Asahikawa for another satisfying Izakaya or Ramen meal. The Asahikawa style of Ramen is supposed to be different from the Sapporo style. I'm not a gourmand enough to tell the difference... but you may be!

Day 7: Last Dips

We were taking the plane back to Singapore on Day 8, so we made our way back to Sapporo on Day 7. At this stage, you may want to spend the day at any destinations at Furano/Biel/Asahikawa that you had missed in the last couple of days. Ma Y opted to spend the day shopping at Sapporo. This meant that we had the chance to track down any other Hokkaido dishes we had yet to try - Soup Curry (it's not just diluted Japanese Curry) and more Izakaya fare! For food-related souvenirs, the basement food halls of Tokyu and Daimaru around the Sapporo Train Station are one-stop shops. They also present another way to end this trip for Ladies with Appetite - a dinner of little snacks, salads, pickles and other dishes from the Japanese supermarket.

More tips for travelling in Hokkaido with Moms

1. Air TravelThere didn't seem to be any direct Singapore-Sapporo flights. Be prepared to transit in Osaka or Tokyo. For arriving via Osaka, international and domestic arrivals are in the same airport/terminal, so transits are easy to make. However, you will need to clear the immigration gates and pick up your bags before checking them in with your domestic flight. For your return journey, however, you can check in your bags straight through to Singapore from Sapporo. All you need is to clear the immigration gates at Osaka or Tokyo Narita. Confirm with your airline/ticket agent on the transit arrangements.

2.Planning the trip Hokkaido is a large island, so train journeys from a city at one end to one at the other could take some 4 to 5 hours. Unless you are spending more than a week there, it'll be tough to see some of the sights at the northern parts. You don't really want to subject your mom to too many long train rides...however comfortable Japan Railway is!

3. Weather Hokkaido's dramatic seasonal shifts will mean that some sights or destinations may be shut to visitors or not what they are advertised to be during certain periods of the year. July/August is great for seeing the lavender fields or even sunflowers in Furano/Biel, but it can get hot, sticky or even wet. Warn your mom to bring her sunblock and a very wide-brimmed hat!

4. Directions/Maps Hokkaido is one of the most "planned" parts of Japan. The cities/towns are essentially grids. You can basically navigate most addresses/maps by checking out the North/South and East/West location. For example, the location of a hotel could be along the North 3 road (N3), by East 3 street (E3). It is not difficult to navigate. And if you can read Chinese characters, you can even figure out the addresses in Japanese.

5. Stamina! Some of the "walking trails" in the nature parks may appear mild/short on the map, but what seems an easy trek to you may be - literally - an uphill struggle for your mom. So be prepared to shorten the walks treks or better still, have your mom take along a hiking or walking aid.

6. Accommodation As with Tokyo, a hotel not more than a 5-6 minute walk from the train station is best. Your mom will probably not have the energy for a long walk back to the hotel after a day out. Note that check-in times for hotels in Japan are usually 2 or 3pm, and are strictly followed. So if you are arriving at a hotel early, be prepared that you won't get a chance to rest in the room first.

7. Shopping Your mom is likely to want to buy lots of the locally produced food/beverages home. So pack less on this trip and bring along a sturdy additional bag (or two) for that return flight!


ampulets said…
really like the title of this post! :) ooishi neh! - TOHA
orangeclouds said…
love your Hokkaido Food Journal, reminds me of the black and white travel illustrations of Senoo Kappa (妹尾河童)
ampulets said…
OC - Haven't heard about Senoo Kappa until your comment. Hwah, his stuff is really v cool...!

(TOHA - next time we go walking there.)

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