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August 02, 2018, Hokkaido, Japan

Head over heels for Hokkaido

Melissa Anne Tan winters in Japan and falls in love with the beautiful north

Melissa Anne Tan

FOR 14 wonderful days, my taste buds were in food heaven.

I had meticulously researched eateries to visit during my trip last December to Hokkaido, famous for its fresh seafood and dairy products.

So our stay was filled with mouth-watering meals of everything Japanese — from fresh sashimi to hearty ramen soups to crispy tonkatsu (deep-fried breaded pork cutlet).

My son licked his plate clean every time he had his favourite dish — Japanese curry rice.

And don’t get me started on the delectable ice cream and milk products — Hokkaido cows produce top-notch creamy goodness!

The northernmost of Japan’s main islands is also where I tried skiing for the first time. Hokkaido’s ski resorts are known for their powdery snow.

At Niseko, my son and I strapped on ski boots for the first time and eagerly headed for the beginner’s area.

It took me quite a while to get used to manoeuvring on the soft snow with the long skis stuck to my feet. After an hour or so, under my instructor’s guidance, I was gliding down gentle slopes slowly but surely, and sliding to a stop at will.

By lunchtime, my friend and I were the last two still standing as the rest of the group had called it a day. We challenged ourselves to head higher up the mountain on the “magic carpet” — a travelator for skiers.

As I gained more confidence with practice, I was soon skiing down mid-mountain faster, improving on my balance, turns and edging.

With our instructor cheering us on, we overcame the fear of falling and moved as one with our skis till we slid to a stop at the bottom of the hill.

With such an amazing first experience on the slopes, it is clear that this won’t be my last time skiing. As for my son, let’s just say that, he preferred to frolic in the snow, making snow angels.

TRAVEL GUIDE

Hakodate

What to see and do

- Goryokaku Tower: This 107m-high structure offers a fantastic view of the Goryokaku Fort, an impressive star-shaped Western style citadel built near the end of the Edo Period (1603 to 1868) for the city’s defence against Western forces. It offers a great view of Mount Hakodate, Tsugaru Strait and the Yokotsu mountain range.

- Kanemori Red Brick Warehouse: Built in 1909, these buildings once served as warehouses in the days when Hakodate Port was one of the first international trading ports in Japan. It is now a shopping, dining and entertainment venue.

Where and what to eat

- Lucky Pierrot: This fast-food franchise is found only in Hakodate and serves tasty burgers, curry rice and cheese fries in a mug. I recommend the Chinese Chicken Burger — its topseller — and the soft-serve ice cream.

- Seafood at the Hakodate Asaichi morning market: Fish for squid or pick your own live hairy crabs, snow crabs or other fresh seafood and have your selections cooked on the spot. You can also buy preserved seafood snacks like scallops and squid. 

Sapporo

What to see and do

- Shiroi Koibito Park: Explore the beautiful factory and see how the crunchy yet creamy biscuits (chocolate sandwiched between langue de chat) are made. There are many photo opportunities at the decorated and expansive grounds that give one the feeling of being in a theme park.

- German Christmas Market: At this annual attraction in Odori Park (from end-November till Christmas Eve), you can try delicious German food and wine, and buy all sorts of Christmas goodies. It also features concerts and Christmas-themed workshops, and even visits from Santa Claus to delight the little ones.

- Sapporo White Illumination:

The tradition of wintertime illumination in Japanese cities originated in Sapporo in 1981. During this annual affair in Sapporo’s Odori Park, about 520,000 light bulbs are used to light up objects centred on cosmic and Christmas themes. It runs at the same time as the German Christmas Market.

Where and what to eat

- Kitanogurume seafood eatery: Enjoy a sumputous feast of fresh sashimi, scallops, snow crabs and kaisen don (fresh seafood on rice). Musttries are the grilled mackerel and snow crabs. After satisfying your stomach, explore the wholesale market nearby and buy snacks for family and friends back home.

Furano

Where and what to eat

- Furano Cheese Factory: People come here for the cheeses, but the best item for me is the creamy fresh milk packaged in a glass bottle, found only in Furano.

- Kumagera restaurant: For Wagyu beef lovers, the beef sukiyaki and beef sashimi are worth the 2.5hour drive from Sapporo.

Otaru

What to see and do

- Sakaimachi Street: This market street dates back to the late 1800s and features popular bakeries like LeTAO and Kitakaro, as well as the Kitaichi Glass Museum and factory, the pioneer of Otaru glassmaking.

- Otaru Music Box Museum: This building is filled with many interesting varieties of music boxes and figurines, both for show and for sale.

- Otaru Canal: The waterway once used to transport goods to the warehouses along the canal. The area has now been restored to house shops and restaurants. At night, old-fashioned gas lamps light up the area, making it a romantic setting popular with couples.

Where and what to eat

- LeTAO main shop on Sakaimachi Street: This bakery originates from Otaru and is found only in Hokkaido. In Singapore, you can head to ION Orchard to try its signature dessert — the freshly made Double Fromage cake; the rich milky taste of cheesecake melts in your mouth like snow.

Niseko

What to see and do

- Where to ski: Grand Hirafu or Hanazono mountains. You can buy ski lift passes for the number of days you intend to ski. Prices for adult day passes start at 6,100 yen (about S$75) for the non-peak skiing season.

- Where to learn to ski: There are a few ski schools. I signed up for a group lesson at Niseko International Snowsports School. They have lessons for adults and children.

- Where to rent ski equipment: There are many rental stores that offer skis, ski boots, ski suits and other accessories.

- Mount Yotei : While driving in Niseko, enjoy the view of the majestic 1,898m-high mountain that is so similar to Mount Fuji that it is often called Ezo-fuji — Ezo is an old name of Hokkaido. Where and what to eat

- Milk Kobo: This café is famous for its rich and creamy baked cheese tarts, cream puffs and yogurt drink.

- Tsubara Tsubara restaurant: Customise the “hotness” level of your curry soup — choose from a scale of one to 20. Also, do try the delicious buttery fried potatoes.

Guidelines

- I flew on ANA from Singapore to Hakodate, then Sapporo to Singapore, both via Tokyo.

- December to February is the peak winter season in Hokkaido and best for skiing and other cold weather activities. Most accommodations get booked up quickly so make your reservations early.

- During winter, the temperatures range between -8 deg C and 7 deg C and can dip as low as -10 deg C in the mountains.

- Be cautious on the roads if you are driving. Most car rental companies provide snow tyres and GPS. Driving time in winter can be twice as long.

- Japan is still a predominantly cash payment country, so exchange enough yen before you go. For expenditure above 5,000 yen excluding tax, tourists are eligible for an immediate 8 per cent cash refund at participating tax-free stores.

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