AN EARLY WINTER EXPERIENCE IN NORTHERN JAPAN: Exploring Niseko, Sapporo, & Otaru (December 2016)
Are you looking for a new winter destination? Check out my early winter experience in Hokkaido.
5 day schedule during my stay in Hokkaido:
|Day 2||Day 3||Day 4||
|Jetstar Flight to Sapporo (via Nagoya)
Hokkaido Resort Liner to Niseko
Go Snow Snowboarding
Grand Hirafu Mountain
Hokkaido Resort Liner to Sapporo
|Nijo Fish Market
Shiroi Koibito Park
Snow Cruise Onze
Le Tao Otaru
Stellar Place – Nemuro Hanamaru
Daimaru Department Store
Cross Hotel Sapporo
|Cross Hotel Sapporo
New Chitose Airport
Jetstar Flight to Manila (via Nagoya)
Flights to/from Hokkaido
As of December 2016, there are no direct flights from the Philippines to Hokkaido. Most flights from Manila arrive at Tokyo (Narita), Nagoya (Chubu), Osaka (Kansai), and Fukuoka. From there, you would have to board another plane to reach Hokkaido.
I flew with Jetstar through a connecting flight to New Chitose airport via Nagoya (Chubu). Through research, Jetstar is the only low cost carrier that provides connecting flights from Manila to Hokkaido.
The airlines that usually have seat sale promos to Japan that would cost as low as ₱5,000 for a roundtrip flight are Jetstar and Cebu Pacific but the latter does not have any connecting flight to Hokkaido yet. From random checking through discounted travel booking websites, flights to Hokkaido from Japan cities mentioned above can cost at least ₱5,000 for a roundtrip flight. If you watch out for seat sales, a connecting flight from Manila to Hokkaido would cost at least ₱10,000.
My Jetstar flight was a pleasant experience. I left Manila at 12 midnight and arrived at Nagoya (Chubu) at around 6:00 am. I had a 2 hour wait and had breakfast at the airport. My flight to Hokkaido took around 2 more hours and I arrived at the New Chitose airport at 10:30 am.
Japan is only ahead by an hour so there were no red eye or jet lag effects. Transits of the flights were good as I had enough time for departure and arrival processes. Flight attendants were lively and accommodating as well to make sure all the needs of the passengers were supported.
Please do note that if you decide to take this flight during the winter season, expect delays due to snow showers. During my flight back to Manila, there was a continuous snow shower from morning to afternoon. I was lucky enough that my flight was only delayed for an hour. My 2 hour transit in Nagoya (Chubu) was able to compensate for the delay plus the Jetstar crew from both the New Chitose airport and Nagoya airport made sure that I would be able to make my connecting flight on time.
In instances that delays or cancellations happen, it is very normal to get frustrated but try to calm yourself down and remember that there are things that happen that airlines have no control over. Just be grateful that they always prioritize your safety. Just try to make the best out of every situation.
Book your flights with JETSTAR today! Visit http://www.jetstar.com/ph/en/home
In my 5 days in Hokkaido, I was able to visit 3 cities (Sapporo, Otaru, Chitose) and a very popular town (Niseko). No matter how short my stay was, Hokkaido was really amazing and I really maximized every experience I could in every place I was in.
Niseko was definitely the highlight of my Hokkaido trip. Scratch that, Niseko was definitely the travel highlight of my 2016. I am not sure why not a lot of Filipinos write about this place because Niseko is really a must-see, must-experience destination in Japan during the winter. It is known by winter sports enthusiasts from around the world for its quality powder snow and has been credited as one of the best ski resorts in Japan and Asia.
HOW I GOT TO NISEKO
From the New Chitose Airport, I traveled to Niseko via the Hokkaido Resort Liner. One way costs Y4,000 (₱1,693+). The buses leave and arrive on time so make sure you are at the boarding gates 15 minutes before your scheduled departure. There is one stopover where you can take a bathroom break or buy food at a store. The bus took around 3 hours until it reached my Niseko stop (Hirafu Welcome Center).
The view of snowy forests and vast seas made the bus ride worth it. It was one of the most beautiful scenic bus rides I’ve ever had in my life. During the bathroom break, when I stepped off the bus and the sky was showering me with snow, I was filled with glee and gratitude. It felt like magic! Those were the kind of moments to definitely live for.
