I always pray for 3 things in all my travels – health, weather and safety. I can plan and prepare but when any of these 3 goes awry, the trip can potentially be ruined.
For this Hokkaido trip, I’m really thankful that God kept everyone in good health. Yes, we had a bit of sore throat, itchy skin due to the cold and dry weather but other than these, nothing serious.
- Drink lots of water. It aids digestion and hydrates the body from the cold, harsh and dry weather. I usually buy large bottles of water from convenience stores like 7-11 and Lawsons to top up our individual water bottles. This trip we discovered cute Evian bottles from 100-yen shop Can Do.
- Lather body cream 2-3 times daily. The normal moisturiser we brought along wasn’t effective. What worked was horse oil, a native product of Hokkaido. There were lots of different brands in the drug stores. We chose the one recommended by a friend.
Weather wise, most days were clear. There was only 1 day where it rained and we couldn’t track up the path at Mt Iozan. Then there were really cold and windy days, and times when the snow fell so heavily that it was hard to explore the surroundings. We could only hide in coffee houses, souvenir shops and convenience stores.
- If you’re driving, standby a few clear plastic umbrellas in the car. These can easily be bought at 100 yen shops and convenience stores.
- Find a place to wait out the weather which often clears within an hour. Most places have souvenir shops or waiting areas with vending machines. Really love bottled milk tea. This trip my younger daughter tried this Kirin Rich Green Tea that truly lived up to its name. We found it at Meidi-ya, Liang Court and it was double the price we paid in Japan!
Finally safety. Two thirds of my trip was self-drive, the remaining 4 days we walked and took trains. We had our fair share of scares and near accidents – driving off lane and in darkness without street lamps, traveling on roads where all markings were covered in snow, and slipping and falling on ice.
- Rent a car with snow tires and a four wheel drive system. Ours was a Subaru Crossover from Nippon Rent-A-Car. One plus point was Subaru’s safety feature, EyeSight Driver Assist Technology, that warns you when you depart from your lane with a beeping sound. Make sure the car comes with a brush to clean off the snow. You’ll definitely need it since most of the parking is open air.
- Use overhead road signs to guide your driving, especially when road markings are covered in snow. The red arrow indicates the side curb on your side of the road, the blue square with the white arrow indicates the center line.
- During winter, days are short. Try to reach your final destination by 4pm which is when the sun usually sets. For a good estimate on driving time, use the GPS and not Google Map. I made the mistake of using Google to check travel time from Chitose RERA Outlet Mall to Noboribetsu Onsen. It said an hour on my phone so we left the outlet at 2.30pm. Turned out there was a major snow storm while we were shopping which caused the Hokkaido Expressway to be closed. One hour became 5 hours on the road! If I had checked the GPS, I would have seen that the expressway was closed, which alternative roads to take and the new estimated driving time.
- Note down the locations of roadside rest areas or Michi-no-Eki 道の駅 along your journey. I didn’t think I would need them because the places I planned were all within 2 hours of driving. Well, traveling in winter is different from the other seasons. The drive time took longer than expected because of the icy road conditions, and we needed to use the restrooms more often. We visited a total of 5 michi-no-eki throughout our 10 days of driving. All had clean toilets and vending machines with hot and cold drinks. Some were huge with food stalls and stores selling local produce and souvenirs. Shizen Taikan Shimukappu – on route from Chitose to FuranoOnneyu Onsen – on route from Sounkyo to Lake AkanMashu Onsen – on route from Lake Akan to Lake MashuStella Honbetsu – on route from Kushiro to Obihiro
Lake Utonai – on route from Chitose to Noboribetsu
5. The last tip will be on footwear. It’s really important to have winter/snow shoes with good traction. My aunt fell thrice. I slipped and landed on my bum and elbow once. Both of us got so paranoid after our falls that we held on to others for support. On hindsight, we should have gotten detachable winter sole or ice cleats for extra safety.
Every trip is a learning experience. That’s what I love about traveling. I like to note down things I have learnt and things I’m thankful for. And God never fails to amaze me with His protection and providence. For this trip, I had a whopping 9-page long thanksgiving list made on my note app! It was truly a wonderful winter holiday.