Visitors planning to see the marathon events of the 2020 Olympic Games in Sapporo can use this northern Japanese city as a base for further adventures in Japan.
With Sapporo as a base for day trips, you can see the variety Hokkaido has to offer. Cycle in wide-open flower fields. Hike the trails at the dramatic Jigokudani (Hell Valley) and enjoy hot springs. Visit the world-famous Asahiyama Zoo, take in the retro charm of the port city of Otaru. Each place has memorable vistas and delicious food and a variety of experiences for your Hokkaido travels.
BY Lori Ono
If you’re coming to Sapporo for the marathon events at the 2020 Olympic Games, why not make it your base for day trips to explore Hokkaido? This is the most northern of Japan’s five main islands and generally has cooler summer weather. Hokkaido is famous for its seafood, and farm products like vegetables and dairy, open spaces and skiing. It’s also the home of the indigenous Ainu people.
These four day trips give visitors four unique tastes of Hokkaido. Cycle around the lavender, flower fields and sample the food of Furano to the east. North of Sapporo is Asahikawa and the nearby Asahiyama Zoo. To the south, enjoy hiking and the dramatic landscape of Jigokudani (Hell Valley) near Noboribetsu Onsen. Just a half hour to the west is the port city of Otaru, a town whose retro style charms visitors. Each trip reveals a unique aspect of Hokkaido’s land and food and lifestyle.
Set at the center of Hokkaido, Furano is known as the island’s belly button. Famed for its skiing, the area has hosted several Alpine World Cups. From spring to fall, fields abound with colorful flowers—starting with tulips in the spring, summer lavender, and sunflowers and cosmos in the fall. From Furano Station, use the Nemuro line or buses, then rent a bicycle to explore further. Learn more about the area on the Furano Tourism website or in this article.
Rent a bike from the front of the station to get started. If you’re in the mood for a picnic, stop by Furano Marche (10 minutes on foot) to pick up local baked goods and produce. Head to the Furano Cheese Factory and discover cheese made from locally-sourced ingredients. See the cheese-making process in action. Buy cheese and butter or grab a pizza in the restaurant. You could also opt to take one of the butter or ice-cream workshops.
Continue up the mountain to the Furano Prince Hotel. Near the Prince Hotel there is another picnic area and a rope course to test your agility. For shopping and relaxing, pay a visit to Ningle Terrace, where cabins housing artisans and restaurants line an elevated wooden walkway like a forest from a fantasy movie.
Farm Tomita is a popular spot to enjoy seasonal flowers and buy a variety of lavender products, from essential oils to lavender ice cream. From June to October, the nearest station to Farm Tomita is Lavender Field Station (7-minute walk) using the seasonal Furano Biei Norokko Train on the Nemuro Line.
Otherwise, take the train to Naka-Furano and walk 20 minutes to Farm Tomita. Several other flower fields lie along the route. If you are a fan of melons, Tomita Melon House is next door to Farm Tomita.
Further north, Biei has several cycling routes ranging from one to several hours.
Trains: Furano Lavender Express (limited express) from Sapporo Station to Furano (2 hours) Hakkodate Main line to Takikawa (express) (50 minutes), Nemuro line from Takikawa to Furano (70 minutes)
Bus: Hokkaido Chuo Bus: Express Furano from Sapporo Station (3 hours)
The Nemuro runs from Furano to Asahikawa and stops at Naka Furano, Bibaushi, and Biei. Local buses run through the area
Rent a bicycle or power assist bicycle (nice for hilly courses) next to the station. Taxi from the station. Hire a private driver through the tourist center.
Open since 1967, Asahiyama Zoo was designed to maximize visitor interaction in ways that suit the animals. The zoo cares for a variety of animals, from those native to Hokkaido such as owls and foxes to hippos or penguins. Plan for about three hours at the zoo.
During mogumogu time (snack time), zoo keepers feed the animals and educate visitors about the animals. The schedules change depending on the animals’ condition, so check the board near the gates for which animals are featured and when. Arrive early for a good view.
The Asahiyama Zoo website has information about the park using machine translation for English, Chinese, Korean and Russian. Make sure to check the website for information about accessibility, family resources and other features such as lockers and phone charging.
Kuranuma Higashiasahikawacho, Asahikawa, Hokkaido 078-8205
Train and Bus: Limited express train to Asahikawa Station (1 hr 25 minutes), then the bus to the Asahiyama Zoo (40 minutes).
You can end your zoo adventure with a bowl of ramen. When it comes to ramen, you can find almost any combination of flavors but most areas develop a local style. Sapporo is known for miso based soup and corn while Asahikawa tends to use soy-sauce based soup. Well-known shops Asahikawa Ramen Aoba and Ramen Santouka are a 10-minute walk from Asahikawa Station. If you are up for an adventure, head for Ramen Village on your way back from the zoo. This ramen collective features eight different and prominent ramen shops in Asahikawa, including Ramen Aoba and Ramen Santouka, so you can try many at once. Many shops also sell smaller servings so you can sample more ramen.
