It’s now cheap and easy to reach Japan’s Far North.
Thanks to new airlines and tourism promotions, it’s cheaper than ever to visit Hokkaido, a northernmost Japanese prefecture often compared to Canada for its vast emptiness, powdery snow, volcanic hikes and pioneer spirit.
Canadians flying to Tokyo’s Narita airport (9/10/12 hours direct from Vancouver/Calgary/Toronto) can get cheap tickets (around $60 one-way for a 90-minute flight) to Sapporo’s Chitose airport on Jetstar or Air Asia (both 3 times daily), and then take the Hokkaido resort liner bus to Furano (2 hours) free of charge, thanks to Furano’s 50th anniversary celebration. (Skymark airlines also has cheap flights to Japan’s coldest city, Asahikawa, notable for its zoo with marching penguins, and then an hour bus-ride to Furano.)
Furano, famous in Japan for its lavender fields in July and uncrowded ski slopes in winter, might be the friendliest place in Japan for first-time visitors. Furano’s “ski host” program (firstname.lastname@example.org) arranges free English-speaking volunteer guides to show foreigners around the slopes. “If people don’t know anybody in a new country, they can make friends here easily,” says Mari Yamazaki, a mother of three ski racers who manages a team of 35 volunteers (from ages 18 to 70) that host about 200 to 500 foreign visitors per year on average. “If it’s a Canadian male intermediate skier, we try to match him with an advanced female Japanese host. Or if it’s a beginner Australian woman, we try to match her with an intermediate Japanese male who can help her. Everybody seems to like this idea.”
The family-run North Country Inn features $12 cheese fondue dinners, free local transport, a heated room for gear storage, a cellar of wines made from stocks imported from Canada, and a steaming outdoor bath overlooking fields of snow. The friendly owners can arrange Asobiya balloon rides for only $20 per person in winter, if you don’t mind hovering 300 meters high for 40 minutes in minus 10 or 20.
The Furano Snow School has foreign teachers for kids and rentals of new Atomic and Salomon gear (including mitts with inner gloves), and the Furano gondola zooms from bottom to top in 7 minutes, unveiling a winter wonderland of snow-caked Japanese pines. The Azalea restaurant on the slopes and many shops in Furano town (pop. 25,000) offer Hokkaido specialties such as ramen curry, King Crab, sea urchin, salmon roe, venison, and a lamb hotpot called Genghis Khan.
With lift tickets, food and rooms about half the cost of Lake Louise or Whistler, skiers or hikers from Ontario might actually save money by going to Hokkaido, where they’ll often have mountainsides to themselves.