Sunday, October 9, 2016

Self Drive Hokkaido Road Trip

Farm Tomita, Hokkaido
When is the best month to go Hokkaido?
Depend on preferences. If you plan to snow ski, obviously winter season is the time to go. The coldest period is between mid January to mid February. Activities such as winter festivals, cruise ride (iceberg) and watching monkeys enjoy hot spring are some of the highlights during winter. Due to dangerous road condition during winter, self-drive road trip is strongly discouraged. All other seasons such as autumn, self-drive road trip can be the best option. Hokkaido road is excellent to drive (other than winter). If you are planning for a road trip in Hokkaido, following articles will give you some ideas what you can do during the autumn.

Nissan March
Join Tour Group or Self-drive Road Trip?
If you (a) prefer to sleep late; (b) select your choice of activities; (c) enjoy the foods you love; (d) hate being forced to buy useless things from pushy salespersons; and (e) enjoy freedom, self-drive road trip will be your best option. Hokkaido road conditions and infrastructures are excellent. Japanese drivers are gracious and safety conscious. All you need are (a) a good mobile data plan, (b) Google Map apps, (c) a valid driving license and (d)  an international driving license to rent a car.

A 7 to 9 days Hokkaido holidays organized by tour agencies easily cost between $3,500 to $4,500 per person. The prices usually exclude food in some days and optional activities. In addition, the actual number of tour activities and time span will be much lesser than it advertised. On the other hand, a 9 days self-drive Hokkaido road trip only cost approximately $2,600 per person, and it includes everything such as airfares, hotels, car rentals, gas, toll, food, shopping, contingencies and all attraction entry fees. Read on if you think self-service road trip is the way to go.

How should I budget Hokkaido Self-Drive Road Trip?
Following illustrated the actual cost for 3 adults, 9 days Hokkaido Self-Drive Rod Trip (27 September to 5 October 2016):

Total cost for 3 adults was $7,633, which worked out to be only $2,544 per person. We did not include travel insurance because we were covered by yearly worldwide travel insurance we bought last year. If you include cost of travel insurance, it only add another $230 (family of 3) to the budget. Refer to the above table, big ticket items are airfares and hotels. Total cost could be reduced further by opting for budget airlines and cheaper hotels.

Nissan March Rear Boot
Some hotels carpark can only accommodate small cars (not higher than 1.55m height)
What car to rent?
Depends on family size, I would recommend small car for 3 adults, mid-size car for 4 adults, and bigger car for 5 or more adults. Japan is a 'mini' country, meaning most things they built are mini size. Rooms, toilets, carpark and road are relatively small.  Given a choice, a small 4WD car is all you need. Most roads speed limit are between 40km/hr to 50km/hr. Highway speed limit is 100km but most cars travel around 110-120km/hr. My preferred choice was a highly fuel efficient auto-gear 4WD Nissan March. It is powerful enough to carry 3 adults, 3 large luggage and many smaller bags. It can travel 120km/hr on highway and climb mountains with ease. It is fuel efficient, cost only $67.74 for the whole 9 days road trip. It is spacious and easy to maneuver. Nine days car rental including comprehensive insurance (zero access) cost $842.42, which translates into $93.60 per day. We used Times Car Rental, booked online via Tabirai Japan.

What other considerations when self-drive?

(a) International Driving License
Get an International Driving License from AA Singapore and bring along your Singapore driving license. You need both licenses for car rental and drive on Japan roads.

(b) GPS
Since most of us don't understand Japanese, GPS is a must to move around Japan. Forget about English GPS provided by car rental companies, most search functions and road names had limited English names and required Japanese input. We recommend good mobile data plan and Google Map. We bought $45 pre-paid 7.5GB data SIM card (15 days validity) from JTB at Takashimaya, more than enough to post photos on Facebook, WhatsApp and used Google Map for the whole trip. We bought another $35 pre-paid 3GB data SIM card (9 days validity) for my son, and used hot-spot for my wife mobile phone.

Petrol Price in Japan
(c) Petrol
Gas stations were readily available all over Hokkaido. Regular fuel cost about $1.65 per litre, relatively cheap compared to Singapore. Gas stations accept both credit cards and cash. At times, you need pump attendants help, as the instruction and signs could be confusing to someone who knew nothing about Japanese language. All pump attendants we met were exceptionally helpful and courteous. Very impressed by their service level.