There were points of 0 visibility because of a snow shower but the driver knew how to handle it. The bus was a safe ride overall and I would definitely recommend the company as a choice for your transport to/from Niseko. Visit http://www.access-n.jp/winter2015/sp/en/ for more information.
WHERE I STAYED
I was only in Niseko for 2 days and 1 night so travel activities were limited. I got to explore the surrounding areas of my hotel, was able to explore the biggest ski resort in Niseko United– Grand Hirafu mountain (other resorts are Hanazono, Niseko Village, and An’nupuri), and have a snowboarding lesson.
I stayed at Ki Niseko, one of the best ski-in ski-out hotels at Grand Hirafu. This hotel is very convenient as the Grand Hirafu mountain slope is just right behind it. The Hirafu gondola which brings you up the mountains is also just a 30 second walk away.
Ki Niseko is a very luxurious hotel. It provides you with the best amenities and has a very proactive team that supports you during your entire stay. Their concierge can provide you with all the things that you need to know about Niseko. Ki Niseko is definitely the best hotel I’ve stayed at in my entire life so far. Check them out at https://www.kiniseko.com/
WHERE I ATE
Since I was in Niseko for a limited time, I only had 3 full meals – 2 at Ki Niseko and 1 at the Grand Hirafu mountain café. If I was hungry in between those meals, I bought snacks beforehand at the New Chitose airport. There are convenience stores and restaurants around Grand Hirafu which is a 10-15 minute walk from the hotel I stayed at but I just decided to have my meals at Ki Niseko for convenience.
I had a signature course meal and a breakfast buffet at Ki Niseko’s An Dining. Both these meals comprised of Western and Japanese variety.
Ki Niseko’s breakfast buffet was the best breakfast I have had in my entire life so far. Everything was just of quality. I cannot remember a time when I wanted to eat more than I could handle in one seating. Make sure you try the Hokkaido butter and bread selection as well as the gluten free desserts. Everything was just really good that I cannot really pinpoint a favorite. NAKAKAIYAK YUNG SARAP! SOBRA!
For the signature course meal, the meals had hits and misses. The misses were meals that had acquired tastes. The overall experience was really good as each dish served will be properly explained to you so you get to learn more about the dish you are about to eat. If you want to cap off your amazing stay in Niseko with a luxurious dinner, An Dining is definitely the place to be.
The breakfast buffet is Y2,000 (₱851+) and the signature course meal is Y8,000 (₱3,404+). Even if you’re not staying at Ki Niseko, you can still eat at An Dining.
I also had lunch at the Grand Hirafu mountain café. To reach this place, you have to ride the Hirafu gondola. The food at the café is a bit expensive but the serving is huge. I ordered a ramen there for Y950 (₱404+). It was really delicious. Eating a ₱400 meal with the view of Mt Yotei felt like it costed more. I felt very blessed.
Coming from a country with only 2 seasons, visiting Niseko was really a winter wonderland dream come true for me. Everything was just so white and pristine. The weather complimented the views and its surroundings. It was simple but extravagant at the same time.
Winter activities are a must in Niseko so make sure to try the different winter lessons being offered if you’re a first timer. In my case, I decided to try snowboarding. The night before my lessons, I got my snowboard equipment and gear at Rhythm Sports. The 1 day rental rate for my snowboard, boots, jacket, and pants cost me Y7,363 (₱3,116+).
At Grand Hirafu, winter lessons are provided by Go Snow. The cheapest snowboard lesson you can get is a half day one for Y9,000 (₱3,809+). My snowboard lesson was definitely a fun and challenging experience. I was one in a group of 5 adults. Our ski instructor was from Poland and he made the lesson really fun and interactive.
He taught basic skills and included a few games. It was really an amazing experience. The view of the mountain slope was a bonus as well. The Go Snow lessons slope was surrounded by all white snow that at some points it really took my breath away – literally from the lesson and metaphorically from the view.
I learned a lot during this snowboarding lesson.
(1) Learn to let go and just have fun!
(2) When you fall down, get back up! That’s it!
(3) There is always someone there to support you. Always!
After my snowboard lesson, I had a few more hours before I had to get on my bus back to Sapporo so I maximized my time at the Hirafu mountain. I bought a Grand Hirafu lift pass (5 consecutive hours) for Y3,400 (₱1,439+).
