Winter Is Coming! but is the train out of Sapporo running?
November 21, 2012 3:03 PM   Subscribe

I just impulse bought tickets to Japan for the last 2.5 weeks of February. I plan on skiing. How hard is it to get around Hokkaido by public transit?

I was able to leverage some pretty killer points coupled with a fare sale into a rediculous deal from NYC to Tokyo in late February. Flights from Tokyo to Sapporo are pretty cheap, so I figure I'll indulge my crazy skiing habit with a 2 week trip around Hokkaido.

So I've seen this question and I know that Niseko caters to Aussies, so I figure I'd spend a few days there, but I've been very intrigued by some of the other resorts in the country, Ashidake, Rusutsu and Kurodake have all grabbed my attention.

I've found a hokkaido rail pass that looks promising (map) but am unsure that it will actually let me get to all of the smaller/more scattered locations. I know there are busses from Sapporo to Niseko (and to other resorts), but don't know how easy it will be to locate them. I have read that it is inadviseable to rent a car and drive around in the winter- some of the more out of the way resorts seem rather difficult to get too without personal transport.

I would be looking to stay in hostels, or the Japanese hostel equivalent- what search terms should I be looking for? (I don't mind non traditional accomodation, and in fact prefer it)

I am very open to any advice. Also to attending a mefi meetup in Tokyo as I pass through.

bonus question: I am severely allergic to shellfish, and I know that outside of Tokyo there is very little english signage, and would like to not be a complete idiot/end up in the ER. Where can I sign up for beginner Japanese lessons in NYC, and is any self study a good idea, or should I really just do classes? yes I know about allergy cards, and will be carrying a stack of them, as well as registering my epi-pen
posted by larthegreat to Travel & Transportation around Hokkaido, Japan (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You're going to have a great time!

But be warned from someone who's done Hokkaido in the winter -- any buses that time of year out to lesser-traveled locations are often once per day. I studied Japanese for 7 years before I went and there were some close calls with the bus system where I thought I understood it but didn't.

Using google (and possibly some Google Translate-d terms), find the local tourism sites for those small villages you're interested in -- write to them (they usually have an e-mail address) in English, they'll write back in English. They know exactly how things work, and take their word as gospel over any secondary sources you come across.

Real talk: Japanese classes at this late date aren't likely to help, and are probably a huge waste of your time in terms of helping with what you're planning. Spend your prep time learning what Japanese foods contain shellfish that wouldn't be immediately obvious, rather than trying desperately to remember some half-forgotten phrase that's probably just textbook Japanese that won't even help you communicate or understand their answer anyhow.
posted by Televangelist at 3:21 PM on November 21, 2012

memail me if you need any help while in Japan. I'm not from Hokkaido and know very little about it, but I can help you with the Japanese language.

Are you also allergic to shrimp? I know a lot of people who allergic to both shrimp and shellfish, but Japanese people don't make the connection between the two.
posted by xmts at 4:46 PM on November 21, 2012

You're in luck, there are hostels in Japan!

One thing I came to warn about is if you plan on taking the Shin from Tokyo to Hokkaido, or any other rail, there's no room for luggage, or ski equipment.

In Japan folks arrange to have their gear/suitcases shipped ahead. If the train isn't crowded, it won't be an issue, you can drop your crap on an empty seat, but if it's crowded (check for holidays and festivals, there's a winter snow festival from Feb 5 thorugh Feb 11) you may be really hosed.

If you end up at a Ryokan, ask for the "sumo" sized robe.

Have fun!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:19 PM on November 21, 2012

I hope you enjoy your trip!

One word of advice, though... I agree with Televangelist and xmts about your allergy. If you are strongly allergic to shellfish and don't speak any Japanese, unless you're with someone who does speak it, I'd strongly advise you to just stay away from Japanese food entirely during your stay in Hokkaido. I know this is rather extreme and not very fun, but Hokkaido is seafood heaven during the winter months, especially crab. It'll be very hard if not impossible to avoid shellfish, they're everywhere. You can't see it if it's used as dashi in the soups, and many people here confuse "being allergic" to "don't like" and will assume that you're just being picky. Showing an allergy card probably won't do much good. I know I'm making a sweeping generalization here, but better safe than sorry, right?
posted by misozaki at 5:37 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Rusutsu looks do-able - there is a bus from from Sapporo, and Niseko is a no-brainer, but Asahi-dake and Daisetsu-zan are pretty damn isolated.

For the latter two, it would make sense to aim for Asahikawa and make your base, and then venture on after overnighting in that city. Asahikawa is big enough that there will be a bus for Asahi-dake.

In fact, Higashikawa may the the jumping off point for Asahi-dake and Daisetsu. The town has an English website.

