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.
Hakodate to Sapporo (via Niseko and Otaru)
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.
Kutchan ›› A main gateway of Niseko and the Grand Hirafu ski resorts overlooking the dynamic Yotei-zan (Ezo-Fuji).
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. Motomachi district on a scenic hillside keeps a nostalgic atmosphere.
BOARDING ›› The electric train Hakodate Liner (はこだてライナー), timed to meet all the Hokkaido Shinkansen (bullet trains), makes the 15-minute run to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto. All trains stop at Goryokaku (3.4km) soon after Hakodate, where the South Hokkaido Railway (道南いさりび鉄道) heads west to Kikonai along the Tsugaru Strait.
About 18km north of Hakodate, the Hokkaido Shinkansen Hayabusa runs here from and to Tokyo (4hrs). All limited express trains from and to Sapporo via the JR Muroran Line also stop here.
BOARDING ›› After passes through Togeshita Tunnel, you can see the picturesque lake Ko-numa (小沼) 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 (km), from where the Sawara branch line skirts the eastern foot of Koma-ga-take to Mori.
Onuma (meaning the big marsh) 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.
BOARDING ›› Soon after Onuma-koen, the train crosses between the lakes and follows the western foot of Koma-ga-take. From the coastal station Mori (49.5km), the line follows the western shoreline of the Uchiura Bay (also called Funka-wan). Al trains stop at Yakumo (81.1km).
Halfway between Sapporo and Hakodate, this coastal town 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 Toya.
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.
BOARDING ›› 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 pleasant rural town of 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.
BOARDING ›› If you plan to soaking in an onsen along the line, get off the train at Konbu (170.3km) and head to the Yusenkaku (幽泉閣 / 10am-9.30pm / ¥500) facing the train station. It boasts alkalinity-rich waters and wide indoor baths. Before arriving Konbu, the train follows the cream stream Shiribetsu-gawa (尻別川).
Niseko is Japan’s most dynamically changing ski resort, modern buildings, restaurants and bars are rising day by day. International skiers and snowboarders admire its best powder snow in the world. JR Niseko Station is a convenient gateway for Niseko Village and Annupuri ski resorts.
BOARDING ›› If you plan to head to the Grand Hirafu ski resort without pick-up service, do not get off at Hirafu (186.0km). Interestingly, Hirafu Station has an accommodation in an old station staff rooms. Look east to see the beautiful mountain Yotei-zan (1898m) before arriving in Kutchan.
Shiribeshi Region’s official capital, Kutchan is a convenient gateway for the Grand Hirafu and Hanazono ski resorts.
BOARDING ›› A few kilometers after Kozawa (203.6km), the train passes through Inaho Tunnel (1766m) in the mountains. There is a number of apple orchards around Niki (228.2km).
BOOK YOUR STAY ONLINE: NISEKO HIRAFU
A surprising number of luxury and modern condominiums are growing around Hirafu main village. During in winter, condo room prices going for ¥80,000 or more per night. The hotels book out very fast, so advanced booking is highly recommended.
Yoichi is a gateway to the Eastern Shakotan Peninsula. The main attractions here are the whisky distillery and the old fishing houses. With many kajuen (orchards) scattered the countryside, so you can experience fruit picking from mid June to early November.
BOARDING ›› One stop east of Yoichi, Ranshima (237.9km) 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 Station (244.8km).
Otaru is a nostalgic port town grew rapidly since the 1880s, a number of major trading companies and banks opened branch offices. This city has overtaken Sapporo in population during the Meiji period. Today the historic buildings and stone warehouses still remain throughout the city.
BOARDING ›› From Otaru-chikko (256.2km) to Zenibako (268.1km), the train travels on the rugged coastline of the Sea of Japan, in the form of the Ishikari Bay. In Western Sapporo, Teine (275.7km) is the closest station to Teine Ski Area on the 1972 Olympic slopes. Further east, the line enters the heart of Sapporo.
BOOK YOUR STAY ONLINE: OTARU
Otaru has a good selection of reasonably priced accommodations than Sapporo. You will find the historic and friendly places from the city center to Asarigawa Onsen.
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.