The Hirafu gondola ride was an experience itself as you’ll see an amazing view of the mountain slope and Mt Yotei – one that can be likened to Mt Fuji. You’ll definitely see a breathtaking view of the whole Grand Hirafu area.
At the top, you’ll find more lifts to bring you to higher points of the mountain, the café, forests, and a lot of fresh snow! Aside from food, the café is also a resting area with heaters, bathrooms, and wi-fi. You can stay here during the afternoon with your friends or kids to play in the snow or take photos and videos.
You can also walk around – kind of like a snow shoe experience. If you do not plan on doing any winter sports when in Niseko, you can definitely just stay at the top of this mountain and maximize your stay there.
When in Hokkaido during the winter season, Niseko is definitely a MUST!
HOW I GOT TO SAPPORO
From Niseko, I took the Hokkaido Resort Liner to Sapporo. The stopover during this bus ride was only a bathroom break. The area consisted of a parking area and toilets only. One way still costs the same – Y4,000 (₱1,693+).
WHERE I STAYED
I stayed at two accommodations during my stay in Sapporo – a guesthouse/hostel and a hotel.
During my first 2 nights, I stayed at GUEST HOUSE YUYU. This just opened last August 2014 so everything is new. All the amenities are complete and very clean. I availed a bottom bunk bed in a female dormitory of 8. A locker and key are provided to keep your important belongings safe. You can also rent towels and other amenities for cheap prices.
The bed and pillows were really soft and comfortable. The bathroom was really clean. The showers and toilets are separated into individual rooms and the sinks are in a common area. Everything is very clean and toiletries like shampoo and soap are provided. Rates through Agoda for one night at Guest House Yuyu cost Y2,700 (₱1,149+).
The common area has that wood cabin feel to it so it was very cozy. The Guest House Yuyu team was really friendly and provided everything that you needed to know during your stay.
During my last night at the guesthouse, a few Chinese guests hosted dinner and we were all there talking and getting to know each other. It was really a fun night! It was really refreshing communicating with different people from around the world. I learned a lot. The guesthouse team is really amazing. I was really inspired by the story of how the guesthouse materialized. You have to ask the owner when you book a bed so you can be inspired as well! 😉 Trust me, you would want to meet him!
OMG! Sobrang gwapo! Tagalog nalang para hindi niya maintindihan sakaling basahin niya to! HAHAHAHA! Tinuran ko siya paano mag salita ng Filipino. HAHAHAHA! Sobrang nakakatawa! Sinabi ko sakanya if may babae siyang guest, sabihin niya na maganda siya! Sinabi niya saakin, you’re ganda! HAHAHAHA! Kinilig ako! Well. OA. Pero super saya! Laki ng ngiti ko! HAHAHAHAHA!
When I was there, they offered me a crowdfunding proposal wherein they would give me a 50% refund on my booking in exchange for a thank you letter to the people who provided capital to the owners of the guesthouse. That’s a pretty great deal and I love writing thank you letters!
Some significant distances to note when you book this hotel:
(1) 3 minute walk to/from Nijo Fish Market;
(2) 10 to 15 minute walk to/from JR Sapporo Station;
(3) 5 minute walk to/from Odori Park;
(4) A 30 second walk to/from 7 eleven.
If you’re a solo traveler or with a group of friends travelling to Japan on a budget, stay at Guest House Yuyu! The amenities are great and you’ll meet some of the best people from around the world. Check out Guesthouse Yuyu today, visit http://yuyu-gh.com/ or email directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
During my last night, I stayed at CROSS HOTEL SAPPORO. If you book through discount hotel booking websites, one night can cost as low as ₱3,500 during low season and ₱5,500 during peak season. These estimated amounts are for 2 people already.
The amenities are complete and clean. The bed was really comfortable too. Toiletries provided are from expensive beauty brands like Acca Kappa and L’occitane. You also have complimentary water bottles and a pack of Hokkaido local coffee beans.
The hotel promotes local art and music as its theme. They house a café & bar and a restaurant and they also sell local Hokkaido products at the lounge.
One of the highlights of this hotel for me was the large public bath at the top floor. You will have an onsen-like (spa or bathing facility) experience with an amazing view of Sapporo city.
