Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Hokkaido Winter 2013 北海道冬季之旅 - Day 7 Itinerary: Asahikawa 旭川, Sapporo 札幌

Day 7 - 09.02.2013

Breakfast: Asahikawa Washington Hotel

Asahikawa JR Station Bus Stop 5 (0910 hrs) > Asahiyama (0950 hrs)
via Bus 46; alighted at last stop and another 5 mins walk to Asahiyama Zoo.
Fee = 380 yen 
* Please take Bus 41 or 47 from Bus Stop 6, located just outside Asahikawa JR Station. 

Visited Asahiyama Zoo.

Asahiyama Zoo (1330 hrs) > Asahikawa JR Station (1412 hrs)
via Bus 41.
Fee = 400 yen

Late lunch: Mori no ma cafe, third floor of Feeeal Asahikawa.

Asahikawa JR Station (1605 hrs) > Sapporo JR Station (1746 hrs)
via Asahiyama Zoo Train. Day #3 usage of 4 day flexible Hokkaido Rail Pass.

Check in: Best Western Fino Sapporo

Dinner: Kani Shogun

- End of Day 7-

Friday, January 10, 2014

Hokkaido Winter 2013 北海道冬季之旅 - Minami-Nagayama JR Station 南永山駅

Minami-Nagayama JR Station (A31), along Sekihoku main line.
Three stations away from Asahikawa JR Station.
Asahikawa > Minami-Nagayama; train fee = 220 yen

Minami-Nagayama JR station is a "no-man" station; only has a small waiting room for train passengers.
Do note that only local trains stop at this station.


What's nearby:

(1) Uniqlo (Nagayama Outlet)
To my surprise, I could not locate any Uniqlo outlet near Asahikawa JR Station and in Heiwa-dori Shopping Street (being the heart of Asahikawa city). There are only two outlets in Asahikawa - one along Asahimachi-dori and the other located near Minami-Nagayama JR Station (approx 5 mins walk). Shopped at the latter, which has an extensive line-up of products.

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(2) Asahikawa Ramen Village (Ramen Mura)
Asahikawa is well-known for their soya sauce based ramen, which explains why there are many ramen restaurants with established reputation scattered all around the city. Ramen Mura is a one stop place to taste eight popular ramen restaurants, all originated from Asahikawa.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Hokkaido Winter 2013 北海道冬季之旅 - Asahikawa Ramen Village (Ramen Mura) あさひかわラーメン村, Aoba 青叶

Visited 08.02.2013

Hokkaido is well known for its ramen culture, namely miso ramen from Sapporo, shio (salt) ramen from Hakodate and shoyu ramen from Asahikawa. Asahikawa Ramen Village was opened in Aug 1996 and is made up of eight established ramen restaurants all originated from Asahikawa - aimed to spread the ramen culture that Asahikawa is proud of; introduce the taste of ramen to all corners of Japan and the world. Like this one-stop concept where you can savour each restaurant's very own creation/receipe of how a good hearty bowl of ramen should be like. Decided to make the trip to take a look at this place despite being able taste the same ramen in Heiwa-dori shopping street. There is even a shrine in the village - "Menmusubi" Shrine, where people come and pray for their romantic relationships to be as hot as ramen broth and to last as long as noodles. 

Features of Asahikawa Ramen: the idea of keeping the broth warm by covering the surface with a film of lard; soy sauce flavoured broth made from pork bones and seafood stock; and fair and wavy noodles with less water content. 

Do you know? Famous Asahikawa Ramen restaurants such as Santouka (火头山) and Baikohken (梅光轩) have extended their businesses out of Japan and have opened outlets in Singapore.
Santouka - in Central (Clarke Quay) and Cuppage Road
Baihohken - in Takashimaya and North Canal Road


Aoba 青叶

Made one round in the village, peeking into each shop to understand the business status - noticed that business for most shops was not as brisk as expected on this day. Chose Aoba as it was recommended by one of the travel guidebooks. Aoba has been around for more than half a century (was established in 1947). Shop is proud of their broth which is made of pork bone, chicken breast bone, Rishiri kombu and vegetables, with no artificial flavourings added.

Left: Shoyu Ramen; Right: Gyoza and Miso Ramen

Had to order their specialty char siew shoyu ramen to try. Soup was flavourful and you can taste the goodness from the harvests of both land and sea, all locked within the bowl of soup. Personally felt that it was on the saltier side (which is quite typical of ramen in Japan). Found the soup to be oiler which is meant to retain the heat within the bowl for as long as possible - especially important in the cold weather. On the other hand, the gyozas were pan-fried to perfection with juicy meat and vegetables fillings - to me was an exceptional side dish to go with a hot bowl of ramen. 


