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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Hokkaido Autumn Road Trip 2016 - Planning

5 years ago, I never imagined myself going on a self-drive holiday in Japan. As we can't speak and read the language, it's virtually impossible. My husband and I agreed that if ever we will travel to Japan, we should follow a tour. But... of late, due to the advancement of technology, a free and easy holiday in Japan is possible. There's Google Map, Google Earth, Google Translate, Tabelog, Tripadvisor, Booking.Com, Agoda and so many other internet resources to aid non Japanese speaking tourist to plan for a trip.

A road trip needs proper planning. This is not my first road trip.
Before I had kids, my husband and I went on an East Coast Road trip, visiting Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, Selangor and back to Perak. Driving for about 1200km as well in 6 days.

Japan is a country that doesn't speak my language, but there's so many things to see, experience and eat, and it's not a 'cheap' country to visit.
So, I must think a lot, consider a lot and make my plans, carefully.

I do not travel often, and going to Japan was not something I thought of until this March
I don't like to miss out on things, so I will try to have my cake and eat it too. LOL.
So, let's make this trip a good one.

Things to consider.

1. Date and season. 
Useful links : Seasons and FAQ

2. Activities and Seasonal Events
Useful links:
Fruit picking and other activities
Hokkaido Events Calendar
Good! Hokkaido!

3. Determining the rough route and mode of transport
Useful link:
Google Map
Local bus tour on Hokkaido
Train in Hokkaido
Drive in Hokkaido

4. Booking accomodation
Rooms booking easily done via Agoda,, Rakuten, Japanican or Jalan-Jalan. There are many booking websites.

5. Planning meals
Useful links
Hokkaido Food Library
Good! Hokkaido! (Food)
Kimi's blog

6. Determining the exact route and Google Earth Tour.
Useful link:
Google Map

7. Cash Budget and other monetary source
Useful link:
Maybank Visa Debit
Hokkaido ATM: 7 Eleven ATM in Japan (More convenient) or Japan Post Bank
Currency Exchange: Travelex or Banks and Posts Office that displays 'Currency Exchange'. Read more here

8. Shopping
Useful link: Hokkaido Souvenirs
Tax Free Guide for Tourists
Fruits that are legal to bring into home countries

9. Communication and data
Either get Pocket Wifi from local providers or buy visitor Sim from Japan (more worth it if more than 8 days). Japan Visitor Sim is compatible with newer smart phones.

1. Date and Season.

We decided to travel during the Raya Haji holidays of which fell on 10/9/2016 to 18/9/2016. And it's early Autumn for Hokkaido. Since it's only early autumn, we must head north if we want to experience Autumn. The south doesn't show much signs for Autumn during our travel dates. We bought our tickets from Air Asia at a good price, six months ahead of travelling date.

Autumn this year was delayed. Not much of Autumn foliage seen even in the north. Kurodake is supposed to display Autumn colours by early September, but not this year. Sad isn't it? The same mountain started snowing by 11/10/2016. All changed from green to white within 4 weeks.

2. Activities and Seasonal events.

Once the general area to visit has been identified (North and East Hokkaido), we checked out on seasonal activities to determine our route.

Seasonal Fruit picking:
Fruits in season are plums, peaches and grapes.  I decided to go peach picking, and the only place for it is in Yoichi.

Seasonal seafood:
September is the month when Saury and Hanasaki Crab is abundant during our visit. So, Kushiro we will come.

Seasonal views:
Mount Kurodake and Ginsendai gets the first Autumn leaves, and it's the only place for us to go if we want to see autumn leaves. If we went later in Autumn, we can see autumn leaves just anywhere, so for now, we can't skip this location. Sounkyo noted!

Coral Grass blooms only in early autumn and it's a rare sight to see. There are only a few places to see it in Hokkaido, namely Lake Notoro, Lake Akesshi and Lake Saroma. So, Abashiri, we must go.

Seasonal Events.

Sapporo Autumn Fest
After I bought my tickets, I found out that there is a major food fest in Sapporo. As we both love eating, it's an event that we truly cannot miss. And I went through the website. It was a huge food fest with an astonishing amount of things to try out. It can't be done in just one day! So, we need to have a few meals planned out to savour the delicacies of Hokkaido, and definitely placing importance on places we didn't include in our travel itinerary. So, we will stay 3 nights in Sapporo.

Salmon Run
Autumn is the time when salmon swim upstream to spawn. And to me, I must see this. If I want to see it live in the river, I need to go to Onnebetsu River in Shireteko, or if not, I'll just make do with any salmon observatories. There is a river cruise in Tokachi to see salmon right in the river, but it only starts in late September. Two other spots that I can view salmon run during my stay will be Makubetsu River Salmon Observatory and Chitose Salmon Museum.