Some significant distances to note when you book this hotel:
(1) 5 minute walk to/from JR Sapporo station;
(2) 8-10 minute walk to/from Odori Park;
(3) Seconds away from convenience stores, malls, and restaurants.
If you’re travelling with kids or want an accommodation of convenience and comfort, I highly recommend Cross Hotel Sapporo.
Check out the hotel today, visit http://www.crosshotel.com/eng_sapporo/
SAPPORO SIGHTSEEING & FOOD HOPPING
Most places I visited in Sapporo involved food. And of these places, most were near my accommodations so it only required walking.
The farthest place I visited which required a few subway rides is Shiroi Koibito Park. This park is one of the most popular attractions in Sapporo as it showcases one of the most famous desserts in Hokkaido – Ishiya. I am sure that most Filipinos who travel to Japan buy this as a gift to bring home as you can find this at most airports and shops around the country.
The park features a chocolate factory walk where you can find the products’ history, facts, and a viewing room where employees make the actual desserts. The walk costs Y600 (₱254+).
Outside the factory, you’ll find different statues and entertaining figures that kids would definitely love. There is also a restaurant and a candy store where you can buy food and the park’s products.
Most people visit this place to try the Ishiya cookie turned ice cream.
The ice cream was really creamy and tasted like the chocolate filling of their best selling cookies. If you do not have time to visit this place, the ice cream can be bought at certain convenience stores at the New Chitose airport.
A 3 minute walk away from my accommodation is Nijo fish market. As I have been to Tokyo before, I can say that this is like a mini Tsukiji fish market. There are a lot of fresh produce and so many photos of sushi bowls. People were trying out raw oysters and other seafood near the stalls.
Walking through the market, I saw an inner street that had a long line. Curious as to what it was, I fell in line with them. Nearing the front, I saw that it was “Donburi Chaya” – a sushi bowl restaurant I read a few times on the internet while searching places to eat in Sapporo. I waited about 30 minutes before I was seated. One small sushi bowl was worth Y1,650 (₱704+). The seafood was very fresh and the rice tasted so good. I still prefer our meal at Tsukiji market but this sushi bowl is a good try as well.
Odori park is a very popular destination in Sapporo especially during the Snow festival in February. But since I was there in early December, there were no snow sculptures yet. Instead, I got to experience the Sapporo White Illumination.
This can be likened to the Ayala lights show in Makati but a bit more grand. The night features a lot of Christmas figures illuminated by different colors of lights. It may start or end at the Sapporo TV tower where you’ll find an Eiffel tower-like figure as your guide while walking through the night.
There is also a Munich Christmas market during the night where different European brands sell food and merchandise. The crowds and lines were a bit long as I went on a weekend night so I didn’t get to try any of the food.
It was a really beautiful sight and a good cold stroll at night. During the morning, when I passed by Odori park it felt a little bare with all the lights off and all brown ground so during this time it is better to visit it at night.
The best place I ate at in Sapporo is Nemuro Hanamaru – a conveyor belt sushi restaurant at Stellar Place. This is just beside the JR Sapporo station. The restaurant can be found at the 6th floor. I went on a weekday because people online said that it had really long lines. When I went at around 1:00 pm, I was surprised to see that the line was very long.
I got my number and I waited for 1 hour and 30 minutes before I was seated. There are no English signs at this restaurant! Even the waiter calling out the number said everything in Japanese. I just looked at the numbers people had on their stubs beside me so I know how close I was to being called. Gratefully, when my number was called, the man beside me told me it was my turn and pointed me to the waiter.
It was a good wait because the sushi tasted so fresh! I tried all the tuna fat selections and it was so heavenly. The waiters provide you with a menu where you can find the rates of each colored plate. You can opt to write all your orders down and indicate if you want wasabi or not.
The plates running through the conveyor belt all have wasabi in them so writing your orders down is a good option if you don’t like wasabi. The cheapest plate costs Y120 (₱50+) and the most expensive plate I tried was priced at Y430 (₱183+). My total bill was Y1,800 (₱764+). The line was worth the wait! If you have patience and want good sushi, this restaurant is definitely a must try!
There are so many more places to see in Sapporo. I got sick on my last day so I missed out on visiting Susukino and Mt Moiwa ropeway but all the places I experienced were good enough for me. Sapporo is a great city and there is so much more to explore! This is a city that I will definitely come back to.
