Are you planning on visiting Hokkaido this year? Japan’s northernmost island is unlike anywhere else in the country! Formerly known as Ezo, the Japanese government annexed Hokkaido in 1869 and developed modern cities. Its prosperous lands and abundant coasts attracted farmers and fishers from all over the country.
Hokkaido’s subarctic climate makes it the coldest and snowiest place in Japan. During summer, the highest temperatures hover around 22°C (71.5°F) in the countryside, although urban areas tend to feel hotter. Spring and autumn also offer enticing activities like exploring national forests and flower-viewing parties. If you’re ready to see what Hokkaido has in store, keep reading to find out the best things to do in Hokkaido!
Sapporo is the birthplace of Japanese beer, and you can learn about its production at the Beer Museum, conveniently located next to the Sapporo Factory shopping center. After taking a look around, you can taste a selection of brews, including the rare Five Star variety. The Beer Museum is also an excellent place to try the local specialty jingisukan, which is barbecued lamb.
Hokkaido has a reputation for both its freezing winters and delectable seafood. Combine both of these experiences when you go ice fishing! When Lake Akan freezes over, heated tents pop up on its surface for those who want to catch wakasagi smelt. Expert cooks will batter and fry your catches on the spot.
If you love Japanese sake, there’s no better place to learn about its brewing process than Otokoyama Brewery in Asahikawa. The award-winning brand opened in the late 1600s and was the Tokugawa Shogunate’s preferred sake to serve. It eventually moved to Hokkaido over a century ago and has continuously won international competitions since the 1970s. Roughly between mid-April and early May, you can also enter the Otokoyama Nature Park, which is the biggest wildflower garden in Hokkaido.
Dairy farms populate most of central Hokkaido, and at the Furano Cheese Factory, you’ll understand why Japan is in love with the island’s milk and cheese. The factory creates products solely from locally-sourced ingredients. You can find conventional and unusual flavors like corn ice cream and squid-ink cheese, and learn how to make these foods in cooking classes.
Despite being a significant symbol in Japanese and Ainu mythology, the red-craned crown nearly went extinct in the 1950s. Thankfully, they’ve made a huge comeback, and you can see them in the wild and in captivity at Akan National Park. From November to March, around 300 cranes migrate to the Akan International Crane Center for the winter. You can also observe them at the Tsurui Village and the Kushiro Marshlands.
If you can’t get enough experience classes, don’t forget to stop by the Music Box Museum during your stay in Otaru. Every 15 minutes, the steam clock by the entrance plays a melody to welcome visitors to browse the 1500 music boxes inside. You’ll find traditional music boxes made out of glass and wood, and some modeled after sushi, Western characters, or constructed from fabric! Before you take one home, take the time to customize it.
In the early 1900s, Otaru City was a flourishing port known for its herring. Fishers would attach glass bobbers to their nets, and most bought their supplies from the Kitaichi Glass company. Although they no longer specialize in fishing equipment, visitors to Kitaichi Glass can take hands-on classes. At the end of the workshop, you’ll have a unique souvenir to take home!
Did you know that the Japanese aren’t the only people living in Japan? The Ainu are an indigenous group that now mostly live in Hokkaido. History hasn’t been kind to them, but the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum works to preserve their traditional practices. There are over 10,000 artifacts inside that display the Ainu people’s clothing, toys, hunting tools, and literature.
Shiroi Koibito Park is part chocolate factory and part theme park. After observing employees making the beloved Ishiya cookies, you can decorate your own or satisfy your sweet tooth at the Chocolate Lounge Cafe. Outside of the main building, you can watch a parade of mechanized dolls every hour, or take your little ones to the Gulliver House.
Hokkaido’s winters might be cold and snowy, but they’re anything from dreary! Throughout the season, you can join in joyous celebrations like the Asahikawa Winter Festival. In early February, towering snow and ice sculptures take over Tokiwa Park and Heiwa Dori. They’re so large that one structure from 1994 made it into the Guinness World Records!
