After almost two and a half years of arduous waiting due to the COVID 19-induced global pandemic, Japan reopened its borders to most tourists on October 11th, 2022. One of the regions that has been attracting attention both inside the country and globally is Hokkaido, Japan’s unique northernmost prefecture.
In Hokkaido, you will find unspoiled nature rather than temples and shrines, together with exceptional food sourced locally and brought to you farm (or sea) to table. On the other hand, the prefecture’s capital Sapporo is a modern, cosmopolitan city featuring everything you would come to expect from that moniker. The city is serviced by New Chitose Airport, which is located about an hour southeast of the city by car or train.
Beyond Sapporo, however, there is an entire region to explore, featuring many lakes, mountains and small, unique towns that have recently seen interesting ventures pop up that make the area worth visiting. Designed to begin at New Chitose, this article aims to showcase one way to enjoy Hokkaido’s vibrant southwest, starting at Shiraoi and ending in Otaru, with a stopover at the famed Niseko in between.
As hinted to above, we begin our journey in Shiraoi. Roughly 40 minutes away from Shin Chitose Airport, it is a natural entry point to the region. In recent times, Shiraoi has attracted attention due to the opening of Upopoy, Japan’s first national museum dedicated to the indigenous Ainu people of northern Japan. Having only opened in July 2020, it is one of the most unexplored new attractions for foreign tourists
– and one definitely worth checking out! The massive complex that houses the museum boasts an 8,600 square-meter area and also features a park and memorial, in addition to numerous
performances and other cultural showcases that visitors can enjoy (oftentimes free of charge).
The Ainu have lived in what is today Hokkaido for centuries and possess a unique cultural heritage that is tied to their ancestral land in an entirely different way from the Japanese settlers coming up from the south. Learning about their culture is ubiquitous to learning about Hokkaido,
and Upopoy is the perfect place to start. It is easy to become immersed in the Ainu peoples’ story, and if you want to clear your head to take it all in, we recommend heading to nearby KAI Poroto for a night. This hot spring resort is nestled right on Lake Poroto next to Upopoy and offers a luxurious but relaxed environment that is also inspired by Ainu architecture, art, and décor. Without a doubt, the highlight is the hot spring, which features a cone-shaped bathhouse that extends to the edge of the lake – offering a “infinity hot spring” experience to guests. The rooms also impress with their sweeping views of the nearby lake, while dinner is served utilizing only the freshest local ingredients. Overall, the entire resort is punctuated by a distinct Ainu influence, making it the perfect destination to complete a trip to Upopoy.
After having been stimulated by the Ainu’s rich culture and heritage, it is time to head northwest to Niseko, without a doubt the destination in Hokkaido that has garnered the most attention in recent years. What was once a sleepy rural Hokkaido town has transformed into a glitzy and modern ski resort due to the international fame that its incredible powder snow has received. Indeed, Niseko’s rapid development since the early 2000s have resulted in the area’s accommodations rising to a level that rivals those of the world’s top winter destinations. One of the newest entries is the glitzy Park Hyatt Niseko Hanazono, which features a full complement of wellness, dining and contemporary art. Designed to function as a year-round mountain resort, it not only offers full-service to those wanting to hit the slopes in winter, but also features attractions that will make you want to come in the other seasons (many of which, such as the famed afternoon tea offering, can be enjoyed as a stopover without staying the night) .
One of the most thrilling activities is the brand-new Hanazono Zip World, which welcomes visitors from their dedicated reception center just outside of the resort’s grounds. Covering a total distance of over 2500 meters across the mountain, visitors are brought up gondola before taking on their descent by zip line, with the final stage covering about 1700 meters. It is this final stage, dubbed “BLACK DIAMOND SUPERFLY” that is attracting the attention of thrill seekers the world over. The longest of its kind in Asia, the ride will take you on a steep descent right down the mountain, offering stunning views of nearby Mt. Yotei – if you hold your bearings long enough to actually take it all in. With a tailwind, this zip line can reach speeds of up to 140 km/h, making it not for the faint of heart!
After dabbling in some of Niseko’s newest offerings, it is time to head north the Shakotan Peninsula, where some of Hokkaido’s most underrated towns are nestled along the coastline. First on the docket is Yoichi, which is perhaps the best-known town for winemaking in all of Hokkaido, with more than a dozen local vineyards yielding a wide variety of products. Wine comes in all different flavors and makes in Yoichi, but it would be impossible not to mention Takahiko Soga, who has made waves far beyond Hokkaido with his signature organic Pinot Noir “Nana Tsu Mori”. If you are more of a whiskey person,
Yoichi has you covered as well, as the town is home to the famed Yoichi Distillery, which has produced whiskey in the area for almost 100 years now. Heading to the distillery will not only provide you with a slice of Hokkaido’s frontier history, but also access to the in-house bar, which offers dozens of whiskeys for sampling – some only available here. As you might already be able to discern, Yoichi impresses not only through its distinct hilly landscape with tremendous views of the Sea of Japan, but also offers something for any budding drink connoisseur.
Finally, we head over to Otaru, located a stone’s throw away from Yoichi. Otaru is popular for its quaint canal which stretches by classic brick warehouses, but this pleasant downtown also represents the city’s interesting history. Indeed, these warehouses were used to store herring, the key product attracting immense riches to the city in the pre-war period. Known as the “herring gold rush”, this episode of Hokkaido’s history serves as a reminder to the region’s importance in the modernization of Japan. Today, taking a stroll through Sakaimachi near the warehouse district will not only remind of the city’s past, but also its present.
The internationally renowned confectionary store Le Tao calls this street its unofficial home, with numerous locations selling a myriad of delicious sweets. Perfect to cap of your trip to the region, we recommend sampling some of their unique offerings, which make a perfect gift to bring back home as well.
Overall, as we hope to have shown, the region surrounding Hokkaido’s capital of Sapporo feature a multitude of interesting local ventures that make full use of the area’s delicious produce and rich nature and heritage. If you, like most, land in New Chitose Airport or are spending any time in the capital during your visit to Hokkaido, we recommend venturing to some of these rural highlights as part of a quick excursion – or simply following the itinerary we have set out above.