Asahikawa Ramen Village (Ramen Mura) あさひかわラーメン村
Approx 5 - 10 mins walk from Minami-Nagayama JR Station. 
Opening hours: 1100 - 2100 hrs
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Hokkaido Winter 2013 北海道冬季之旅 - Asahikawa Winter Festival 旭川冬まつり

Visited 08.02.2013
Year 2013: 06.02.2013 - 11.02.2013
Year 2014: 06.02.2014 - 11.02.2014
Year 2015: 06.02.2015 - 11.02.2015

Apart from Sapporo Snow Festival, the next largest winter event that is held in the same week is Asahikawa Winter Festival. This event, held in Asahikawa - the second largest city of Hokkaido, has been around for more than half a century, 1 decade younger than Sapporo Snow Festival. During the 6 days event, both ice and snow sculptures, in various forms and sizes are put up for display in two venues - along the populated Heiwa dori shopping street and the riverside beside Asahibashi bridge.



- Numerous ice sculptures lined both sides of Heiwa dori shopping street. These beautifully crafted masterpieces are created by ice sculptures all around the world and are also entries competing in the annual World Ice Sculpture Contest. At night, these ice sculptures are lit up, looking vastly different appearance as what we see in the day. Felt that the details of the sculptures looked more well-defined as various coloured lights are shone upon them under the dark skies. Was amazed by the fine and intricate details that each of this ice sculpture portrayed.

Intricate details on every masterpiece
Ice sculptures took on a different form at night
- Made our way to the main venue located beside Asahibashi bridge. The main highlight of this annual event is the construction of one gigantic snow sculpture - Transformers took the centre stage in 2013 (and in 2014 as well). Construction activities started in late Dec/early Jan as snow quantity began to accumulate. If you are wondering who are the artists behind this big masterpiece, they are actually from Japan Ground Self-Defense Force! Truly impressed by their dedication in such ad-hoc events as well.

54th Asahikawa Winter Festival theme: Transformers - More than meets the eye
- Another main attraction is the longest snow slide that is about 100 m long! But do expect to queue for your turn as these slides are hugely popular (because its free!) and only two slides are available (did not manage to try out as the queue was too long on the day of our visit). There are lots of other activities to keep visitors occupied throughout the entire event period. Visitors can also participate in snow rafting, banana boat, sledding, tubing, etc made available in the main venue (at a nominal fee). There are also live performances and light shows (at night) taking place at the center stage. Many medium sized snow sculptures, featuring many familiar cartoon characters and Asahikawa's very own mascot - Asapi, were also on display for endless photo taking.

A thrilling ride down this 100 m long snow slide!
Medium sized snow sculptures; Top Right: Iconic Asahibashi bridge
- The main venue also housed a Winter Market which is packed with food stalls. A lounge area was also set up for visitors to escape from the cold and enjoy their food indoors. Do visit their souvenir shop as well as to purchase limited edition merchandise - bought a collar pin that was specially designed for this year's event.

Winter Market and Lounge
Collar pin collected!

Asahikawa Winter Festival 旭川冬まつり
(1) World Ice Sculpture Contest: Along Heiwa-dori shopping street
(2) Main event venue: Beside Asahibashi bridge


How to get there? 
(1) Free shuttle bus service operates during the entire period of Asahikawa Winter Festival. The bus commutes between Asahikawa JR Station and the main event venue.

Another free shuttle bus commutes between the main event venue and Asahiyama Zoo and Yuki no Mura Snow Village (雪の村). This bus service allows visitors to visit both attractions conveniently on the same day. Do note that the timing for this bus is less frequent.
Bus schedule:

(2) Walk: Start from Asahikawa JR Station and walk along Heiwa dori shopping street to admire the ice sculptures. Continue to walk straight till you reach the roundabout and make your way towards Asahibashi bridge.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Hokkaido Winter 2013 北海道冬季之旅 - Asahikawa JR Station 旭川駅, Heiwa-dori Shopping Street 平和通購物公園

Asahikawa JR Station (A28), an interchange station for the following train routes:
(1) Sekihouku main line, eastwards to Kamikawa and Abashiri.
(2) Soya line, northwards to Wakkanai.
(3) Furano line, southwards to Biei and Furano.
(4) Hakodate main line, westwards to Sapporo.

