Mixing the best of Japan’s natural beauty with its creative hand, old legends and flair for food and drink, Hokkaido is the vacation you never knew you needed.
Famous for its annual snow festival, it is Japan’s northernmost island and a producer of potatoes and dairy. Aside from that bucolic type of reputation, there are plenty adventurous, relaxing and even spooky things to do in Hokkaido. Whether you want to chill on the beach, tour breweries and distilleries, or slurp on buttery, corn-filled ramen, there’s something for everyone here (even the morbid). Winter is filled with the obvious options like skiing and snow festivals, but the warmer months allow you to explore the natural beauty of the island—so whenever you’re here, you’ll be able to experience a special side to the place and make plans to come back and explore the others!
1. Embrace winter with snow festivals and skiing
The biggest event the island has to offer, the annual Sapporo Snow Festival brings winter to life with huge illuminations, world-class sculptures and great displays. Held in early February, the week-long event draws in the best snow sculptors in the world and huge crowds of admirers, with smaller local events nearby too. Be sure to book accommodation early as things book up well in advance, and once you’re there—enjoy the snowy sights, slides and street food! If you don’t arrive in time for the snow festival, you can always enjoy the stuff in other ways! There are fantastic ski resorts like Niseko to make the most of, with snowboarding options too.
2. Spend an evening in Sapporo
No doubt the city will already be on your list, and there’s a perfect evening to be had without much planning! Sapporo is famed for a few things: beer, ramen and the impressive views from the TV Tower. You can combine all three into one without much effort. Start by heading to the tower for just before sunset. This way you get an evening and night view, then when your eyes have feasted on the city, you can feast on the delicious ramen. Make your way to ramen alley, a hot spot for small ramen joints specializing in the local style: corn with butter (it’s amazing, try it to see). After you’re well and truly sated (and converted), head out to some of the bars and order yourself a refreshing pint of Sapporo’s best, as well as some of the more local craft beer spots like the North Island Beer Bar, and Moon and Sun Brewing.
3. Get lost in the lavender fields
A huge summer draw, the lavender and flower fields of Hokkaido are famous throughout Japan and offer impressive swathes of color in stunning landscapes. While lavender is the major draw, with Furano and Biei offering a few farms to choose from, other seasonal flowers and produce are available during summer too. There are plenty of train passes and bus route to make sightseeing easy and affordable, so spend a few hours with the flowers!
4. Admire Biei’s blue pond (Aoiike)
A scene so beautiful it was the Mac screensaver of yore, this lake takes in a fabulous blue tint when not covered by snow. While the colour is down to a build-up of natural minerals, the lake itself is man-made and was designed as an erosion control system. Forget that un-glamorous fact though and bring your best camera—it’s a sight to behold in all its blue glory. You can catch the bus from Biei Station to Shirogane Aoiike Iriguchi which takes about 20 minutes. If you want to pair a visit to the flower fields with a visit to the blue pond, try this one-day bus tour for Sapporo Station.
5. Immerse yourself in nature
Hokkaido is a nature lover’s paradise and there are some traditional and more unusual ways to make the most of it. Hiking is a sure-fire winner, with mountains offering beginner courses to full-on camping trips too. However, when the options include exploring the landscape on horseback or admiring it from a hot air-balloon, you might find yourself reconsidering packing those hiking boots after all. Anchored hot-air balloon views start at ¥2,500 for adults, so it’s not as pricey as you would expect, and while options for canoe tours and horse-trekking are a bit higher, they’re a great treat for you trip.
6. Stroll through Otaru
A perfect day trip from Sapporo, Otaru is a harbor city with picturesque canals to stroll beside and plenty of cafes and galleries to explore. Originally a large trading port and connected to the capital with the island’s first railway line, it has plenty of warehouses and impressive buildings perfect for converting into cultural spots. During the snow festival you can enjoy the Otaru Light Path, but there’s plenty to see during the rest of the year too, including the Nikka Whiskey Distillery, a very popular beach resort and nearby onsen towns. It’s only half an hour on the train from Sapporo and costs ¥600 each way.
7. Get brewing: Beer museums and tours
Hokkaido is filled with a surprising amount of beer brewers, from the big names you’ll easily recognize, to the local micro-breweries you’ll soon fall in love with.
The eponymous Sapporo Beer has a dedicated museum (the only one in Japan) housed in a beautiful red-brick museum, as well as a full factory offering tours and a chance to try their pioneer beer—Kaitakushi—in the beer hall.
Asahi runs the largest factory and offers free 20-minute tours with the chance to try three of their beers and has restaurants to relax in with a drink after.
Kirin is the third and final large-scale brewer on the island, with tours and plenty of chances to drink their produce too.
8. Plan your escape at Abashiri Prison
A world away from the floral fields, Abashiri Prison is nicknamed the Alcatraz of Japan, and definitely makes for a chilling day out. Located in what was once a small fishing village, the prison was built by a team of prison laborers at the end of the feudal era.
Surrounded by unforgiving wilderness and the brutal Okhotsk sea, any who managed to escape failed to survive for long. Prisoners were required to do manual labor and the prison shows their daily life and struggles as well as treats like a weekly bath.
You can even have lunch in the prison cafeteria—it’s much nicer than you might think!
9. Relax in a demon’s onsen town
A town with onsen so hot the residents once believed only demons could enjoy them, Noboribetsu is a great town with plenty to explore. Be sure to visit Hell Valley complete with very hot springs and demon statues. You can also try a natural foot bath in Oyunama River (but avoid Oyunama Pond—it really is too hot for humans).
There are demon parades in summer and an impressive festival in August as well as a museum dedicated to the Ainu—the island’s indigenous people. The town has many hotels which open their onsen to the public and be sure to try the local dish of spicy noodles—just another way to turn up the heat!
10. Travel back to the Edo era at Noboribetsu Date Jidaimura
Another slice of historical life in Hokkaido, this theme park isn’t the rollercoaster kind—more the open-air museum, albeit with shows and performances. Designed to bring the Edo period back to life, there are ninja, samurai and oiran (courtesan) areas as well as a traditional merchant street to explore. Period-style restaurants serve up traditional dishes, and you can enjoy views from the fire tower observatory—all in all a very family-friendly day. Read here for more info on visiting Noboribestu Date Jidaimura.