Highway Toll in Japan
(d) Highway Toll
If you have time to burn and unwilling to spend more money, avoid highway as the toll could be expensive. Personally, I preferred the convenience and peace of mind that highway provides. The highest highway toll we paid was a 3 hours drive from Hell Valley to Furano, which cost about $50. In general, highway toll ranges from $10 to $45 depending on distance traveled and locations. The local usually use ETC card to drive pass the toll gate, similar to our ERP system. For tourists like us, pick up the ticket at the start of toll gate and pay cash (to the staff) at the end of toll gate. In some sections, you paid cash directly to the highway staff at the beginning of the toll gate before the journey.

Open Car Park at Hokkaido

(e) Parking
Hotels in sub-urbans usually provides free parking, while those located at city centre usually charged a fee for overnight parking. Hotel parking fee usually allowed multiple entries within the same day. It could range from $10 to $18 per day. Public parking cost about $1.35 for 30mins, depending on location. Some elevator type of carparks could only accommodate small cars with 1.55m height limit.

The Hokkaido Self-Drive Road Trip (27 Sep to 5 Oct 2016)

We recommend the following travel plan. We had done it pretty spot on and within budget.

Hokkaido Road Trip

DAY 01
We flew Japan Airline, very impressed with the service on board. Seats were more spacious than SIA, and Japanese bento meal was awesome. Luggage check-in (max 23kg per passenger) and collection were fast and hassle free. Transferred at Tokyo Haneda Airport to Hakodate. Arrived at Hakodate Airport around 9.10am. Check-in pre-booked Times Car Rental at the airport. The staff from Car Times Rental ferried us via bus to their office to pick up the rental car. All settled and ready to start our road trip at 10.30am. Everything ran according to plan. Thanks to the efficiency of the Japanese.

Japan Airline
Car Times Rental
(1) The Hakodate City Tropical Botanical Garden
Once we pick up the car at around 10.30am, we drove straight to the Tropical Botanical Garden to watch the infamous monkeys. It was just a 10 minutes drive from the airport, and parking is free. Unfortunately, the monkeys only dipped into the hot spring during winter. What we saw was monkeys lazing around the captivity. Entry fee around $5 per person. Besides monkey, there were mini-size Garden by the Bay (green house) and a kid's pool.

The Hakodate City Tropical Botanical Garden
(2) Best Burger in Japan
We spent about one hour at the Tropical Botanical Garden, and proceed to the city centre for lunch. Did some research about best food in Hakodate, and was surprised beef burger came in top of the list. The recommended burger restaurant was located at 23-18 Suehirocho, Hakodate 040-0053. We found out later that it was a chain restaurants. The burgers were pretty good, stuff with 'real' Hokkaido beef patty and fresh lettuce. The most popular dish was cheese fries. Price was very affordable, similar to conventional burger chains in Singapore.

Burger Restaurant at Hakodate 
Hakodate Burger
(3) Hakodate Bay Areas Shopping
After lunch, we shop at the old converted warehouse mall located along the canal and seaside before heading too the hotel. The temptation of Japanese snacks and ice cream were to hard to resist. We went for another round of food trails in the afternoon.
Shops at Hakodate
After having a good doze of shopping and snacking, we drove about 5 minutes to Hotel Hakodateyam and check-in around 3pm. We settled down, refreshed and took a good rest after the long flight and short tour. Dinner time, we drove 5 minutes to town area for Ramen at Ajisai (Kurenai 12-7 Toyokawacho). Our first Ramen since we landed in Japan. The standard was ok, price about the same as Singapore. After dinner, we went back to hotel and walked over to Motomachi Ropeway for our last stop of the day, Mount Hakodate.

Ramen at Hakodate
(4) Mount Hakodate
We walked 15 minutes from the hotel to Motomachi Ropeway. The cable car fee approximately $16 per person. The night view was spectacular but the experience could be better. The cable car and mountain top were congested with bus load of local and overseas tourists. It was so cramp with tourists that we could hardly walk. Did not stay long at the top, decided to go back next morning to experience day view. Mount Hakodate could be accessed by car during day time, but closed for private cars during the night. The only ways to go up at night was by cable car, taxi or bus.

