Travel Black Book: Land of snow

Hokkaido is actress Nikki Muller's hot spot because of its cold weather and famous Sapporo Snow Festival.

Who: Nikki Muller, 28, television presenter and actress. The Swiss-Filipino Fly Entertainment artiste has lived in Singapore for three years.

Favourite place: Hokkaido

Why: I'm always up for an adventure, which could come in many forms, and extreme temperature changes are exhilarating. Living in Singapore means I often crave the cold, the snow and the crisp air. My most recent trip to Hokkaido was in February. I wanted to spend Valentine's Day with my boyfriend, Phil Humber, in an adventurous way, and to attend the Sapporo Snow Festival. Besides Sapporo, I also visited Kushiro, where Lake Akan is.

Best place to stay

I recommend staying at the Cross Hotel (2 Chome-23 Kita 2 Jonishi, Chuo Ward, Sapporo, Hokkaido, tel: +81-11-272-0010) in Sapporo, especially if you're in town for the Snow Festival. The Odori and Susukino sites of the festival, as well as Hokkaido Winter Food Park, are all within walking distance from the hotel. Transport is also provided from the hotel to the festival's other sites.

The Cross Hotel is affordable, very modern, clean and a five- to seven-minute walk from the JR Sapporo Station. The train ride from the New Chitose airport to the JR Sapporo Station takes about 40 minutes. It's important to book your hotel early because people fly in from all over Japan for this festival and almost every hotel is full. Rooms at the Cross Hotel start from 12,000 yen (S$147) a night.

Event to bookmark

The Sapporo Snow Festival is a week-long festival in February. Sapporo is a fun and vibrant city, but not as crowded or overwhelming as Tokyo. I really just wanted to go there for the snow, the ice sculptures and, of course, the freshest seafood Japan has to offer.

The festival is spread across the city and divided into different zones. The Odori site, for example, has the Sapporo TV tower, where you can ice skate.

You must also try traditional Hokkaido fare, such as the amazing seafood and grilled meats, at the Hokkaido food park, which stretches several city blocks. There are also huge ice sculptures, ski jump competitions and live music performances.

My favourite site is the Tsudome site, where you can play on various kinds of slides, go snow rafting, build snowmen and ride a miniature steam train.

Best places to eat

The food at the festival is delicious. Many of the local farmers and fishermen take their families to Sapporo to serve their best catch and family recipes.

However, I have to say I was most impressed by the breakfast at Nijo Market (Minami 3 Higashi 2, Chuo ward, Sapporo, Hokkaido, tel: +81-11-222-5308, open daily from 7am to 6pm).

I had read that breakfast there was an absolute must, and now I know why. It is a seafood market that stretches across several blocks in the city, and about a 15-minute walk from the Cross Hotel. Weaving through the various indoor and outdoor stalls, you'll find some of the largest crabs and scallops you've ever seen.

It's hard to pick among the stalls, but I chose one indoors, small and quiet. I don't recall the name. I had what I heard was a famous breakfast there, the Uni Ikura Donburi (sea urchin and salmon roe eggs on rice). It was heaven in my mouth. It cost about 2,000 yen, I think.

If you're in the mood for ramen, just a block away from the Snow Festival's Susukino site is the famous Susukino Ramen Yokocho, a ramen alley. You can walk around and see which restaurants suit your fancy. Do note that there is an old and a new ramen alley. You may find yourself in the middle of a quiet mall with several ramen restaurants - that's not the original. Keep walking.

Along the Yokocho alley, you'll see restaurants that display their specialities in front. We ended up choosing a really small place with just two people working - one cooked and the other served. I don't know its name but it could seat about eight people.

Best hidden find

For a spot of day drinking, head to the Chitosetsuru Sake Museum (2 Minami 3 Jo Higashi 5 Chome, Chuo ward, Sapporo, Hokkaido, tel: +81-11-221-7570, open daily from 10am to 6pm). Admission and tastings are free for the first 30 minutes, and you can get an hour for free with any purchase of 1,000 yen or more. It's a very small sake museum in a quiet part of town. It's a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of the festival. Try the sake-infused ice cream made with the region's famous and deliciously creamy Hokkaido milk.

Best time to visit

I would definitely recommend visiting in February as, besides the Sapporo Snow Festival, the whole month is filled with winter activities. It's a great month to enjoy Hokkaido if you don't mind the cold. The temperature in Sapporo in winter is between -13 deg C and 0 deg C, depending on the time of day. Just bundle up in several layers because it can snow heavily without warning.

If you want to visit Hokkaido during the cherry blossom season, the dates vary from year to year. This year, Sapporo was in bloom from late April till mid-May.

Best way to unwind

Head to a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) on Lake Akan in Akan National Park. This is in Kushiro, roughly four hours away from Sapporo by train. You could rent a car, but unless you have a great sense of direction and are very confident driving on snow and ice, I suggest you take the train. The scenery is delightful - you see mountains, fields, valleys and snow- covered sandy beaches all in one trip.

Akan National Park is one of the two oldest national parks in Hokkaido. It is famous for its volcanic craters, forests and lakes.

The ryokan I stayed at was Akan Tsuruga Bessou Hinanoza (2 Chome-8-1 Akancho Akankoonsen, Kushiro, Hokkaido, tel: +81-15-467-3050). It was an absolutely stunning and blissfully quiet traditional Japanese inn. The ryokan is right on the frozen Lake Akan, with gorgeous panoramic views of the springs, lake and mountains.

The suite I was in overlooked the frozen lake and Mount Meakan. On the balcony, it had a wooden tub containing hot spring water from the lake. I remember the glow I had after coming in from -12 deg C weather and sitting in the spring water of about 40 deg C. Your skin feels soft and smooth, your body is relaxed and you're breathing in the cool mountain air. It's absolute bliss.

The ryokan also had a few indoor and outdoor onsen, but my favourite was on the ground floor outside the main building. It's a hot foot bath. A couple of guests would huddle together in thick jackets and dip their feet into the hot water. That balance of hot and cold is really special, it's a great boost to blood circulation.

Rooms start from 35,640 yen a person a night. The rate includes a traditional Japanese breakfast and a lavish 10- to 13-course kaiseki dinner.

This article was first published on June 8, 2014.
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