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Visiting Hokkaido Japan: 14 Essentials to Know Before Traveling to Japan's Wild North!

Visiting Hokkaido Japan: 14 Essentials to Know Before Traveling to Japan's Wild North!

Date published: 11 March 2020
Last updated: 8 June 2021

Travel to Hokkaido, Japan's gorgeous northernmost island, and you'll find spectacular scenery, incredible food, and friendly people! But when taking on a colossal tourist destination like Hokkaido and its great number of scenic sights, you need a foolproof plan to fully enjoy what it has to offer! And we're here to provide clear answers to some common doubts and questions that may have arisen during this planning process.

Find out more about Hokkaido's climate, travel distances between sightseeing spots, essential points to note during your trip, must-visit hotspots, and other vital information that will add to your Hokkaido experience.

Table of Contents
  1. 1. Hokkaido Japan is a huge place! Make sure to plan accordingly
  2. 2. When is the best time to visit Hokkaido?
  3. 3. What are Hokkaido's main places and best things to do there?
  4. 4. How to get around Hokkaido
  5. 5. How can I rent a car for my trip in Hokkaido?
  6. 6. What are some things to take note of when driving in Hokkaido?
  7. 7. What Hokkaido foods should I try?
  8. 8. What Hokkaido souvenirs should I buy?
  9. 9. What Hokkaido festivals and events can I join?
  10. 10. Any tour packages I can take to enjoy Hokkaido to the fullest?
  11. 11. How can I get to know Ainu culture better?
  12. 12. Where can I find the best city nightscapes in Hokkaido?
  13. 13. Is it true you don't need a map to get around Sapporo?
  14. 14. Do people in Hokkaido speak Japanese? Yes - Hokkaido-ben!

1. Hokkaido Japan is a huge place! Make sure to plan accordingly

1. Hokkaido Japan is a huge place! Make sure to plan accordingly

Hokkaido is Japan's northernmost island, and it's an enormous place! In fact, the area of Hokkaido is 22% of Japan's total surface area – nearly a quarter of the country – making it Japan's largest prefecture. An important thing to note is that Sapporo, Hokkaido's capital city, is about 50 kilometers (31 miles) away from New Chitose Airport.

Since most people use Sapporo as a base of operations when exploring Hokkaido, here's a quick list of travel distances and times between the city and a few of the island's leading regions for your handy reference (all numbers approximate).

Sapporo to Otaru: 40 kilometers (25 miles) / 45 minutes
Sapporo to Furano: 115 kilometers (71 miles) / 2 hours
Sapporo to Asahikawa: 140 kilometers (87 miles) / 1 hour 20 minutes
Sapporo to Hakodate: 305 kilometers (190 miles) / 4 hours 15 minutes
Sapporo to Obihiro: 215 kilometers (134 miles) / 3 hours
Sapporo to Kushiro: 342 kilometers (213 miles) / 4 hours 40 minutes
Sapporo to Shiretoko (Utoro): 377 kilometers (234 miles) / 5 hours 44 minutes

2. When is the best time to visit Hokkaido?

2. When is the best time to visit Hokkaido?

Note that Hokkaido is located at a northern latitude of 41 to 45 degrees, which puts it at the same latitude as other colder regions in the world, such as the southern-central region of France, the northern region of Spain, northern-central region of Italy, New York City, and Toronto, and temperatures may fluctuate by quite a lot in the same day alone.

Sometimes, it may even dip below 20C (68F) during the mornings and evenings. Therefore, always be prepared with something warm to wear, like a cardigan or jacket to throw on as needed when it gets a bit too chilly for your liking.

What is Hokkaido like in winter?
If you're thinking of visiting Hokkaido for sports activities like skiing or snowboarding, then come between January and February, when it's winter.

It starts snowing in Hokkaido from November onwards, even in the lowlands, so January and February would be the period with the most amount of accumulated snow.

According to data from Japan Meteorological Agency, January is also the coldest month in Hokkaido, as average temperatures may plunge to a frosty -3.6C (about 25F). Be sure to put on a warm coat and accessories that will protect you from the cold, such as a hat, a pair of gloves, and perhaps a toasty muffler. Road surfaces often freeze over during winter, and this makes them very slippery. Wear winter shoes with grooved soles for extra friction to get a good grip on the ground as you walk.

There is no need to panic if you've forgotten - you can always look out for anti-slip shoe attachments being sold at train stations or airports.