I explored two places in Otaru – Otaru City and Snow Cruise Onze.
HOW I GOT TO OTARU CITY
At JR Sapporo station, I availed the Sapporo-Otaru Welcome pass for Y700 (₱297+). It is an unlimited pass on all trains between Sapporo and Otaru plus all subway lines in Sapporo. You need to present your passport when you avail this pass.
I liked the train ride from Sapporo to Otaru as the train passes by the sea. You’ll be met with a vast sea view and a few rock formations. Even if the ride took a little less than an hour (I rode the semi rapid line), the train was an entertaining ride overall.
VISITING OTARU CITY
I only spent a few hours in Otaru city as the cold became unbearable for me. I took photos at the Otaru canal which is a very popular attraction during February as the snow envelopes this whole river making it a winter spectacle. During my visit, there was no snow. But I liked the view of the canal and the walkway beside it was good for a stroll.
One of the most popular cheesecakes in Hokkaido is made in Otaru city at Le Tao. A 20 minute walk from the train station, I arrived at Le Tao Pathos. The restaurant showcased the most scrumptious looking desserts.
I got to try their bestseller platter which comprised of the Double Fromage cheesecake, Chocolate Double Fromage cheesecake, and an egg custard. Everything was really tasty. If you do not have time to visit Otaru, these cheesecakes can be bought at the New Chitose and Nagoya airports.
If you don’t have time to visit Otaru, these desserts can be found at the New Chitose and Nagoya airports. I bought one for my mom and she said it was the best cheesecake she has ever had in her entire life so far.
EXPLORING SNOW CRUISE ONZE
Niseko was not included in my initial plan for my Hokkaido trip so I looked for different ski resorts near Sapporo that would be open as early as the first week of December. I found Snow Cruise Onze, a ski resort in Otaru, which is only a 40 minute bus ride away from Sapporo.
Snow Cruise Onze is a ski resort that is open as early as November. They produce artificial snow and mix it in with fresh snow when it falls weeks later. This is one of the most affordable ski resorts near Sapporo that I canvassed during my research. It provides winter activity lessons, rentals, and lift passes. Adult lift tickets start at Y3,100 (₱1,338+) and Ski & snowboard set rental starts at Y4,100 (₱1,769+) for 1 day. Snow Cruise Onze is open daily from 9:00 am to 11:00 pm.
The information center houses lockers, bathrooms, a food court, food stalls, wi-fi, and rest areas. The resort also provides free shuttle buses to/from Sapporo so you don’t have to worry about your budget on transportation in getting to Snow Cruise Onze.
The ski resort also has an amazing view of the ocean. Since I was able to snowboard at Niseko already, I decided to just explore this ski resort. I used the lifts and had a snow hike down the slopes. It was definitely a workout but a breathtaking experience overall because of the ocean view.
If you do not have time to visit Niseko and just looking to experience a short winter activity at a ski resort, Snow Cruise Onze should be on your list of places to visit! Inquire today, visit https://www.facebook.com/Snow-cruise-onze-441302129352126/
I did not really explore Chitose but I included this because the New Chitose Airport is an attraction in itself. It has shops, restaurants, amusement rides, onsens, famous character stores, and even a Royce Chocolate world.
HOW I GOT TO THE NEW CHITOSE AIRPORT FROM SAPPORO
I took the airport train from JR Sapporo station to get to Chitose. A one way non-reserved ticket costs Y1,070 (₱455+). The train took around 45 minutes. Since there was a snow shower that day, the train to the airport was mesmerizing! The tracks were just filled with white pristine snow falling to an already filled ground. It was definitely a grateful moment for me.
EXPLORING NEW CHITOSE AIRPORT
Prior to my trip, I was really anticipating my visit to Royce’s chocolate world as this was one of my favorite chocolate brands in the world. When I got there, I was really happy to find different Royce chocolate varieties – different from the ones I have already seen in Japan airports and Manila malls. I really loved that there was a BAKERY here! Imagine a ROYCE BAKERY!
My favorite chocolate infused with different baked goods was a heavenly sight for me. There was also a museum of its history and culture which provided images, fact boards, and short video clips. You also got to see some chocolate products being made from a small factory viewing window.
Aside from the chocolate world, you can find a lot of discounted shops, character worlds like Hello Kitty, Pokemon, and Doraemon.
