Text and images by JAYVEE FERNANDEZ
Winter is coming to Hokkaido, but unlike Jon Snow (who knows nothing), this guide will help you suit up and jump in head first into that soft, slushy snow.
As Filipinos, the relaxed visa requirements to Japan has opened up the country as a tourism mecca with the quirky urban sprawl of Tokyo and Osaka being top destinations for food and culture. But consider this proposition: winter weather just five hours away from Manila and because it’s Japan, getting around is going to be easy.
Winter clothing is surprisingly easy to find
You just need to know where to look. If you’ve never experienced winter before, note that this isn’t Baguio weather but below zero freezing temperatures that can get worse with wind chills at night. Warming up is the most important task on your checklist because you aren’t going to enjoy Hokkaido if you’re freezing. Buy at least three layers of clothes for your top and two layers for your pants. Thermal underwear, a sweater, and a winter jacket will do. Don’t forget winter boots, waterproof ski pants (if you want to lie down on the snow), gloves, ear muffs, and a neck warmer are all highly recommended. You can find most of these in stores like Decathlon, Uniqlo, The North Face, and yes, even Daiso.
Stock up on Vitamin C
You’re moving from a tropical climate to below zero weather—you’re bound to get the sniffles. You can bring vitamins but I’ve found that the Japanese 7-Eleven carries a lot of quirky HIGH IN HOKKAIDO So you want to experience a nearby winter vacation? We’ve got you covered goods including drinks that contain 1000 mg of vitamin C per bottle. Try to consume at least one daily.
Time your flight at midnight so you don’t waste a day
There are more and more flights available to Japan from Manila but if you want to maximize your stay, take the JAL midnight flight from Manila to Haneda airport, which also serves as the domestic terminal to Hokkaido (New Chitose Airport). If you fly midnight from NAIA I, you can arrive in Hokkaido before 9 a.m.
Trains and buses are the best ways to get around Hokkaido
A train from New Chitose Airport to Sapporo (the main city of Hokkaido) will take less than an hour. From the airport you can also buy unlimited bus passes (Inter City Bus Pass) for less than R4,000 for five days per person. These buses can also take you directly to a winter resort so you can enjoy winter activities. Speaking of winter activities…
Build a snowman! (and enjoy other ice activities)
There are a plethora of things to enjoy at the Japanese winter lodges such as Hoshino Resort’s Ice Village where families can enjoy their time inside a small village made entirely out of ice: ice slides and ice libraries for the kids, and an ice bar that serves Japanese whiskey for adults. Up north is Akan Lake, which is frozen in the winter and serves as a snowmobile and smelt fishing wonderland. Although there are many hotels in the vicinity, it would be a sin to ignore sleeping in traditional tatami rooms in Hotel Akanko-so in Kushiro.
If there is one activity you shouldn’t miss, it would be the drift ice walk. It’s literally walking on water—frozen water that is. The Shiretoko Drift Ice Walk is a popular tourist attraction where you venture out to a solidified sea, channeling your inner Sir Ernest Shackleton as you make the surreal journey out into the coastline of the sea of Okhotsk.
If you’re up for some culture, visiting the Ainu Village, home to the biggest settlement of Japan’s indigenous people will open your eyes to their artisanal wood carvings, meals prepared with deer meat, and tea made from berries picked from the forest.
Eat Hokkaido ice cream at below freezing temperatures
If it’s one thing Hokkaido is known for, it is their milk production. Which is why in most convenience stores and restaurants, you can find soft serve ice cream made with Hokkaido milk, which slightly melts despite the very cold weather due to its high-fat content.
You absolutely need to try the JAL Sakura Lounge while waiting for your flight
If the Mabuhay Lounge has their famed arroz caldo, the Sakura Lounge is well known for its beef curry, among many other things: draft Kirin beer, cheese candy snacks, and udon serve as the halfway house of Japanese food while you’re at the airport.