Japan 2023 Winter Day 3: Sapporo to Toyako

We woke up to another beautiful day in Sapporo and after a quick conbini breakfast, we went for a walk around the block to stretch our legs. When we returned I asked the front desk to order us a taxi for a little later as the car rental spot was quite a walk away. They replied that we can just walk to the snow festival, and I was confused as that wasn’t what I asked but assumed they had misunderstood me and gave up. We went back up to our room and I called a taxi company, I was passed around from person to person until an English-speaking person was on the phone, even though I didn’t need one. The English-speaking person then called a Japanese-speaking person and spoke with them and I could hear them saying there are no taxis available, and it was then relayed to me in English. I called the front desk and asked again, this time the person understood me and said there were none available. Looking out the window I could see many taxis driving past, so was quite confused. It was a random Tuesday, so I had no idea why all the taxis would be busy! In the end, we walked 30 minutes to the car rental place, it took an hour to go through all the driving information in Japanese, as there is a lot more to cover for driving in the snow. We were able to get an expressway pass to reduce our costs over the next two days, and then we were off, back to our hotel to check out and it was time to leave Sapporo.

I had always wondered how snowy cities managed the snow, and we got some answers on our drive to our first destination. We saw numerous flatbed lorries filled with snow and all heading to specific destinations. As we drove along the Toyohira River we saw depots with diggers where the lorries were dumping their snow, and the diggers were pushing it into the river. Away from the water, there were mountains of snow that were being built up by the lorries and diggers, fascinating. On our drive that day we saw countless lorries all driving snow around, a whole industry required to keep the roads and businesses clear.

Our first destination was Hill of the Buddha (頭大仏殿) an open-air location with a number of stone monuments on display. The Buddha was absolutely stunning! Over the mounds of deep snow peaking out is a small grey head, and on your approach, you can see a little snow hat. Inside feels almost like an open-air silo, and sat in the center is one of the larger Buddhas I have seen. The addition of the snow and blue sky made it spectacular. You can walk all the way around the Buddha and check out all sides. I’d strongly recommend visiting here.

There were three more installations on the site; the Moai of Easter Island, Stone Henge from the UK, and two further Buddhist statues in the snow. The Moai heads were really interesting to see, and they were enormous! The snow was too deep to get to Stone Henge, but even from afar it doesn’t match up the real rocks in England, the stones are too cleanly cut and arranged. I really loved the Buddhist statues in the snow, their expressions were amazing.

This area was completely free to access and even had a bus stop for it to be accessible for those without a hire car. The surrounding area was beautiful, with snowy mountains and forests, it made out hire car look like an advert.

Our next stop was really something I was very much looking forward to, getting to know more about the indigenous people of Hokkaido, the Ainu: Upopoy museum. This is a relatively new museum in order to demonstrate the lives of the Ainu, as well as their traditional crafts and habits. There is a large indoor museum as well as a number of traditional Ainu buildings on the site.

One lure of this museum is that you can witness demonstrations of traditional Ainu crafts, and even join classes to try it yourself. Unfortunately, we went at a time when there were no demonstrations, but we were still able to explore each building and its contents. The museum did a great job of exploring the history of the Ainu, and the role the Japanese people played in almost eradicating their heritage and culture. There were also two great gift shops, as well as a cultural exchange centre that wasn’t doing much the day we visited. I’d highly recommend going if you are in Hokkaido.

Due to the delay in getting our car that morning, we were behind schedule on our road trip to Toyako, but it did mean we reached our next destination at golden hour. Our last stop for the day was Noboribetsu, the hell valley of Hokkaido. Japan has numerous hell valley’s – desolate areas with high volcanic activity, akin to the Buddhist hells. As we approached the area we could smell the eggy sulphuric vapours being emitted from the vents of the volcano. We were able to park close to the area and walk in for free. Out of our entire three weeks in snowy Japan this was the dodgiest walk of the whole thing! The paths were coated in thick snow and ice, making the walk through the valley rather precarious. We were wearing snow hiking boots, and even those didn’t have the necessary grip to keep up from slipping. Many people were wearing fashionable shoes, and even some flat soled work shoes, many of these people ended up on the ground. If you are visiting in winter, wear grips on your shoes!

It was a really great area to explore, the scenery so alien to anything else, especially with the snow across the ground where the thermal heat didn’t quite reach the surface. We were also treated to a family of deer enjoying the warmth, they were quite unbothered by the numerous tourists, and were there the entire time we were.

As we made the perilous trip back to the car the sun was setting, which meant we were going to be late checking into our unusual accommodation for the night. We drove on the pitch-black streets to Toyako, Lake Toya, where we were staying in a log cabin on the edge of the caldera. On the way, we stopped off at a local supermarket for dinner supplies and got our hands on the first yaki imo of the trip (roasted sweet potatoes) an absolute winter favourite of ours.

The accommodation was one of the most interesting places I have ever stayed. A number of American-style log cabins sat in the snow on the edge of the caldera overlooking the lake. The main building where we checked in was full of American paraphernalia, mostly relating to Snow White and Native Americans. And guns… a lot of guns! Our cabin itself was super cute, with twin beds, a sitting area, very nice Japanese-style bathroom balcony, and an extra bed upstairs. It was rather cold though, the kerosene heater only heated the area directly around it, so we ended up sharing one single bed closest to the heater to keep warm overnight!

A successful first day driving through Hokkaido!

Stats: Drove 211km, walked 6km


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