Motomachi Ropeway
Mount Hakodate Night View
Mount Hakodate Day View


(5) Hakodate Russian Orthodox Church
After breakfast (in the hotel), we took a stroll from our hotel to the Hakodate Russian Orthodox Church. Along the way, we enjoyed the greenery, old architectural houses and churches. We saw Japanese students rode bicycles to schools and old folks walked the dogs along the greenery street. The ambient was peaceful and therapeutic.

Street at Hakodate

One of the entrance to the Hakodate Russian Church

Hakodate Russian Orthodox Church
(6) Hakodate Morning Market
Hakodate Morning Market was one of the highlights in our road trip. It was just a 10 minutes drive from the hotel. Most of the shops in the morning market sell the same items, and prices were quite similar. You could select the seafood (E.g. Giant crabs) on the spot and get them to cook for you. Prices usually include cooking.
Hakodate Morning Market
The price of Giant Crab was about $100 per kg. A medium size crab weigh approximately 2.5kg and cost around $250. You have the option to eat it raw, steam or/and barbeque. We bought a 2.69kg medium size crab and asked the chef to cook all 3 styles. The bulk of our food budget went into this giant crab, but it worth every single cent. The Japanese did not like to bargain, especially the older folks. Young Japanese were more receptive to bargain but you could not get much from them.
Giant Crab 10,000yen per Kg
Steam and Barbeque Crab
Raw Crab
After lunch, we shopped again and bought some red beans and Japanese snacks. The price were cheaper than Singapore. The qualities were definitely better and more authentic.

(7) Fort Goryokaku
We drove 20 minutes from Hakodate Morning Market to Fort Goryokaku. You could park your car at the nearby public car park (chargeable), approximately 10 minutes walk to the fort entrance. Fort Goryokaku was designed by Takeda Ayasaburo in 1855. The designer copied the star-shape design from French, to improve combat superiority over the enemies. The fort was built to protect the Tsugaru Strait against potential invasion by the Russians. Entry fee about $12 per person.

Fort Goryokaku Map
Takeda Ayasaburō
Fort Goryokaku Entrance

(8) Lake Toya
After Fort Goryokaku, we drove about 2.5 hours to Lake Toya via toll highway ($55 toll fee). The drive was smooth and stress free. We arrived at Hotel Grand Toya around 5pm, just in time for dinner. We booked a Japanese room, and was fortunate to be assigned an absolute lake front facing room. If you stopped over at Lake Toya for one night, best to include breakfast in your hotel booking. The street restaurants closed in the morning. Since no restaurants opened, we bought ready-made bento set meals from a 24hr convenience store nearby for our breakfast.
Japanese Room Hotel Grand Toya
Lake Toya View from Hotel Room

 Lake Toya Sunset

Lake Toya Sunrise
Restaurants at Lake Toya usually opened at 6pm for dinner. We randomly walked in one of the street ramen restaurants near our hotel. Price was standard (850yen to 1150yen), and the quality was consistently good. When the night fall, we strolled along the lake and stopped at an outdoor public hot spring to enjoy foot hot bath while waiting for 8.45pm fire work at Lake Toya. The fire works was fired by a moving boat and lasted more than 10 minutes. Besides watching the fire works from lake front, there was option to watch it from ferry (chargeable). Lake Toya was one of our most memorable stay in Hokkaido. 
Fire Work at Lake Toya
(9) Sobetsu Fruit Farm
After breakfast, we check-out the hotel and head straight to Sobetsu Fruit Farm. It took 15 minutes to  get there by car. Entry fee approximately $12 per person. You are free to eat whatever you could inside the farm, any takeaway would be chargeable. This fruits farm had a great variety of grapes, apples, peaches and pears. We were given some tools and basket to cut and carry the fruits. The fruits were fresh,  juicy and sweet. Worth every cent!

