As your plane makes its final approach, the clouds will part to reveal blankets of white snow that stretch to the horizon. Welcome to Hokkaido, where “winter wonderland” isn’t hyperbole!
If you’re flying into Shin-Chitose Airport, you’ll need to take a 40-minute train ride to get to Sapporo. But who wants to do that while they’re fighting jet lag? Take a day to repack your bags, get cleaned up, and rest in Chitose City.
If you still have some energy, there’s plenty to do around town. In the airport, you can stop by The Ramen Dojo which houses shops from ten of the best ramen restaurants in Hokkaido. Make sure you try the miso-flavored broth, which is the local specialty.
After a meal, wash off that airplane gunk by taking a dip in the Shin-Chitose Hot Spring. If you’re ready to shop or want to stretch your legs, check out Chitose Outlet Mall Rera. You can access the mall via a free shuttle bus, which takes about ten minutes.
Did you know that the Japanese aren’t the only people from Japan? The indigenous Ainu have different belief systems, traditions, and cultural backgrounds from the Japanese.
At the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum, you can learn about their daily lives from a collection of over 10,000 artifacts, including clothing, toys, and literature. Interactive exhibits also feature traditional Ainu music and dance.
From the end of January to mid-February, the town of Shikotsu Kohan holds its legendary ice festival. Lake Shikotsu is one of the cleanest calderas in Japan, and during this time of year, artists create ice sculptures from its water. Under the sunlight, the sculptures glow in effervescent blue hues. At night, multi-colored lights shine through the attractions.
Sapporo Beer is one of the oldest and most delicious lagers from Japan. You might have had the chance to try it in your home country, but now you can learn about its history and brewing process.
The three-story museum is inside of a historic brick building. After a guided tour, you can sample different types of Sapporo beer, including seasonal releases and some not available outside of Hokkaido.
If you’re coming to Hokkaido in winter, don’t miss your chance to see the fabulous Sapporo Snow Festival. The tradition began in the 1950s when a group of high school students built six snow statues in Odori Park that attracted fifty-thousand people. Since then, it’s grown into a week-long celebration that highlights sports, artistry, and food from around the world.
Starting from Sapporo TV Tower, watch as competitive skiers and snowboarders make death-defying jumps. Head west through the next dozen city blocks to see larger-than-life snow statues and ice sculptures. One of the favorite spectacles is the annual statue built by the Self Defense Force, which always features pop-culture references.
After the first four blocks, the sculptures get relatively smaller, because individual artists create these. In these areas, you’ll also start to see food stalls run by restaurants from all over Hokkaido. Be sure to try the giant scallops or deer meat, and warm your bones with hot beer, wine, or non-alcoholic sake. On the last block, you’ll find sculptures by international artists and cuisines from outside of Japan if you’re looking for something more familiar.
The Sapporo Snow Festival runs during the first week of February and has three sites. Odori Park has the most massive structures, but the Susukino district and Tsudome Dome are also worthwhile to see. You can avoid crowds in Odori Park by attending on weekdays during working hours. However, you don't want to miss the festival at night when projection mapping displays light the ice sculptures.
If you’re looking for the best places to eat Hokkaido’s fresh seafood, look no further than the Nijo Market. The century-old fish market features more than fifty vendors offering daily catches and delicacies.
If you’re traveling on a budget, you’ll be pleased to know that you can haggle for lower prices, which isn’t common practice in Japan. You can also try traditional Hokkaido food like Uni Ikura Donburi—a bowl of rice with salmon roe and sea urchin!
Okurayama Ski Jump was the site of the Winter Olympics in 1972 and still hosts competitions, such as the World Cup. When there aren't any events, you can see the Sapporo Winter Sports Museum and play simulation games like speed skating, hockey, and ski jumping. Then, ride the "Large Hill" chair lift to Mount Okura Observatory. At the top, you can take in breathtaking views of the wintery city.
After Hokkaido came under Japanese rule in 1869, the first migrants worked quickly to develop the unspoiled wilderness into modern settlements. The Historical Village of Hokkaido features 60 buildings that are either recreations or original structures from this time.
There are four areas to explore for your learning pleasure, but getting around them is half the fun. In summer, you can ride through the streets in horse-drawn carriages, but in winter the horses pull sleds!
Otaru is a city stuck-in-time with nostalgic avenues and mid-twentieth-century buildings. In the early 1900s, Otaru’s fishing and trading industries boomed, and Otaru Canal served as an essential route for transporting goods from boats to factories.
If you’re careful with your timing, you’ll also be able to see the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival. During this time, hundreds of lanterns made from snow line the canal and roads.
As famous as Otaru is for its ports, it also receives notoriety for its marvelous glassware. The Kitaichi Garasu Group owns a museum and two stores that attract both foreign and local visitors.
At the Kitaichi Sangokan shop, you can browse all kinds of glass products—from lamps to utensils! The real attraction is the second floor where you’ll find Kitaishi Hall, which has 167 oil lamps from around the world. The soft light emitting through the hall transports you into an otherworldly atmosphere.
South of Kitaichi Sangokan, you’ll come across a cluster of buildings that make up the Otaru Music Box Museum. If you aren’t sure which way to go, listen for the steam clock which plays a melody every fifteen minutes.
Inside, you’ll find music boxes made from glass, wood, and even fabric! Have fun browsing the different varieties of styles and songs at your disposal, and don’t forget to buy one as a souvenir!
