We went to Hokkaido in end-October for the first time to chase the autumn foliage. Our itinerary was heavily inspired by BumbleBeeMum’s (https://bumblebeemum.net/) with some alterations. Hokkaido is too big to go everywhere in 7 days, so we decided to concentrate our drive in Central Hokkaido, from Sapporo to Otaru, Niseko, Lake Toya, Noboribetsu and then back to Sapporo again. You could pretty much go through these places clockwise or anti-clockwise, depending on your preference and accommodation availability. Also, we made a wise decision to start and end the trip in Sapporo. In this way, you can leave behind some unneeded (empty) suitcase in your hotel without lugging them in your car, and you can spend the last days shopping to your heart’s desire before heading to the airport! Also, you save money on the car rental as you don’t really need the car in the city itself.
Day 1 – Sapporo
Upon arrival at New Chitose Airport, we took the airport Chuo limousine bus (http://www.chuo-bus.co.jp/highway.en/airport/index.cgi?ope=sap_pole&trjc=8044&trjs=29) to Susukino. We stayed in Mercure Sapporo Hotel, which was recommended by BumbleBeeMum. There are two main areas in Sapporo: the area around the JR Sapporo station with many malls, and Susukino, which is like their equivalent of Gangnam/Osaka with many restaurants and shops in the vicinity. Mercure is in a pretty good location – 1 junction from 2 train stations and the airport bus is diagonally across the road.
The first day we took a walk to explore the main street linking from Susukino, through Odori Park, passing by the green yards of the European-inspired Former Hokkaido Government Office, before ending up at our first lunch stop – Bariki-ya (Hakata-style) Ramen. It’s a tiny shop under the bridge with only counter seating very similar to Ichiran, and you’ve to order from a vending machine. The noodles were amazing.
After some shopping at Yodobashi and Daimaru, we wanted to catch the sunset colours at Mount Moiwa but it was too cloudy. So we decided to go to the Sapporo Beer Museum. There are two main ways to get there: take the train and walk a long way, or take the “Factory” Bus 88. You can self-tour the small gallery area, before you can try some samples.
For dinner, we wanted to eat some Hokkaido Waygu beef, and found Beef Impact along the Tanukikoji Shopping Street. (Our trick to eating when we are overseas – eat early at 5 or 6pm before the main crowd comes, and sleep early to wake up early, to follow the sunset and sunrise timings.) The restaurant allows you to choose beef from local farms or American or Australian. All tastes really good on a hotplate and quite affordable for good steak!
After dinner, we walked down the street with mostly souvenir shops, and we tried the amazing Cremia ice cream made with Hokkaido milk. So creamy and good!
Day 2 – Otaru
We woke up earlier at 5.30am, adjusted our sleep according to the earlier sunrise (6am) and earlier sunset (5am). Unfortunately, nothing much is open yet at that time, but we managed to find a random Udon kiosk in one of the underpass towards Odori station. It’s one of those stand and eat by the side soup Udon with fried tempura, comfy for a cold morning.
We picked up our car, a Nissian X-Trail, at the Nissian Odori rental shop. We began our drive to Otaru via the scenic way – visiting the Hoheikyo Dam first. We were a bit too late to view the autumn foilage, some of the trees were barren, but it was still a nice view nevertheless. You’ve to park and ride the shuttle bus through 2 tunnels to the dam as cars are not allowed at the end. Some people chose to walk through the tunnel, but it seems like a long boring walk. We also took the little funicular lift up the hill for a nicer view.
After that, we drove through Sapporo Lake and stopover for a short break and photo opportunity. The skies and the lake was very blue, and it was beautiful. The road is also quite fun to drive as it curves in a hook down another dam, pretty cool.
Once we reached Otaru, we were hungry and decided to park near the Otarusankaku Fish Market for lunch. It’s a short street with many small shops serving various kinds of kaisen (seafood) don. I learnt that salmon is actually a lousier cut of fish, and tuna is more premium. That’s why most places don’t serve salmon. We had tuna, shredded crab and grilled abalone, everything was very fresh and delicious, and worth it!
After that, we drove to Otaru canal. I found a 600 yen per entry parking lot, which is more worth it than paying per hour. It’s a short walk from the Otaru Beer Warehouse and the rest of the canal. The canal was shorter than what I expected, a little underwhelming. We stopped by Kita Northern Ice Cream, which has strange ice cream flavours, but we thought it wasn’t that fantastic.
