Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, is a vast sightseeing paradise popular with both Japanese and international travelers.
From spring to summer, an incredible array of colorful flowers bloom, while autumn sees stunning fall foliage and winter with luscious, white snow, making each season a completely different encounter.
Hokkaido is also renowned as a foodie destination, with a tapestry of distinctive dishes changing between region and season.
In this complete guide to Hokkaido, we will introduce essential information and tips to ensure a successful trip, including the island’s most famous spots, seasonal sightseeing, must-eat dishes, and how to get around. Read on to make sure your Hokkaido itinerary is up to scratch!
Why visit Hokkaido?
Hokkaido has become one of Japan’s premier sightseeing destinations, receiving more attention from international travelers in recent years. One reason behind this explosion of popularity is the abundance of untouched, pristine nature.
Within the forests dwell brown bears and Ezo red foxes, while cities and towns are filled with vibrant birdlife and small animals like squirrels and more.
In addition, Hokkaido boasts 6 national parks managed by the government, teeming with an incredible range of ecosystems. One of these is the Shiretoko National Park, which remains undisturbed by human activity and has thus been recognized as a Natural World Heritage Site.
A variety of activities run throughout the year within this wilderness, including rafting and canoeing during summer and skiing and snowboarding in winter.
Of course, there are plenty of sights to take in as well, such as the colorful flower and lavender fields of Furano, the shimmering abundance of fresh, white winter snow, gorgeous onsen hot spring towns like Noboribetsu and Toyako, and the retro atmospheres of traditional port towns like Hakodate and Otaru.
In addition, Hokkaido is a treasure trove of seafood, vegetables, fruits, dairy, and more, which are used to make regional specialties like jingisukan, ramen, soup curry, and loads of seafood dishes, making exploring Hokkaido through food alone a perfectly acceptable way to travel!
Even within the culturally rich Japan, Hokkaido boasts its own unique histories and traditions unseen anywhere else. Within this is the indigenous Ainu people, which are an integral part of Hokkaido’s history.
There’s arguably nowhere better to learn about and experience this fascinating culture than the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park, which opened in 2020 in the town of Shiraoi.
■Getting To Hokkaido
To get to Hokkaido, many opt to fly into New Chitose Airport through either an international line or from another of Japan’s major domestic airports.
International travelers to Japan are also able to purchase a Japan Rail Pass from the JR Group and use it to get to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station by bullet train.
From Tokyo to Hokkaido
Getting to Hokkaido By Airplane
For the quickest route to Hokkaido, nothing beats flying. Fortunately, there are numerous flights to Hokkaido from Haneda and Narita Airports to New Chitose Airport every day. Flights to Hokkaido take around 1.5 hours.
Known as the “Gateway to Hokkaido,” the New Chitose Airport terminal building is a fantastic complex packed with shops, eateries, movie theatres, and theme parks, including Doraemon WAKUWAKU SKY PARK and Royce' Chocolate World. There is also the New Chitose Airport Onsen spa facility, which is open until late for those with early flights.
Getting to Hokkaido By Shinkansen Bullet Train
Tokyo Station directly connects with the Hokkaido city of Hakodate via bullet train, generally taking around 4.5 hours. While much slower than an airplane, those possessing a Japan Rail Pass can ride it for free.
However, once you’re in Hokkaido, your Japan Rail Pass will not work everywhere, and you’ll either need to pay individually or purchase one of the many Hokkaido passes aimed at international travelers that correspond to your destination. This includes the Hokkaido Rail Pass, the Sapporo-Noboribetsu Area Pass, and the Sapporo-Furano Area Pass.
Getting to Hokkaido By Ferry
A ferry service runs every day except Sunday between Oarai Ferry Terminal in Ibaraki and Tomakomai Port in Hokkaido. It takes somewhere between 17-19 hours. Various discount plans are available, such as those coupled with bus rides from Tokyo, making it easy to explore Japan by boat!
Getting to Hokkaido By Rental Car
Another fun and easy way to get to Hokkaido is by renting a car and driving to places like Tohoku or Niigata, and then boarding a ferry. Ferry services connect to Hokkaido in Niigata, Sendai, Akita, Miyako (Iwate), and Aomori City, Oma, Hachinohe in Aomori City Prefecture.
How to Get Around Hokkaido
Getting Around Hokkaido By Train and Bus
Each region of Hokkaido is connected via an extensive network of railways and bus lines, allowing one to get around easily by train or highway bus.