I've planned tours for people in Japan, and after doing a quick scan I can tell you that there is little to no English information about taking the bus. Even in Japanese, it would take me a couple of hours to figure out a preliminary route.

I also did a train and bus trip in northern Japan about 10 years ago - waiting around for infrequent buses wasted a considerable amount of time on my trip, and it would be even more time-consuming in the wilds of Hokkaido. Daisetsu-zan is pretty far out.

So planning the logistics of such a trip will certainly take time.

You know, one thing you could do is contact the "Coordinator for International Relations" (CIR) who works in Asahikawa. CIR's work on the JET program and as their name suggests typically facilitate connections between their host community and the rest of the world (they also tend to teach a lot of childrens classes).

While the CIR *cannot* help you plan your trip, they may be able to put you in touch with someone who can, possibly a volunteer or a local tour company. That's what I would do if I didn't speak any Japanese and wanted to tour the backside of Hokkaido.

The state of the English tourist info for most of Hokkaido is laughable. Hilariously, one of the top English results for "Hokkaido tourism" is a research website that contains no useful information whatsoever and never will - it hasn't even been updated since it was launched more than a year ago.

Here's the Asahikawa Intl Assocation website.

(Once again, Asahikawa is the hub city for this region of Hokkaido)
posted by KokuRyu at 5:38 PM on November 21, 2012

Thank you for the advice so far! I especially like the idea of emailing individual villages etc for further information (I've done that in my other worldy travels always with good success, but wasn't sure that it was acceptable to do in Japan).

I am severely allergic to all shellfish (shrimp included), so figured that might be a bit of a problem (I have had dashi in miso soup, so in smal/dilutel amounts it hasn't killed me, but flat out eating a shrimp results in a swollen throat, mouth and hives). Is vegetarianism widely accepted? The japanese food and pork broth based ramen that I've had in various NYC izakaya have been delicious, so I was hoping to stick to the food I recognize. Is this still going to be hard to do?

Given that it is so difficult to organize bus travel, would it be adviseable to rent a car? I figure i've survived driving on the wrong side of the road for a NZ ski trip and am decent at winter driving, I just don't want to unnecessarily risk myself and a car in a country where I do not speak the language. Part of the reason for seeking out the smaller, more out of the way resorts is that I don't want to deal with a party scene or apres ski. I want peace and quiet and snow.
posted by larthegreat at 5:59 PM on November 21, 2012

Hostelworld served me well in Japan (and elsewhere). The words you want are 'hostel' (duh) or 'ryokan'. Hostelworld should enable you to tell if there's a kitchen available. Preparing your own food might be the best bet if you don't have a lot of money to spend on restaurant meals, though there's a fair bit of non-fish meat-based choice in the convenience stores. (All the salads had meat, many of them shrimp, but I think there were some with things like ham.) There's very little vegetarian stuff in the convenience stores, or at least very little that can be found without knowing Japanese.

I'm a vegetarian and stuck to eating only things where I could identify all the constituents, but I'd be shocked if I succeeded in not ingesting some sort of fish or shellfish product. If cross-contamination is an issue for you (I have no idea how shellfish allergies work), it's probably going to be a concern as well when it comes to things like sushi preparation. I didn't really have money to eat in restaurants beyond conveyor belt sushi, though towards the end of the week, I splurged on a meal in an Indian restaurant because I was really sick of eating rice balls. (Another vegetarian at the conference I was at got someone who read Japanese to identify the non-fish rice balls and saved the labels. I had about five kanji at my disposal by the end of the week: entrance, Tokyo, Nagoya, university and plum.)
posted by hoyland at 6:13 PM on November 21, 2012

I've never driven in Hokkaido before myself, but just to give you a idea of what it's like there... Hokkaido is HUGE. There are vast swaths of land, land, and more land between places where people live, and although I did my traveling there by bus, I don't really recall there being too many gas stations or parking areas along the way. To the point where I wondered how the local people refueled their cars. And with the snow? I wouldn't do it. But then, I'm not much of a driver, so...
posted by misozaki at 6:58 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I started driving immediately after arriving in Japan way back when, and I was living (as I am now) in "snow country" with heavy snow. The difference is that the Hokuriku snow country region, while rural, is far more developed than where you're wanting to go. It's also much warmer in the winter - central Hokkaido experiences continental temperatures with extreme cold. And there's a lot of snow. Obviously city slickers are traveling into the mountains to go to these resorts but you would need to use caution - leave early, go slow, be prepared, plan to arrive well before dark.

As for food, there are no vegetarian options in Japan.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:59 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't know about Hokkaido/skiing, but It's possible to largely avoid seafood in Japan (aside from soup broth) if you choose your restaurants right. Things like ramen, yakisoba, yakiniku, curry, shabu shabu, yakitori, udon (get niku-udon or something other than tempura-udon, which has shrimp), and the occasional foreign restaurant.

