Trip planning: Snow, sushi and onsens (Japan Winter 2021)

The last time we were in Hokkaido was in 2015. It was a group tour, which was extensive and convenient, but we were bused around and didn’t get to spend much time at each stop.

For our return visit, we’ve decided to go free-and-easy and add in a trip to Hakone to stay in a traditional ryokan, enjoy some winter kaiseki and admire the views of Mount Fuji.

The previous tour company had chartered a direct Singapore Airlines flight from Singapore to Chitose, but this time round we plan to fly Japan Airlines.

Alaska Airlines has a partnership with JAL which allows for the redemption of 50,000 Alaska miles for an open-jaw business class ticket on JAL from Singapore to Chitose (via Haneda), and then back from Narita to Singapore.

Alaska runs mileage sales promotions, with their best offer at US 1.97 cents per mile or around S$1,400 return per person, offering great value for money. Redemptions on JAL open 255 days in advance and tend to be popular, so it’ll be a case of fastest finger first.

Our first stop will be Club Med Sahoro, which is an all-inclusive ski resort two hours from the airport. We’ve never been there, but based on information and photos from their website, it seems like a lovely place to spend five days.

The Wife wants to go for ski lessons again, since our first session four years ago didn’t teach us enough to enjoy the slopes properly. Unfortunately I won’t be joining her as my knees are on permanent strike, so I’ll be drinking sake and soaking in the various onsens in the resort.

From there, we’ll head over to Sapporo for a few days, to soak in the atmosphere of the Christmas markets and gorge on Hokkaido food, especially the fresh seafood produce.

The next stop will be Hakodate, a four hour train ride away. We spent only one night there previously and didn’t get to see much of the town. We did however manage to take the ropeway up to Mount Hakodate at night, and the view was magical.

Our photo below doesn’t do it justice, so Google “Mount Hakodate night view” and you’ll see what I mean. We even managed to catch some fireworks that night, though it wasn’t terribly impressive.

But the view though, it’s something else.

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The other thing that impressed us was the breakfast buffet at the hotel we stayed in, the La Vista Hakodate Bay Hotel. It’s famous for having one of the best breakfasts in Japan, and I can definitely see why.

Unlimited servings of various sashimi, never ending ikura and other stuff which I only walked past but didn’t try.

Why? Because overflowing ikura don.

I’m not sure how I’ll feel after eating there four days in-a-row, but chances are good that I’ll still be suitably impressed towards the end.

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The Hokkaido Shinkansen connects the mainland to Hakodate and started service in Mar 2016, and we’ll ride that to Shinjuku using a JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass and then transfer to Hakone.

The end-to-end journey is likely to take around eight hours, so we’ll spend the day travelling across most of northern Japan.

I’m sure the scenery will be lovely, and the time will pass quickly. An added bonus will be an ekiben (or two) for lunch, which beats any airplane food any day of the week.

The main reason for going to Hakone is to stay in a ryokan. Our very first ryokan stay was Shiraume in Kyoto in 2018 and it was excellent. Apparently, those in Hakone are better, so expectations are high.

Wandering around in the internet led me to Gora Hanaougi, and we’ll try and book two nights there, unless I find something else more interesting.

Ryokan stays are usually half-board, and include seasonal kaiseki dinners and generous breakfasts. The meals at Shiraume set a high bar, so I’m curious to see how Gora Hanaougi stacks up. And of course, Hakone is famous for its amazing views of Mount Fuji, as long as the weather holds up.

The last leg of our trip will be in Shinjuku, where The Wife will shop for produce in the many department store basements, or depachika as they’re known locally. I’ll probably end up having to hand carry a huge daikon onto the plane, and ensure that it arrives home safely.

And no, I’m not kidding.

It’s been known to happen.

Twice.

So that’s the high-level itinerary, and since it’s still so far away, I’ll flesh out the details over time and post updates as I go along.

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I’ll shop this itinerary among some close friends and see if they’d be interested to join us in this fun trip. Hey, I might even be able to hand over my daikon babysitting duties to an unsuspecting sucker friend.

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