Japan’s northernmost Island Hokkaido is a heaven on earth filled with nature’s bounties. Occupying 22% of Japan’s total land area, Hokkaido is not untouched by urbanisation, yet much of Hokkaido’s wilderness is still undisturbed. Hokkaido harbours incredible blend of man-made attractions and natural wonders.
From colourful flower fields, snow-covered mountains, ski resorts, hot springs and natural national parks to bustling cities featuring snow festivals, instances of fine architecture, world class eateries serving exclusive Japanese cuisines and vibrant markets, Hokkaido has got a lot to offer to its visitors. Moreover it offers a whole of locales and opportunities to play with snow and watch steaming volcanic vents. If you are willing to see the exotic and untamed wilderness of nature along with the comforts of modern life, Hokkaido is the destination you should be aiming for. Here’s a list of all the things that you can do in Hokkaido to explore the city optimally.
Sapporo Snow Festival
Held in the month of February annually, Sapporo Snow Festival featuring about 250 sculptures and slides made up of ice and snow and modelled after temples, buildings, monuments and cartoons is a treat to the eye. This exhibition of massive snow art works, spread across Odori Park, Tsudome, and Susukino, impart a new charm to Hokkaido’s capital, Sapporo during winter.
Even though it’s freezing cold it’s worth taking a tour of the place which presents quite a bustling scene with its amazing food culture, trendy markets and beautifully decorated parks. People from all over the world come to visit Sapporo’s snow festival for its uniqueness. So you wouldn’t want to miss it! Also, don’t forget to grab a bottle of Sapporo bear and try Sapporo’s Miso Ramen.
Hokkaido has an endless number of scenic places but Otaru is a one of a kind attraction for its serene beauty and romantic charm. Board a train from Sapporo and you’ll reach Otaru in just 30 minutes. This pretty port city with its serene canals lined by restaurants, sake distilleries, souvenir shops, sushi bars and old warehouses has a vintage aura about it. It preserves the ambience of Japan’s old days.
The city looks all the more stunning at night when the street lights illuminate the place with glittering shades. Walk along the canals and take in wonderful night views. Don’t forget to taste Marusei butter sandwich and Kitakaro while dining at the restaurants of Otaru. Also, relish some good sushi preparations at the Sushi Street. You would also love to go on kayaking trips to explore the enigmatic Otaru Caves at the Blue Cave site. You may also enjoy snorkelling. If luck favours you may find some sea lions. Once you visit this harbour city on the way to the coastline, you will want to come here again and again. Such is its aura and charm!
Furano Lavender Fields
When we think of Lavender Fields, the one place that comes to our mind first is Provence but do you know Japan has its own version of Lavender Fields which doesn’t lag much behind Provence. The Lavender fields that Japan boasts of are situated in Farm Tomita at Hokkaido’s Furano; just a 45 minute drive away from Asahikawa Airport. Vast stretches of purple plants along the slopes of the hills are just simply magical. Contrasted to it are stretches of colourful flowers from sweet violet and gorgeous purple to dazzling yellow and serene white. Walk amidst them and take some stunning photos.
You can also sit on the open stretches of finely trimmed grasses along the slopes and drool over the sweeping views of distant mountain ranges and downtown cityscapes. These lavender fields put up the best scenes during the months of July and August. For the best experience, visit in July when they’re at their very peak and don’t forget to try the lavender soft serve before you leave. Besides this multi-colour floral paradise, Furano is also famous for its ice-cream, cheese and wine. Furano is also famous for its dairy products including cheese, wine and ice cream. In fact, it is the largest dairy producer in Japan. However, it also snows here heavily. So, if you are coming here in winter, make sure to pack all your warm clothes.
Japan’s most beautiful village Bie-cho (Biei) is located in Hokkaido. Having been featured in Apple Mac Computers as a wallpaper, Hokkaido’s Bie-cho, also known as Blue Pond is a feat to the eye. Comprising a pond featuring bluish water which mirrors the surrounding white cherry blossoms and half-submerged larch trees, it looks like an out of the world place with unbeatable splendour and beauty. The bluish colour of the pond changes hue occasionally making it one of the most picturesque places in the world.
