The most northern and least developed of Japan's four main islands, Hokkaido is a paradise for outdoor-lovers, blanketed by pristine white snow in winter and carpeted by fields of brightly-coloured flowers in summer.
By far and away Japan’s biggest prefecture – this northern island is most commonly associated with the mounds of powder snow which fall there each winter, and quite rightly so.
For winter sports fanatics, there are few better places around the world to take to the slopes. Guaranteed snow year on year make Hokkaido’s resorts (of which Niseko and Furano are the most popular for overseas visitors) worth the travel time. A day of backcountry skiing, followed by a dip in an outdoor hot spring whilst surrounded by steaming water and majestic mountains – is there anything better?
But Hokkaido has much to offer the discerning traveller as a year round holiday destination. See below for what to get up to on this rugged, natural island.
What to do in Hokkaido
Far, far away the bustle of the capital’s busy streets is a long lost memory once you reach the tranquil shores of Hokkaido, which sits at the top of Japan’s archipelago . For nature lovers, this is the ideal retreat – a place where you’ll find Stellar’s sea eagles perched casually atop lampposts, and see enormous brown bears fish for salmon in crystal clear rivers.
The Shiretoko National Park, to the east of the island, offers all of this and more, including plenty of Japanese crane spotting opportunities. Don’t miss a stop at Shiretoko Goko, or the ‘five lakes of Shiretoko’, which give Yamanashi’s ‘Fuji five lakes’ a run for their money.
If you’re more of an urbanite, try visiting Sapporo – famed for its beer and delicious ramen, as well as the Sapporo Snow Festival, which takes place each winter in February and offers visitors the chance to witness enormous sculptures made of intricately carved ice. Previous replicas have included the Taj Mahal, Himeji Castle and Star Wars characters.
The neon lights and stylish cafes in the city centre make the city a vibrant yet relatively peaceful alternative to Tokyo. For those looking to take home some of Japan’s famous artisanal crafts, visit Space 1-15 (Japanese only) – a series of intimate stores which houses everything from handmade cheese and ceramics, through to photography classes.
Hakodate, now connected to Tokyo via bullet train, is an attractive port city with a European air. Try squid fishing at the morning market (Hakodate Asaichi), or pay a visit to the hot spring monkeys at Yunokawa Hot Springs. The city is voted one of the top destinations in Japan year on year by domestic travellers, and the night view from Mt. Hakodate is reputedly one of the best in Japan.
How to get to Hokkaido
A new bullet train line was introduced in March 2016, connecting Tokyo with Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station in southern Hokkaido, allowing visitors to reach the island from Tokyo in just over four hours. This journey is covered by the JR Rail Pass, which allows tourists 7, 14 or 21 days’ travel around the country for incredibly reasonable fares.
Alternatively, if you are heading to the east coast of Hokkaido, we recommend travelling by plane (for visitors heading to Shiretoko National Park, fly into Memanbetsu airport). Domestic flights in Japan are cheap and easy to catch – so don’t fear if you’re imagining long queues, tight security and few airport amenities, as that’s not the case! Domestic flight passengers can turn up at the boarding gate just ten minutes before the flight and will still be able to jump on board (in most cases!). Not to mention, these small, domestic planes are incredibly comfortable and a seat purchase usually comes with free drinks and snacks.
ANA and JAL (two of Japan’s best airlines) offer great deals for tourists, allowing them to travel anywhere in Japan for around 10,000 yen (under £100). Check for the best flight prices on Skyscanner.