Nagayama 11-jyo, 4-chome, Asahikawa, Hokkaido
Get off the bus to Asahikawa Station at Toyooka 13-6. Ramen Village is 1.5 km (0.93 miles) away from the bus route.
Alternatively, you can take a taxi from Asahikawa Station (20 minutes).
A trip to Noboribetsu’s Hell Valley is a chance to enjoy some of the most dramatic nature Hokkaido has to offer. The geothermal activity at Jigokudani creates hot springs to enjoy and dramatic landscapes. A series of trails take you through the town, to Hell Valley and other local sites. Most of the walk can be done in a couple of hours. The trails are well-maintained and require easy to moderate effort. You’ll find multiple places to rest with benches, covered picnic areas and lookouts along the way.
In most places in Japan, oni (devils) are evil, mischief-making creatures. These local devils look out for the residents, keeping away bad things and protecting the town’s prosperity. In February, the Yumatsuri celebrates them.
Hell Valley is a bleak landscape of ochre colors with vents of billowing steam. Take the wooden path to the center to see the hot spring. Like the park, this spring can be gentle or active depending on geothermal activity. In the evening, foot lights lining the wooden boardwalk illuminate the path to the geyser adding extra drama to the landscape.
No matter the weather, a footbath in the warm river water is a welcome break. Enjoy the greenery as you soak your feet. A bus runs twice a day to the footpath. Note that the trail can be slippery and is not suitable for wheelchairs. Go early in the day to avoid crowds. Cushions are available to sit on, but locals suggest bringing a plastic bag to cover the pads.
A hot bath is just the thing after walking around Hell Valley. Many hotels at Noboribetsu Onsen have their own hot spring for guests. Takimotokan has one for day-trippers. Soak your stress away while you take in a commanding view of the valley.
Refuel at one of the restaurants lining the street from the bus terminal to Hell Valley. Choices range from Japanese pubs, traditional Hokkaido seafood, Jingisukan (Mongolian-style grilled lamb) or western-style food.
Take the express train from Sapporo heading to Hakkodate. Get off at JR Noboribetsu Station, then take the bus to Noboribetsu Onsen (15 minutes).
Otaru is a port town west of Sapporo on Ishikari Bay, 30 minutes by express train. The town saw peak development during the Meiji (1868 -1912) and Taisho Era (1912-1926), and many buildings and warehouses reflect western influence in their Art Nouveau and Art Deco style. Find out more about Otaru at here.
Stroll along the canal and old buildings to get a sense of a time gone by. You will find a variety of restaurants selling local seafood, sweets, and souvenirs with many shops selling local glass. Try your hand at glass blowing or have a glass bead made to order. The Nitori Museum of Art has a collection of glass by Lalique, stained glass windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany, and other works by famous Japanese artists. It is easy to walk around Otaru. If you want to see more of the area, bicycle rental is available on the way to the canal area. Stop at the Canal Plaza Tourist information center for displays about the history of Otaru as well as a gift shop. The Canal Plaza also sells beverages and has public washrooms. Take the Canal Boat tour and relax as you learn while guides share some of Otaru’s history.
Train: JR Chitose-Hakodate Line express train (30-35 minutes)
Stop in at the tourist information center. They can provide you with maps of the stations, and bus and train schedules for many locations as well as any updates. Many tourist information centers have free rest spaces, washrooms, wi-fi and a collection of local goods.
Use your JR Pass in Hokkaido. Passes cover JR trains and buses. If you didn’t purchase a JR Pass, you can buy a 6-day pass called Hokkaido Love. You can travel all over Hokkaido using all free-seating on trains and buses. This pass allows you to reserve a seat three times. Many buses are not run by JR and will require another ticket. The highway bus might take a bit longer but it’s usually a cheaper alternative to the train. Sometimes the bus is the most efficient way to get to a location. Tickets for highway buses can be bought at the bus center or from the driver.
Taking a train or bus or both to your location allows you to relax and enjoy the scenery. Trains and buses don’t run as often in rural areas. Make sure to check schedules and to know when your train or bus leaves to make your connections to Sapporo.
When you board the bus at the back, a numbered ticket is dispensed. Take the ticket, as this is part of calculating your fare. Losing your ticket often means paying the furthest distance no matter how long you rode the bus. Deposit the exact fare along with your ticket. Most buses in Hokkaido don’t accept IC cards and it is best to have change or JPY1000 bills for bus rides. If you don’t have exact change, the bus has a machine to change JPY1000 bills. Insert the bill, receive change, then pay the fare.
If you are able and comfortable driving in a foreign country, a car is the most flexible and convenient way to see Hokkaido on your own schedule. If you have limited time and don’t mind following a schedule, package tours are an efficient way to see a lot in one day that you might not be able to fit in using public transportation. Advantages include not having to drive, and saving money on tickets and entry fees.
Traveling through Hokkaido gives you a unique understanding of Japan and is sure to make lasting memories. Pick up souvenirs on your travels to remember your trip. New Chitose Airport has an extensive souvenir section for least minutes gifts and a variety of restaurants for one last taste of Hokkaido.
I’m a Canadian writer and photographer based in Tokyo. I love helping people enjoy their time in Japan.