Shakotan Peninsula, located in Shiribeshi on Hokkaido’s West Coast is a popular natural attraction which draws tourists from every corner of the world. Associated with numerous local legends, this peninsula, jutting out into the Sea of Japan, provides sights that are going to take your breath away. There is a long walking trail that leads to the main viewpoint at the very edge of the peninsula from where you can see the surrounding pristine seascapes. In summer, you’ll have the wonderful opportunity to snorkel and reach the caves surrounding the coast and spot some rare sea creatures.
Shiretoko National Park
No trip is complete without seeing wildlife. The same goes for Hokkaido. Your Hokkaido trip is going to be incomplete without visiting Shiretoko National Park. You’ll spot here migratory birds, sika deer and brown bear. Situated on a peninsula in North-east Hokkaido, Shiretoko National Park meaning “the end of the world” in Ainu language, consists of wild forest covers with stunning waterfalls running parallel to the coastline. The most exotic part of Shiretoko National Park is the Shiretoko Peninsula which you can only traverse by foot or by boat. Here you’ll have the fortune to see bears and deers roaming around freely. Without a doubt, this is the go-to place in Hokkaido for all the nature and wildlife lovers.
Replete with historic and culturally significant sites and quite a remarkable natural beauty, Hakodate is a gorgeous port city that serves as a southern gateway to Hokkaido. It was indeed one of the first Japanese cities to open itself to international trade. Consequently Motomachi district of the city still retains villas and churches manifesting western architecture that act as a contrast to rest of the scenes of the city. Mt. Hakodate stands tall offering staggering views of the bay and cityscapes and it is mainly known for providing one of the three best night views in Japan along with Kobe’s Mount Rokko and Nagasaki’s Mount Inasa.
You can reach the viewpoints via car, bus or ropeway. One of Hakodate’s historic remains is the Goryokaku Fort which was built to guard the city from the attack of Western forces. Operating as a public museum since the 20th century, this place also served as a venue for a fierce civil war fight. As it is surrounded by cherry blossom trees, it looks magical during Sakura season. Since it is the originating place of shio ramen or salt ramen, you must grab a bowl here.
Seiryuken is a good place for trying it. Take a tour of the morning market if you want to shop and taste fresh seafood and some good Sushi and Sashimi preparations. If you choose to stay at La Vista Hakodate Bay, be sure to get an authentic Japanese experience with fine public bathing facilities and top notch seafood cuisines. In the outskirts you’ll be amused to see Yunokawa onsen monkeys.
One of the island’s active geothermal sites is the wooded hills known as Hell Valley. It has hot springs, steaming rivers, marvellous lakes and sulphurous rocks and ponds. In the early morning it looks quite enchanting and bizarre. Hiking this place is a one of its kind adventure. You can enjoy a natural foot bath in the waters of the steaming river or in any of the hot springs present there. There is so much to see in Hell Valley that just a one day trip is not enough for it. You may stay at any of its resort towns. Noboribetsu Onsen is also a famous one which is also located near Noboribetsu Onsen. One special feature of Hell Valley is you’ll see here sulphur roaring out of the vents.
Daisetsuzan National Park
Japan’s largest park, Daisetsuzan National Park, is one of the best places in Hokkaido to do rock climbing, hiking and bathing in natural hot springs. Nature has bestowed this place with ample wilderness, from the active vents and steaming water to wild animals and wild birds that live in the forest covers. If you go for long trails you will get to see jaw-dropping sceneries.
The park consists of many mountains. You can hike up to their peaks and the feel is going to be amazing. You can hike up to the top of Kurodake Mountain or Mount Asahi. Mount Asahi is Hokkaido’s tallest mountain and its most attractive feature is the Sugatami Pond located below the mountain’s peak. Its waters reflect off the snow covered peaks and volcanic vents emitting streams. You can stay at a nearby Onsen town and arrive here by car or via cable car. If you want to hike Mt Asahi, the best place for you to lodge would be Asahidake Onsen village that is located on the slopes of the mountain. In winter skiing and snowboarding are quite popular here.