There are a few other events during our dates,
Moerenuma Artistic Fireworks (10/9/2016),
Sangoso Matsuri (Glasswort/Coral Grass Festival) (10-11/9/2016)
Aibetsu Mushroom Festival (11/9/2016),
Sorachi Wine Festival (11/9/2016),
Akan Ainu Thousand Torches (1/9 - 28/10)
Enggaru Cosmos Flower Festa (11/9/2016)
Nemuro Saury Festival (17-18/9/2016)
Shiraoi Chiepu (Ainu Salmon Event) (17-18/9/2016)

But how many can we go? Plus local festivals aren't conducted in a language we are familiar with, and we have no Japanese friends with us. Better give them a skip, although I really wanted to go to the Mushroom Festival. There are many, many festivals in Hokkaido in September due to the harvest season.

Fruit picking: Peach season were ending, and apples were ready.
Seasonal seafood: Abundant
Seasonal views : Delayed autumn, no autumn foliage. Too bad. But coral grass were superb at its peak.
Seasonal events: Sapporo food fest, only visited once instead of planned thrice.
Salmon run: Didn't get to see any salmon run due to a few reasons, but saw some salmon swimming in Otaru.

3. Determining a rough route
When the list of must do activities were determined, then we started to determine our route. The places that we will drop by, and distance between each place, driving distances and time restrictions.

Sapporo - Sounkyo - Abashiri - Kushiro - Sapporo - Yoichi - Sapporo

So, I added in other places that can be visited along the route

Sapporo - Furano - Biei - Asahikawa - Sounkyo - Kitami - Abashiri - Teshikaga - Kushiro - Obihiro -Yubari /Yuni - Chitose - Sapporo - Yoichi - Otaru - Sapporo

A big loop of around 1200km. It's not easy and time efficient to cover all these places via public transport. It's better to drive than to take trains and buses. And public transport isn't very much cheaper. And if only there's more than 2 of us, driving will definitely be very much cheaper than public transport.

I made sure that we drive around 200km a day, maybe plus minus a bit, but not too much. And I will only visit places that are along our route.

We drove about 200km a day except on Day 3 where we tried to make up for the spots we missed the day before. Day 3 was the only day we drove 300km. and Day 6 was  around 150km because we only went to Otaru and Yoichi. Major spots visited, but didn't get to stay around as long as I hoped in Kitami, Yubari/Yuni and Chitose.

The rough route
The mileage from day 2 to day 6

4. Booking Accomodation

I realized that prices of accommodation are cheaper in cities than in the countryside. We can spend our day in the outskirts sightseeing, and night time exploring and eating in the city.
I booked these city hotels, around 200km away from each other, to space out the drive. And I made sure there's something special to eat in town, so that I won't waste my night away eating bleeeeehhhh food.

Breakfast in hotels are usually optional and I will only choose hotel breakfast if I needed to start the day early, as the sky gets bright at 5am, and if the review for the breakfast is good, LOL. It's not easy to get breakfast other than at convenient stores, unlike Malaysia where breakfast joints might be open as early as 6am or 7am. The hotels I stayed in served breakfast as early as 6.30am. Only fish markets will offer breakfast at 8am, or Curb market at 7am. It's already sunny by then, and I would've wasted a few hours of precious daylight.

The period of my travel is a popular season in Hokkaido with so many festivals on the 10/11th weekend. When I booked my rooms in April, prices were much lower than when I checked it again in July or August. It skyrocketed to 300-400%. 17- 20 September is also a long weekend for the Japanese, but I'm leaving on 18th, so it's not too bad

2 months before my trip, I found out that 15-18 September is a long weekend for Taiwan and China, and Hokkaido is a popular destination for travelers from these 2 countries. No wonder the prices of rooms got so high!

I'm glad I booked ahead. But, I checked, other weekends were actually not as bad.  So, it's only for that particular week that the prices were much better when I booked few months ahead. Other dates, you won't need to be so kancheong (jittery).

There wasn't too many people around at the tourist attractions I went to, even though when the hotels were quite full in Sapporo. Smooth check in and check out. We tend to check in late and check out early.

My reservation on Agoda
My reservation on

5. Planning Meals
I planned to eat 5 meals a day.
Hokkaido has so much to try. It's the food bowl of Japan!
I tried to find out what's the thing that I SHOULD eat, rather than just fill up my stomach. Travelling is not only getting to know the people and place, but also the local cuisine.

