Hokkaido is the second largest and northernmost island in Japan. The prefecture is especially famous for its rich nature including beautiful lakes, flower fields, and six national parks to explore. In the summer, many people try to escape the heat by making their way up north and enjoying the mountainous area. In winter there is no shortage of the famous Japanese powder snow that covers some of the best ski slopes in the world. Combine this with delicious local food including amazingly fresh prepared seafood and fruit like the Yubari melon, and you have no reason not to go to Hokkaido. Let’s dive into the endless things to do in Hokkaido all year round!
When is the best time to visit Hokkaido
Hokkaido is really a great destination all year round. The prefecture is mostly popular for it’s beautiful and quiet nature, which is amazing and different all year round, and its food such as fresh fish, crab and miso ramen.
For your reference, here is a brief summary of every season:
Many cherry blossoms and beautiful flowers will be blooming
Escape the heat and enjoy the greenery and ocean, feel the comfortable wind and engage in summer activities such as rafting and camping in magnificent nature spots.
Autumn leaves are changing colors gourmet festivals are happening all over, and there will be lots of foods you don’t want to miss out on.
The whole region is covered in white, making for a winter wonderland with a large amount of high quality snow that is perfect for winter sports such as skiing & snowboarding.
Here is our list of the best things to do in Hokkaido.
1. See the amazing ice sculptures at the Sapporo Snow Festival
Held for the span of a week every February since 1950, the Sapporo Snow Festival in Sapporo City, the capital of Hokkaido, is one of the largest and most famous winter festivals in all of Japan. The winter event features spectacular snow and ice sculptures and attracts more than two million visitors every year! As many as 200 snow and ice sculptures, depicting everything you can think of from temples to cartoon characters, are spread across four sites in Sapporo, Odori Park, Tsudome, and Susukino. The sculptures are lit up until 10pm every day. Besides the sculptures you can also enjoy several concerts and other events as well!
You can get the best view of the Odori Park, the main site of the festival stretching 1.5km long, from the Sapporo TV Tower Observation Deck at the eastern end of Odori Park.
How to get to the Sapporo Snow Festival
Odori Park is a 1 minute walk from Odori Station or a 12 minute walk from Sapporo Station
2. Escape the city life in Furano and Biei
Furano and Biei are towns located in the central part of Hokkaido. These towns are two of the most famous and popular tourist destinations in Hokkaido with breathtaking picturesque landscapes. If you’re visiting sometime around April to October, head over to the hills of Shikisai-no-oka and expect to see hectares of multi-coloured flowers or the lavender fields at Farm Tomita in Furano. You can explore the hills of Shikisai-no-oka with a golf buggy and also feed the alpacas that are living at the farm. During the winter season, the farm turns into a snowland where visitors can ride snowmobiles.
In Biei, right outside of the hot spring resort Shirogane Onsen, there is a man-made pond with a natural bright blue color called Aoiike or blue pond. The pond has become a popular tourist spot in recent years, displaying various shades of blue depending on the season and the weather.
The Furano Ropeway, one of the resort’s gondolas offers panoramic views over the valley, and is open all year round. In summer and autumn you can enjoy the beautiful colours of the forest and the mountain, while exploring the well kept hiking trails!
How to get to Furano and Biei
If you fly into Sapporo Airport, you can purchase a Furano-Biei Free Ticket at the JR counter. This ticket costs ¥6,500 and includes a round trip to and unlimited free travel in the Furano and Biei area for four consecutive days.
From June to August, there are direct JR trains from Sapporo station to Furano station, for Biei station you’ll need to transfer to a local train at Asahikawa station. There are tourist buses that connect Furano, Biei and Shirogane Blue Pond.
There are also several sightseeing tour buses which take you directly to Furano and Biei from Sapporo.
3. Check out the harbor city Otaru
Otaru is a small harbor city about a 30-minute train ride northwest of Sapporo, making it a great day trip from Hokkaido’s capital city. Otaru served as a major trade and fishing port in the late 1800s. In present day, the city is famous for the beautifully preserved canal area and old buildings. The former warehouses and office buildings were once in use by shipping and trade companies.
Every February, around the same time as the Sapporo Snow Festival, the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival is held. During this festival, the city is decorated with glittering lanterns and small snow statues which are lit up from 5pm until 9pm every night.
How to get to Otaru
From Sapporo Station, take JR Express Airport to Otaru Station (about 30 min)
4. Hit the slopes in Niseko
Located southwest of Sapporo City, Niseko is Japan’s most famous ski resort due to tons of light powder snow. The best snow falls in January and February and this is when the snow is most powdery. During this time more than half of the visitors are from overseas. Niseko offers endless ski slopes along with other exciting winter adventures such as off-piste skiing with guided tours and helicopter tours. There are major resorts in Niseko; Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village, Hanazono and Annupuri, which join together at the top of the mountain, making it possible to ski between them.
