First day of our road trip proper, leaving the “hustle and bustle” of Sapporo city for the “Hokkaido wilderness”. Highlights of the day include:
– Traditional soba made by hand in a tiny 12-seater restaurant
– Exploring Niseko, a world-renowned ski resort, in the green season
– Overnight stay at a luxury onsen resort overlooking Lake Toya and its nightly fireworks display
Lake Toya is a 100km drive southwest from Sapporo and a good place to stop for the night if you are driving south from Sapporo to Hakodate, the third largest city in Hokkaido located at the southernmost tip of the island. As our ultimate destination was central Hokkaido, we only went as far south as Lake Toya. If you are following the same route, you can also choose to overnight at Noboribetsu which supposedly has “better” onsen waters (whatever that means to you as a foreigner), but I thought my parents would enjoy Lake Toya more with its peaceful and scenic 70km2 caldera lake.
Of course, the real reason was that I needed to do a “small” detour to Niseko to lunch at my favourite soba restaurant en-route to Lake Toya. After all, what is a mere 50km detour for a serious foodie?
Today’s route: Sapporo>Niseko>Lake Toya (150km)
Sapporo to Niseko [100km, 0945h-1145h]
We left Sapporo city loaded with many boxes and bags from the souvenir-shopping spree over the past two days. Luckily I had already anticipated this and pre-booked a rental car with a large trunk. We managed to fit the following into our Nissan Wingroad: one gigantic bag (the type you pack if you are planning to move to South America for three years), four cabin bags, a huge cardboard box of snacks and various odds and ends.
[Travel tip: Make sure you pre-book a rental car that is large enough for luggage AND shopping.]
Another sunny day
Spacious enough for lots of luggage
September is the most rainy month in Hokkaido but so far we were still getting lucky with good weather and we could see Mt Yotei in the distance as we drove towards Niseko. Niseko is a world renowned ski resort and one of my personal favourites in Japan (well less so now with drunk Aussies everywhere). In summer, you can hike or bike in the mountains, golf amidst majestic alpine views, or splash about in the lakes. During the drive, Dad remarked on the “crooked fences” along the road. These are actually a kind of guard to prevent snow from falling onto the road in winter, ‘cos Hokkaido gets a crazy amount of snow. So now you know if you happen to drive this way!
“Snow fences” for winter (anyone knows the proper name?)
The well-beaten path Niseko looks completely unfamiliar in summer
Lunch at Soba Rakuichi [1200h-1300h]
For those not in the know, Rakuichi is a tiny 12-seater restaurant near Annupuri resort, one of the four interlinked ski resorts that make up Niseko. Only soba and tempura are served at lunch, while dinner features a kaiseki menu. This little restaurant was a local gem until it was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s “No reservations”, after which more and more foreigners started to visit this place. In the peak of the ski season, lunchtime waits can be as long as two hours (no reservations are accepted for lunch).
Soba Rakuichi, Annupuri Niseko
Hours: 1100h-1500h (walk in only), 1700-late (reservations a must), closed Thursdays
[Food tip: Some Niseko eateries open in winter only so check opening hours before you go.]
Rakuichi- Car park for about 15 cars (shared with Karabina izakaya)
Rakuichi- No kiddos allowed
Rakuichi is semi-hidden inside a forest area and cannot be immediately seen from the carpark. This little restaurant has you charmed even before you enter, appearing slowly as you walk deeper into the forest along a wooden boardwalk. In summer, you will be surrounded by greenery, while in winter you will encounter a magical snow-blanketed scene.
Rakuichi- This way please
Rakuichi- Yay it’s open
Rakuichi- Swap your shoes for house slippers in the waiting area
Rakuichi- All 12 seats taken even in summer
We ordered a classic cold soba each, and two sets of vegetable tempura to share. The veggies are seasonal, and the tempura is still the best I have ever eaten, with feather-light batter which is not greasy at all. The cold soba was as good as always, simple and refreshing. I prefer it to the hot soba, even in winter. We were seated at the extreme left corner which made it difficult to see the chef making the soba noodles, which is a wonderful experience as he makes each order by hand.
[Food tip: If you think a single portion may be insufficient, order two portions upfront. As each order is made by hand, you (and your group) will be taking up unnecessary space if the chef has to make your second order after you are done eating.]
Rakuichi- Veggie tempura (JPY700)
Rakuichi- Cold soba (JPY900)
Cream puffs and soft serve at Milk Kobo [1300h-1430h]
Milk Kobo is another popular attraction in Niseko and we went there for dessert. It is a bakery/factory specializing in cream puffs, cheese tarts, and other milk products made on-site. It is not uncommon to see people buying many boxes as souvenirs. I personally don’t think their products are amazing (although some friends swear by it), but I still drop by if I go to Niseko. When we arrived, we spotted one of the 47 Cowparade cows, which were dotted around Niseko in Summer 2015.