If you want to get around fast, a train is naturally the way to go; however, plenty of overnight intercity bus services are available if you wish to travel at night for efficiency. You can combine both for extra efficient travel!
Save Money with a Free Pass!
There are numerous passes available allowing discounted travel, such as the “Free Pass for International Travelers to Japan,” which allows movement via bus either through the entirety of Hokkaido or a designated area, along with the “Unlimited Area Travel Ticket” that anyone can purchase.
For easy movement within Sapporo, you can purchase the “Subway One Day Passenger Pass” (adults 830 yen), the “Tram One Day Passenger Pass” (adults 500 yen), or the weekend and public holiday-only “Donichika Kippu” (adults 520 yen) for unlimited rides on the subway.
For Hakodate, there is the “City Tram One Day Ticket” (adults 600 yen), along with the “City Tram/Hakodate Bus One Day Ticket (adults 1,000 yen) for easy access to the airport and around Mt. Hakodate. Using these tickets properly will undoubtedly save you money!
Getting Around Hokkaido By Rental Car
As some areas of Hokkaido lack sufficient public transportation facilities, renting a car is often the best way to go. At airports and near major train stations are outlets for major rental car suppliers, with many allowing you to return the car at a different outlet in the convenient “one-way system.” Using this in combination with trains and planes makes Hokkaido surprisingly easy to travel!
Getting Around Hokkaido By Airplane
Airports like New Chitose and Sapporo Okadama offer flights to all of Hokkaido’s outer regions. Through this, the 3.5-hour train ride from Sapporo to Hakodate becomes just 30 minutes by plane. The range of these services is steadily expanding, too.
■How to Select a Hotel in Hokkaido
According to a report by the Ministry of the Environment and Hokkaido Government, the average length of stay for foreign tourists in Hokkaido in 2019 was approximately 5 days. Since Hokkaido is extremely vast, we recommend staying close to public transportation in the “Central Hokkaido area,” which includes Sapporo and Niseko. If you’d rather not travel and instead spend your time thoroughly enjoying a single area, it’s best to book a traditional Japanese “ryokan” hotel or hot spring stay that serves the local cuisine. Below, we’ll break down each region and why they make a good place to stay.
Stay in Sapporo: The Bustling Atmosphere of City Life!
For people looking to stay amongst the fun and excitement of city life while being close to New Chitose Airport, there’s nowhere better suited than Sapporo! From luxury hotels to cheap guesthouses, Sapporo is bound to have accommodation to suit your budget. If you wish to enjoy the nightlife, we recommend staying in or around Sapporo’s downtown party neighborhood of Susukino. There’s a huge range of accommodation facilities here too, from budget business hotels to high-class establishments.
There are also plenty of lodgings boasting onsen hot spring facilities within Sapporo, along with the renowned hot spring village of Jozankei Onsen, which can be reached after an hour’s drive from the Sapporo city center. While it will take a few days of sightseeing to truly explore Sapporo, even just one night amongst its incredible party scene is enough to satisfy most!
Stay in Hakodate: A Hot Spring Oasis For Slow Traveling
The incredibly popular sightseeing town of Hakodate is known for its unique character and charm that is starkly different from the rest of Japan. With a multitude of hot springs and gourmet cultures, for those looking to take it slow, we can’t recommend Hakodate enough!
One of the most outstanding Hakodate locations is the hot spring town of Yunokawa Onsen, which has a series of waterfront hotels with outdoor baths offering sweeping views of the Tsugaru Straits, which is dotted by the enchanting lights of squid-fishing boats at night. Naturally, for dinner, you’ll be treated to seafood of the utmost quality, allowing one to truly relish the bounties of the region. As there is lots to do in Hakodate, we recommend spending at least two or three nights.
Stay in Asahikawa and Furano: Fields of Lavender and Boundless Nature
The crowning jewels of the Asahikawa and Furano regions are the towering peaks of the Daisetsuzan Volcanic Group, which include famous mountains like Mt. Kurodake and Asahi-dake. During summer, one can freely hike and mountain climb, while in winter, nothing beats skiing throughout the remote backwoods. During July, the hills of Furano and nearby Biei are blanketed by exquisite summer flowers including the widely acclaimed lavender.
Accommodation facilities include a variety of high-class resorts, hotels, and cheap lodgings, with plenty offering exclusive experiences such as yoga and farming. You can either base yourself in one place and travel each day, or book multiple accommodations throughout the area. As there is loads to do here, we recommend staying 3 days minimum.