My meals were:
Early Breakfast
Early Lunch (11am)
Tea (around 2-3pm)
Dinner (around 6)
Supper (Or eat non stop since dinner)

Gluttons we are!

So, I tried to find nice places along my route to fit in. I referred a lot to Tabelog to determine my meal locations. It just so happens to be, I get to stop for ice cream during Tea Time. I noted down all the special ice creams and bakery in the region that I should try. Hokkaido is a land of dairy. And if the bakery offers breakfast, I will try to visit it for breakfast to space out my tummy.

Many of the restaurants on Hokkaido have a website and their menu plus pricing stated. So, I went through it and made a few choices of what I will want to eat and translated that part of the menu and got it printed side by side with the Japanese one. Some of these restaurants don't have pictorial menus.

Didn't get to eat as much as I wanted. But having a few restaurants picked out will be great as we were turned away in Kihachi, Abashiri. I didn't have a back up dinner plan and ended up frantically searching for another restaurant in the quiet town.

I prepared this, translated and printed it out.
It will be easier to point to the locals the words in Japanese while we understand in English

6. Determining the Exact Route, and going on a Google Earth tour.

When all the food to try is shortlisted, then I planned my exact route. I will look into Google map and choose the restaurant that is not too out of the way that comes with a good rating on Tabelog. And I will plan it according to their opening times.

REMEMBER THAT IT'S JAPAN and English is almost 'useless' there. So, better be prepared because there is NO WAY YOU CAN STOP AND ASK.

Then I went on a Google Earth tour.  I went on their roads on Google Earth, to compare different roads and how the scenery will be. I chose the road with the best views. Different roads offer different views and some roads are more worth driving on, depending on one's interest. And some places of interest aren't promoted on the tourism website, and Google map, will provide 'out of the beaten track' places that sometimes English tourist websites don't tell.

I also tried to find out how the shop looks like from the roadside and get it screen shot, I can't read Japanese, so I won't know if it's the right shop or not, and they have so many types of writing and sometimes, it turns out so pretty artsy that even Google Translate doesn't know what it is.
There are pictures of them on the internet, but sometimes, they are close up shots in an angle that doesn't quite look the same from the road.

I tried to find parks, road stations, or somewhere we can stop to break the journey.

I also went to view the junctions of the places I will be going too, making sure there are signboards or how I should turn to the place, whether it's a one way road, that I should drive around to reach my location or I could just turn in. I also do not want to be shocked finding out there's no petrol station nearby or no houses, no 'civilisation' around (like the Shiranuka-Churui route), so that I know how to prepare myself by not drinking too much water.

And the most important thing, is to verify the location on Google Map. There are mistakes on Google map, where the shop could sometimes be a block or a street away from what is shown on the map. So, verify it with Google Earth. And sometimes, there are two pins for the same place of interest. So, make sure the right one is found.

And I being on the extra safe side, printed out maps and screen shots of junctions and restaurants, just in case there's no mobile data connection. Better be safe than sorry!

I also did an online itinerary accessible to my spouse and me. The itinerary lists the time, name/place/info and google map location. This is because we can access to it anytime, and just press on the prepared map link to start navigating with no need to search at that moment.

After the trip, I found out about MyMaps, where one can locate all the places on Google Map, set pins and share to friends privately or publicly. Next time, I will try out MyMaps.

Data connection was satisfactory with just a few mountainous spots without connection. As I already recognized the shops to visit and junctions that we should turn, it helped to make the trip less panicky. We found some places off the beaten track during our drive and was glad we controlled our liquid intake on certain roads that I had earlier identified as having no toilets.

I put this on a private blog, soft copy, so that my husband and I can access the itinerary easily

I prepared this in hard copy

7. Budget and money issues
When all the places were determined, I started calculating how much cash I need to bring. In Hokkaido, many restaurants prefer cash and only major hotels will take credit card. Not all hotels can be paid via booking websites and some needs payment when we check in. So, count that in. Small ryokans will prefer cash, so we never book any Ryokan.

Japan is not a budget destination and I don't want to end up having not enough, or overspending. Entrance fees, food cost and all.... should be within our budget. Remember that food prices and information about entrance tickets are easily available on their website. So, that makes it all so easy.
And if I overshot my budget, can we not eat certain things, can we skip certain places? I will think ahead and plan.

And then I found out that Maybank ATM card can be used to withdraw cash in Japan. Ahhh..... that solves a lot of cash issues, isn't it. Bring along my ATM card and if I ran out of cash, just find a 7-Eleven and withdraw. Plus personally, I don't feel comfortable bringing a lot of cash walking around Sapporo, I could just drop it somewhere without me even knowing it. Remember to activate the overseas withdrawal function before you leave Malaysia and set the limit to at least RM3000. The withdrawal can only be done if your ATM card is Visa Wave, it doesn't work with the old yellow ATM card.

