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!