For many railway travelers from and to Honshu (such as Tokyo and Aomori), this mountain-meet-ocean route (JR Hakodate Line) is such a good distillation of all Hokkaido highlights that can be visited in a few days. The line starts from the historic port town Hakodate, then passes through the picturesque Onuma Park and the world-class ski resort Niseko. Otaru is an another of the nostalgic port town near Sapporo.
DURATION: 5 to 7 hours (require changes at Oshamanbe and Otaru)
ORDINARY FARE: ¥5940 (Valid for 3-day)
BEST TIME: June to October for walking and cycling. December to March for skiing.
Onuma-koen ›› Southern Hokkaido’s most beautiful lakeside resort offers good for picnic, camping, cycling and hiking.
Oshamanbe ›› For most travelers, this bayside railway town is a launch point for trains to Niseko.
Yoichi ›› The main joy here is tasting Japanese malt whisky at the Nikka Distillery. You can fruit picking at the sightseeing orchards.
Otaru ›› Explore the nostalgic port town from Otaru Canal to Sakai-machi shopping street.
One of Japan’s first international trade ports opened in 1854, Hakodate is a romantic port town with an East-meets-West culture, historic buildings, lively markets, fresh seafood and coastal onsen.
0km to 17.9km
Hakodate to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto
All trains stop at Goryokaku soon after Hakodate, where the South Hokkaido Railway heads west to Kikonai along the Tsugaru Strait. The electric train Hakodate Liner, timed to meet all the Hokkaido Shinkansen (bullet trains), makes the 15-minute run from Hakodate to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto.
17.9km to 28.0km
Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto to Onuma-koen
After passes through Togeshita Tunnel, you can see the picturesque lake Ko-numa on the left backed by the double-peaked Koma-ga-take (1131m), the most iconic mountain in Southern Hokkaido. Only local trains stop at Onuma, from where the Sawara branch line skirts the eastern foot of Koma-ga-take to Mori.
Onuma-koen is Southern Hokkaido’s most popular and picturesque resort that is designated as a quasi-national park. The volcanic mountain Koma-ga-take and its peaceful lakes offer good for cruise, camping, cycling and hiking. This park can easily be visited for the day from Hakodate.
28.0km to 112.3km
Onuma-koen to Oshamanbe
Soon after Onuma-koen, the train crosses between the lakes and follows the western foot of Koma-ga-take. From the coastal station Mori, the line follows the western shoreline of the Uchiura Bay (also called Funka-wan).
Halfway between Sapporo and Hakodate, Oshamanbe is a major rail junction on the JR Hakodate Line. All limited express trains for Sapporo stop here and enter the JR Muroran Line for Noboribetsu.
You will have enough time to explore the town if you are continuing north to Otaru via Niseko, but Oshamanbe offers traveler-friendly shokudo and onsen to keep you amused between train connections.
112.3km to 179.6km
Oshamanbe to Niseko
JR Hakodate Line veers north from Oshamanbe, where you leave Oshima Region and enter Shiribeshi Region. Until the 1980s, several limited express trains went this inland route, sometimes called Yama-sen (it means ‘the mountain line’ in Japanese).
The rural town Kuromatsunai is a nice place to relax before or after visiting the international resort Niseko. Slow your pace and take the time to walk on the footpaths with a countryside view.
If you plan to soaking in an onsen along the line, get off the train at Konbu and head to the Yusenkaku behind the train station.
Niseko is Japan’s most dynamically changing ski resort, modern buildings, restaurants and bars are rising day by day. JR Niseko Station is a convenient gateway for Niseko Village and Annupuri ski resorts on the west side of Niseko United. If you plan to head to the Grand Hirafu ski resort without pick-up service, do not get off at Hirafu between Niseko and Kutchan.
Shiribeshi Region’s official capital, Kutchan is a convenient gateway for the Grand Hirafu and Hanazono ski resorts in the central Niseko United. Look east to see the beautiful Yotei-zan (1898m) before arriving.
193.3km to 252.5km
Kutchan to Otaru
After passing through Inaho Tunnel (1766m) and a lot of orchards in Niki, the train stop at Yoichi, a gateway to the Eastern Shakotan Peninsula. The main attractions here are the whisky distillery and the old fishing houses.
One stop east of Yoichi, Ranshima has a scenic sandy beach (mid Jul-late Aug) near the train station. During the warmer months, some hikers climb up to the panoramic mountain Shioya Maru-yama (629m) from Shioya.
Otaru is a nostalgic port town grew rapidly since the 1880s, a number of major trading companies and banks opened branch offices. Today the historic buildings and warehouses still remain throughout the city.
252.5km to 286.3km
Otaru to Sapporo
From Otaru to Zenibako, the train travels on the rugged coastline of the Sea of Japan, in the form of the Ishikari Bay. Teine is the closest station to Teine Ski Area on the 1972 Olympic slopes. Further east, the line enters the heart of Sapporo.
Hokkaido’s 150-year-old capital and Japan’s fifth-largest city, Sapporo is a spacious and laid-back place. The compact city center is well-laid-out and it has a lot of parks dotted with Western-style historical landmarks, which makes a pleasant stroll.
JR Hakodate Line still has another 136.8km for Asahikawa. There are direct trains to Hokkaido’s major cities and New Chitose Airport.