Carefree in Hokkaido

The Otaru Canal is lined with Victorian-style street lamps and century-old stone warehouses on both sides.

I have a confession: I love package tours, especially to countries with a language barrier.

Friends and colleagues, on the other hand, complain about tightly packed schedules, noisy and strange tour companions, as well as unexciting sales points the tour guides insist on going to.

To minimise unhappiness, choose a trusted tour agency. I picked Chan Brothers Travel and have had good experiences, except for two encounters with tour guides. To me, the benefits of not having to research and plan itineraries outweigh those of a free-and-easy tour. I love being taken care of, from lodging, food to transport, which can be a major hassle in a foreign land.

One of my most memorable trips on a guided tour was in Hokkaido during summer. We were very lucky to have a knowledgeable and passionate tour guide, a Singaporean who has been living in Japan for more than 10 years.

Tour guides are very important as they can make or break a trip. Our tour guide was very entertaining with his knowledge of Japanese culture, history and had a great sense of humour.

The seven-day trip started at the beautiful Otaru Canal upon our arrival in Japan. The famous attraction is lined with Victorian-style street lamps and century-old stone warehouses on both sides of the canal. It took nine years to build the Otaru Canal, measuring 1,140m long and 40m wide, and it was completed in 1923. It used to be a busy headquarters with many storehouses for coal or marine products but was bypassed when the piers were built at Otaru port, which allowed goods to be transported directly from ships to trucks.

A walk by the beautiful canal highlighted how well the Japanese have preserved historic architecture for the next generation. The old stone houses have now been converted into restaurants, shops and museums for visitors to linger longer in the pleasant ambience. Visitors can also find good seafood restaurants and artistically crafted music boxes at Otaru Canal.

Another Hokkaido highlight is the magnificent view of the spring and summer flowers, depending on the season you visit. Our tour group was lucky to witness a sprawling spread of lavender and sunflowers in Farm Tomita, a tourist hotspot in Furano. The main flowerviewing season is between June and September. Our tour guide added that other varieties of exotic floral blooms (poppies, lilies, salvias and cosmos) could be seen during the flower season. After feasting our eyes on the flowers, we were introduced to a slew of products - scented candles, soaps, facial products and even pillows.

These products, made from lavender, are ideal to take home as a sweet-smelling souvenir, literally. There were also lavender-flavoured drinks and smooth lavender ice cream to cool the summer heat in Hokkaido.

Visiting indigenous people

On day 5 of our tour, we went to one of Japan's best museums in Hokkaido -Shiraoi Ainu Village. A walk in the open-air museum gave a glimpse of how the Ainu, the indigenous people of northern Japan, lived.

Our tour guided explained that "Ainu" meant "Human" and the Ainu people prayed and performed different ceremonies for the gods they revered. These gods included nature gods - wind, water, thunder and fire; animal gods - bears, foxes and owls; and plant and object gods.

Each of the thatched houses along the shore of Lake Poroto showed how the Ainu people lived and their rich culture. There was also an hourly performance of traditional Ainu folk dances, songs and mouth harp demonstrations for visitors. One of the folk dances performed to send off the spirits of dead bears was designated a Unesco tangible cultural property in 2009.

Visitors to the Ainu Village can look out for the brown bear - the largest land animal in Japan that can be found only in Hokkaido. The Ainu people regarded the revered animal as the god of mountains. To the Ainu people hunting was seen as a gift of help from the gods, and they believed that when they went to hunt in the mountains, they would bring a bear home with them. When a brown bear was caught, the Ainu people offered their gratitude to the gods by making a gift and "sending off the bear's spirit" in a ceremony called "Iomante".

The best part of visiting Hokkaido was when our tour guide took us to the Sapporo Fish Market to taste the freshest seafood in town. We gawked at the wide array of seafood - giant crab legs, scallop, sea urchin, cod and salmon. The friendly fish sellers were also generous, letting us taste the seafood. I can still remember how the ultra soft and slightly sweet sea urchin melted in my mouth.

GUIDELINES

- You can fly to Hokkaido via Tokyo.

- The yen is the official currency of Japan. Most meals, accommodation and transport costs are covered in a package tour, so you can just take extra yen for your personal shopping trips..

- English is still not widely spoken although there have been improvements in recent years. It is good to have a local guide or someone who speaks Japanese for easy access to the country.

- Eating fresh, authentic Japanese food in the land of the rising sun is an amazing experience. Somehow it just tastes better there. When visiting Hokkaido, make a trip to the Sapporo Fish Market to taste the fresh seafood and visit the Susukino Ramen Alley which has over 10 established ramen restaurants that served ramen in a miso-flavoured soup, which is a Hokkaido speciality.

- Hokkaido has many lovely, authentic onsen hotels for hot spring fans. Some recommended ones are Sounkyo, Jozankei and Noboribetsu hotels. They come with proper onsen facilities with different therapeutic spring water to rejuvenate tired muscles.


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