Hokkaido is a large place and temperatures will vary depending on region, with some seeing drops to as low as -20 to -30C (-4 to -22F) during winter. For a comfortable trip, always check the temperature range of the place you'll be visiting beforehand and prepare accordingly.

3. What are Hokkaido's main places and best things to do there?

3. What are Hokkaido's main places and best things to do there?

There are countless places to see and things to do in Hokkaido. You can go shopping in a downtown district, eat some fantastic food, or go out into the suburbs to get closer to nature and the serenity it provides. Here's an abbreviated list of some scenic spots and activities to be enjoyed in each region.

Sapporo
As mentioned earlier, this is the main city of Hokkaido, where there are great places to shop, eat, sightsee, or relax at almost every corner. The Sapporo Clock Tower and Sapporo Hitsujigaoka Observation Hill are a couple of the more iconic sightseeing places of interest here, which should definitely consider visiting if you haven't already. Check out the article below for more information!

Niseko
The Niseko area stretches out at the foot of Mount Yotei and is globally renowned for its high-quality powder snow. Needless to say, this is a popular place for trying out some winter sports. However, even if you are visiting during summer, you're welcome to join in any one of the outdoor activities being held here as well, such as river rafting!

Hakodate
The central area of southern Hokkaido. Here is where you'll find beautiful city nightscapes and plenty of historical buildings that are an exciting mix of styles from the East and West. Some local specialties you can find in the markets here are fresh seafood and tasty Western confectionery.

Asahikawa / Northern Hokkaido
One can't mention Asahikawa without also mentioning the famous Asahiyama Zoo, but also not to be missed in the nearby area of northern Hokkaido are places of interest such as the hot springs in Sounkyo, the lavender fields in Furano, and the hills of Biei that are breathtakingly beautiful at every turn.

Eastern Hokkaido
Perfect for fans of the great outdoors! This region is where you'll find Shiretoko Peninsula, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and mystical landscapes such as the one in Kushiro Marsh. One of the unique experiences to be had here during the winter season is the observation of drift ice.

Other highly recommended destinations to consider are Otaru, famous for its beautiful canal, as well as Noboribetsu, a haven of hot springs that provide the ultimate relaxation. Include the ones that fit better into your plans and enjoy your trip!

4. How to get around Hokkaido

4. How to get around Hokkaido

Other than driving in Hokkaido, you can also make use of buses, trains, and airplanes.

Buses take a longer time to reach, but most of them are reasonably priced. There are also overnight buses that allow you to maximize your time by resting on the way to the next destination and waking up refreshed and ready for another day of activity.

Others may prefer trains as they can relax and watch the sights outside the window slowly roll by without much thought. For either of these transport options, be sure to check up the schedules in advance before including them in your itinerary, as some of the routes are only operated infrequently.

Also, if you'll be mainly taking buses and trains during your trip, check to see if purchasing a JR Hokkaido Free Pass will help you to save more on transport fees too.

If your itinerary calls for covering long distances within short amounts of time, then an airplane will be the best choice, even if it may be a bit pricier and flights may be limited to certain time slots. Whichever option you eventually pick, be sure to include lots of leeway into the schedule to accommodate for unforeseen circumstances!

5. How can I rent a car for my trip in Hokkaido?

5. How can I rent a car for my trip in Hokkaido?

As mentioned at the outset, the distances between destinations in Hokkaido are very far apart because of how large the island is. Therefore, driving is a very convenient way to get around here - especially if you'll be traveling with family.

Another advantage of driving is that you can take your time and do things at your own pace without having to constantly worry about missing the next bus or train.

Cars are readily available for rent at Hokkaido. Still, you must make an advanced reservation as soon as your trip is confirmed, especially if your visit is in summer or corresponds with certain holidays in Japan. This reservation will ensure that you'll definitely have a car when you arrive during such busy seasons.

Find a company you like and book online via their website. Don't fret about not understanding Japanese, as most rental car websites in Hokkaido support multiple languages.

If possible, request an in-car automotive navigation system when making your rental. This will be very helpful in places where map apps on your phone slow down or stop working due to low signal.

6. What are some things to take note of when driving in Hokkaido?

6. What are some things to take note of when driving in Hokkaido?

When driving in Hokkaido, the main thing to look out for is for wild animals dashing onto the roads without warning. This happens from time to time in the suburbs with yezo sika deer and Sakhalin foxes. For places where wild animals are often spotted, you'll also see signage warning you to watch out for them.