Train station underwent a major overhaul in 2011 and was transformed into a elevated platform station. Many amenities/facilities are available in this modern, newly furbished train station - Twinkle Plaza (to purchase JR Pass and Twinkle Bus tickets), shops selling souvenirs and ekiben, tourism information centre and even houses an art gallery! Spacious walkways and compound, artistic ornaments and wooden finishing made this train station a pleasant and comfortable place to hang out in.


What's nearby:

(1) Asahikawa Tourism and Local Products Information Centre 旭川観光物産情報センター

Located within the train station (closer to the east exit), this is a good place to drop by to gather information on attractions in Asahikawa city. There are English and Mandarin speaking staff working at the tourism information counters whom foreigners can seek help from. The other half is allocated for sale of products (agricultural produce, sake, delicacies, souvenirs with packaging bearing their very own mascot - Asapi) all originating from Asahikawa.

Asahikawa's adorable mascot - Asapi!
Asapi, being the mascot of Asahikawa, has all the prominent features of this city. A combination of polar bear & seal (Asahiyama Zoo), donning a costume with the prominent Asahibashi bridge and a cloak of delicious Asahikawa Ramen! 

(2) Heiwa-dori Shopping Street 平和通買物公園
Walk out from the west exit and head straight down this street. This entire stretch of road was converted to a permanent pedestrian only road in 1972. Shops, restaurants and hotels lined up on both sides of the road. Major departmental stores include Seibu, !Exc, Feeeal and Okuno.

Being in the smaller and quieter towns for the past few days, we finally got to do some shopping here in Asahikawa. The train station was previously connected to ESTA (a shopping mall managed by JR) and Asahikawa Terminal Hotel but both were closed down in July 2012. Plans to build another shopping mall on this existing site was unveiled in 2013 - a collaboration between JR Hokkaido and AEON Mall, and is expected to complete in 2015.

Left: ESTA and Asahikawa Terminal Hotel closed down in 2012; Right: Seibu [Permanently closed in 2016]
- Seibu: Made up of A & B buildings, Loft (a popular Japanese chain store that sells novel everyday commodities) and Muji can be found in B building. Supermarket is located in their basement level - a place that I like to visit when in Japan to grab fresh fruits, groceries and ready-to-eat bento sets. [Permanently closed in 2016]
- !Exc: [Permanently closed in 2014]
- Feeeal:
- Okuno:

Shopping street in the night; Mister Donut for light supper
There are also many cafes and fast food restaurants located along this shopping street - Macdonalds, Mos Burger, Mister Donut, Doutor, Lotteria, KFC, etc. Numerous ramen shops where you can taste Asahikawa's specialty shoyu ramen are found along the same street. Some of the famous names include Santouka (山头火), Hachinya (蜂屋), Aoba (青叶), Baikohken (梅光轩), etc.

View Asahikawa Heiwa-dori Shopping Street in a larger map

(3) Numerous hotels to choose from.
Stayed one night in Asahikawa Washington Hotel, located along Showa-dori. Approx 5 mins walk from train station.


Commemorative stamps:

Friday, January 3, 2014

Hokkaido Winter 2013 北海道冬季之旅 - Asahikawa Washington Hotel 旭川ワシントンホテル

Stayed 08.02.2013 (1 day)
Booked through Japanican.

11.06.2018 Update: Asahikawa Washington Hotel is permanently closed. Current building is housed by Smile Hotel Asahikawa スマイルホテル旭川.

- Chose this hotel largely due to its convenience (free shuttle bus from Sounkyo Kankou Hotel stops in front of the hotel) and cheap room rates (comparable to more established business hotel chains). Hotel is located one street away from Heiwa-dori shopping street and approx 3 - 5 minutes walk away from Asahikawa JR station.  

- Shopping complexes such as Seibu, !EXC and Feeeal found along Heiwa-dori Shopping Street -
- Booked standard twin rooms with breakfast plan, at 6,300 yen/room (approx 43 SGD/pax). Left our luggage with the front desk as we arrived before our check-in timing. Was glad to know that the staff have brought our luggage to the rooms when we returned in the late afternoon. Size of room is small but adequate walking space available, and equipped with the basic necessities and amenities to ensure a comfortable night stay. Hotel also has a pillow counter which allow the guests to select the type of pillow that best suit his/her needs, an additional (seemingly small) service which make a difference to one's sleeping quality!

- Was quite disappointed with the breakfast buffet as there were limited food choices (mostly processed food), something the hotel should improve on. Alternatively, skip the hotel breakfast and go for cafes/fast food restaurants (such as Doutor Coffee, Mister Donut, Mos Burger, etc) located along Heiwa-dori shopping street.