Stay in Niseko: Ski and Get Outdoors
For those who lead an outdoorsy lifestyle, we recommend staying in Niseko. During summer, adventurers can partake in rafting and horse riding, while winter is dominated by skiing, snowboarding, and other winter sports. Afterwards, you can refresh your mind and soul in one of the numerous onsen hot springs. As there are numerous high-class international hotels in the area, visitors will receive the utmost level of hospitality through a wide range of languages. For those staying a while, there are also lots of apartment-type accommodation plans to serve your needs.
■Spring in Hokkaido (March-May)
The weather in Hokkaido will undergo a radical change during March and April. Snowfall will last until mid-March (although it may fall lightly in April depending on the year) and begin to melt alongside the emergence of flowers during April. The beginning of May will see the full blooming of the beloved cherry blossom trees across all regions of Hokkaido, from which temperatures will steadily rise as summer rears its head.
According to the Japan Meteorological Agency, the average temperature in March for Sapporo is 1.1°C, April is 7.3°C, and May 13°C. However, one should still dress for winter, as many regions of Hokkaido experience wildly different yearly temperatures. For example, the Kushiro region only has an average annual temperature of 6.2°C!
Recommended Events in Spring
Goryokaku Park Night Time Cherry Blossom Light Up (Hakodate)
Goryokaku, in Hakodate, boasts a staggering collection of over 1,600 cherry blossom trees of all different varieties, which bloom between late April and mid-May. From the Goryokaku Tower, visitors can take them all in at once alongside the incredible sight of the fortress itself. During this period, a nighttime illumination event is held between 7:00pm and 9:00pm.
Sapporo Lilac Festival (Sapporo)
Held annually between mid to late May, the Sapporo Lilac Festival serves to announce the arrival of early summer in Sapporo. It is held at two locations, the central Odori and the suburban Kawashimo, with the Odori festival boasting lilac tree planting, music, and a sketching festival. There are also plenty of booths offering food and drink, allowing a taste of the local flavor!
Recommended Places to Visit in Spring
The highlight of spring in Hokkaido is naturally the abundance of blooming cherry blossoms! The most famous places to enjoy this spectacle are Maruyama Park in Sapporo, Goryokaku in Hakodate, and the Nijukken Road Cherry Blossoms in Shinhidaka. Hokkaido also boasts the endemic North Japanese hill cherry, which paints the streets and landscapes of Hokkaido a dazzling pink.
■Summer in Hokkaido (June - August)
According to the Japan Meteorological Agency, the average temperature of Sapporo in June is 17.0°C, July is 21.1°C, and August is 22.3°C, making it cooler and more pleasant than mainland Japan. However, heat waves with temperatures exceeding 30°C can occasionally occur. Sweltering nights are rare, with it actually becoming surprisingly chilly once the sun sets. There are large variations between day/night temperatures, so it’s best to pack a hoodie or jacket too.
Recommended Events in Summer
Yosakoi Soran Festival (Sapporo)
This famed dance event sees Hokkaido’s traditional “Soran Bushi” folk song combined with the Yosakoi Festival of Kochi Prefecture. The festival is held all across Sapporo during late June, with the main venue being Odori Park. Many flock to witness and become enchanted by the unique clothing and energetic performances of the clapper-baring dancers.
Otaru Tide Festival (Otaru)
This festival is held for 3 days during late July at the Otaru Port #3 Pier. The main event sees the “Shio Nerikomi” parade through the streets while performing traditional dances and songs. Passersby are free to jump in and join anytime they like! The finale features a barrage of fireworks lighting up the night sky to close off the festival with a bang.
Noboribetsu Hell Festival (Noboribetsu)
Held on the final weekend of August, the Noboribetsu Hell Festival is one of the region’s most famous events. The highlight is the “Mikoshi Abare Parade,” where a portable shrine holding a 1-ton red demon is shouldered by over 100 energetic local youths. The finale sees an explosion of dramatic fireworks let off in the region’s legendary “Hell Valley.”
Nakafurano Lavender Festival (Nakafurano)
Held annually during mid-July, the Nakafurano Lavender Festival (Nakafurano) is arguably the Furano region’s most anticipated event. The event is held at the Furano Lavender Fields, which are in peak season. The festival ends with a fireworks display designed in the image of lavender illuminating the fields in a magnificent spectacle.
Hakodate Port Festival (Hakodate)
Every year in early August, the much-anticipated Hakodate Port Festival opens with a huge fireworks display launched from Kojima Island in Hakodate Port. However, the main event is the “Wasshoi Hakodate,” a parade of roughly 20,000 dressed-up locals who walk about the town performing dances like the “Hakodate Port Dance” and “Hakodate Squid Dance.”