In the amount of time I was in this place, it felt so big. Make sure you’re at the airport maybe 5-6 hours before your flight, so you have ample time to explore this place.
Travel dates: December 2-6, 2016
Having experienced the coldest weather I could possibly imagine during my trip to Korea in 2015 and survived, I thought I could handle the weather in Hokkaido. I experienced temperatures ranging from -3oC to 6oC. When I first arrived at the New Chitose airport, the cold was similar to the weather we experience in Baguio in the mornings – cold with a bit of sunshine. I was not wearing thermals yet during this time. I was just wearing a long sleeved shirt, a normal jacket, a pair of pants, and boots.
It got a bit icy cold when I got to Niseko where the place was surrounded by snowy slopes. When I changed to thermals, the cold was bearable but still very cold. I had to cover my face with my scarf and put the hood of my jacket over my head from time to time.
Otaru was the coldest place for me as this was near an ocean. The winds were very strong and the winter cold just became so unbearable at a certain point. I was wearing 3 layers of tops and 2 layers of bottoms plus thermals through this. I had to enter convenience stores and different stores to heat up while I was exploring.
Sapporo had the most bearable weather during my stay wherein I did not have to wear a lot of layers. This was not the case during my last day as there was a continuous snow storm. The wind was strong and there was a lot of snow fall.
Layers and thermals are really important if you plan to visit Hokkaido during the winter. Some roads are slippery so make sure you buy shoes or boots that can ground you more. Wear thermal or layers of socks and thick boots. My boots were really thick and made my feet warm even though I could see how wet it got from the snow. I get cold feet easily so it was really a big help during the weather.
Even with all of these preparations, during my last tour day (Day 4), I got sick. I was having too much fun during my first 3 days that I did not notice that I stayed out in the cold too long or wore less winter clothes that I should have. During my 4th day, I was supposed to visit Susukino and the Mt Moiwa Ropeway but my body could not take the cold anymore during the afternoon. My throat got that rough scratchy feeling and had a fever that night. Good thing I brought medicine with me so the symptoms subsided and I was able to get through my last Hokkaido day which was also my flight days.
Hokkaido has a lot to offer during the winter season. From ski resorts to chocolate factories to fresh sushi bowls, Filipinos will definitely be left overwhelmed by the number of activities and places they can do and visit when they travel to this part of Japan.
I am grateful for all the travel blessings paid and received during my Hokkaido trip!
(Amount is for 1 person)
|Jetstar Flight (Manila – Nagoya – Sapporo)||Sponsored by Jetstar|
|Hokkaido Resort Liner (New Chitose – Niseko – Sapporo)||₱3,387+ (Y8,000)|
|Ki Niseko (1 night)||Sponsored by Ki Niseko|
|Signature Course Meal at An Dining||Sponsored by Ki Niseko|
|Breakfast Buffet at An Dining||₱847+ (Y2,000)|
|Rhythm Sports (Snowboard, Boots, Jacket, Ski Pants)||₱3,117+ (Y7,363)|
|Snowboarding Lesson||Sponsored by Ki Niseko|
|Grand Hirafu Lift Tickets (5 consecutive hours)||₱1,440+ (Y3,400)|
|Guesthouse Yuyu (2 nights; It should be Y5,400 but there was a 50% discount because of crowd funding; Complimentary towel & toothbrush were also provided)||₱1,143+ (Y2,700)|
|Sapporo-Otaru Welcome Pass||₱297+ (Y700)|
|JR Sapporo to New Chitose Airport (One way)||₱453+ (Y1,070)|
|Sapporo TV Tower||₱297+ (Y700)|
|Snow Cruise Onze||Sponsored by Snow Cruise Onze|
|Sapporo Cross Hotel||Sponsored by Sapporo Cross Hotel|
|Shiroi Koibito Park Factory Walk||₱254+ (Y600)|
|Other Food & Miscellaneous Expenses||₱5,000+|
NOTE: Philippine Prices may vary depending on exchange rate. As of Feb 2017, Y1 = ₱0.42; For sponsored write-ups, all are inspired by my experiences and nothing else.
This is an extended version of the article originally published on TripZilla Magazine last January 25, 2017. This article includes more photos, tips, lessons, links, and additional write-ups for your reference.