Some of the most common shellfish at restaurants here are shrimp (ebi / 海老 / エビ), general shellfish (kai / 貝 / カイ), oysters (kaki
/ 牡蠣 / カキ), crab (kani / 蟹 / カニ).

Full vegetarian is tough though; I was veg until moving here, then gave up. At least the local meat industry has better quality standards, and is less industrialized.
posted by p3t3 at 7:03 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I used to live in Hokkaido. It is lovely.

Getting around Hokkaido without a personal car is considerably more difficult than on Honshu. You're going to have a fairly hard time getting around because bus and train schedules are not going to be in English. But, if you know the names of the stations you wish to go to, Hyperdia can help you plan your trip.

Avoiding shellfish will be difficult in the Hokkaido winter. That place is a seafood paradise. I don't know how bad your allergies are, but it doesn't seem that cross-contamination is an issue for you if you can eat shellfish broths. p3t3 gave you some good notes on words to be careful of. I would add that 貝 should be a big one to watch out for, not just by itself but in any menu entry. Japanese are wise to foreigners using "I have allergies" to get out of eating food, so make sure your allergy card makes it clear that your allergic reaction is severe and have it mention the Epipen.

At this point, I don't think language classes would be a good use of your time. Maybe get a phrase book from Rough Guide or Lonely Planet. Make sure that it has actual Japanese writing in it and not just pronunciation in Roman letters so you can show it to natives as needed.

Lastly, if you haven't already purchased your domestic air tickets, there is a night train that runs from Tokyo to Hokkaido. I took it during my first trip to Hokkaido and it was a great time. I recommend it if you have the chance.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:22 PM on November 21, 2012

Oof, I really didn't know Hokkaido was a seafood paradise (usually mountainous regions aren't... but I suppose it is a giant island). I can have some broth in dilute amounts (that just uh... moves things along rather than gives me hives). So its good that you've emphasised the seafood problem I am going to have. Irregardless, I am going, so I suppose I'll memorize the kanji for the stuff to avoid. I'll also brush up on my knowledge of the characters for the curries, yakitori and katsudon I usually get here in NYC. delicious delicious research Thank you for the emphatic heads up on that.

I adore overnight trains, so taking the train to Hokkaido would be a real treat. I also don't need to do this trip super budget, that's just my default travel mode.

I'll be doing much more research based on what you guys have given me so far, it definitely gives me a direction to base my research off of. (ie ease of getting from place to place) I know Hokaido winters are bitterly cold and snowy, and I'm actually excited to experience that (yes I am nuts).
posted by larthegreat at 7:54 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am a vegetarian living in Japan, and as someone said above, I have had the most luck with Indian places. I can still find lots of places to eat, but it requires painstaking research in advance, but Indian places I can be pretty sure of just going to and being able to find something delicious without any trouble.

I have heard of people asking for this or that ingredient to be omitted, only to have the dish arrive with the offending ingredient all the same, because the Chef decided the dish would taste bad without it. So yeah, I'd probably only order things that are safe as-served.
posted by ZeroDivides at 11:37 PM on November 21, 2012

If anyone is still checking for follow ups....

It looks like my grand tour of Hokkaido is going to be a 1 week stay at a backpackers lodge (although honestly it's more of a skier's lodge) in Niseko, with a multiday backcountry tour out of Asahikawa. Turns out that trying to plan this on my own was much to complicated as I do not know the language, and it is much easier to just pay someone to take me around the countryside as it comes out to about even after a car rental was taken into consideration.

I've got one day between the two planned bits, and am trying to sort out what else to do on this trip- Is there anything particularly memorable around Sapporo to see?

Getting two sets of skis around worries me, but I figure I'll improvise that somehow. How do people get their luggage home from the airport? and will my ski bag fit in a cab? usually I just take my skis on public transit (yes that was me carrying skis in august around 42nd st enroute to jfk), but I don't want to do something that's not allowed.
posted by larthegreat at 1:54 PM on December 12, 2012

How do people get their luggage home from the airport?

The airport will have a post office or other delivery service counter that will ship your luggage from the airport to your destination. I do this for every trip to Japan because my family's luggage for the trip will not fit in a passenger car. It is pretty affordable, usually a bit over 2,000 yen per bag. It also works the other way, too. You can ship your bags from your lodging so they are waiting for you at the airport.

I don't think the skis on the train should be a problem, but if they won't fit in or on a cab, you may wish to ship them along with your luggage.

Please feel free to MeMeil if you should have any further questions or concerns. I always visit in the summer, and it has been many moons since I have enjoyed winter in Japan.
posted by Tanizaki at 10:51 AM on December 17, 2012

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