Another thing to note is driving in winter, as the weather can swing to extremes quickly and affect road conditions detrimentally. This will be a challenge for drivers who have never taken winter roads before. Travel time also becomes unpredictable in such situations, so opting for public transportation may be the better choice during cold and snowy seasons, especially if you're not used to navigating frozen roads.

7. What Hokkaido foods should I try?

7. What Hokkaido foods should I try?

Each area in Hokkaido has its own unique local cuisine that contains a wide variety of ingredients, so there are plenty of things you can try here. Here's a general overview of what food items to look out for!

Seafood
Hokkaido being an island and all, let's start with the most obvious one: Hokkaido seafood!

Horsehair crabs and red king crabs can be found in almost every town. Hakodate's specialty is squid. Otaru has fresh mantis shrimps and urchin. Kushiro has saury. The eastern part of Hokkaido is famous for fish like chum salmon. And that's just a quick list of the more prominent foods you can find!

Some seafood delicacies make use of exotic marine creatures peculiar to Hokkaido, such as smooth lumpfish, Japanese bullheads, or surf clams. Preparation and serving methods also vary greatly, from rice bowls to sashimi, charcoal grills, hotpots, and more.

Definitely try out the local ishikari-nabe (salmon hotpot) or chanchanyaki (steamed fish and stir-fried vegetables) if you find them being offered on the menu!

Meat products
Mutton is something you don't want to miss here, especially the jingisukan (grilled mutton) dish. Choose whether you want your meat served plain so you can add your favorite sauces later, or to cook it in a broth until the soup's taste permeates the meat entirely.

As for chicken dishes, try to find a specialty store or Japanese-style izakaya pub that has something called zangi on their menu. Zangi is a fried chicken dish that is unique to Hokkaido.

Unlike the other fried chicken dishes usually served in other parts of Japan (known as karaage), the chicken meat and batter of zangi are both seasoned before being deep-fried to a crispy goodness, so each shop will have its own special flavor!

Don't forget to try out some top-class Shiraoi-wagyu and Tochika-wagyu beef as well, and the premium pork offered in places like Kamifurano.

Dairy products
Hokkaido has plenty of pastures with dairy cows providing fresh Hokkaido milk for direct consumption or to be made into derivative products such as cheese and soft-serve ice cream, depending on the area. Especially of note is Tokachi, an area that has been given the distinguished title of Hokkaido's Dairy Kingdom.

Vegetables
Hokkaido produces great-tasting agricultural products every season. Some examples are asparagus, corn, potatoes, onions, and a range of legumes. All of these can be used as ingredients in straightforward local fare, like steamed potatoes with butter.

Not to be forgotten are the rice and grains being produced in great quantities in Hokkaido as well. Biei, Furano, and Tokachi are big on wheat cultivation, and as a result, local-made wheat products like bread and pasta are widely available and very popular here.

Speaking of the Tokachi area, the towns of Shintoku and Horokanai are famous buckwheat producers, so they may be worth checking out if you're a soba noodles-person. Fans of Japanese rice will love the high-quality rice available here as well, including such premium brands as Yumepirika and Nanatsuboshi.

Fruits
And, of course, no list of Hokkaido foods would be complete without mentioning the fruit most people associate it with - the melon! Of course, you may immediately think of the Yubari King premium melons, but there are plenty of other melon-producing places in Hokkaido as well if you take some time to explore a little.

The sourish but refreshing blue honeysuckle (also known as haskap berries) is another fruity Hokkaido delicacy you should try. These berries can be enjoyed as-is or through one of the many snacks made with their juices. Cherries, apples, and prunes are a few other fruits that serious fruit hunters will be on the lookout for during a trip to Hokkaido.

Do some research on what delightful local specialty each area is famous for before your trip, and complete your trip with a fantastic local meal!

8. What Hokkaido souvenirs should I buy?

8. What Hokkaido souvenirs should I buy?
retirementbonus / Shutterstock.com

Confectionery
You can't go wrong with Ishiya Seika's "Shiroi Koibito," an exquisite and delectable langue de chat cookie snack. Other popular items to look out for are Hokkaido confectionery giant Rokkatei's "Marusei Butter Sandwich Cookies," Royce' raw chocolate, Ryugetsu's "Sanpouroku" layer cake, and Kitakaro's "Kaiseki Okaki" baked mochi flakes.