Asahiyama Zoo situated right in the middle of the city is another amusing attraction of Hokkaido. Offering a really cosy wildlife experience, it holds a record of hosting the second highest number of visitors in Japan. Mainly sheltering Hokkaido’s native animals like eagles, cranes, deer and extinct wolves, the zoo is also home to penguins, apes, giraffes, polar bears, wolves, seals, big cats and leopards. It has uniquely designed glass observatories that allow the visitors to watch the animals behaving as they would behave in a natural setting.
There’s an underwater glass tunnel between pools that enable visitors to see penguins flying through water. A glass pipe with water has big seals that visitors can see from all angles. Other underwater glass observatories have hippopotamus and seals while the above water observatories take visitors frighteningly close to polar bears, leopards and wolves. You can spot pandas from a suspension bridge and if you visit this zoo in winter you’ll be able to observe penguin walks.
Bordering the Kushiro town, popularly known as the “town of mist”, lies Japan’s largest marshland namely, Kushiro Wetlands, covering an area of about 183 square kilometres. Preserved as an internationally sanctioned habitat protection site, it still homes the once thought to be extinct red-crowned cranes. Every year many birds flock here and visitors have a gala time watching these rare species of birds. To see the marshlands you’ve to use hot air balloons while canoeing down the water bodies or you may discover it by walking through the paths surrounding the observatory on the edge.
The park has many observation centres from which visitors can view these rare Japanese natural habitats. Akan International Crane Centre is photographers’ favourite as it is the ideal location to capture birds’ spontaneous movements. During night time the Japanese red crowned cranes gather near the Otowa Bridge due to the warmth of the river. The best time to visit this place is between April and September and if you come here in June or July the place will look more colourful and hence more appealing to you.
When you’re in Hokkaido, you’ll never get tired of exploring lakes! Lake Toya is homed by Shikotsu-Toya National Park which you’ll find on the way to Niseko from Noboribetsu Onsen. An active volcano, Mt. Usu serves as the backdrop to the lake adding to its scenic beauty. And the surrounding lush areas are also a pleasure for the eyes to watch.
You’ll have a great time canoeing and boating on the lake while admiring the lush greeneries surrounding the lake. It’s also a great place for camping. It takes only two hours to reach Lake Toya by bus or train from Sapporo city and if camping is not your thing you can also stay in a nearby Onsen resort. Hiking and boating are also popular activities that tourists do here. Bathing in the hot springs is also common here.
Hakone Jomon Museum
There are a whole lot of places on the island that reflect Hokkaido’s natural beauty but Hakone Jomon Museum is one place that reflects the cumbersome history of Hokkaido establishing the first arrival of man here about more than 10,000 years ago. The artefacts of the museum reflect the lifestyle and culture of the ancestral inhabitants. Located inside the museum is a Tropical Botanical Garden where you can watch monkeys.
Unkai Terrace is a rooftop viewing platform situated at a height of 1088m above the sea level of Hoshino Resorts Tomamu that provides a chance to see floating clouds eclipsing the mountain peaks. It has a majestic water-like appearance. Sometimes the peaks of Hidaka and Tokachi mountains can be seen amidst the blanket of fluffy white clouds. All you have to do to be a part of this heavenly experience is wake up early and take a shuttle ride up to the mountaintop as the sea of clouds appear only during dawn. This terrace can be accessed by tourists and public from the Month of May to October. And the best part is you can gaze at the cloud floating scene from special facilities such as Cloud Pool, Cloud Bar and Cloud Bed.
The Hokkaido Shrine is the city’s prime religious seat. Built during the Meiji period to enshrine three Kami deities, this temple has a long history. It was rebuilt in 1987 after it was destroyed by a fire. Though many tourists pay a visit to this shrine throughout the year, it becomes immensely popular during the cherry blossom season and Japanese New Year. During the temple’s main festival namely ‘Sapporo Festival’, Mishoki parades are held in which people walk in a line with a vehicle carrying deities from one shrine to another. The temple premises cover a large area that you can tour by foot admiring the shrine’s architecture and the natural setting.