Fruit Farm Entry Fees

Free Parking at Fruit Farm
Apple Trees
Green Grapes
Peach was very sweet and juicy
The Farm Has Super Sweet, Sweet, Sour & Super Sour Apples

Pears, but these were not allowed to pluck
(10) Date Jidaimura
After fruits diet lunch, we drove 50 minutes to Date Jidaimura, an Edo Period Japanese Theme Park. Parking was free but entrance fee was quite expensive, about $40 per adult. As Japanese language was foreign to us, we did not really enjoy it. The coolest station we enjoyed was the magic ninja house. When you entered the Ninja house, you walked through the obstacles such as tilted room with mirrors and fake doors to confuse intruders. It was so fun that we walked through the Ninja house thrice!
Free Parking at Date Jidaimura
Entry fee at Date Jidaimura
Ninja weapons
Date Jidaimura
Edo Period
Japanese Show
Date Jidaimura
We did not stay too long in the Theme Park, as the size was relatively small. The whole tour was finished within an hour. If you understand Japanese language, you might enjoy more and spend more time inside. We decided to have our late lunch in the Theme Park before heading off to our next destination. As usual, we tried the deserts and ramen. Standard was ok and prices were reasonable.

Spicy Ramen
Traditional Muchi
Green Tea and Milk Ice Cream
(11) Hell Valley
After late lunch at Date Jidaimura, we drove 10 minutes to Hell Valley. Free entry to Hell Valley but parking was chargeable. Two sites to visit at Hell Valley, one at the base another one at the mountain top. Visitors were allowed to drive up to the 2nd site. Parking fee was valid for 2 sites. The Hell Valley was very similar to Rotorua in New Zealand. Volcanic fields and hot spring water following along the valley. Strangely, Hell Valley did not smell as stink as Rotorua.

Hell Valley at the Base
Hell Valley at Mountain Top
Hell Valley
Hell Valley
After being poisoned by the steam and smell, we drove about 3 hours to New Furano Prince Hotel. We arrived quite late, just in time for dinner. New Furoano Hotel was built like a self-contained holiday resort, comprised of facilities such as hot spring, walking trails, golf course, hot air balloon and many other adventurous activities. The ambient was very romantic at night, brightened by light bulbs all over the paths. Next morning after breakfast, we walked the trails outside the hotel, it was awesome and refreshing.

New Furano Prince Hotel
Trails outside New Furano Prince Hotel
Trails outside New Furano Prince Hotel
Trails outside New Furano Prince Hotel

We had a great Japanese buffet breakfast at the hotel and walked the surrounding trails  before setting off to the next destination. First stop on the 4th day of road trip was Farm Tomita, a 30 minutes drive from New Furano Prince Hotel. On the way there, we saw rows of colorful lavender sprouting uniformly over a public park. We decided to stopover for photo. Parking was free.

(12) Farm Tomita
Free parking and entrance to Farm Tomita. We read somewhere that Farm Tomita was created by a group of like-minded young farmers, with the objective of boosting visitors rate in the areas. You only got to see these colorful lavenders during autumn period. The farm had an ice cream station and gift shops too. We had a great day in the farm. Lunch could be settled at the food kiosks located outside the farm. Unfortunately, the food kiosks sell mainly western cuisine such as fried chicken and burgers. Tomita Farm should be included in MUST visit list if you plan to visit Hokkaido during autumn period.

Lavender Ice Cream tastes like perfume Ice Cream
Fried Chicken
Teriyaki Chicken Burger
(13) The Blue Pond
Next stop, the infamous Blue Pond, about 30 minutes drive from Farm Tormita. In reality, the pond was small compared to the photo we saw. It did not take us long to finish walking the trails. Free entry and parking.

The Blue Pond
The Blue Pond
The Blue Pond
(14) Biei Shirahige WaterfallAfter Blue Pond, we drove 5 minutes to a nearby waterfall. Park at the  public car park in front of a hotel. Free parking.
Biei Shirahige Waterfall
Biei Shirahige Waterfall
We decided to call it a day, and drove 45 minutes to Asahikawa Grand Hotel. The hotel parking fee was $14 per day. Once we got ourselves refreshed at the hotel, we picked up the car and drive straight to the Asahikawa Ramen Village for dinner.

