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Hokkaido: The Home of the Ainu People

3 Days 2 Nights
Writer
Zurien Onn
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If you could spend only three days in Sapporo, HOKKAIDO, be sure to include these spots in your itinerary for an authentic Hokkaido experience.

Odori Park is a popular spot in Sapporo, Hokkaido for its beauty and central location.

Lately, Sapporo in Hokkaido, the largest prefecture in Japan, has been a very popular tourist destination for skiing and other snow activities. In fact, the Sapporo Snow Festival, which takes place every first week of February, is one of the biggest snow festivals in the world. However, there’s more than just snow and ice in Sapporo, or in fact in the whole of Hokkaido. If you have only three days and two nights to explore the island, though, here are some must-visit attractions that should be on your itinerary.

Day 1

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Learn about the natural history of the island at Hokkaido Museum.

Try to get the earliest flight that lands at the Sapporo New Chitose Airport so that you can get a full day of exploring the city. Your first day there would be the perfect time to get acquainted with the history of Sapporo and Hokkaido. At the Hokkaido Museum, learn all about the unique indigenous people of Hokkaido called the Ainu, who share genealogy with the Ainu people of Russia. The Ainu were only officially recognised as indigenous to Japan in 2008, thus there is much that even the Japanese do not know about them, and Hokkaido Museum is the perfect place to learn all about their unique history, culture and traditions.

Meanwhile, near the museum is the Historical Village of Hokkaido, which is an open-air museum that lets you experience what it might have been like in Hokkaido during the Meiji period (1868-1912) up to the Showa period (1926-1989), with fifty-two historical structures that have been relocated or recreated to reflect Hokkaido’s past. Get a dual-pass ticket that allows you to visit both the Hokkaido Museum as well as the historical village at a cheaper price.

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The Historical Village of Hokkaido looks strikingly beautiful amidst white snow in winter.

While in Hokkaido, which has been described as the epicentre of ramen culture in Japan, you have to check out the Ramen Alley in Susukino, which is a 4-minute walk from Susukino transit station. True to its moniker, there is an abundance of ramen shops, as well as yakitori shops, but one you should try is Ebisoba Ichigen (ebisoba.com), a favourite with the locals. If you’re visiting the Sapporo Wholesale Market, try a bowl of “kaisen don” - a bowl of rice topped with seafood fare - found at many of the restaurants here. Meanwhile, at Kita no Gurumetei, also inside the market, you can get an all-in-one dish of Sapporo’s seafood special with crab, sea urchins, salmon roe and seasonal local fish.

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Try to enjoy a bowl of “Kaisen Don” when in Hokkaido for the fresh seafood in authentic Japanese style.

Day 2

What’s a trip to Hokkaido without having some fun in the snow? For a short day trip from Sapporo city centre make your way to the Sapporo Bankei Ski Area which is just a 30-minute’s drive from the city and has English-speaking staff. There are 17 different courses there, so there’s something for everyone, from tubing for kids to advanced skiing for those well-acquainted with snow. If you’re a snowboarder, you might be interested to know that Bankei has the longest half pipe in Japan, at 230 metres. Another ski area close to downtown is the Sapporo Moiwayama Ski Area near Mt. Moiwa, also about a 30-minute’s drive from the city centre. Each snow resort should have their respective eateries and the soba and curry dishes at Bankei are much recommended to warm up after a day of snow.

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The experience of snow and winter in Sapporo can feel very magical, indeed.

Speaking of warming up, if you have a few hours to spare before dark and want to squeeze in another authentic Japanese experience, head on to the Hoheikyo Onsen (hoheikyo.co.jp), about a 40-minute’s drive from Bankei, Moiwayama, and the city centre. Water from the hot springs is good for blood circulation, of course, but what’s special about Hoheikyo is how the baths have been designed to make it a comfortable experience as possible for visitors. The three pools at the open-air bath have been designed by landscape professionals in a way where you can sit with the water up to your neck on lower-stacked stones, or fully relax lying down on top of stones stacked up higher in the pool. The surroundings have also been interestingly designed, with ornaments like water mills creating a rustic ambience, and it has an Indian restaurant to feed those after-soak hunger pangs.

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Winter sports enthusiasts will attest that Hokkaido has some of the best powder out there.

No time for a full-on bath, though? Then how about soaking your foot in warm mineral-rich at Kokoro no Sato Jozan Footbath and Lounge, about 7 minutes away from Hoheikyo? Footbath seatings have been built into scenic settings, and before or after a soak, you can even explore the nearby forest. On the way back to your hotel, or perhaps on the way to Hoheikyo or Kokoro no Sato, pass by the beautiful Shiraito Waterfalls - it’s small but it looks insanely beautiful any time of the year, but especially ethereally so in winter.

You can have dinner at any of the ramen restaurants near the Kokoro footbath, or head back into the city and have some good ol’ Jingisukan BBQ from Matsuo Jingisukan (matsuo1956.jp), in the Nissay Sapporo building. The specialty here is lamb, and you can have 3 kinds of Jingisukan, which means Japanese grilled mutton.

Day 3

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Get an overview of all the places you have visited from the Sapporo TV Tower viewing deck.

Your last day in Hokkaido would be a good day to get in some panoramic views of Sapporo. This could be done from either the Sapporo TV Tower, in Odori Park, or the Sapporo JR Tower, where you could also squeeze in a bit of shopping as it houses a shopping mall. However, a unique and fun-filled way to view the city would be from atop the Sapporo Hitsujigaoka Observation Hill. A historical location that operated as the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce Tsukissapu Sheep Farm, and then later the Hokkaido Agricultural Experiment Station, here stands a statue of Dr William S Clark, who was president of the Massachusetts Agricultural College in America, and was hired in 1876 by the Japanese government as a foreign advisor to establish the Sapporo Agricultural College, which is now Hokkaido University. You’ll find his motto, “Boys, Be Ambitious!” emblazoned under his statue, a parting message to his students after the end of his tenure. To find out more about this man’s remarkable life, visit the nearby Hitsujigaoka and Dr Clark Museum.

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Climbing up the Sapporo Hitsujigaoka Observation Hill is another good way to look out over Sapporo.

Meanwhile, if you choose to go the Sapporo TV Tower Route, do visit the nearby Sapporo Clock Tower, which used to be a part of the drill hall of the Sapporo Agricultural College, and is currently the oldest building standing in Sapporo. Before you go off to the airport, grab a bite at Ichiyaboshito Kaisendon Dekitateya, right inside the clock tower, for a feast of fresh sushi and sashimi.

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Learn more about Hokkaido’s history and then savour some sushi and sashimi at the Sapporo Clock Tower.

TRAVEL TIPS WHEN IN SAPPORO

Compared to more bustling cities like Tokyo or Osaka, it may be better to rent a car while in Hokkaido as many places might be a long walk from the nearest train station, especially if you’re planning to visit more natural locations outside the city. Driving in Hokkaido is fairly easy and you might even find it to be pleasant, especially when you can stop as often as you want to take a picture against the beautiful scenery. However, driving in winter might be a bit more challenging, but most car rental companies will provide winter tyres for free during this low- season. Do check if the car you’ll be renting includes an English-language GPS, and set aside money for tolls you might come upon on long drives. To drive in Japan, you will need an International Driving Permit (IDP).

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Enjoy the festivities outside of the Shiroi Kobitoi Chocolate Factory if you happen to visit Hokkaido during Christmastime.

GETTING THERE

International flights into Hokkaido will get into the New Chitose Airport, with operating airlines from Kuala Lumpur including AirAsia X and Malindo Air.

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