Planning Your Trip
Things to Do
What to Eat & Drink
There is nowhere in the world like Hokkaido, let alone just in Japan. The nation’s north most island is an expansive landscape of snow-capped mountains, crystal blue lakes, and endless fields of lavender come summertime. Its capital city of Sapporo is often dubbed the “Tokyo of the north,” and is the birthplace of many of Japan’s best dishes. Home to its native Ainu people, Hokkaido is brimming with its own unique cultural history. All of this without mentioning the seasonal festivals, the skiing, and the three feet of snow in the depths of winter. Hokkaido is like nowhere else, and this is your complete guide to a trip around the island.
Planning Your Trip
Best time to visit: Hokkaido tends to be associated with its winter events and skiing but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to do the rest of the year as the island is dry with low humidity. Arriving in the winter does mean you get to enjoy the spectacular Sapporo Snow Festival in February and the carpet of snow that stays for the seasons whether you’re taking to the slopes or wandering the cities.
The summer is also a great time to visit Hokkaido as it doesn’t see the sweltering temperatures and typhoons that the rest of Japan does. You’ll also be able to enjoy the blooming flower fields and national parks, the many summer festivals, and take part in any number of outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking, and climbing. The colorful spring and fall seasons bring the cherry blossom and maple leaves so there really is no bad time to visit Hokkaido.
Language: The Japanese language is spoken on Hokkaido. Hokkaido Ainu is still spoken by the indigenous Ainu people, mostly on the north side of the island, though very few speak it in their day to day life.
Getting Around: Much like the rest of Japan, the train rules supreme for getting around whether that’s the Sapporo subway or the trains that take you between the cities and towns. Your JR rail pass will work on the bullet trains and JR local trains here, and an IC card like Pasmo or Suica card is helpful for using the subway or city buses. You can also pay for goods in some stores with your IC card which can be easily purchased and topped up at subway stations.
Intercity buses are also helpful if you want to save money or access areas that you can’t reach by train. Buses can be accessed from the main bus stations in major cities.
Renting a car is also a very popular option in Hokkaido, the roads are open and the views are incredible and as much of Hokkaido’s beauty is nature-based, it makes seeing these natural sites much easier. It’s also worth remembering they drive on the left in Japan.
Taxis are available in cities and can be flagged down by putting your arm out or can typically be found outside subway stations and tourist attractions. This is one of the most expensive ways to get around in Japan but can be useful.
Things to Do
Hokkaido is brimming with things to do with its wide stretches of untouched nature and its bustling cities, here are a few to start with.
- Wander Daisetsuzan National Park: A colossal national park in the heart of Hokkaido. Daisetsuzan is a pristine paradise of fields, forests, ponds, and mountains that can be comfortably explored for days.
- Jozankei Onsen: One of the most famous and celebrated onsen in Hokkaido, this hot spring offers picturesque valley views that radically change from season to season.
- Hokkaido Shrine: Found in Sapporo, thousands of visitors each year flock to this Shinto shrine. It’s also one of the best cherry blossom viewing spots on the island.
- Go Skiing at Niseko: South of Sapporo is the small village of Niseko, nestled at the foot of the jaw-dropping Mount Yotei, one of Hokkaido’s prime skiing locations.
- Visit the Ainu Museum: The only museum of its kind in Japan, this was created as a symbol of the Japanese government's commitment to treating the Ainu with respect. Here you can get to know the culture of the indigenous people of Hokkaido which includes an open-air Ainu village to explore and music and craft classes.
What to Eat and Drink
Hokkaido has a lot to offer for food lovers and taking time to try the local delicacies is very worth your time. Since the climate is generally cooler, most of the dishes will leave you feeling warm and satisfied but this is also an island well known for its soft-serve ice cream, sweet treats, and above all, its seafood.
Try Lavender Ice-Cream and Wine in Furano: Furano is known for its amazing flower and lavender fields and this means it’s a great place to try Lavender ice cream and other desserts. If you’re a fan of vineyards then make sure to enjoy a wine tour of Furano.
