Hokkaido Part I: From Hakodate to Cycling in Otaru and Biei

I have always wanted to visit Hokkaido. As the biggest prefecture in Japan, for many people they always associate it with winter when Snow Festival is held. Alas, I am very bad with cold and thus I shudder at the thought of visiting Hokkaido in winter. So in summer of 2016 I solo-traveled Hokkaido in summer, where the sun shines bright unhindered. Just like my previous trip to Shirakawa-go, again this time I had the intention to use the ever cheap juuhachi kippu to travel around between cities.

In the span of 6 days I managed to visit plenty of cities. Here is my planned route:

Sendai -> Hakodate -> Otaru -> Biei -> Asahikawa -> Sapporo -> Tomakomai -> Sendai

Since the trip was pretty big to cover in one blog post, I decided to split into two. This first part will cover Sendai -> Hakodate -> Otaru -> Biei, and the rest will be in second part.

So day one of the trip began as I rode the newly open Hokkaido Shinkansen from Sendai via Shin-Aomori to Hakodate. There was no other reason why I chose to ride Shinkansen other that I wanted to try the new route. The journey was smooth and comfortable as expected, and two and a half hours later I arrived in Shin-Hakodate Hokuto station. Due to recent typhoon two days prior the liner train to Hakodate station (where the city center is) was not operational so I had to take a much slower local bus instead. But when I got off the bus, I was ready to explore Hokkaido.

Hakodate is the biggest city on the south part of Hokkaido. It is known as one of the first Japanese cities to be opened to international trade after the sakoku period was over. Because of that, the city has a distinct western flavor all over its areas. From the western-styled fortress Goryokaku, the old residential quarters of foreign traders Motomachi, to the bay area filled with red-brick warehouses.

The first thing I did in Hakodate was to seek for information. Being one of the leading tourist spots in Hokkaido, getting around was super easy. There are sightseeing buses and tram going to various parts of the city. I bought bus and tram one day pass for  ¥1000 for it is convenient if you intend to see all the attractions in such a short time.

Goryokaku was my first destination. I enjoyed looking at the city view from the top of Goryokaku Tower not so far from the fortress itself. The tower was a bit gimmicky, but it offered background on the city history. Then I moved in to actually enter the fort, which functions as a public park now . It was interesting how the fort was built to defend the city government from Western powers, while the star-shape of the fort itself was influenced from colonial age Western forts. Kinda ironic, yet fits as a constant reminder of Japan’s own rapid industrial advancement during Meiji era.

Leaving the fort, I originally planned to hike Mount Hakodate and wait until the sun set where I could enjoy the night view of the city. Unfortunately, in the wake of a recent typhoon I mentioned earlier, both the ropeway and the hiking path to the mountain was closed. I was slightly disappointed because it was such a sunny day and not a single sign of danger was present.

So I decided to visit a nearby shrine on top of the slope road overlooking the city for a while then heading to my guest house in the southern part of the city by the last stop of tram route. After leaving my luggage there I promptly went out again to seek for the famous night view around bay area and Motomachi.

The sight at the bay was marvelous. It reminded me of similar docks in Auckland, New Zealand, albeit less busy and crowded. I also went for dinner at local fast food chain ‘Lucky Pierrot’. My guest house’s owner suggested me to try on their famous burger, since their stores could only be found in Hakodate and nowhere else. I was pleasantly surprised at the taste and low price. Pretty good deal in my opinion.

Continuing to Motomachi area, which is located in the slopes of a hill, I saw many remnants of foreign traders offices — including a former British consulate. Situated at the end of an incline close to the consulate, lies the old Public Hall of Hakodate Ward, a magnificent building reminiscent of colonial style. I went inside for a quick tour and enjoyed a prolonged rest sitting where I sat at the base of the stairs leading to the public hall, gazing at the inner harbor of Hakodate.

Then I marched on to view the city’s famous churches. The one that attracted me the most was the Russian Orthodox Church, lovely building with white paint and grayish tile-roof. From here I went back to the bay area — this time the sun had already set and the street lights and signs had already been glowing serenely. I had my second dinner at ‘Lucky Pierrot’, did some night photography, then headed back to my lodging. There was a local onsen in the proximity of the guest house I wanted to visit called Yachigashira Onsen but it was already closed when I got there.

On the second day I woke up at 6AM, got dressed and readily went to visit the morning market of Hakodate. If you are a seafood lover and yearn to try the famous Hokkaido crab, this is the place that you have to visit. There were abundance of freshly caught seafood of the day spread among the shops. One interesting thing here was that one of the shops has some sort of gashapon vending machine where you could stand to win a lavish set of crab meal if you hit the jackpot (atari) or get nothing if you get ‘miss’ (hazure). Perfect for those who like to try their luck.

Now, my original plan was to ride local train from Hakodate to Otaru using juuhachi kippu. Alas, again due to the typhoon there were some kind of obstructions fell into the railways and thus all train service going into the direction of Otaru or Sapporo was suspended until further notice. You could imagine how stupefied I was to find out I could not ride the train despite having bought the train pass. I had no idea the situation would be that bad. I guess this was where paying attention to the local news before embarking on a journey would pay off. Make sure to know about any stoppage on the train service in Japan as some lines could be severely affected by the weather.