Recommended Places to Visit in Summer
The reason why Hokkaido is loved in summer is due to its staggering array of nature and wilderness. This begins with the breathtaking fields of colorful blooming flowers, including lavender in Furano from mid-July, attracting hordes of flower-loving sightseers. The invigorating scent hangs over the towns, allowing for locals and visitors alike to relish the essence of summer.
There are also loads of summertime activities in Hokkaido to get up close with its pristine nature. If you join a nature cruise in Shiretoko, you can spot rare animals like whales and orca! You can also enjoy canoeing in the mysterious Kushiro Marsh or rafting in the rapids of Niseko!
■Autumn in Hokkaido (September - November)
According to the Japan Meteorological Agency, the average temperature in Sapporo for September is 18.6°C, while October is 12.1°C, and November is 5.2°C. As you can see, it drops off very quickly.
Once October comes around, the mountain passes and peaks will become capped with snow, making it often necessary to wear full winter outfits depending upon the region and circumstances.
Recommended Events in Autumn
Sapporo Autumn Festival (Sapporo)
The Sapporo Autumn Festival stretches from 1-chome to 11-chome in Sapporo’s Odori from late September to early October. The festival booths are separated by theme, with the “Food of Hokkaido and Sapporo” booths offering a concentration of seasonal ingredients from across Hokkaido alongside local dishes like Sapporo ramen alongside Hokkaido sake.
Marimo Festival (Kushiro)
The Marimo Festival is held at Lake Akan over three days during early October. The festival is aimed at protecting the “marimo,” a rare spherical algae growth that lives in Lake Akan and is a national natural monument of Japan.
The first day sees a public performance and viewing event, the second a ceremony welcoming marimo along with a torchlight parade and performances of Ainu folk dances, and the final day a sending-off festival with additional Ainu performances.
Recommended Places to Visit in Autumn
One of the best places to take in Hokkaido’s stunning fall foliage is at Jozankei in the backwoods of Sapporo. In particular, the contrast between the remaining greenery and red autumn leaves in Hoheikyo is utterly breathtaking, making it an extremely popular place to visit.
If you’re venturing to northern Hokkaido during this time, don’t miss stopping by to see the foliage of Sounkyo - the columnar cliffs dyed red and yellow are a sight out of this world.
During autumn, the thing to eat is “sanma” Pacific saury fish, which have grown fat for the winter and can be enjoyed roasted or as sashimi.
■Winter in Hokkaido (December - March)
According to the Japan Meteorological Agency, the average temperature in December for Sapporo is -0.9°C, while January is -3.2°C, and February is -2.7°C. With all these average temperatures below freezing, you’ll require a high-quality winter coat and fleece jacket.
As it’s easy to slip on the snow and ice, you’ll also want to purchase boots that are stable and sturdy. If you plan on getting outdoors, you’ll have to think of additional ways to beat the cold, like wearing specialized ski gear.
Recommended Events in Winter
Sapporo Snow Festival
The world-renowned Sapporo Snow Festival is held in three locations across Sapporo during early February. The main location is Odori Park, where over 200 ice and snow sculptures adorn a 1.5km stretch.
Once it gets dark, illumination and projection mapping events are also held, making the sculptures even more spectacular. There are also plenty of sculptures to check out at the Susukino venue, along with the giant snow slide at Tsudome. A fun time for all ages!
Chitose - Lake Shikotsu Hyoto Festival
The Chitose - Lake Shikotsu Hyoto Festival is held at Lake Shikotsu from late January to mid-February. "Hyoto" is a natural phenomenon caused by splashes of water freezing in the cold.
At the Lake Shikoku Hyoto Festival, a sprinkler is used to spray lake water to freeze it, creating an artistic artificial icefall sculpture. It shines a brilliant blue during the day and is illuminated at night to make it even more surreal.
Fireworks are also set off on weekends, transforming the winter night into a dazzling carnival of color.
Recommended Places to Visit in Winter
Utterly engulfed in luscious snow, Hokkaido in winter is truly unlike any of the other seasons.
Night walks down the Otaru Canal lit by gas lanterns reflected faintly in the snow create a magical, fairytale-like world that feels like a Dickens’ novel.
For those seeking something a little more active, there’s plenty of top-notch skiing and snowboarding to be enjoyed at places like Niseko and the Asahikawa/Furano area.