We used less cash than budgeted, maybe due to the fact we ate less meals and ate less crabs. On average, both of us spent 17000yen a day in cash.
We used credit card (Citibank Visa) to pay for some of our hotels, shopping (more than 5000yen) , petrol, toll and car rental. No issues.
I also withdrew money using Maybank's ATM card in 7-11's ATM. Easy with English menu.

Here's a video of me withdrawing money in Hokkaido using a Maybank ATM card

8. Shopping
I am not an avid shopper for clothes and stuff. But I love shopping for food that I can bring home.
I tried to find out what are the things I should buy home with location and prices , as well,  if possible. Different places in Hokkaido have their own specialties, so I should take note of that.

I made a pictorial list with location and price information, so that I can just show it to the shop, if I need assistance to look for it.

It was a good reminder to myself, as I tend to forget. I bought almost everything I listed, plus more, LOL. Prices for edible goodies are generally quite the same at tourist spots. But seaweed is cheaper in Kushiro compared to Sapporo and Otaru.
part of my shopping list

9. Communication
First of all, Google Translate is there to the rescue. So, download it to help you 'communicate' with the local people.

Initially I wanted to get an unlimited data sim through B-mobile to use with my Iphone. It was just me and my husband, so I can tether it for him to use. Modern smart phones can be used in Japan, no issues. We will be driving, hence we needed a mobile data system with lots of data, although, the car has a GPS system, sometimes, we might prefer to use Google Map instead. It can't be booked too early and can only be booked at most 2 weeks ahead. I was almost going to book it.....

But then.. I found out about one freebie for tourists who will be going to Eastern Hokkaido. There is one 'Wifi Field Test' programme ran by “Prime Road East Hokkaido Promotion Council” and the Hokkaido District Transport Bureau of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. Foreign tourists who will be visiting Eastern Hokkaido with a rented car can apply for a free use of a phone that comes with data and voice call. You can read more about this programme here.

Then if you don't want to get a Sim Card, you can get free Wifi from all the Wifi Hotspots in Hokkaido. They provide a system where you log in just once and for all, instead of logging in at every free wifi hotspot. For Hokkaido and East Japan, you can get free password via this website (overseas download) or for the whole of Japan, it's available here. Or get free wifi password at designated locations.

Data connection with Softbank was satisfactory. 
Google Offline Map is compulsory if one is going to the mountainous area. I didn't download it , but my husband did. So, his Google Map took us everywhere.
Google translate is not that accurate when using English-Japanese, but is much better when it's Chinese-Japanese.

My 'free to use' phone

Always remember that the highlights in Hokkaido are not the same each season. Even within the same season, the sights and activities may not be the same. There are best times to view certain things and just a week too late and it's gone. Take online itineraries as a guideline and decide on what you personally like and enjoy doing as we are all individuals, with different preferences.

Hokkaido Early Autumn Road Trip 2016

1. Planning the trip - 9 things to think of
2. Driving in Hokkaido - 9 points to consider
3. Part 1 - Sapporo
4. Part 2 - Furano and Biei 
5. Part 3 - Asahikawa and Sounkyo
6. Part 4 - Abashiri
7. Part 5 - Teshikaga (Kussharo, Mashu, Mount Iou)
8. Part 6 - Kushiro
9. Part 7 - Obihiro and Tokachi Subprefecture
10. Part 8 - Yoichi and Otaru
11. Part 9 - Sapporo again and going home.
12. Hotels we stayed in Hokkaido
13. Shopping in Hokkaido
14. Things to Eat and Drink in Hokkaido


Pei San September 21, 2016 at 3:49 PM  

Very details and informative. I like your pictorial list with location and price information. ihicban!!

Noor Hafirdaus September 21, 2016 at 10:43 PM  

I love to read it. TERBAIK!!!!

Rebecca Sia September 23, 2016 at 12:45 PM  

super! thank you for sharing!

Angeline アンゼリン September 23, 2016 at 2:01 PM  

Wendy, to tell you the truth, I love Japan to the max. Will plan to go there again, especially Hokkaido. Tanoshii desyou! hehehe....

Very well planned and detailed. I like this and give you triple thumbs up!

I love Melon and Milk flavor chewy candy. Very sedap one. Can imagine how it taste and smell now. Going to Japan - what we see sure must try and eat, right? rather than shopping.

Will continue to read...

Unknown October 8, 2017 at 12:53 PM  

Hi, is this a 9days trip?

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