Anyways I was contemplating on riding express bus to Sapporo but the schedule was tight and moreover most people thought the same as majority of the bus tickets were sold-out. I was out of ideas when I casually talked to a group of random Japaneses who happened to be trapped in the same situation. Thanks to my Japanese proficiency I managed to struck a discussion with them which ended in them including me in their plan to rent a car and do a road trip to Sapporo rather than waiting for the next bus!

So there were five of us: me, a senior couple of husband and wife, a middle-aged frequent traveler and a young man doing a bicycle trip all around Hokkaido. I could not find a more motley crew than this; everyone was a stranger to each other, yet together we journeyed through expressways and minor roads to Sapporo. It was an interesting experience and I was grateful to them for inviting me along. It was around 3PM when we reached Sapporo station and returned the rental car. I promptly thanked them and bid adieu, then caught the immediate train to Otaru, which is only 1 hour away from Sapporo.

Otaru station in a lazy afternoon.

The time I stepped my feet outside Otaru station straight off I got a funny feeling that I was going to quickly like the small town — and I was right. After checking in at the best guest house that I have ever stayed in so far, I went out and rented a bicycle to wander around the town. In the beginning I thought only the canals near the harbor are the best thing in the town. But apparently it has a lot more to offer than only the waterways.

The owner of the bicycle rental advised me to go to a small cape called Hiyoriyama at the outskirts of the town. I was glad to have heed his advice, for it was in this place I found the highlight of the trip. This cape offers an endless view into the town harbor and glorious sunset, with a small yet picturesque lighthouse at the close background and gorgeous cliffs and hills at the distance. I spent quite some time here, just watching the scenery, waiting for the sun to go down.

Highlight of my visit to Otaru.

Right after the sun went down I headed back to the town, stopping by a cool building: the former Japan Mail Boat office which situated in front of a a fountain square and of course the canal area for night photography. By that time many people had gathered there, for Otaru at night is regarded as a must-visit spot, so after a few shots I had to get away from the crowds for some hints of tranquility. Nevertheless taking a stroll at the pedestrian walk by the canal evoked a certain ‘romantic’ feeling.

Former office of Japan Mail Boat, looking gorgeous at night.
The romantic canals at night. Better bring your date here!

It was kinda late when I went back to the guest house. I spent some time chatting with some of the guests there then went to bed. Early morning the next day  I departed for the next destination, Biei at the heart of Hokkaido via Asahikawa. Originally I also considered going to Furano, renowned for its lush lavender fields in the summer. However as the fields were only in bloom through a short time window between July and August, I had missed my chance completely to marvel at such sight.

To be able to enjoy all the sights in Biei, you have to either use a car or bicycle. Seeing that I do not have license to drive, cycling was the best option. Be wary that you need to be quite fit to ride the bicycle, as the sightseeing spots around Biei are so wide-spread along the many farms in the surrounding region. There are mainly two routes to take: the patchwork road and the panorama road. The patchwork road takes you into the rolling hills and famous group of trees used in old commercials. The panorama road is longer and takes you to steeper hills overlooking the rural part of Hokkaido.

Since the two routes are opposite, it takes the whole day to be able to see all sights. I decided to go through patchwork road in the morning, going back to Biei for lunch then out for panorama road in the afternoon. It worked well in the beginning, but soon I realized I have overestimated the distance between sightseeing spots here and there as I ended up completely exhausted at the end of each route. I remember taking a quick nap in front of the city hall before continuing for the panorama road.

It was well worth it to explore Biei by bicycle. The sight of the farmlands, the occasional noise of machinery roaming the fields and roads, and the cool breeze blowing throughout the day made my fatigue go away. I was told that there is a place where you could view various flowers called Shikisai Hill in panorama road, but I could not make it there anymore as I have expended every bit of my energy just to reach the fairly close Sanai Hill. If you have extra time (and energy), Shikisai Hill could be the perfect terminus to end your trip to Biei, as long as you find out when is the blooming period first.

I ended day three of my Hokkaido adventure by taking a train back to Asahikawa, the second biggest city in Hokkaido. Arriving there made me feel like I am back in Sendai, because of the similar style of main shopping street. Yet it was considerably quieter in Asahikawa. It was Friday night and I have not seen a swarm of Japanese businessmen rushing to the izakaya or young people hanging out in groups at the corner of the street.

Google told me there was pretty much nothing to see in Asahikawa at night. Which was rightly so, as Asahikawa is not very known for being a tourism hotspot. It is however, a hub for several interesting places such as the zoo and Daisetsuzan National Park. It was Daisetsuzan that caught my eye, and there shall I hike the mighty Mt. Asahidake, the highest mountain in Hokkaido.

I will save that story for the next part though, so keep on your toes for the next story!

More useful information:

Hakodate official travel guide (English)

Otaru first time visitor guide (English)

Biei tourist information site (English)


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