How to get to Niseko
From December to March, multiple bus companies run direct buses between Sapporo City and Niseko. The bus ride can take between 2.5 and 4 hours depending on pick-up location and destination.
Alternatively, you can rent your own car, which will also give you the opportunity to easily visit other ski resorts and places of interest nearby!
5. Explore Matsumae: the little Kyoto of the North
Matsumae town, at the southernmost tip of Hokkaido, is a former castle town and known as Little Kyoto of the North. Facing Tsugaru Strait only 20 km from Aomori prefecture, the town attracted merchants engaged in the shipping trade during the Edo period.
Matsumae Castle (also known as Fukushima Castle) is the only Japanese style castle to have been built in Hokkaido. The current castle tower was constructed in the early 1960s and the former castle ground has been turned into the sprawling Matsumae Park, where over ten thousand cherry trees are planted and bloom every spring!
How to get to Matsumae Castle and Matsumae Park
Take Hakodate Bus bound for Matsumae from JR Kikonai station and get off at Matsujo bus stop (1.5 hrs). The park is a 7 minute walk from the bus stop.
Kikonai station is served by the JR Hokkaido Shinkansen & South Hokkaido Railway.
6. Get your grub on in Hakodate
One of Northern Japan’s major cities, Hakodate is known for its Western-style buildings, fresh seafood, and salt ramen, among other things. Named the city of gourmet food, Hakodate is bursting with different sorts of crab, tuna, squid, abalone, and other delights, due to the surrounding area being blessed with plankton. A dish worth trying is the kaisen-don, which usually has different kinds of sashimi in a single bowl. Try the sea urchin in Uni Murakami for a unique experience.
Visit the Russian Orthodox church, the former British Consulate, or the morning market where you can buy fresh produce. You can also ride the aerial gondola to the top of Mt. Hakodate where you’ll be treated to panoramic views of the city!
Also worth visiting is the Goryokaku Fort Park which features the region’s sakura trees, when they are in full bloom around the last week of April to the first week of May. The Goryokaku Observation Tower provides excellent views of the whole fort.
7. Head to Lake Toya
Lake Toya is a part of Shikotsu-Toya National Park located in the south of Hokkaido, about 1.5 hours by car from the New Chitose Airport or about 2 hours by car from Sapporo. It is an almost perfectly round lake formed in a caldera. The picturesque lake was chosen as the location of the G8 Summit in 2008. Near the lake, you will find Mount Usu, an active volcano which last erupted in the year 2000. You can take the Usuzan Ropeway to the summit of Mount Usu.
On the foot and Mount Usu, next to the lake, you can visit the hot spring resort Toyako Onsen. Stay overnight at one of many hotels, stroll along the promenade with foot baths (ashiyu), and in the evening from May through October enjoy the daily firework show. The promenade is also the departure point for sightseeing boat cruises of the lake. The sculpture garden borders the shoreline of the lake with 58 large sculptures.
How to get to Lake Toya
From Sapporo Station take the JR Hakodate Main Line to Toya Station (about 2 hrs). From Toya Station, take the Donan Bus to Toyako Onsen (about 20 minutes).
8. Go hiking in Daisetsuzan National Park
Daisetsuzan National Park is the largest national park in Japan which features the Daisetsuzan Mountain range. This range includes Mount Asahi (2,291 meters), the highest mountain in Hokkaido, and Mount Kurodake (1,984 meters), one of the most easily accessible major peaks in the Daisetsuzan National Park thanks to a ropeway and chair lift.
Many nature lovers start their hike from Mount Kurodake which is the entry point into the interior of the national park. Around the mountain range, there are several hot springs where you can relax and heal your fatigue after hiking and exploring the area.
How to get to Daisetsuzan National Park
Daisetsuzan National Park can be accessed from many different directions. The easiest way to get to and explore the park is to rent a car.
9. Relax at Noboribetsu Onsen
Noboribetsu Onsen is the most famous hot spring resort in Hokkaido. There are many Japanese ryokan and hotels with hot spring baths. Not planning on spending the night? Many also offer drop-in onsen for guests that won’t be staying the night.
Besides hot springs, the area offers several other tourist attractions, the most famous being Jigokudani, translated as hell valley. White hot steam rises from the blow holes, with sulfuric steam and other volcanic activity. Hell Valley is the main source of the onsen in Noboribetsu.