LeTAO is another reliable manufacturer of confectionery souvenirs. They're most famous for their "Double Fromage" snacks. Still, most of their other baked goods and chocolate products travel well and are very suitable for bringing home as souvenirs.

Processed food
Visitors from abroad love Hokkaido's chinmi. The term literally means "rare flavor," and it covers a variety of uncommon snacks and processed food such as saketoba (preserved salmon) and scallop eyes. Chinmi can be readily found in almost every supermarket in Hokkaido.

Dairy products
Besides cheese and butter, ice cream is also a popular souvenir. You'll be spoilt for choice as there are plenty of farm brands and dairy manufacturer products available for purchase.

Alcohol
Each region in Hokkaido has its own special local sake. Some of the more famous examples of brands would be Mashike Town's Kunimare, Sapporo's Chitosetsuru, and Kuriyama Town's Kobayashi Shuzo.

Of course, there's also no end to unique craft beer for the adventurous, including a particular drift ice beer that is as refreshing as it is an attractive shade of blue!

Hokkaido is also a wine-producing region, with white grapes such as Kerner and Niagara, and red grapes like Yamasachi and Pinot Noir, being the main cultivated varieties.

General goods
The range of lavender-based products available in Furano comes highly recommended, as there are plenty of useful products to choose from, including things like essential oils and bath soap.

Along the same vein, the mint-based products from Kitami are must-buy items for those who enjoy the herb's energizing fragrance. Several Hokkaido cosmetics brands have been garnering more attention in recent years as well, so keep your eyes peeled for them too!

All items mentioned above can be found in specialist shops, department stores, train stations, airport shops, souvenir stores, or convenience stores at some tourist hotspots.

9. What Hokkaido festivals and events can I join?

9. What Hokkaido festivals and events can I join?
Photo courtesy of YOSAKOI Soran Festival Organizing Committee

The internationally renowned Sapporo Snow Festival is one event you should definitely look out for, but there are also other fun and exciting festivals to join throughout the year, even if you won't be visiting in winter. Here's a quick and fun list!

・Early May: Hakodate Goryokakusai (Hakodate City)
Held in Goryokaku Park. The impressive Imperial Parade is one of its highlights.

・Early June: YOSAKOI Soran Festival (Sapporo City)
A dance parade held in Sapporo City with teams of participants dishing out high-energy dances over a few days. (The event has been postponed for 2021; please check the official website for the latest information.)

・Late July: Hokkaido Heso Matsuri (Furano City)
An amusing festival where participants dance around with exposed stomachs painted to look like faces.

・Late July: Otaru Oshio Matsuri (Otaru City)
The main event of this festival is the massive dance parade through town. On the final day, there will be a fireworks show.

・August 9 – 11: Ubagami Daijingu Togyosai (Esashi Town)
A traditional festival that has been designated as one of Hokkaido's Intangible Folk Cultural Property.

・Late August: Noboribetsu Jigoku Matsuri (Noboribetsu City)
An intimidating float of King Enma, lord of the underworld in Japanese folklore, is paraded through the hot spring town.

・September: Kushiro Sanma Matsuri (Kushiro City)
Sanma, or saury fish, is the main feature of this festival. Visitors can look forward to enjoying charcoal-grilled saury and taking part in exciting events like a saury-grabbing contest!

Needless to say, there are plenty of other festivals and events as well, so do some research on which ones will be held during the dates of your visit and drop by for a healthy dose of cultural immersion.

10. Any tour packages I can take to enjoy Hokkaido to the fullest?

10. Any tour packages I can take to enjoy Hokkaido to the fullest?
DG PhotoStock / Shutterstock.com

Yes, there are a variety of Hokkaido vacation packages. Our recommendation is any one of the nature tours, all of which have been carefully designed to appeal even to those who are not used to outdoor activities, complete with explanations about highlights to look out for during the tour.

Many of these guided tours can be found in the Niseko or eastern Hokkaido areas, but if you do a little bit of research beforehand, you're likely to find some in other regions of Hokkaido as well! More information can be found on the homepages of individual tour packages, many of which support bookings and reservations in multiple languages for the convenience of non-Japanese visitors. So consider adding a tour or two to your itinerary to enrich your Hokkaido experience!

There are also bus tours that bring you on a fixed route to a few mainstream tourist destinations. These tours are efficient ways of hitting most of the well-known hotspots without needing to plan your own schedule, so the convenience will undoubtedly appeal to some. In addition, some travel agencies organize their own tours, while others are provided by bus companies.

