The words “Sapporo in Winter” evoke for me images of pristine powder snow, just the type to drive the biggest skiers to tears. For others, the very same words may as well mean burning your hard-earned money on a Japanese bonfire. At the top of my list was to waddle to my heart’s content in Hokkaido’s velvety snowfall, but I knew a trip to Niseko would be way beyond my means. Fortunately, we soon found out that a tight budget should not get in the way of enjoying a thrill-filled holiday in Sapporo.
Here’s an excellent resource I’ve come across for ski resorts near the city, which provides a wealth of details about winter sport options, means of transportation, and of course, prices. I was looking in particular for something beginner-friendly, as in something for the please-watch-over-me-yes-I-am-really-this-clumsy type. Takino Park was an excellent choice, as the transportation was easy to figure out (a single 50-minute bus ride from the Makomanai subway station), and best of all, admission is FREE.
In case you missed that, here is it again: ADMISSION IS FREE.
All in all, we only had to pay the bus fare to get to the dreamy snow-capped hills of Takino. What we got back: free use of the tubes in the tubing area, free use of snow pants and jackets, free use of snowshoes for gallivanting in the snowshoe trails. As an added treat, we got to see this adorable parade of onesies as well:
If you do want to rent skis to hit the slopes or ski cross-country style, then you would have to shell out some cash. There are plenty of other activities to do in the park, but if you really want to go and splurge a little for the bigger snow sports, I think overall it’s still a very good deal.
After a very sporty day, some pampering was in order. In fact, Japan is an excellent place to be dead-tired and in need of some me-time, given the abundance of onsens. The Jokanzei area is a favorite among tourists and locals alike for hot spring baths. At the bus station, we came across a sweet deal that bundled the bus fare (normally ~1300 yen for a roundtrip ticket), as well as entry in your choice of onsen, all for only 1800 yen! We chose Hoheikyo Onsen, the furthest onsen in the bus route, as my partner has already been there once before. Below are very helpful information from the spa day brochure, that can help you decide which Jokanzei onsen to pick:
Hoheikyo Onsen did not disappoint — they offered both indoor and outdoor hot spring pools, and as the onsen was quite isolated, all was quiet, peaceful — just perfect. As customary in Japanese onsens, the bathing areas for men and women are segregated, and one must go au naturell. I spent most of the time unwinding in the open-air pool, left alone with my thoughts as I gaze on the perfectly blue sky and the serene snow-covered woods. Every now and then, I would place a handful of snow in my arm and then immerse it in the piping hot bath to watch it melt. Am I weird, or do other people do this too? >_<
Bonus tip: There is a free shuttle going directly to Hoheikyo Onsen that has multiple stops in Sapporo, among them the Makomanai station at 9:55 am. The trip going back from Hoheikyo to Sapporo leaves at 3:00 pm. If you can, give Hoheikyo Onsen call beforehand to verify the shuttle bus times. Ala-carte use of the spa costs 1000 yen/person.
We spent most of our time in Sapporo simply wandering about the city by foot. Among the interesting stops were the Sapporo Hokkaido Brewery (but, of course) and the Former Hokkaido Government Building (a gorgeous red-brick estate in the heart of downtown). In the grand tradition of Sapporo’s generosity, admission to the brewery showroom was free, and at the government heritage building, the visitor center also offered freebies, such as a foot spa and hot drinks to tourists.
At the end of our visit in Sapporo, I was simply stunned with how much we were able to do, without having to shell out for any chauffeured tours or pricey entrance fees. It was as if Sapporo, the city itself, was determined to make sure that visitors have the best experience possible, sans worries in a country that’s usually not the first choice among budget travelers. We just had to ask ourselves: What on earth have we done to deserve a city like Sapporo?