In addition to perfect powder snow, the frosty mornings cause airborne ice particles to twinkle brilliantly in the sun in a phenomenon known as “diamond dust.”
There’s no better way to relish the nature of Hokkaido than on one of its numerous world-class ski slopes.
■Doou: Sightseeing Spots and Cities in Central Hokkaido
The vast island landmass of Hokkaido is generally divided into 4 areas: Doou (Central Hokkaido), Donan (Southern Hokkaido), Dohoku (Northern Hokkaido), and Doto (Eastern Hokkaido).
Doou is a large area accounting for 30% of Hokkaido’s landmass, including places like New Chitose Airport and major cities like Sapporo. It’s also packed with breathtaking wilderness, such as that found in Niseko, Lake Shikotsu, and Lake Toyako. It is also the main industrial powerhouse of Hokkaido.
Sapporo is the main city of Hokkaido and boasts a wealth of deeply historical sightseeing spots, including the Sapporo Clock Tower, Hitsujigaoka Observation Deck, and Poplar Avenue in Hokkaido University.
Other must-visit icons of Sapporo include Sapporo Odori Park and Susukino, which is a thriving nightlife and entertainment district.
If you love winter sports, we recommend visiting Mt. Okura Ski Jump Stadium, which was one of the venues for the Sapporo Olympics in 1970.
You can easily get to the starting point via a lift, which is also furnished with the "Sapporo Winter Sports Museum," a fun exploration of the thrill and history of winter sports.
Furthermore, Sapporo is a treasure trove of fresh food sourced from all over Hokkaido. The streets are lined with popular establishments competing with one another to devise the best rendition of classic dishes like miso ramen, soup curry, and jingisukan.
In addition, the Sapporo Central Wholesale Market, which is the biggest market in Hokkaido, has an outside market specially made for locals and tourists to buy and taste the food and produce.
Located 40km west of Sapporo, Otaru is known for its streets of historical buildings seen best in the enchanting Otaru Canal. Having been one of Japan’s biggest economic powerhouses, these glamorous historical buildings and canal warehouses remain a testament to this former glory.
Sakaimachi Avenue, which was once called the “Wall Street of the North,” hosts a series of glass shops, sweets shops, and the beloved Otaru Music Box Museum.
Another highlight is the Otaru Aquarium, which is located in the Shukutsu area a little away from the center. It displays 260 kinds of marine life and hosts a series of showcases involving dolphins, penguins, and sea lions in summer.
It’s also well known as a transport hub to Yoichi, the location of the Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery, and Niseko, a mecca for international skiers.
Niseko & Rusutsu
Alongside breathtaking views of Mt. Yotei, the Niseko area offers a wealth of fun including rafting and horse riding in summer and snowboarding, skiing, and snowmobiling in winter.
The huge mountain of Mt. Niseko-Annupuri, which stands 1,308 meters high, stretches across to form the four ski slopes of Niseko United, attracting people from all over the world.
Condominiums dot the area, allowing accommodation for extended stays. Niseko is undoubtedly one of the biggest and most celebrated ski resort regions of Hokkaido.
Noboribetsu & Toyako
Noboribetsu is one of Hokkaido’s leading onsen hot spring areas. Jigokudani, or “Hell Valley,” is a surreal, spectacular sight full of steam rising from the bottom of the valley in a scene truly reminiscent of hell.
There are 3 unique theme parks in the area: Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe, Noboribetsu Date Jidai Village, and Noboribetsu Bear Park. The first is an aquarium noted for its exceptional displays, the second is a place to experience traditional Japanese culture, and the third a farm to see Ezo brown bears, one of Hokkaido's most iconic animals!
The nearby Lake Toyako is a caldera lake created by a volcano. The most popular activities here are pleasure boat cruising or procuring and paddling a boat yourself.
■Dohoku: Sightseeing Spots and Cities in Northern Hokkaido
Asahikawa is the second-largest city in Hokkaido and the location of Asahikawa Airport. It also connects numerous popular destinations, most notably Furano and Biei, where many tourists visit in summer.
Asahiyama Zoo is the northernmost zoo in Japan which aims to showcase animals as they are in the wild. 2 day-pass tickets are available if you’re looking to take in every sight at your own pace.
While in the area, definitely treat yourself to a bowl of Asahikawa ramen. The soup is made from fish and pork, and the taste is simple but nourishing. It gifts your body a deep warmth that will allow you to prevail against the brutally cold winter.
