Hokkaido is one of the four main islands that comprise the nation of Japan. While people visiting the main island of Honshu might only see Tokyo or Kyoto, Hokkaido is often seen as a single location rife for exploration and the best time to visit depends on what you're looking for. Hanami season begins in April, and winter is ideal for snowsports enthusiasts. October and November bring stunning fall foilage and the mild summers have wildflowers through July.
Being Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido is famous for its freezing winters, ski resorts, and the Sapporo Snow Festival which comes around each February. Hokkaido isn’t exclusively a winter wonderland, however; every season has something spectacular to offer visitors, from the lavender fields of summer to the sakura blossoms of spring. With unique local festivals and the local indigenous Ainu culture to explore, Hokkaido offers a year’s worth of exploration, and each season brings something unique.
The Weather in Hokkaido
If you know anything about Hokkaido already, lots and lots of snow probably comes to mind. In the depths of winter, parts of Hokkaido can be covered by more than three feet of snow, and, given how mountainous the terrain is, a lot of the island is at a high elevation. Just like the rest of Japan, however, summers in Hokkaido are pleasant and warm—though far less humid than the southern islands—and the spring months offer plenty of opportunities to enjoy the blossoming cherry trees and the hanami season which comes with them. The warmest that Hokkaido typically gets is around 65-75 degrees F (18-24 degrees C), though recent highs have surpassed 85 degrees F (29 degrees C).
Peak Season in Hokkaido
Despite it being a peaceful, breezy, and calm place to visit in summer, with fields of lavender and other flowers in full bloom, Hokkaido’s peak season is still winter. This is Hokkaido’s biggest tourist season for a reason, with mountain resorts packed with skiers and snowboarders from all over the world. The island’s biggest festival attraction also happens in the winter: the Sapporo Snow Festival, which usually lasts for a week in the first half of February. The festival hosts teams of ice sculptors from different countries who compete to build the most impressive, enormous, and elaborate ice sculptures in the heart of Hokkaido’s capital city.
Wherever you are in Japan, spring means one thing: hanami. This is the flower-watching season where the nation is showered with pink and white petals from cherry and plum blossoms. Because the blossoms of Japan actually come into bloom in the south and then travel north with the rising temperature, Hokkaido is the last place to get the hanami season, and it usually occurs in late April, while the rest of the country typically enjoys hanami through March. This gives Hokkaido time to warm up before the sakura blossom.
Events to check out:
- Sapporo Lilac Festival: The lilac tree has been the official tree of Sapporo since this festival began in 1959. Since the winters of Hokkaido are so long and white, this May festival marks the beginning of a blue and peaceful summer with the blossoming of lilac trees, roughly four hundred of which can be found in the central Odori Park of Sapporo. Hokkaido is actually famous for its local wines, many of which are served to visitors to the park during the festival.
- Plum Blossoms Viewing at Hiraoka Park’s Ume Matsuri: Ume Matsuri is a festival enjoyed in Hiraoka Park, and it celebrates nothing more or less complicated than the beauty of plum (ume) blossoms. The 1,200 plum blossom flowers in Hiraoka Park, Sapporo, all come into full bloom in April, and the festival is an opportunity for viewers to come and celebrate the approaching warm weather and the beauty of spring.
While summer may not be Hokkaido’s peak season, Hokkaido is still arguably the best place to spend summer in all of Japan. This is because the island doesn’t suffer from a rainy or monsoon season like the rest of Japan does. Summers in Hokkaido are mostly 65-75 degrees F (18-24 degrees C) with breezy air and blue skies. While Tokyo suffers an intense monsoon, Hokkaido enjoys a cool and dry summer. And it’s during these summer months that the oceans of flower fields come into bloom, the most famous and cherished of them being the Furano lavender fields of central Hokkaido. The lavender fields bloom right through the month of July.
Events to check out:
- Lavender Festival: With Japan being so infamous for its love of blossoming and colorful flowers, as well as its talent for putting on a spectacular festival, it makes sense for the lavender fields of the Furano area to be met with a joyous matsuri when the lavender reaches full bloom in July. The farms in which the lavender grows and blossoms play host to all the best aspects of Japanese festival events: food stalls, fireworks, traditional games, and music. This is another festival that exists to celebrate the color and beauty of blossoming nature.
- Furano Bellybutton Festival: Also found in Furano is the unique Bellybutton Festival, which is exclusive to this one town in Hokkaido. Furano is located in the central point of Hokkaido, thus the nickname “Hokkaido’s Bellybutton.” This has led to the creation of a festival tradition in 1969. The festival invites participants to paint their bellies with faces and bright colors and to then join a parade around one of the city’s Shinto shrines. A winner even gets announced at the end.
Japan, as a whole, is renowned for its relationship to the natural landscape, and the fall months are the time when Japan makes a strong case for being the most beautiful country. In Hokkaido, October and November offer some of the best foliage watching opportunities in the whole country. With Hokkaido being such a wild and open place, the dense forests and rolling hills offer an endless ocean of fall foliage of every possible color, from subtle oranges to deep reds. The Five Lakes (Goko) of Shiretoko transform into a wash of yellows and oranges against the blue of the lakes and the sky. And as early as August, the Sounkyo Canyon near Daisetsuzan National Park becomes the earliest place to see the fall foliage come out in full.
Events to check out:
- Sapporo Autumn Fest: Framed by the changing fall foliage of Sapporo’s Odori Park, the Sapporo Autumn Fest is, primarily, a celebration of food in Japan. With Hokkaido being such a large, diverse, and culturally dense island, it’s unsurprising that there is so much fantastic food for visitors to sample and celebrate. From ramen to sushi, Hokkaido boasts a unique take on Japan’s most famous foods, and all of it can be tried and enjoyed at the September Sapporo Autumn Fest.
Winter in Hokkaido needs no introduction. This is the season that everyone imagines when they think about Hokkaido. The island of lakes, mountains, and national parks becomes a fairytale land of pure white from sea level to the highest peak. The landscape views become inescapably beautiful right across the horizon, wherever you happen to be on the island. Winter in Hokkaido is a wonderland for skiers and snowboarders, the mountain resorts of Hokkaido explode into life, even offering their own celebrations of winter festivals with fireworks shows and local food to sample and enjoy.
Events to check out:
- Sapporo Snow Festival: Hokkaido’s biggest festival, the Sapporo Snow Festival in February is a huge draw. At the festival, sculptors from around Japan and neighboring countries come to build incredible works of ice art. They come in all shapes and sizes, and show off the kinds of skills you wouldn’t think possible. The buzz around the Snow Festival is intense and exciting, and there is no other festival like it in Japan.