(15) Asahikawa Ramen VillageAsahikawa Ramen Village was popular among locals and tourists. Too many choices, all restaurants claimed to serve the best ramen. We decided to go for the one that won Top Choice Restaurant in 2016 and had been operating since 1946 after WW2. After dinner, we went to the surrounding malls and supermarkets for shopping.
Asahikawa Ramen Village
Asahikawa Ramen Village
Miso Based Ramen
Asahikawa Ramen Village
Asahikawa Ramen Village
UNIQLO at Asahikawa was located just next to the Ramen Village. It carried mainly winter clothing for coming winter season. Prices of similar items sell the same price as UNIQLO Singapore. There was a big supermarket, good opportunity to shop for Japanese snacks. Noticed the local sell 4 litres whisky in plastic bottle, cost only $50.

UNI QLO at Asahikawa
4L Whisky in Plastic Bottle Selling at Supermarket
Bough heaps of Japanese snacks
On the way back to the hotel after dinner and shopping

(16) Kitahiroshima Mitsui Outlet Park Sapporo
Kitahiroshima Mitsui Outlet Park at Sapporo was a 3.3hrs drive from Asahikawa Grand Hotel. A factory outlet that sell branded goods. We decided to set off immediately after breakfast. The main activities in Mitsui Outlet were shop and eat, nothing else!
Kitahiroshima Mitsui Outlet Park Sapporo
Kitahiroshima Mitsui Outlet Park Sapporo
Japanese like to queue for good food too
Kitahiroshima Mitsui Outlet Park Sapporo
Kitahiroshima Mitsui Outlet Park Sapporo Food Court
Pork Rice
One of better Ramen in Hokkaido
Hapanese Donuts
Don't know what was that, but pretty good
(17) 二見吊橋 Jozankei Futami Suspension Bridge
After shopping and food at Kitahiroshima Mitsui Outlet Park Sapporo, we drove another 50 minutes to Hotel Shikanoyu at Jozankei. From the hotel, we took a 5 minutes trail walk to the Jozankei Futami Suspension Bridge, and spend another 30 minutes walking the trails along the river bank.
The God who guard the bridge and forest
Besides Jozankei Futami Suspension Bridge, there were many other places of interest such as temple of multiple Budda, hot springs, lake and garden. Most places of interest were walking distance from our hotel, except the Sapporo lake that required 10 minutes drive.  If you were tired after a long walk, just relax at the public foot hot springs located along the way.
Temple with multiple budda inside the cave. Entry fee based on honesty system
Budda under the flow of hot spring
Sapporo Lake, a short distance drive from the hotel
Follow the map to see all places of interest

(18) Shiroi Koibito Park (White Lover Park)

After breakfast, we check-out the hotel and drove 50 minutes to Shiroi Koibito Park. The infamous chocolate factory. Free parking and entry into the White Lover Park. Factory tour was chargeable at about $8 per person. White Lover Park resembled the western Disney version of chocolate factory. Visitors could purchase freshly made chocolate cookies in the factory. Prices were similar to those selling elsewhere. The factory tour was quite interesting. Visitors walked through the guided path and watch the factory at work via windows along the walking path. A cafe that sell ice cream, cakes, cookies and coffee welcome you at the end of the tour. We decided to chill up with a chocolate ice cream, snow cheesy cake set and a mocha cup cake.

White Lover Park
Chocolate Factory
Cafe at the end of factory tour
White Lover Park
White Lover Chocolate Ice Cream
(19) Sakaimachi Street
After Chocolate Factory, we drove 30 minutes to OTARU for shopping and lunch. Parking was a nightmare and more expensive. Fortunately, we were able to locate a parking space. The Shin Nantaru Market and Otaru canal shops were all within walking distance. Most of the gift shops sell glass wares and musical box. Desert shops were everywhere. For us, we spent most of our time and money on foods and deserts!

Sakaimachi Street
Sakaimachi Street
Shops along the canal
Ramen for Lunch
Green Tea Specialty Store
How could we miss the signature green tea ice cream?
Our last stop on the 6th day of road trip was Sapporo City Centre. We drove about 40 minutes from Sakaimachi Street to Cross Hotel Sapporo, and spent our last 3 nights in there.

(20) Ramen Alley
After check-in the hotel, we walked to the infamous Ramen Alley for dinner. Most of the places of interest (Malls, foods & etc) were within walking distance from the hotel. Not all Ramen stalls were opened that day. We chose the first stall facing the main road. We were attracted by a poster of Anthony Bourdain. The ramen standard was ok, think we were spoiled by many choices in Singapore.