Furano, Biei & Sounkyo
Furano is a town famous for beautiful scenery, encapsulated by the fields of lavender by Mt. Tokachi. Many tourists flock to the farms here, including the esteemed Farm Tomita, to enjoy the blooming lavender from June to August. The neighboring Biei area is visited for the stunning sights of Patchwork Road and the Shirogane Blue Pond.
The nearby Mt. Asahi and Mt. Tokachi are also good for climbing or exploring the backwoods. They both offer visitors breathtaking panoramas throughout the year.
The plentiful sightseeing of Sounkyo includes the picturesque nature of Daisetsuzan, which can be enjoyed via a journey on the Kurodake Ropeway. These sights are complemented by a tapestry of colorful trees and mineral-rich hot springs.
The local Hyobaku Festival is also held here in winter, which sees huge ice sculptures made by locals with water from the Ishikari River exhibited for all to enjoy. Japan’s largest national park, Daisetsuzan National Park, is also a must-visit for nature lovers!
Along with being Japan’s northernmost city, Wakkanai also hosts Japan’s northernmost point of Cape Soya, from which Sakhalin Oblast, a part of Russia, can often be spotted. Wakkanai is also the main ferry port to the popular islands of Rishiri Island, Rebun Island, and more.
Here lies an assortment of untouched nature and fascinating sightseeing, including Cape Noshappu, whose name comes from the native Ainu language, the northernmost point of Cape Soya, and the pristine Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park.
■Donan: Sightseeing Spots and Cities in Southern Hokkaido
Donan is the south of Hokkaido and the closest area to Japan's main Honshu island. Hakodate, Onuma, and Matsumae act as ocean gates connecting Hokkaido and Honshu.
Hakodate was one of three ports, including Yokohama and Nagasaki, to open up to overseas trade 160 years ago. This influx of culture made the town a more western-style city, with plenty of distinctive architecture and churches rarely seen elsewhere in Japan.
Goryokaku and Motomachi are retro, nostalgic towns packed with numerous sightseeing spots. The observatory from Mt. Hakodate is particularly stunning, often heralded as one of the world’s best night views.
Other hotspots include the Yunokawa hot spring town and Hakodate Morning Market. The former is noted for the staggering 5,000 liters per minute of thermal water that wells up from the ground, while the latter is a place to dive into an unrivaled array of fresh seafood, especially live squid.
■Doto: Sightseeing Spots and Cities in Eastern Hokkaido
Doto is the eastern part of Hokkaido and contains the regions of Abashiri, Tokachi, Kushiro, and Nemuro. Here, an abundance of untouched nature remains, including the Natural World Heritage site of the Shiretoko Peninsula along with the Kushiro-Shitsugen National Park.
While the population here is only 20% of Hokkaido, the area itself is enormous and accounts for roughly 40% of the total landmass. It's a fantastic environment for outdoor activities to experience the gifts of nature fully.
Obihiro is a gourmet town on the Tokachi Plain teeming with livestock, dairy, and agriculture.
Here, a unique form of horse racing called “Banei Tokachi” is held at the Obihiro Racecourse, whereby jockeys train large horses called Dosanko to pull sleds as heavy as 1 ton.
Next to the racecourse is Tokachimura, which serves the specialties of the Obihiro area. Definitely try the “butadon,” a bowl of rice topped with thick pork slices and savory-sweet sauce.
Kushiro boasts the largest population in easten Hokkaido along with two unspoiled national parks: the Kushiro-Shitsugen National Park and Akan Mashu National Park.
Here you can discover unique fauna and flora identified only in Hokkaido, such as Japanese cranes and marimo. The best way to embrace this wildlife is through a canoe journey down the Kushiro River.
The popular dishes here are “robatayaki,” a type of barbeque, and Kushiro zangi, which is deep-fried chicken with a special kind of sauce.
Abashiri is most known for the drift ice in the Sea of Okhotsk and its severely cold winters. Highlights include the Abashiri Prison Museum, formerly a notorious prison now registered as an Important Cultural Property.
The Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples, located about 40min from Memanbetsu Airport, aptly showcases the culture of the indigenous Ainu people. If you’re here in winter, head to the coast to spot the floating drift ice between the end of January to mid-March.
The Shiretoko Peninsula is one of Japan’s World Heritage Sites. It’s home to a population of wild brown bears along with whales and orcas, which you can spot on a cruising tour. If you’re a nature lover, don’t miss adding Shiretoko to your itinerary!