Once we reached the Sakaimachi street, that’s when the real shopping begins. The street is filled with shops that sells little glassware, figurines, cute things and of course, LeTao cheesecake! In fact, there’s not 1 but 3 LeTao stores along the street. Pop in for samples of everything, and buy a double fromage cheesecake home for breakfast. (The other biscuits and souvenirs, you can buy from the airport when you go home.) We also found a store selling Choux Ice Cream puff and at the end of the street is the famous Music Box museum. The LeTao store at the end of the street also has a small viewing tower, you can climb up the stairs to the top for a nice view of the area. We were too full for dinner, so we ate amazing various kinds of fish cakes at a local fish cake factory called Kamaei. It’s like takeaway yong tau foo – they have fishcake wrapped with various things.
We ended our day early at an airbnb sea overlooking the street and the sea.
Day 3 to Niseko
This was my favourite day and the day which we did the most driving. After eating LeTao cheesecake for breakfast, we set off for a drive to Otaru Shukutsu Observation deck, a small turnout where we could see the sea and the town.
Next stop was Yoichi, where we visited the Nikki Whiskey Museum. We were early birds, arriving just at 9am when it opened, so there was no other tourists yet. The low rise warehouses where the whiskey are stored gave it a European charm. You can also try whiskey here if you’re not one of the drivers.
After that, I found a random tiny hipster coffee place called Coffee Stand by shizuku. It’s very near the whiskey museum but it’s really in the middle of nowhere. It’s so hipster that the coffee and the milk was brewed fresh on a stove kettle – no machines at all. So cray.
We then drove an hour or so towards Cape Shakotan, where we had lunch at Osyokujidokoro Misaki, which was recommended by many bloggers. There were two bike gangs who was riding in front of us and they arrived there as well. This place was known to have the best sea urchins and it didn’t disappoint. First, at 1pm, many items were selling out and they were going to close for the season in end October. So we only could choose the sea urchin don with roe and crab. But you know what, it was the freshest sea urchin I’ve ever tasted, and the biggest and roundest roe I’ve ever seen! It’s so fresh and amazing, no wonder this place is famous.
After the awesome lunch, we are pumped enough for our first real hike at Cape Shakotan. We walked through this long tunnel which was really windy and cooling, and was rewarded with an amazing view of the ocean and the rocks below. There was a path leading down to the beach. Thinking that this was the hiking path, we descended down. We were WRONG! The steps are like 10 storeys down and the only way up is the same way down. Very tiring to hike back up. We only realised that the actual hiking path wad was the tarmac road before the tunnel. By then, we were too tire already. The beach was nice though and filled with many pebbles. Took us an hour to go down and up.
Next stop is Cape Kamui, which is my favourite place on earth after Point Reyes. I wanted to come here because it looks so similar to Point Reyes – a combination of the deep blue sea, high cliffs and cooling breeze. Perfect creation of God. It was a nice hike uphill and downhill to the tip, almost looking like the Great Wall of China at certain vantage points. The steps are not as steep as Cape Shakotan’s, but the path is longer and more scenic. At the end, you’re rewarded with the ocean and a few odd rocks. There was also a cute little shiba that actually made it all the way there and Liz managed to carry it to take a photo, although the dog was a bit reluctant. Haha. Noodle wouldn’t have made it out here. The whole walk to and fro was about 90 minutes long, 2 hours if you take more breaks.
Next stop, Niseko. But before that, supermarket shopping first! Haha. I was trying to find where’s a nice place to take a break from the long drive other than a petrol kiosk. I found an Aeon Maxvalu supermarket on the map and we decided to check it out. Indeed, it looked like those small groceries strip in rural America, but Japanese version haha. We went a bit crazy and managed to stock up enough food to cook breakfast in our apartment the next day!
Day 4 to Lake Toya
In the morning, it started to drizzle, which turned into a wintery mix of rain and snow, and then snow for real! We drove out of our nice apartment and I had to brave the snow to the checkout counter. The winds were pretty strong from the tychoon that affected Tokyo. We drove to the famous Niseko Milk Kobo to have some nice desserts. The wind was so strong that one of their glass doors broke! We could even see the cars outside wobbling.
It was actually a good day to snow as the drive to Lake Toya wasn’t too far. Just that it was so cloudy that we couldn’t really see the lake when we approached it. We reached our luxurious Lake Toya Nonokaze, abit too early for check-in. We sat around in the lobby which has a nice view of the lake and the cute island on it but it was too rainy to see Mount Yotei. After much waiting, we finally could check-in and go check out the onsen! It wasn’t very big, there were about 5 different small pools to choose from.
The highlight of the hotel is the buffet dinner and breakfast. It was a sumptuous spread with top quality sashimi, seafood and more.
Day 5 to Noboribetsu
We woke up early to make use of the onsen again. I’m not really into it so I always take a shorter time than the ladies haha. But we managed to try the rooftop outdoor one in the cold. It’s quite an interesting sensation, and the view of Mount Yotei in the morning was clear and therapeutic.