Eat Seafood at a Seafood Market: Hokkaido is famous for its seafood and some of the best places to try the freshest seafood prepared in front of you is a seafood market. Some of the biggest on Hokkaido are Nijo Market, Otaru Seaport Market, and Kushiro Washo Market.
Try a Bowl of Ramen on Sapporo Ramen Street: Hokkaido is most famous for its miso ramen, but almost every type of Japanese ramen has a spot on Ramen Yokocho just waiting to be visited.
Try a Genghis Kahn Lamb Barbecue: Perfect if you’re traveling as a group, get together and enjoy a lamb barbecue (Jingisukan), a Hokkaido specialty named after the Mongolian soldiers' concave helmets and their preference for lamb.
Visit the Sapporo Beer Museum: Sapporo beer is one of the most beloved beers across Japan and the world, only rivaled by Asahi in terms of global fame. Head to the museum to tour the brewery and do tastings; plus you can visit the large restaurant attached where you can try a number of local dishes.
Where to Stay
Deciding where to base yourself in Hokkaido can be a challenge and many people opt to spend a few days in different areas so they can see the varied beauty of the island. Here are some of the main areas you can stay and what to do nearby.
Sapporo: The major city of Hokkaido, basing yourself in Sapporo is a great idea if you want to see the city and enjoy some day trips like the nearby retro town of Otaru and Asahikawa. You can also reach some fantastic hot springs nearby such as Jozankei Onsen and Noboribetsu Onsen.
Lake Toya: A perfect place if you’re looking to relax and enjoy scenic views. The area is just over two hours from New Chitose Airport and surrounds the unique caldera Lake Toya and the active volcanoes of Usuzan and Showa Shinzan. Relax in the hot springs, visit Silo Observatory, take a cruise on the lake or hike around it!
Furano: Furano is a lovely base at any time of year but it’s blooming in color throughout the summer months. With local vineyards, independent artists to shop from at Ningle Terrace, and spectacular views of the Daisetsuzan mountains, Furano is a truly special part of Japan.
Ski Resorts: If you’re skiing, then there are plenty of resorts to choose from such as Niseko, Rusustu, or Kiroro which are all under two hours from Sapporo and accessible from the airport.
Most international flights arrive at New Chitose Airport but if you’re flying domestically, there are 12 airports across the island which may prove more convenient. You can get the train into Sapporo from the airport which takes around half an hour.
If you're arriving into Sapporo on the bullet train, you'll be arriving into Sapporo Station and will be able to catch the subway from there. You can also change to other trains which will take you to other parts of the island.
Culture and Customs
- There's no need to tip in Hokkaido—same goes for Japan as a whole. In some cases, it can even be considered offensive.
- If you're shopping and paying in cash, make sure to place your money in the dish on the counter. Your change will also be placed thereafter.
- Remember to carry some cash as some places don't take cards. You'll find plenty of ATMs around the city or in convenience stores like 7/11 or FamilyMart.
- The bow is the standard form of greeting in Japan, but a nod will usually suffice.
- When on the subway, make sure not to use the seats reserved for the elderly.
Money Saving Tips
Luckily, Hokkaido’s nature and outdoor pursuits provide a lot of opportunities for free and budget activities. If you enjoy nature trails or hiking, then you’ll find endless free activities in Hokkaido.
- Many of the festivals that are held in Odori Park are free so make sure to keep up with what’s going on in the city.
- Make sure to try some convenience store food and coffee to save money. Stores like 7/11, Lawson, and Family Mart have excellent quality bento boxes and hot snacks.
- Take advantage of tax refunds while you’re shopping. Purchases of more than 5,000 yen (around $46) are exempt from the 10 percent consumption tax. Wherever you see the tax refund sign just show your passport and they’ll sort it out.
Hokkaido Tourism Organization. "About Hokkaido."
United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. "The Saga of the Ainu Language." October 2009
Japan National Tourism Organization. "The National Ainu Museum and Park Promotes the Life and Culture of Ainu people, an Ethnic Group Indigenous to Northern Japan."