Akan National Park
Hokkaido is replete with national parks comprising mountain ranges and hot springs. National Akan Park is famous for its outstanding lakes. Its three lakes, Lake Akan, Lake Mashu and Lake Kussharo are wonderful sights for the eyes to devour. Of all these three, Lake Mashu is perhaps the most beautiful. In fact, it is one of the best lakes among all that Hokkaido takes pride in.
Located in Akan National Park, this lake is huge and its crystal-clear waters work like a natural mirror reflecting the mountain peaks and surrounding wilderness. This lake is also known as “Misty Lake Mashu” as most of the time it is covered by a thin mist. But on days when it’s sunny and the sky is clear, the lake’s shiny blue waters look shinier. You may hike up to the top of Mashu Dake which overlooks the park itself and enjoy watching the panoramic views of the place. At night come down to do star gazing at Lake Mashu.
Having explored this lake, set out to explore the other two. Lake Kussharo is smaller than Lake Mashu but it’s pretty enough to make you drool over it. Here you can go for short hikes through the surrounding hiking trails. If you climb your way up to Bihoro Pass you’ll witness amazing views of Lake Kussharo. To see something different pay a visit to Lake Kussharo’s hot water beach which is a bathing facility. Lake Akan is similar to Lake Kussharo and is also surrounded by spa cafes. Try something different by cooking an egg in a geothermal spring or hiking Mount Ion to get close up views of volcanoes and geothermal activities.
Onuma Quasi National Park
Just a few miles away from Hakodate is Hokkaido’s Onuma Quasi National Park laden with open green fields and magnificent lakes. Mount Komagatake, a popular volcano is also present here. You can walk through the walking trails to tour the place. The park is full of scenic spots. The remarkable ones are the lake Onuma and lake Konuma and the green spaces joining them and the walking bridges over the pretty ponds. This place promises a love day spent in the lap of nature.
Kaminokoike (The Pond of God’s Child)
To the east of Hokkaido lies the enchanting pond Kaminokoike which is also known as “The Pond of God’s Child”. This hidden gem of Hokkaido offers such breath-taking views that once you visit it, you’re likely to remember it forever. The bluish shades of the pond will leave you mesmerized. The changing hues of the bluish water of the pond draws thousands of tourists And there is a popular belief that the pond has originated from Lake Mashu’s underwater.
Hokkaido has an amazing food culture. There are many good markets that sell fresh seafood. When you’re in this city, you just cannot miss out on crabs because Hokkaido being the leading producer of crabs in Japan, hosts multiple eateries which specialises in various types of crab preparations.
Hokkaido Beer Garden is a first-class restaurant which serves the best hair crab, snow crab and king crab. Miso ramen is also a famous dish of Hokkaido. Susukino Yoko-cho is a large area where you’ll find ample ramen restaurants. To relish the best ramen preparations directly head to Ramen Republic. You can also take part in Shikabe Cooking Class. You’ll also get a wide variety of seafood from sea urchins and squids to scallop and salmon roe in Hokkaido’s markets. Some restaurants also serve sea atka mackerel; seafood brought directly from the sea.
Makomanai Takino, a Buddhist cemetery hosting enormous Buddhist statues, a Stonehenge replica and thirty-three duplicate models of the Moai statues of Easter Island which are surrounded by lavender fields is an incredible attraction of Hokkaido. These statues run parallel to a road which leads to a flower cemetery and a gigantic Buddhist statue. An artificial tunnel serves as an entrance to a hill. The whole area abounds in pools and twisted pathways. It’s quite an interesting place to include in your to-do list.
Since you will never run out of places in Hokkaido you can definitely think of extending your stay to visit Asahikawa Sounkyo Icefall Festival, Okhotsk Ice Flow, Cape Soya, Sapporo Beer Museum, Mt. Yotei and Abashiri Prison Museum while lodging at exquisite resorts that facilitate skiing and snowboarding; two of the best outdoor activities that Hokkaido is famous for.