■Activities to Enjoy the Nature of Hokkaido
Kayaking and Trekking
If you want to dive straight into the heart of Hokkaido’s glorious nature, nothing beats hiking and kayaking! In particular, Daisetsuzan is home to the adorable “pika,” which are said to have survived since the Ice Age. If you’re especially lucky, you may just meet some!
One of the most popular summer activities in Hokkaido is rafting down the Shiribetsu River in Niseko. Watched over by the iconic silhouette of Mt. Yotei, you and your teammates will need to match each other’s power and rhythm to successfully navigate the intense white water rapids!
Fishing through a hole on a frozen lake for “wakasagi” Japanese smelt fish is truly something that can only be experienced in the frozen north. Wakasagi are small freshwater fish with a diameter of around 2cm and a light taste that is delicious when fried.
There are plenty of ice fishing facilities dotting Hokkaido offering rental gear, so there’s no reason to not try this unique northern experience!
Skiing and Snowboarding in the Backcountry
Skiing on the mountain outside of the designated ski slopes is known as “backcountry skiing,” and it seems to be only gaining popularity. Surrounded by gorgeous scenery and powder snow, the most popular places to enjoy backcountry skiing in Hokkaido are around the Niseko and Daisetsuzan mountains.
Surrounded by nothing but nature, you’ll feel yourself becoming one with the environment. However, this kind of skiing and snowboarding is extremely dangerous compared to the slopes, so it’s a good idea to join a guided tour to ensure your safety instead.
■Skiing and Snowboarding in Hokkaido
Hokkaido is the kingdom of winter sports! The smooth snow and jaw-dropping scenery form a natural winter arena of unrivaled quality.
While there are plenty of ski resorts open in December, we recommend waiting until mid-January or early February when the snowfall is plentiful and the temperature has well and truly dropped.
Central Hokkaido, in particular, is dotted with dozens of ski resorts, allowing you to choose a course appropriate for your skill level. Let’s take a look at some of the most famous!
Niseko United is the common name for four different slopes stretching out across the foot of Mt. Niseko-Annupuri. If you use the “Complete Mountain Pass” here, you’ll be able to ski over a massive area bursting with powder snow and lookouts of up to 1,308m.
Rusutsu Resort is a huge complex incorporating 37 courses, 14 lifts, 4 cable cars, and 3 peaks with views of Mount Yotei. You can easily access Rusutsu Resort via a roughly 90-minute drive from central Sapporo or New Chitose Airport.
Hoshino Resorts Tomamu
This eye-catching resort complex is based around two towers surrounded by high-quality powder snow with superb hospitality from staff. Other attractions include the Ice Village, complete with an ice bar and workshop, and the Ice Hotel, which allows guests to stay in a room made entirely from ice!
Furano Ski Resort
Adorned with incredible scenery of Mt. Tokachi and the Daisetsuzan mountains, this ski area offers top-tier snow typical of Hokkaido’s deep inland regions. There are 23 courses available, with the longest offering a 4km track with a mix of expert and beginner courses.
Bankei Ski Area
This is an inner-city ski slope just a 20-minute drive from central Sapporo. There are 17 courses ranging from beginner to expert, with kids courses also available. Skis and ski wear can be rented until 10pm, allowing those who prefer to ski at night to do so freely.
Hokkaido is home to a thriving dairy industry producing fresh milk to make a range of scrumptious dairy-based sweets and products. There is also a widely celebrated crab and seafood culture concentrated around the Sea of Okhotsk, along with the legendary Yubari King melon and other fruits.
Below we’ll break down the local specialties of each region of Hokkaido.
Sapporo ramen is beloved across the entirety of Japan for its rich soup and yellow medium-thick wavy noodles. Each Sapporo ramen outlet strives to produce its own unique flavor, and, while miso ramen tends to dominate, many also specialize in salt and soy sauce too.
Originating in Sapporo, soup curry sees large slices of ingredients boiled in a broth of soupy curry poured over white rice. There are roughly 200 eateries in Sapporo specializing in soup curry, so definitely try it more than just once!
One of Hokkaido’s most culturally significant meals, jingisukan is a hot plate dish of sheep meat, like lamb and mutton, cooked on a specialized grill. Depending upon the region, the meat is either marinated in “tare” sauce first or dipped in sauce after being cooked.
While there are loads of restaurants specializing in jingisukan concentrated in Sapporo, most locals prefer to eat it at home to nourish the soul.
There are said to be over 100 reputable establishments serving sushi in Otaru, leading to its well-deserved nickname “The Sushi Town.” Being right by the ocean, the seafood caught and hauled in at Otaru is always at peak freshness. There are plenty of reasonably priced ways to enjoy this, such as a “kaisendon” seafood bowl lunch.