How to get to Noboribetsu Onsen
There are express busses from JR Sapporo Station (about 1 hr) and from New Chitose Airport (about 1 hr), taking you directly to Noboribetsu Onsen.
10. Check out the beautiful Lake Mashu
Located in the Akan Mashu National Park in eastern Hokkaido, this caldera lake is considered to be the most beautiful lake in Japan. The lake water is even said to be the clearest in the world. It is also one of Japan’s deepest lakes – 212 m. Fog often forms close to the surface of the lake and it can be difficult to get a clear view of the lake. However, the weather around the lake can be quite bipolar at times and the fog can disappear as quickly as it forms.
You can see the lake from observation decks positioned around the rim of the caldera where you can drive to. Also, there is a hiking trail which leads you from the first of the observation decks to the top of Mount Mashudake through forests and grasslands for about 7 km. If you’re up for a day of hiking, this is a great option with beautiful scenery along the way!
How to get to Lake Mashu
The best way to visit Lake Mashu is by rental car. The public transportation connection is very poor.
11. See some wildlife in Shiretoko National Park
Shiretoko National Park, located on the Shiretoko Peninsula, is one of Japan’s most beautiful and less traveled national parks. It is home to a large range of wildlife including brown bears, deer and foxes. The northern tip of the peninsula can only be viewed from boats or be reached on multi-day trekking tours. During the winter, you can see drift ice floating in the Sea of Okhotsk.
The picturesque Shiretoko Five Lakes offers stunning views of land, sea and lakes. It’s easy hiking routes are suitable for visitors of all ages. Another attraction is a whale-watching cruise giving you opportunity to spot some of the 14 different species of whales that swim along the coastline.
How to get to Shiretoko National Park
The main entry points are either Rausu or Utoro.
- Utoro is a 90-min drive from Memanbetsu Airport or Nakashibetsu Airport, or 2 hrs. by bus from Memanbetsu Airport or Abashiri.
- Rausu is a 1-hr drive from Nakashibetsu Airport or 100 min. by bus.
12. Enjoy the cherry blossoms at Shizunai Nijukken Road
Enjoy strolling under an impressive row of cherry blossoms which stretches out 7 km. During the Cherry Blossom Festival in mid-May, the 3,000 or so cherry blossom trees lining both sides of the street are in full bloom and many people, tourists as well as locals, enjoy walking under the trees and having lunch under the spectacular blossoms.
How to get to Shizunai Nijukken Road
From Sapporo Station, take Hidaka Main Line to Shizunai Station (about 2 hrs), from Shizunai Station to Nijukken Road it takes about 20 minutes by car or taxi.
13. See some cute animals at Asahiyama Zoo
Located in Ashikawa of Hokkaido, Asahiyama Zoo is a great place to spend part of the day, especially if you are on a family trip. Instead of going out and looking for potentially dangerous wildlife in a national park, it can be nice to play it safe and see some animals in one of Hokkaido’s most popular zoo’s. They have rare animals that you won’t be able to see at other zoo’s such as penguins and polar bears!
How to get to Asahiyama Zoo
From Asahiyama Station, take either bus number 41, 42, or 47 for about a 40 minute ride all the way to Asahiyama Zoo.
14. Visit a local Festival
Due to the fact that it is an island, Hokkaido has a very unique culture that is quite different from that of mainland Japan. When most people think of Hokkaido, they usually immediately think of the world famous Snow Festival. However during all seasons of the year, there are loads of fun festivals that you can check out and partake in. From the beautiful flower festivals in the spring, to the fireworks festivals over the summer, to the ice and snow village festivals in the winter, no matter what time of year you visit there will be something fun going on.
15. Have a drink at the Sapporo Beer Museum
Hokkaido is said to be the birthplace of beer in Japan. Sapporo beer has gained popularity worldwide and of course the best place to drink it is where it all started, in Sapporo of Hokkaido! Learn about the history, growth and brewing process of Sapporo beer at the Sapporo Beer Museum. After you finish strolling through the museum, you will have the option to taste a variety of different beers, some of which aren’t available in many places, for a small fee. And if you want to continue drinking, there is a beer garden with a number of restaurants right next door.
How to get to the Sapporo Beer Musuem
You can access the museum on the “Loop 88 Factory Line” bus that stops at Odori station as well as at the Seibu in front of Sapporo station. It is also only a 25 minute walk from Sapporo station if you don’t mind a bit of a long walk.
We highly recommend that you include Hokkaido in your itinerary, no matter what season you are visiting Japan. As you know by now, the prefecture has plenty of places worth visiting all year round. What do you think about Hokkaido, is it a place you might want to visit? We hope you have an unforgettable time in Hokkaido and get to check out some of the best things to do there!
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