If there’s one thing Hokkaido is famous for, it’s snow. The northernmost of Japan’s islands, Hokkaido gets very cold in the winter, making it perfect for a variety of cold-weather activities. Even though it’s a separate island from Honshu, Hokkaido is not far from Tokyo, and it’s relatively easy to take a short trip there from any one of Japan’s major airports. So if you’re in Japan in the winter, you can hop on over and enjoy some experiences you won’t find in other parts of the country!
Whether you’re a fan of winter sports, want to visit a festival, or are just in it to get some cool pictures for Instagram, there are plenty of fun things to do in Japan in the winter, some of which can only be found in Hokkaido. Let’s go over just a few of the most popular activities that bring people to this far end of the country.
1. Skiing in Hokkaido
Just like any other place on Earth with mountains, Japan has many prime locations to go skiing. While some resorts on Honshu are more geared toward families, Hokkaido’s attract skiers of all types from all over the world that come to Hokkaido for the abundance of high quality powder snow. Because ski and snowboard tourism is such a big part of the island’s economy, many areas specifically cater to Western tourists, with lots of familiar cuisine and English-speaking employees. During the best skiing months, January and February, more than half the visitors are from overseas.
The most popular location is Niseko, which has six separate ski areas and includes Mount Yotei, often called the Mt. Fuji of Hokkaido. There are more than 30 lifts, and with over 50 kilometers of runs as well as many ungroomed off-piste gates, so you’ll have plenty to try. If you are in for backcountry skiing, touring Mount Yotei will be a unique experience! It’s possible to take a bus between Sapporo City and Niseko, or you can rent a car, and there are plenty of hotels in Niseko Village.
Another easily accessible area is Furano, which can be reached from Sapporo City by train. A bit smaller and quieter than Niseko, this is a good spot for families because of the wide range of runs offered, from beginner to expert. The area is also known for its incredible flower (lavender) fields, so if you’re in town during the summer, there is still a lot to see!
2. Dog Sledding
If you’ve seen dog sledding on TV and always wanted to try it, Hokkaido has several companies that allow visitors to experience riding a sleigh driven by a team of huskies. They are all different, and located on different parts of the island, so your choices may be limited by where you happen to be. There are short rides of only a few hundred meters that can cost as little as ¥4,000, and longer rides that are half day tours where you can go several hours. There are even some overnight tours that include igloo camping for the really adventurous!
3. Drift Ice Walking
On the northern end of the island is the Sea of Okhotsk, which separates Japan from Russia. In the winter, ice floes fill up the water, creating a unique opportunity. Winter visitors to Shiretoko National Park in the northeastern part of Hokkaido can witness the sea almost 80% filled with drift ice. There are drift ice walking tours that will allow you to experience trekking out on top of the ice, and even take a dip in the freezing cold water if you’re truly daring. It’s a good idea to book one of these trips in advance if you want to guarantee a spot to witness nature up close. The best time to witness the drift ice is mid-February.
4. Snowshoe Hiking
Even if you don’t make it as far as the coast, there are other spots where you can see the wonders of nature in the wintertime. Snowshoeing is a popular activity, not terribly difficult to learn, and there are a lot of providers in different areas of Hokkaido. There are short journeys as well as full-day tours, so you can find one that fits your skill and fitness level. Hiking up one of the area’s mountains is a great way to take in an incredible view that not everyone gets to see. Some tours also involve trips to local hot springs so you can warm up after your hike.
5. Snowmobile Riding
If you want a little bit more speed and adrenaline, consider one of the many snowmobile tours available in Hokkaido. There are big trails that really let you get out and explore, and one plus of these tours is that you can find one that will pick you up in Sapporo, making this a good choice for those who are only on the island for a few days. Finding one with a proper guide and small group will allow you to customize your journey and learn as much as you can. There are also tandem rides for those who want to experience the journey with a partner.
6. Winter Rafting
Those who don’t care for the speed and noise of a snowmobile but want something fun that the whole group can enjoy might like a winter rafting adventure. A popular choice for families in the Niseko area, a rafting trip is generally a fairly inexpensive proposition. If you can handle the cold weather, you can try a river rafting tour. If the thought of that cold water is too much, there are also snow rafting tours and even some where you can be pulled behind a snowmobile. This is a great option for families with kids of different ages as it’s something everyone can do together.
7. Ice Fishing
It may not be everyone’s idea of excitement, but ice fishing is a winter pastime in Japan just like it is in America, and one of those things you need to try at least once in your life. Head out onto the lake and get help from the staff with drilling a hole in the ice so you can try your hand at fishing for wakasagi, or smelt, with a simple pole. The Barato River is not far from Sapporo, and there are beginner tours that provide a tent and all the tools you need to stay warm during a one-day fishing adventure.
8. Winter Festivals
Hokkaido is a winter wonderland, and because the snow and cold climate are such a huge part of the culture and economy, there are festivals celebrating this time of year. Here are a couple of the most famous ones you need to check out if you’re around while they’re on:
Snow Hut Festival
Historically a place of worship, kamakura, or snow huts, can be found in several places in Japan. Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan is an annual festival on the longest freezing lake in Japan that features a man-made ice village constructed on the frozen water. About three hours from Sapporo by train, you’ll find an open air onsen hot spring bath, a concert hall, and an ice bar that serves drinks in all-ice glasses. It’s truly a sight to behold, and worth going out of your way to see.
Sapporo Snow Festival
One of the most popular events in Japan, the Sapporo Snow Festival attracts millions of visitors each year. What makes it so popular are the snow and ice sculptures, some of which are incredibly intricate and detailed. A great pick whether you’re traveling with family or on a romantic getaway, this is truly something you can only experience in Hokkaido. Best of all, because it takes place in Sapporo, it’s easy to get to. You can fly into the city, take part in a walking tour of the area, and enjoy all the special events while witnessing the incredible snow and ice art.
No matter when you go to Hokkaido, there’s fun to be had, but in the wintertime, it offers unique experiences. If you’re a fan of cold weather activities, there’s no better place for a vacation than Hokkaido!
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Gregg Maxwell Parker is an author and screenwriter best known for the book Troublemakers. Originally from the United States, he moved to Kobe in 2018. Gregg and his wife, Eriko, are the minds behind the blog As Seen In Japan, where they share pictures and stories from everyday Japanese life. They can be found on Twitter and Instagram.