11. How can I get to know Ainu culture better?

11. How can I get to know Ainu culture better?
Photo credit: The Foundation for Ainu Culture

The Ainu are indigenous to the northern region of Japan, especially the island of Hokkaido island. As a people, they have deep respect for the natural world around them, and thus the common thread that can be seen in their lives is that of harmony with nature, which has also influenced the culture of the people of Hokkaido. There are several places in Hokkaido where you can get to know Ainu culture better.

Upopoy (National Ainu Museum and Park) opened in 2020 and serves as the main base in efforts to revitalize and expand Ainu culture. Here, you'll find historical and cultural exhibits and artifacts related to the Ainu being displayed in a way that makes them easy to learn from.

Mukkuri (a kind of mouth harp), traditional dances, and traditional arts are performed on stage from time to time, and Upopoy has activities that visitors can take part in to understand Ainu food culture better or make their own traditional craftworks.

12. Where can I find the best city nightscapes in Hokkaido?

12. Where can I find the best city nightscapes in Hokkaido?

City sights at night in Hokkaido are as beautiful as the day, but with an added mystique! One of the more popular night scenes can be found in Hakodate, atop Mount Hakodate. Touted as one of Japan's three most beautiful city nightscapes, the sight of the land beneath sparkling with lights against the deep darkness makes it seem as if the terrain itself were floating upon nothing.

The night view of Sapporo is also considered one of Japan's three most beautiful city nightscapes, and there are a few places you can go to enjoy this electrifying sight.

There's the easily accessible Sapporo JR Tower, or the observation decks in Sapporo TV Tower, Mount Moiwa, or Mount Okurayama. Other places of note are Asahiyama Memorial Park and the rooftop Ferris wheel of the NORBESA building in the Susukino district.

For extra comfort when enjoying the night views, book a room at JR Tower Hotel Nikko Sapporo and get an exclusive view of the city's night lights all to yourself for the duration of your stay!

Otaru and Mount Tengu are other places you can visit for a fabulous night scene. For something unique, try to catch a glimpse of the fantasy-like factories of Muroran at night!

13. Is it true you don't need a map to get around Sapporo?

13. Is it true you don't need a map to get around Sapporo?

The truth is, because Sapporo's buildings are designed in a grid-like pattern, you can indeed get around without a map if you remember certain key points. One such key to remember is that the city is organized into sequentially numbered blocks clearly indicated on street signage. Therefore, it's relatively simple to use these numbers as a reference to get to your destination.

The grid system of the city reflects its origin. Sapporo was established in 1869 during the Meiji era (1868 to 1912) and the city structure was based on the streets of Kyoto, which has a similar system for its plots of land.

Currently, the city is divided into cardinal directions along Minami 1 Jo-dori Avenue and the Sosei River. To the north of this division is the administrative district; the south houses the residential district, whereas factories are located to the east.

Odori Park sits in between the north and south regions of the city as a firebreak. Sapporo City developed into what we now see with those elements as its foundation.

14. Do people in Hokkaido speak Japanese? Yes - Hokkaido-ben!

The people in Hokkaido speak a slightly accented version of standard Japanese along with a number of local vocabulary quirks that often slip casually into normal conversations. So if you have to ask, "Was that Japanese?" then it's most probably something from the Hokkaido-ben dialect! Here's a quick list in case you're curious.

Namara
Used as an intensifier, similar to words like totemo (very) or sugoku (extremely). Use "Namara umai ssho," to tell someone that the food was very delicious!

Azumashii
This adjective describes something comfortable or calming. The negative plain form of this adjective is azumashikunai.

Nanmo nanmo
For when you want to reassure someone thanking you profusely that what you did was "no problem at all."

Menkoi
Used to describe something or someone cute or adorable. The negative plain form of this adjective is menkokunai.

(Gomi wo) nageru
In standard Japanese, nageru (throw) is mostly used in the context of throwing something around, such as a ball. In the Hokkaido dialect, it specifically means to dispose of something.

Tobiki
The Hokkaido-ben word for corn (tomorokoshi).

You'll also hear a lot of -dabe or -dabesa when talking to people in Hokkaido, as those are sentence-ending particles peculiar to the region of Hokkaido that serve the same purpose as -desu or -desho.

If you speak some Japanese, try replacing your standard sentences with some of these words to give the locals a pleasant surprise and make their day.

Text by: Minna no Kotobasha
*Information in this article is accurate as of April 2021.

English translation by: Huimin Pan

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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