The island of Hokkaido is a place of unique culture (home to the native Ainu people) as well as vast, untamed, and mountainous terrain. The capital city of Sapporo, juxtaposed completely with the wild and snowy reaches of the island, is often called the "Tokyo of the North." With so much variety to its scenery and culture, there is a wealth of excitement and beauty to be found in Hokkaido. Here are 15 of the best things to do in Japan’s frozen north.
Drink Wine in Furano and Wander the Rainbow Fields
Japan doesn’t typically spring to mind when it comes to wine holidays, with people more instinctively gravitating towards the sake and beer culture here. However, Hokkaido boasts some fantastic vineyards and wine varieties, with some of the most prominent being found in the stunning region of Furano which boasts views of the Daisetsuzan mountains, as well as fields of lavender and rapeseed which would make you believe you were holidaying in France. Places to visit include Furano Winery, Tada Vineyard and Farm, and Furano Wine House. Make sure to wander through Ningle Terrace, a forest path lined with fairy light and wooden chalets sporting the work of local creators.
Try the Different Ramen Varieties
Hokkaido has more than five types of ramen, each one warm, hearty, and perfect for the cold weather. Sapporo ramen, in particular, is beloved across Japan and comes right at the top of the list of favorite ramen varieties after Tokyo. Another massively popular Hokkaido ramen is Hakodate Ramen, which is an umami-filled, clear, pork ramen topped with green onions and bamboo. Other famous Hokkaido ramen dishes include Kushito Ramen, Muroran Curry Ramen, and Asahikawa Ramen. Visiting the Sapporo Ramen Yokocho is an easy way to try many of Hokkaido’s ramen dishes in one area.
Hike in Daisetsuzan National Park
Known as "the playground of the gods" and "the roof of Hokkaido," this is Hokkaido’s largest national park and offers visitors unspoiled wilderness, natural hot springs, and epic mountains. With an average elevation of 6,500 feet, including Mount Tomuraushi and the Ishikari and Tokachi ranges, this alpine landscape is dramatic to look at but also offers serene meadows and a plethora of flora and fauna, including deer, brown bears, and Japanese pika. Visitor centers around the park can help with maps and guides to the nearby wildlife and plant species. This is a must for anyone who enjoys hiking or wants an accessible taster of Hokkaido’s spectacular landscapes.
Catch the Sapporo Snow Festival
The Sapporo Snow Festival is a truly magnificent event, with the biggest illuminated sculptures often reaching up to 80 feet wide and 50 feet high. Held predominantly within Odori Park, this is one of the most famous and beloved snow festivals in Japan, and a must-see if you’re visiting Hokkaido during February. If you can, try and catch a magical view of the towering snow sculptures from above, such as from the Sapporo TV Tower (which extends its opening hours during the festival). For updates on the festival and events, you check out their official website.
Visit the National Ainu Museum
Learn about a vital part of Hokkaido’s heritage at this new museum, which is the first museum dedicated to the indigenous Ainu people. It also holds the title of being Japan’s northernmost museum and can be found an hour outside Sapporo in Shiraoi on the expansive Lake Poroto. The museum is also named The Upopoy, which comes from the Ainu word for "singing together." The exhibits highlight indigenous Ainu culture, their way of life, and customs such as traditional costume and dance. You’ll also be able to see a traditional Ainu village with an outdoor recreation. Find out opening times and how to book tickets on their website.
Enjoy Fresh Seafood at Hokkaido’s Seafood Markets
As Hokkaido is known for its freshly caught seafood, fish lovers can’t miss out on dishes like Uni Ikura Donburi, a special rice bowl featuring some of Hokkaido’s delicacies like sea urchin and lavishly topped with salmon roe. Crab fans will also be spoiled for choice with options such as the umami-rich horsehair crab, the treasured snow crab, and the hearty king crab and hanasaki queen crab. Make sure to visit famous fresh seafood markets such as Nijo Market in Sapporo, which has more than 60 stores inside, or Otaru Sankaku Market where you can shop and enjoy a wide selection of dining and drinking establishments.
Marvel at the Blue Pond
One of the most breathtaking natural scenes on the island, the blue pond in Biei takes on different hues depending on the weather and season, with a light breeze even changing the sight in front of you. From milky gray to turquoise, it isn’t just the color that gives this space its ethereal qualities but the submerged dead trees that stick up out of the water. This surreal space is a photographer’s dream and truly one of the most unique scenes in Japan. The Blue Pond is situated near Daisetsuzan National Park and Mt. Tokachi, Mt. Tomurashi so can be combined with a wider nature getaway.
Visit the Sapporo Beer Museum
As one of Japan’s most beloved and famous beers, the Sapporo brewery that started it all is a must for beer lovers. Established in 1987 in a former Meiji-era brewery, there’s a lot to learn from a visit to the museum aside from sampling their beer offerings. This is also the only museum dedicated to beer in Japan so it’s a perfect place to understand brewing techniques and the history of beer in Japan. Besides the Sapporo Beer Museum, you can enjoy Sapporo Beer Garden where you’ll find grill restaurants and, of course, more beer.