The Asahikawa Winter Festival takes place around the same time as the Sapporo Snow Festival. Although it’s the smaller festival of the two, its snow statues don’t disappoint! It’s also more family-friendly with lots of activities for children, including a snowball tournament and snowman building.
The festival has two sites. At Tokiwa Park, the central snow statue doubles as a stage for musical performances. The Heiwa Dori Site holds an ice sculpture competition. Both areas use lights and projection mapping to illuminate the attractions at night.
In most places in Hokkaido, you’ll want to try the miso ramen. However, in Asahikawa, go for the soy sauce variety! In contrast to mainland Japan, Asahikawa shoyu ramen has a layer of oil on top help warm your bones. At the Asahikawa Ramen Village, you can choose from eight of the best local restaurants.
Established in 1661, the Otokoyama Sake Brewery is not only one of the best places to try sake in Hokkaido, but in the world! The centuries-old company continuously takes home the top prize in international sake competitions.
During a tour, you’ll learn about Otokoyama’s history and brewing process, as well as participate in a tasting. However, atypical to most of these kinds of activities, the tour includes traditional art featuring the favorited brand!
Yes, another festival, and the coldest one yet! By now, you’ve seen buildings built out of ice and snow, and now you can finally explore the insides of them.
At the Sounkyo Ice Fall Festival, you’ll see things like shrines, ice bars, tunnels, and statues of creatures and pop culture characters. The layout changes every year, but you’ll always be able to try tubing down a hill or enjoy Ainu dance performances.
Sounkyo Daisetsuzan National Park is beloved for its hot spring resorts and waterfalls, and you shouldn’t pass up on the chance to experience both—even in winter!
In the warmer months, Ginga and Ryusei waterfalls beautifully cascade down a sheer cliff, but during this time of year, they completely freeze over! The 120 and 90-meter high falls attract daring ice climbers. You can view the frosty falls from a distance, and if you’re lucky, watch people scaling the cliff!
Your definition of “cold” will change after a visit to Okhotsk. In the past, this area’s environment was unforgiving, which you’ll learn all about the Okhotsk Ryuhyo Museum.
Part of the exhibit includes an ice floe room, which stays at -15°C (5°F) so you can experience the Sea of Okhotsk’s phenomenon up close. In other parts, you’ll learn about the local ecosystem, wildlife, and get a 360° view of your surroundings in the observatory.
The Japanese aren’t the only people from Japan! The indigenous Ainu people from the north have been around since the Neolithic period. Unfortunately, there are few of them left, but the Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples works to help preserve their culture.
The museum also introduces the lifestyles of the First Nations people from Canada, the Sami, the Siberian people, and the Inuit.
Since you already know all about the Sea of Okhotsk’s ice floes, it’s time to experience them for yourself on an Ice Breaker Cruise! In mid to late January, the drift ice starts to appear on Hokkaido’s shores and grows the thickest near Abashiri. From the boat, you’ll also have a chance to see Hokkaido’s natural wildlife, including sea slugs, white-tailed eagles, seals, and more!
From 1890-1984, Japan’s most heinous criminals served their sentences in Abashiri Prison. When it first opened, most of Hokkaido still hadn’t been developed, so the government tasked the prisoners with labor-intensive projects.
The Abashiri Prison Museum depicts the harsh conditions the convicts lived in and the results of their work. Through the exhibits, you’ll learn about their daily lives, infamous prisoners, and the history of Japan’s justice system.
The name Tofutsu comes from the word Toppu, which means “lake mouth” in the Ainu language. From the remnants of Neolithic Ainu pit-houses, we can see just how long people have lived here, despite the sub-zero winter temperatures. Although it’s the coldest time of year to see it, you’ll see around 300 swans inhabiting the lake until spring arrives.
When Lake Akan freezes over, you can try your hand at ice fishing. Inside of a toasty tent, expert fishers will show you how to catch Wakasagi smelt. These are little fish that look similar to delta smelt.
When you finish, you can have your catch battered and fried right then and there. The delicate Wakasagi smelts are so tiny that you can eat them whole—bones and all!
Both Japanese and Ainu mythology view the red-crowned cranes as symbolic animals, but now they’re an endangered species. In 1950, there were only 40 of them left, but thanks to the efforts of Akan’s locals, they’re making a comeback.
At the Akan International Crane Center, you can learn all about the cranes and see a few in captivity. A thirty-minute drive north takes you to the Tsurui Ito Crane Sanctuary, where 300 cranes gather from November to March.
Along with Nijo Market and Hakodate Morning Market, Kushiro City’s Washo Market is one of Hokkaido’s top places to buy local seafood and vegetables. As you browse through the stalls, you’ll have the chance to pick up souvenirs and a meal.
The main attraction is the Kattedon, which is a bowl of rice you can personalize with your favorite toppings. Don’t skip out on trying some of the local delicacies like bear meat and lamb!
With only one day left, you’ll have a limited amount of time to finish up your souvenir shopping and preparing for your return trip. But there are still a few places you can go to before you leave Hokkaido. Halfway between Kushiro and Chitose, you can stop by Obihiro for a photo-op at Kofuku Station.
The word Kofuku means “happiness” in Japanese. Because of its name and gorgeous location, it’s one of the most romantic places in Japan. On your ticket, you’ll see the phrase “幸福ゆき” (Kofuku Yuki), which makes it a ticket “to happiness!” Many travelers love taking them home as a souvenir.
If you want to get back to the city, remember that Shin-Chitose Airport is only a 40-minute ride from Sapporo via the JR Hokkaido. If you feel like you didn’t get enough time exploring the lively downtown area, go again and check out the nightlife in Susukino.