After checking out, we drove to the nearby volcano eruption site, where there’s a museum of buildings that survived the previous eruption. With the support of Mom, we went on a short hike to the nearest crater. It wasn’t too steep except for one small part, but the view was quite scenic as we went higher. The lake was super blue and the surrounding autumn foilage was beautiful. The crater was a bit too steep for mom, so we climbed out ourselves. Not very big. We managed to go up and down in about 2 hours. We ended up at the volcano museum for a toilet break before we set off.
We drove to another building that was preserved after another eruption. This one was more interesting as the roof collapsed. Plants started to grow around it. Looks like an apocalyptic scene.
Next stop was the bear museum. The reviews for this particular one wasn’t that great so we skipped it. We took the cable car up Mount Usu. The weather was really really amazing. It was clear skies with no fog and we could see Mount Yotei in the north to the sea in the south, and the surrounding autumn foilage on the mountains. Breathtaking! We did a short hike up along flight of stairs to have a view of the crater area on top of Mount Usu.
After a quick snack, we drove to a small final overlook of Lake Toya, before proceeding to the fruit farm area. It’s apple season and everywhere has apples! The rest stop / visitor’s centre also doubles up as a supermarket to sample all the different apples. We drove up to the one that bubblebeemom went. We decided not to waste money picking since you have to eat everything you picked and have to pay to dabao the rest. We chanced upon this interesting honey apple that has an exterior of a Washington red apple but an interior like soft peach. Extraordinarily tasty and sweet!
We began our longer drive to Noboribetsu via the Ofuro Pass. Unfortunately after a short ascent the road was closed, probably due to the snow yesterday. Alas, we have to take the less scenic route via the expressway. We stopped by a bridge which is supposedly nice for autumn foliage but was a bit disappointing. We arrived at Hell’s Valley at sunset.
After checking in at the Dai-Ichi Noboribetsu hotel, we went to check out the hot springs again! This hotel’s one is ginormous! It’s like the old school roman-style public bath with like 10 different pools and a few outdoor ones. The pools all have different temperatures and coloured spring water. The experience here, although older, is more fun and the hot spring is better. The hotel itself is pretty old and tiny though, our rooms were made of old wood and we slept on futon beds on the floor.
The hotel’s buffet dinner and breakfast are quite comparable too. Less pretty, but alot of variety. After breakfast, we took walk down to hell’s valley which is just a stone’s throw away from the hotel, so save money on parking haha. The autumn leaves on the edge of the cliffs were beautiful. We also went for a short hike into the forests to a place overlooking another sulphur lake. After that, we decided to hike back and check out.
We started our last day’s drive around Lake Kuttara, which is as recommended by JK. The windy road had nice autumn foliage around it, and the lake was quite scenic too. After that, we stopped by a souvenir/snacks shop just at the corner of the expressway. It sold a lot of local sweets and we managed to buy some nice bean puff thingy.
Finally, we embarked on the drive back to Sapporo. On the way, we tried to stop by a cow ranch, but the restaurant there wasn’t open and it was very ulu. We also stopped by another small park and decided to take a detour to Lake Shikotsuko to eat cheese mochi! One of the roads towards there was initially closed, so we had to take a longer route. But it was a worthwhile detour. The park at the foot of the lake is beautiful with many trees and autumn foliage and even a little bit of snow. The cheese mochi was so good that we bought two. The drive out of the lake was also impressive and wet and snowy.
Just before returning the car, we stopped by the Royce Chocolate factory on the outskirts, which we realised wasn’t really worth it since you can buy all the snacks elsewhere at the same price. We also stopped by an Aeon supermarket, which was located in a very American-like strip mall. It felt like I was shopping at Walmart haha.
It’s the last full day in Sapporo with alot of shopping ahead. In the morning, we went to a coffee in a hole in the wall (Baristart) and it was one of the best coffee I’ve ever had. You could choose from 3 different kinds of milk, and they all have different sweetness and richness ratings, and they really tasted different. The coffee was so good that Liz was willing to drink it. Wow. So life changing.
Mom had a mission to buy cheese, and liz wanted to shop for other stuff. Meanwhile, I still wanted to take the cable car to Mount Moiwa. Hence, we had abit of a dilemma, should I sacrifice my wish so that I can be my wife? Should my wife sacrifice her shopping? She decided to do so, reluctantly, which was the worst decision I let her make. Cos she didn’t feel like going and she was impatient during the journey. I was perfectly fine to go alone actually..In the end the view wasn’t that fascinating after all, missed the sunset timing.
We still managed to eat black pig, Ippudo for dinner as we couldn’t decide where to go. The waitresses were quite funny, they wanted to take photos with us cos we were tourists lol.
All in all, it was a very fulfilling Hokkaido trip!