Walk Through Noboribetsu Hell Valley
Like stepping on Mars, this is the kind of landscape that you wouldn’t expect from a trip to Japan. Hokkaido’s volcanic geothermal area is an incredible experience as you walk the boardwalks among the colored steaming hot pools with the intense smell of sulfur surrounding you. You can even take advantage of the rich mineral water for yourself with nearby Noboribetsu Onsen available to bathe in. The area is particularly stunning in the fall season when the trees turn a spectacular red and orange which combines with the vibrancy of the valley itself. Don’t miss the Oyunuma Pond which reaches an intense 260 degrees F. There are two main observation points where you can really take in the combination of thermal valley and nature, and it’s definitely worth seeing this natural phenomenon from above.
Indulge in Some Local Desserts
Hokkaido is known for its delicious sweet treats and specialty confectionery shops, many of which have often been run by generations of the same family. Some famous desserts include Shiroi Koibito (white lover) these light melt-in-your-mouth butter cookies sandwich a piece of white chocolate. Make sure to try Hokkaido chocolate and the famous soft-serve ice-cream which are beloved throughout Japan. Many of the ice cream flavors are unique to specific areas of the island, such as the blue honeysuckle topping that can be found at Missu House in Sapporo.
See the Drift Ice Phenomenon
Every year during the depths of winter, Hokkaido’s drift ice attracts visitors from across and Japan and abroad. Despite the harsh weather, thousands of people hop on board the icebreaker ship Garinko-go II at Monbetsu Port and set sail. Once moving the giant drill on the front of the ship cuts through the ice right in front of you to the sounds of cracking ice. The best month to try this is during February, so it’s common for visitors to combine this activity with the Sapporo snow festival. Once the cruise is finished, make sure to pay a visit to the Okhotsk Ryu-hyo Museum to learn all about drift ice and see 120 tons of drift ice that you can interact with.
Ski or Snowboard at One of Hokkaido’s Resorts
For lovers of winter sports, it comes as no surprise that Hokkaido is one of the world’s hottest destinations for top resorts, powdered snow, and out-of-this-world walking trails. The main ski resorts in Hokkaido can be found in Niseko, Furano, and Rusutsu with Rusutsu being the biggest. Niseko attracts the largest amount of international tourism due to its fine powder snow and the famous its 5,600-meter-long run. Furano is a smaller ski resort but is an amazing location to explore neighboring Biei, Furano itself, and Daisetsuzan National Park. All ski resorts have fantastic dining and drinking options and, of course, luxurious hot springs to relax in after a day of fun.
Relax in Noboribetsu Onsen
Found in Noboribetsu City, this famous hot spring resort makes for a fantastic day trip from Sapporo and makes up one of the three major hot spring resorts in Hokkaido (along with Jozankei Onsen and Yunokawa Onsen). Containing some of Japan’s best hot springs, with nine types of water available, you can come for a day of relaxation or stay overnight in one of the many ryokan inns available. Dining and shopping facilities are also available within the resorts, and there are plenty of short trips that you can enjoy nearby like a trip to Hell Valley, Noboribetsu Bear Ranch, and Lake Kuttara. You can also take time to find the 11 demon statues scattered around the onsen with a giant one being found at the entrance. Known as Yukijin, they guard the hot springs and fight off bad demons.
Spot Wildlife in Shiretoko National Park
A World Heritage Site found in eastern Hokkaido, Shiretoko is an expanse of unbridled nature and one of Japan’s finest national parks. Typical entry points for visitors are either Rausu (Nemuro Strait) or Utoro (Okhotsk Sea) where you can set out on relaxed hiking trails that will take you around the scenic Shiretoko Five Lakes, Oshinkoshin Falls, Furepe Falls, and the hot-spring-fed Kamuiwakka Falls. For wildlife lovers, this is a perfect place to see some of Japan’s rarest creatures as well as herds of deer, foxes, and eagles. You can also sail rugged coastline to the tip of the peninsula or take a whale-watching cruise. In the warmer months, driving the Shiretoko Pass to take in breathtaking views of Mount Rausu is a must. Find out more on the national park website.
Visit Lake Mashu
Located in Akan National Park, Lake Mashu is a crater lake formed in the caldera of a volcano. It’s thought to be one of the clearest caldera lakes on Earth (apart from Lake Baikal in Siberia) and one of the finest lakes n the country making it a truly special sight that’s worth adding to any Hokkaido itinerary. The lake can only be viewed from two unobstructed observation points as visitors aren’t allowed to go down to the lake itself. Parking is free to access Deck 3, but these are currently the only facilities offered there and Deck 1 has a paid parking lot. From Deck 1 you can also access a 4.3-mile hiking trail, which gives you more views of Lake Mashu.