Conclusion: Being the second largest city in Hokkaido, there are numerous accommodation options in Asahikawa, and most of them are within close proximity to the train station. Apart from the breakfast which leaves much to be desired, a combination of affordable rates, strategic location and decent service still make this hotel stands out among the rest of its competitors.


Asahikawa Washington Hotel 旭川ワシントンホテル
北海道旭川市1条通6丁目左10号 昭和通

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Hokkaido Winter 2013 北海道冬季之旅 - Day 6 Itinerary: Asahikawa 旭川

Day 6 - 08.02.2013

Breakfast: Sounkyo Kankou Hotel

Sounkyo Kankou Hotel (1000 hrs) > Asahikawa Washington Hotel (1130 hrs)
via free hotel shuttle bus service.

Check in: Asahikawa Washington Hotel

Visited 54th Asahikawa Winter Festival:
(1) Heiwa-dori Shopping Street.
(2) Asahibashi Bridge riverside venue.

Lunch: Abashibashi Bridge riverside venue

Winter Festival venue (1410 hrs) > Asahikawa JR Station (1425 hrs)
via free shuttle bus.

Shopping @ Asahikawa Seibu.

Asahikawa JR Station (1736 hrs) > Minami-Nagayama JR Station (1747 hrs)
via local train bound for Ikaushi. Fee = 220 yen.

Dinner: Aoba Ramen in Asahikawa Ramen Village.

Shopping @ Uniqlo.

Minami-Nagayama JR Station (1954 hrs) > Asahikawa JR Station (2005 hrs)
via last local train bound for Asahikawa.Fee = 220 yen.

Supper: Mister Donuts, along Heiwa-dori Shopping Street.

- End of Day 6 -

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Hokkaido Winter 2013 北海道冬季之旅 - Sounkyo Ice Fall Festival (Hyoubaku Matsuri) 層雲峡温泉氷瀑まつり

Visited 07.02.2013
Year 2013: 19.01.2013 - 31.03.2013
Year 2014: 18.01.2013 - 30.03.2013

There are numerous events/festivals held all across Hokkaido during the winter season, with varying duration - over a weekend, a couple of weeks, one month etc. Sounkyo Ice Fall Festival is one of the longest running event in winter, over a period of 2.5 months. Venue is just opposite the main onsen town and is about 5 mins walk from Sounkyo Kankou Hotel (which we stayed in during this trip).

Wind was growling fiercely that night, but that did not deter us from making the trip down to participate in this festival. We did all we could to keep ourselves warm - protected by 4 layers of clothing, 2 layers of gloves, 2 layers of socks, multiple heat packs and mask. Unfortunately, the walk from our hotel to the event venue was downwind and we had to force our way, step by step, through the strong, chilly winds. Eventually took us longer to reach the event venue. Was an unforgettable experience indeed.



- This is not exactly a frozen waterfall like what its name suggested. The huge ice structures were formed by pouring water from Ishikari River repeatedly onto the wooden structures/supports, whereby the water freezes to become ice in the cold weather. The entire venue is also beautifully lighted up by colourful lights in the night. This event is a major highlight of Sounkyo Onsen in winter, therefore not to be missed if you are staying overnight here.

- Ice tunnel -
- Ice domes, cones and armchairs -
- A shrine set up in the event venue -
- Ice in various forms, shapes and sizes can be found here. Explore the ice tunnel while watching out for the icicles hanging above your head, pop your head into the ice domes, admire the ice cones, test out the ice furniture, etc. There is a ice shrine constructed in the event venue; instead of tossing coins into a well, make a wish and stick your coins onto the ice walls in the shrine!

- A postcard and discount voucher (100 yen) for amazake (non alcoholic drink made from fermented rice) are issued upon entrance. There is an instant photo taking booth, which gives out thumb-sized photo printed on a event commemorative card free of charge (making it a good souvenir to bring back home). If you are pleased with the photos taken, you can purchase the larger sized photos instead. A tentage with stalls selling souvenirs, food and drinks is also erected in the event venue - a pit stop to head down to warm your bodies near the heaters provided and shelter yourself temporarily from the cold winds.

- There are also fireworks performance at 2030 hrs that last for 10 - 15 mins, on stipulated dates. A great way to end the tour before heading back to the hotel!


Sounkyo Ice Fall Festival 層雲峡温泉氷瀑まつり
Admission fee = 100 yen
Sounkyo Tourism Association:

View Sounkyo Ice Fall Festival in a larger map