Around the same time as the Asahikawa Winter Festival, Sapporo holds the Yuki Matsuri. There are three sites for the Sapporo Snow Festival across the city, but most of the activities take place downtown in Odori Park. Attractions include massive snow sculptures that are several stories high, ski jump competitions, food stalls from around the world, and nighttime illuminations.
Lake Shikotsu reportedly has the cleanest water in Japan. If you go to Hokkaido in winter, it’ll be too cold to swim, but you can see its surreal color at the Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival. Leading up to the event, the locals use sprinklers connected to the lake to create pillars of ice that glow when the sun hits them. At night, colored lights illuminate the whole area from January to mid-February.
If you can’t make it to the short-lived winter festivals in Sapporo, Asahikawa, and Lake Shikotsuko, you can still go walking in a winter wonderland in Sounkyo. From the end of January to the end of March, domes and multi-storied buildings made from snow and ice line up along the Ishikari River. At night, colorful lamps illuminate the structures, and there are fireworks displays on the weekends.
When Japan annexed Hokkaido in 1869, most of the land (besides Ainu settlements) was wild and untouched. The Japanese government began to send its worst criminal offenders to Abashiri. Prisoners faced cramped living quarters, harsh weather, and arduous road-building projects. At the Abashiri Prison Museum, you can learn about the history of Japan’s notorious penitentiary and its infamous inmates.
Okurayama Ski Jump was one of the reasons why Japan won the bid for the Olympics in the winter of 1972. The 90-meter ramp at the foot of Mount Okura still serves as an event site, but during the offseason offers one of the best views of Sapporo. At the bottom of the chair lift, you can go to the Winter Sports Museum and play VR games that simulate ski jumping, hockey, and speed skating.
There’s a good reason why powderhounds call January “Japanuary.” It’s the best time of year to go skiing on soft snow, and across the island, you’ll find ski resorts that can suit any of your needs. From luxurious ski-in-ski-out cabins to economical ryokans, you won’t regret taking a ski trip in Hokkaido.
Lake Toya is a caldera that formed 100,000 years ago. At its center are several islands collectively known as Naka Jima. Sightseeing cruises take visitors around the lake and some of the islands. Unlike most bodies of water, Lake Toya never freezes, so you can look forward to doing this activity any time of year!
From 1914 to 1949, the Japanese government attempted to develop Shiretoko several times, but the area’s natural environment made any such endeavor impossible. Today, most of the park remains untouched and attracts rare animals like the White-Tailed Sea Eagle. Its natural formations are too dangerous for hikers to pass safely, but sightseeing cruises give you the chance to see the sheer cliffs and waterfalls.
Along the Sea of Okhotsk, drift ice floats from Russia to Hokkaido’s shoreline in mid-January. However, if you’re coming to Hokkaido in summer, you can still experience this phenomenon at the Okhotsuku Ryu-hyo Museum in Monbetsu. Part of the tour includes a room that is -15°C (5°F), so you can see genuine floes plucked from the ocean.
Hokkaido is Japan’s veritable “final frontier,” and you can learn about the history of its development at the Historical Village in Sapporo. The open-air museum provides an immersive education in the time that followed Hokkaido’s annexation. There are around 60 reproduced or relocated buildings throughout the village. The real fun for most visitors is the chance to ride horse-drawn carts and sleds to different areas.
They say that the most delicious fish live in the coldest waters, and Hokkaido helps support that notion. If you’re a sushi lover, you’ll be in absolute heaven as every port city has a local seafood specialty. Hokkaido also has more farmable land than most parts of Japan, and that means more local vegetables, meat, and dairy! Try the regional specialties like soup curry, soft-serve ice cream, and Yubari melons.
The coast on the Sea of Okhotsk is the northern hemisphere’s southernmost place to see drift ice. They start to arrive in January but reach their thickest points in February before disappearing in March. The best way to see them is from aboard an icebreaker cruise. As you gaze out into the distance, keep an eye out for birds, seals, and sea angels.