Ankake Yakisoba and Chicken Hanmi-age
Ankake yakisoba is a noodle dish topped with a large serving of seafood, vegetables, and pork and is absolutely adored by Otaru locals. The noodles are delightfully crunchy and pair perfectly with the thick kudzu sauce.
In addition, don’t miss out on the Otaru specialty of chicken hanmi-age, which sees half a chicken deep-fried and seasoned with salt and pepper for a hearty, simple dish. Created in 1952, it can now be found all over Hokkaido at numerous chain restaurants and more.
Hakodate is nicknamed “The Town of Squid” due to its abundance of squid hauled up from the Tsugaru Straits. Freshly caught squid is transparent and without a smell, making it easy to eat as sashimi!
Alongside the miso ramen of Sapporo and the soy sauce ramen of Asahikawa, Hakodate’s salted ramen is another of Hokkaido’s “Big 3 Ramen.” It is characterized by a refreshing, clear soup with a light taste. Within the city of Hakodate are roughly 150 outlets serving ramen, each with its own taste and character.
Furano Omelette Curry
Combining the beloved Japanese curry and omu-rice, omelette curry is a relatively new dish using local Furano ingredients. There are 6 established rules shops must abide by when serving omelette curry in Furano, including the use of local Furano milk and selling it at an established price.
Asahikawa ramen uses a soup made from seafood and pork bones known as “W-soup,” which is furnished with a helping of medium-thin noodles. Mainly flavored with soy sauce, the layer of lard that spreads across the bowl is said to help prevent the ramen from getting cold - a godsend considering the 30°C below freezing temperatures that the region faces!
The robatayaki system sees seafood and vegetables cooked on coals by the chef brought out to the customer on a large spatula. Kushiro Port is one of Japan’s most renowned seafood centers, with massive hauls caught year-round, including salmon, walleye pollack, Pacific saury, and pilchard.
Butadon is a dish enjoyed all throughout Japan that sees pork fried in a sweet and sour sauce before being rested upon a bowl of steaming hot white rice. During the 1930s, an eatery in Obihiro City began serving butadon with charcoal-grilled pork with a “tare” sauce similar to the one used in “kabayaki” eel dishes, which was said to kick start the butadon culture we see in Obihiro today.
The Tokachi District, which includes Obihiro, is a flourishing farming and dairy region with an abundance of flour, milk, sugar, egg, azuki beans, and more, lending itself to an incredible sweets industry. Using these fresh ingredients, Obihiro has naturally become a paradise for sweet tooths.
■The Best Hokkaido Souvenirs
As explained above, Hokkaido is rich with ingredients perfect for all manner of sweets! Many of these can be purchased at airports or hotels, making them easy souvenirs to bring back home to friends and family!
A classic Hokkaido souvenir and the most famous product of the ISHIYA sweets company, Shiroi Koibito is a white chocolate cookie sandwich boasting an elegant sweetness loved by many. At the Shiroi Koibito Park in Sapporo’s Nishi Ward, you can see how these delights are made and even try making one for yourself!
ROYCE' is a Japanese chocolate company who set up shop in Hokkaido under the premise of making chocolate equal to Europe. The soft, melt-in-your-mouth raw “nama” chocolate captures this burning passion perfectly! You can view the making of ROYCE' chocolate at the outlet inside New Chitose Airport.
LeTAO, a brand of western sweets based in Otaru, took their name from the initials of “La Tour Amitié Otaru,” which means “a beloved tower in Otaru” in French. The most popular product, the “double fromage,” uses both a palate-pleasing rare cheesecake and rich baked-cheesecake to form a delightful contrast of textures.
The Marusei Butter Sandwich from ROKKATEI is another one of Hokkaido’s sweets popular with visitors. Inside the biscuit, which is made from a specially produced flour, is white chocolate and 100% Hokkaido butter paired with cream and raisins.
■Create a Theme For Your Hokkaido Trip
The sweeping island prefecture of Hokkaido bursts with an abundance of wondrous scenery and tantalizing food. While showing up without a clearly defined itinerary is perfectly fine, those who decide in advance what activities, food, and sights they want to base their trip around will undoubtedly enjoy a fulfilling and successful adventure. Indeed, Hokkaido is one of those places where a single visit is simply not enough, so plan your trip well, don’t rush, and leave the stuff you couldn’t fit in for next time!
*This article is accurate as of July 2021. Always confirm the latest information on official websites.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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