Ramen Alley
Chose the restaurant that was visited by Anthony Bourdain
Besides the egg, the ramen was quite good


(21) Sapporo Central Wholesale fish market

Second day in Sapporo City Centre, we walked to the Central Wholesale Fish Market from our hotel. Quite similar to the Morning Market at Hakodate but much smaller in size. Prices were comparable too. We had too much raw seafood for the past few days, so we decided to skip seafood and went for cooked dishes instead.

Sapporo Central Wholesale Fish Market
Sapporo Central Wholesale Fish Market
Sapporo Central Wholesale Fish Market
Sapporo Central Wholesale Fish Market
(22) Clock TowerWell, nothing much to see, just appreciation of the old clock tower that was built in 1878 and became the landmark and watched over the city throughout the century.
Clock Tower
TV Tower
(23) Odori ParkOdori Park is a long strip of well manucure greenery that cut through the centre of Sapporo CBD. A popular place for locals to chilled up and relax.

Odori Park
Odori Park
(24) Tanukikoji shopping Arcade and Susukino the famous entertainment
A strip of shops under cover that seems to go on and on endlessly. The shops sell all kinds of merchandises and services. Good experience, but you need to have strong legs to complete the tour.

(25) Sapporo JR Station
Underground shopping at its best. A short walk from our hotel, the underground shopping strip connected to most major malls, such as Diamaru, Camera Bic and many other major brands. Endless shopping, what you need were powerful legs and deep pockets.

Camera Bic, aka Akibahara in Tokyo
Camera Bic
Sappora JL Station Underground shop
Sappora JL Station Underground shop
Sappora JL Station Underground shop
Sappora JL Station Underground shop

(26) Lake Shikotsu Mountain Bike Tour

After 2 solid days of shopping and food, time to burn some fats. Booked a mountain bike tour on Lake Shikotsu. The price was $130 per person, include to/fro transport from hotel, mountain bike, helmet and glove. The drive was about 1 hour from Sapporo to Lake Shikotsu. Good value for money. Jun-sen was my ridding buddy and guide. Very experience and steady.

Jun-sen setting up the bikes
Some of the cycling paths very much similar to our PCN
Stopover at Lake Shikotsu
My riding buddy Jun-sen taking a break
Unfortunately did not meet any bear
Small village at Lake Shikotsu
Lake Shikotsu
Lake Shikotsu
Well deserve Soyu Ramen after the ride
(27) Chitose Salmon Aquarium
On the way back from Lake Shikotsu, Jun-sen decided to stopover at Chitose Salmon Aquarium. The main activity was to watch salmon swim upstream during migration season in September to October period. Quite an experience to see salmons struggled and jumped upstream along the freshwater river
Salmon swimming upstream
Aquarium Staff Catching Salmon for Breeaing


Back to Singapore

On the last day of our road trip, we check-out the hotel in the morning and return the rental car located next to Chitose Airport. It took us about 55 minutes to drive there. We returned the car at about 10am, and took a courtesy bus provided by Times Car Rental to Chitose Domestic Airport Terminal. We depart at 1pm and arrived at Tokyo Haneda Airport at 2.40pm. As our flight back home was from Narita Airport, we took a one hour bus ride ($45 per person) from Haneda Airport to Narita Airport. At 6.10pm, we depart from the airport and landed in Singapore at 12.35am (next day).

Self-drive road trip in Hokkaido is highly doable for anyone who has a valid driving license. In fact, I would strongly encourage you to do so. The advantages of self-drive road trip are:
1. Relax and tour at your own pace
2. Total freedom
3. Enjoy more places of interest than tour group
4. Ability to immerse in local culture and visit places where only locals go
5. No more hard sell by salespersons and time wasting normally comes with tour group
6. Very much cheaper than tour group

Random photo we shot during the road trip:

On the road
On the road
Road Block
One of the hotel we stay
On the road
Stopover at a Dam
Chocolate Factory, saw Singapore Flag
Sapporo City Centre
One of many tunnels in Japan higway
One the road
On the road
Salmon Aquarium
Random Shot
On the road