If you can envision the shape of Hokkaido as a swimming fish leaping east, then the JR Hakodate Main Line (Hakodate Honsen) would be the fish’s spine. It connects Hokkaido’s three major cities – from Hakodate in the southern tail-fin to Asahikawa in the island’s northern center, while passing through Sapporo, the capital city and nerve center for the prefecture.
Covering 423 km (263 miles) from end to end, the Hakodate Line connects well over half of Hokkaido’s population. If visiting any cities outside of Sapporo, you will probably be riding it.
Southwest to Otaru and Niseko
Otaru is an old city with a very different vibe than most thrown-together Hokkaido communities, and it’s only a short jaunt from JR Sapporo station. Worth a day trip to see its older architecture, excellent seafood (try the marketplace right next to JR Otaru Station; exit the building, turn left, walk about 100 meters and go up the stairs), and touristy dockside canals (the Otaru Unga; walk downhill from the station and you’ll run into them).
Otaru-bound trains depart from JR Sapporo about every fifteen minutes, and they offer ocean views on the right-hand side halfway though the ride. However, most trains during rush hour times are commuter-style, meaning you sit facing the interior with the windows behind you. If that’s uncomfortable, board an Airport Express train for bucket seats and armside windows (just double-check the train is not bound for New Chitose Airport).
- Train Fare: 640 yen
- Train Time: 30-45 minutes
Niseko is a ski resort area that became a boom town in recent decades, due to the hoopla over its snow leading to speculative land grabs by Australians and Chinese. That said, the area does indeed have Hokkaido’s best powder, thanks to the Siberian cold confronting Sea of Japan moisture. But even if it’s not winter or you’re not a skier, it’s worth a trip if you like train rides with a view. The train (bound for JR Oshamambe from JR Otaru) will offer vistas of southern Hokkaido’s coastal hills and beaches, and then top it off with Mt. Yōtei, known as the northern Mt. Fuji (Ezo-Fuji), anchoring the skyline like the Eiffel Tower does Paris.
JR Niseko Station itself feels like a touristy shack in the middle of nowhere, so be sure to plan local activities in advance if you’re getting off there – nothing is within walking distance. Furthermore, check train schedules in advance: many trains stop at nearby boring JR Kutchan Station and then skip Niseko altogether. If you have not arranged local transport, you will have to hire a taxi to get around. Or you can just get off and wait for the next one back (the Niseko Liner is the most convenient train; watch for it). It’s a pleasant daylong outing, and you can take in Otaru for dinner on your way back.
- Train Fare: 2,160 yen
- Train Time: About 2 hours with good connections. (Change trains at JR Otaru Station, but beware transfers: You get only about four minutes to cross the train platform, and after that, trains beyond Otaru depart only once every hour or two!)
South to Hakodate
Hakodate has a long history, as it was the beachhead for Japan’s slow cultural, then rapid military colonization of Hokkaido. It has fascinating architecture from several 19th-century colonizing countries, as well as spectacular mountaintop views of the city – ascend by cable car to Mount Hakodate at night.
There are two ways to get there from JR Sapporo:
(1) The Hakodate Main Line, which takes the slow-boat route west to Otaru before plunging south.
Or (2) the direct express route southeast via the Hokuto train. Although the latter option cuts travel time in half by avoiding the mountains around Niseko, it also passes by ugly industrial towns Tomakomai and Muroran.
After both routes converge at JR Oshamambe, the tracks rejoin the Hakodate Main Line and soon wend through southern-tier mountain valleys sealed off in winter, but in summer are open as fertile and productive farmlands. For purist tourists, there is a special spur in the southern tier encircling the ghostly swamplands of Ōnuma Park and dodging the rumbling volcano of Komagatake; get off at JR Onuma Koen Station for that.
If you’re in a hurry to get to Hakodate, take the Hokuto train directly. If the journey is part of the destination, and you want to view Hokkaido by train, go via Otaru.
- Sapporo – Hakodate Station
- Train Fare: (5,540 yen westbound slow train, 8,830 yen eastbound direct express)
- Train Time: About 7½ hours westbound slow train (change trains at JR Otaru and JR Oshamambe), or about 3½ to 4 hours eastbound express.
- Timetable from Sapporo and then from Oshamambe
North to Asahikawa
Asahikawa is Hokkaido’s second city, and acts as the portal to the expansive and sparsely-populated Hokkaido Outback. That outback offers up desolate views of Russia and the grey, icy Okhotsk Sea, with the far-flung cities of Abashiri, Kitami, Obihiro, and Kushiro (and for the truly expeditious, the forbidding outposts of Nemuro to the farthest-east and Wakkanai to the farthest-north). Asahikawa is also close to the lovely rolling hills of Biei and Furano to the south, carefully-planted with photogenic lavender and other flowering crops to attract summer tourists like bees.
But that’s the thing: Other than what’s beyond Asahikawa, there isn’t really a lot to recommend the city itself. Even the train ride up is rather uneventful: through gentrified Sapporo suburbs of Atsubetsu and Ebetsu, and then passing by long-dormant coalmining towns of Iwamizawa and Sunagawa. After reaching a valley cul-de-sac in Fukagawa, the train line plunges through canyons carved by the Ishikari River (Japan’s second-longest) to its terminus in Asahikawa. Although Asahikawa is very convenient to get to from Sapporo (trains depart every 30 minutes), we suggest you plan to see places beyond.
Train Fare: 4,810 yen
Train Time: About 90 minutes
Article by Dr. Debito Arudou