Milk Kobo, Niseko Village
Hours: 0930h-1800h daily (1730h in winter)
Milk Kobo- Tapestry cow by Kiichi Yoshida
Milk Kobo main building- Soft serve counter
Milk Kobo main building- Cream puff and cheese tart (Kinotoya much better I swear it)
Other than the food, what we enjoyed this time was also taking photos in the green fields with Mt. Yotei in the background. It is usually too cold in winter to do anything else but huddle indoors and munch on cream puffs. There were tractors, rakes, and haystacks dotted around the fields as part of the “farmer” theme. If you have kids this will be a fun activity for them.
Milk Kobo- Views of Mt Yotei
Milk Kobo- Stuff we can’t do at Milk Kobo in winter
After climbing up and down haystacks and tractors, the hungry ghosts decided to eat AGAIN, so we went into Milk Kobo’s Cafe Est for some coffee and cakes. They make a glazed variety of baumkuchen but I didn’t enjoy it very much as the cream puffs were still digesting..
Milk Kobo Cafe Est- More dessert zomg
Milk Kobo Cafe Est-Cutting baumkuchen by hand
Milk Kobo Cafe Est-Views of Niseko-Annupuri from this side
Niseko to Lake Toya, Otaru [50km, 1445h-1530h]
We stopped at a rest point on the north shore of Lake Toya where we had our first glimpse of the lake. BIG MISTAKE as it was full of tour buses and noisy *people from a certain country* spoiling the otherwise magnificent views. We escaped the tour groups and arrived at Nonokaze resort soon after, where we were booked for the night. There are a number of hotels on the south shore of the lake but Nonokaze is one of the most luxurious and modern ones. We stayed in a quad-share family room with ensuite bathroom and toilet. All rooms at Nonokaze are lake-facing (and you pay dearly for it!)
[Hotel tip: Note that in rural Japan, older or more traditional properties may not offer rooms with ensuite toilets and bathrooms as the Japanese generally use the shared onsen (hot spring) facilities.]
Rest point, north Lake Toya
Nonokaze resort- Enjoying welcome drinks
Nonokaze resort- Right by the lake
Nonokaze resort- Our Japanese Western room (quad share)
Nonokaze resort- View from our room
Onsen and fireworks at Nonokaze resort [1830h-2130h]
After all that driving it was time to pamper ourselves in the hotel onsen (hot springs). Nonokaze has two in-house onsens, and the outdoor onsen is located on the roof of the resort, offering spectacular views of the lake. As is common in onsen hotels you can wear your yukata around the hotel. In fact, you can stay at Nonokaze without bringing anything at all because all toiletries and clothes (even pajamas) are provided. It was Mum and Dad’s first onsen experience, and this modern, foreigner-friendly hotel was a great introduction to onsen culture. Nonokaze even provides samue for those who are too lazy to figure out how to wear a yukata.
Nonokaze resort- Mum in yukata and the boys in samue
We had booked the half board plan (i.e. breakfast and dinner inclusive) so we ate dinner in the hotel’s lakeside restaurant. This is a smart option if you don’t have your own wheels or prefer to spend more time enjoying the hotel facilities instead of driving around in the dark looking for a restaurant. The buffet spread was quite good but being a food snob I can never be truly enthusiastic about buffets. Unfortunately the restaurant does not allow BYO, so we enjoyed Nikka whisky (purchased the day before from the Yoichi distillery) after dinner in our hotel room instead. Ice is sold in the hotel gift shop (sadly, no free ice dispenser in luxury hotels).
Nonokaze resort- Buffet restaurant by the lake with floor to ceiling windows
Nonokaze resort- Fresh sashimi platter
Nonokaze resort- My fave sushi
Nonokaze resort- You will want to fill up all the squares on your plate
Nonokaze resort- Dessert
There is a nightly fireworks show over the lake at 8.45pm in summer (28 Apr – 31 Oct, except when stormy). The floor-to-(almost)-ceiling windows of our room gave us a good view of the fireworks display, which I thought would be kinda lame but it was really quite elaborate and went on for about twenty minutes. Not Singapore National Day Parade standard of course, but very decent for a free show. The fireworks are launched off boats that travel across the lake so all the lakeside hotels will be able to see at least part of it. You can also pay to go out in a boat on the lake during the fireworks show.
Nonokaze resort- Nightly fireworks
Nonokaze resort- There were coloured ones too but my iphone 5S sucks
Conclusion / Additional tips:
A surprisingly enjoyable day well above expectations (my viewpoint most probably influenced by the excellent post-dinner Nikka).
Date of activity: 1 Sep 2015
Location: Niseko and Lake Toya, Hokkaido, Japan
Rate: c.JPY11k/day for rental of Group P-5 car (Nissan Wingroad)
Booking: Nissan Rent a Car (booked via ToCoo website)
Hotel we stayed: Lake View Toya Nonokaze resort (review coming soon)