An Insider’s Guide to Traveling in Hokkaido

Merlin Chelliah, general manager of Club Med Tomamu Hokkaido, shares her most memorable experiences on the Japanese island — from ice festivals to farm visits with her son.

Merlin Chelliah and her son, Noah.

A day in my life like as general manager of Club Med Tomamu Hokkaido …

I always start the day with a cup of coffee — got to have the energy! From morning till night, I spend time with my team; from the arrivals to the departures, to understanding what the guests need. I do my paperwork like any general manager does, and once it’s done, I stay on the ground. I find out how’s their stay, how we can improve, what we’ve done excellently, and I give compliments to my team so that they stay motivated. I remember being pregnant and given the opportunity to be sports manager at Club Med. You either get involved and get your hands dirty, or you lead by example and motivate others to do it for you and together with you. Of all the roles, I enjoy events and entertainment the most. Since young, music’s been a big part of my life, especially Bollywood culture!

Penguins at Asahiyama Zoo.

 5 must-dos for anyone visiting Hokkaido for the very first time …

The Asahiyama Zoo is one of Hokkaido’s most popular attractions. It’s a good one-hour drive from Sapporo, but truly worthwhile as you’ll pass by beautiful scenery, and even sheep and cow. Consisting of indoor and outdoor zones, the zoo allows visitors to come up close with the animals. There are lots of feeding sessions and educational talks, where they teach kids from a very young age about caring for animals.

I also love the Sapporo Snow Festival during winter time — it’s amazing what they can do with the ice. People around the world come to see the festival. Expect to see ice sculptures of Disney characters, famous local sites like the mountains, lakes, and more.

Just 45 minutes away from Club Med Tomamu Hokkaido is the bear mountain in Sahoro. Here, guests can enjoy close encounters with the bears. It’s like Jurassic Park; you board a bus that has grilles and all the bears are looking in at you. I’ve done it with my son and it was an amazing experience.

Horseback riding is another excursion worth taking. You can go for a 15-minute walk with the horse or a much longer one-and-a-half-hour horseback ride. Most importantly, they teach visitors how to take care of the horse. They can even feed the horses carrots and apples.

Kids can get hands-on at Hokkaido’s many farms, with activities like potato digging. My son brought a potato home; it’s sprouted and he’s still taking care of the plant.

Star Wars sculptures at the Sapporo Snow Festival.

The best time to visit Hokkaido …

Being Singaporean, I thought minus-20-degree winter was the best. If you’re a skier, come in winter. While winter has its beauty and charm, summer is peaceful and tranquil. My team and I enjoy weekly mountain trekking with the guests, where it’s all fresh air and nature. Springtime is great too, but it does get chilly with light showers and the wind.

Farm visits are a quintessential Hokkaido experience.

Recommended local restaurants …

Ramen is a basic necessity for the Japanese and the closest ramen shop we have is Yellow Box (089-0112 Hokkaido, Kamikawa District, Shimizu, Minami 4 Jo, 9 Chome) in Shimizu. It’s being run by a bunch of muscular gym instructors and serves hearty ramen that’s also kind of spicy.

You can also head to Yorkshire (98 Kitashintoku, Shintoku-cho, Kamikawa-gun 081-0038, Hokkaido) to enjoy delicious wagyu beef. A lot of the beef we serve in Club Med Tomamu Hokkaido comes from the farm too.

The bear mountain.

3 things I can’t travel without …

A magazine to read, my phone — Google Maps as I get lost quite easily, and a music player as songs inspire me.

Tips for parents traveling with their kids for the first time …

Get them as well rested as possible before the trip, because kids get so excited about the journey they barely sleep on the flight. Always pack water and medicine along, because they tend to fall sick when adapting to a new environment. Talk to the kids about the destination, so that they can anticipate what’s to come.

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