Hokkaido Grand Northern Tour
Spend a relaxing week in Hokkaido - the perfect destination for nature lovers, skiing fanatics, and anyone who wants to escape the humid heat of Japan’s more southerly cities during the summer months.
Sapporo, the capital of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, is only a short flight from Tokyo and offers a wealth of opportunities for exploring the island’s rustic nature, food - and snow!
From Tokyo, hop on a short domestic flight (around 90 minutes) and you’ll soon be arriving at New Chitose Airport. From there it’s 40 minutes direct by JR Rapid Airport express train arriving into Sapporo’s central Sapporo Station.
After depositing your luggage at your hotel, venture out to explore. Sapporo is the largest city on Hokkaido and the fifth largest city in Japan - but the broad, spaciously laid out streets and significantly lower density of people compared to other Japanese cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Kobe means that it never feels crushed or over-crowded - except perhaps when the annual Sapporo Snow Festival comes to town!
Started in 1950, Sapporo’s snow festival is held for one week every year in February, and is probably Japan’s most popular winter event, drawing in over two million attendees from all around the world. The festival is held across three main sites - Odori Site, Susukino Site and Tsudome Site - however, wherever in Sapporo you go during festival period you are sure to find a warm welcome and plenty going on.
During the festival, hundreds of huge snow sculptures - some as high as 15 or 25 metres tall - take up residence in Sapporo’s central Odori Park, while over 100 ice sculptures decorate nearby Susukino district. Meanwhile, Tsudome offers family-oriented entertainment opportunities galore, such as snow slides and snow rafting.
Even if you are not travelling to Sapporo specifically for the festival, you can enjoy all that this spacious, relaxed yet cosmopolitan city has to offer at any time of year. Spend your first day getting your bearings and stretching your legs after being cooped up in the plane with a relaxing and invigorating stroll in Odori Park or Moerenuma Park.
The former is a 1.5km-long urban green space stretching out like a ribbon through the heart of Sapporo and rounded off by Sapporo TV Tower. The latter, designed by Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, features several dramatic man-made features including Sea Fountain, with daily shows shooting water up to heights of 25 metres, Hidamari glass pyramid building, reminiscent of The Louvre, and several interesting playground areas sure to delight and entertain fun-loving kids (and parents!).
Finish your day by taking in the splendid night view from the 90-metre high observation deck of Sapporo TV Tower or catch the cablecar up to the observation deck at the top of 532-metre tall Mt Moiwa, just outside the town. You’ll need to catch the Namboku Subway Line 30 minutes from Sapporo Station to Ropeway Iriguchi Station, from where it is a 10 minute walk to the cablecar station which whisks you up to the summit.
Devote your second day to exploring Sapporo’s amazing foodie culture - seafood, noodles, beer and chocolate all await your eager explorations!
Today will be all about eating. Start by tucking into a deliciously fresh seafood breakfast at one of the city’s two food markets: Nijo Market occupies about one city block a few minutes walk from the TV Tower end of Odori Park, and stocks fresh local produce and seafood such as crabs, sea urchin, scallops, squid and salmon roe.
Curb Market (properly known as Sapporo Jōgai Ichiba) consists of around eighty stores and restaurants lining several blocks just outside Sapporo’s wholesale market, and sells fresh seafood as well as local seasonal fruit and vegetables such as sweetcorn, melons and potatoes. Either way, the breakfast of champions of choice is a 'donburi' - a rice bowl of fresh local seafood served on Japanese white rice. Popular choices for the all-important topping include sea urchin (uni), and salmon roe (ikura).
Once you’ve digested your breakfast, it’s time to try Miso ramen, Sapporo’s most popular ramen variety, for lunch. Authentic toppings include sweetcorn, butter, and eggs - all local specialities of Hokkaido, which has a strong dairy and vegetable farming industry.
If after all that food you still have room for an afternoon snack, head to Sapporo Beer Museum and beer garden or Shiroi Koibito Park. The former is the birthplace of beer in Japan, while the latter is a chocolate factory belonging to Ishiya, a local chocolate company which produces Shiroi Koibito cookies - deliciously moreish white chocolate and butter cookies which are one of the most popular souvenirs from Hokkaido. Satisfy your sweet-tooth and sort your souvenir shopping needs all in one!
In the evening, sample the local night-life by popping out for a meal or drink in one of the many bars, clubs and pubs to be found in Sapporo’s night-time entertainment district of Susukino. Go local with your order and try Sapporo beer or Nikka whisky. Brewed in Sapporo since 1877, Sapporo Beer is one of the oldest and most popular beer brands in Japan.
Furano & Biei
Head into the centre of Hokkaido to witness the bucolic scenery of Furano and Biei, twin towns famous for their multi-coloured rolling flower fields and picture-perfect rural scenery.
Around 2.5 hours from Sapporo by public transport or car, Furano and Biei are most famous for the idyllic views across their rolling fields of lavender and other flowers which bloom during the summer months. Once in the area, rental car is by far the easiest way to get around and access the flower fields and other attractions freely.
Lavender has been cultivated in Furano for over half a century, and flowers from late June to early August, carpeting the hills in delicately scented purple flowers. The best (and most popular) place to view the lavender fields is Farm Tomita, from where the fields can be photographed against the dramatic backdrop of the Tokachi mountain range. An extension to the main farm, Lavender East, was opened in 2008, and boasts the largest lavender field in Hokkaido at 14 hectares.
Alternatively, Flower Land Kamifurano offers tractor rides around the fields and a range of hands on experiences such as lavender cutting and flower pressing. If you’ve had your fill of lavender, head to Furano Winery for wine and grape juice tasting, or to the Cheese Factory, where you can watch the production process, sample the camembert-style cheeses or join a cookery workshop for making butter, ice cream, bread or cheese.
In Biei, renting a bicycle is the best way to tour the area’s picturesque landscapes of gently undulating hills and vast, colourful flower fields. Poppies, lupins and rape blossoms flower from June, lilies from July, and sunflowers and cosmos from August and September. Key sights include the self-explanatory Panorama Road, south of the town centre, and Patchwork Road, north of the town centre, as well as Patchwork Road’s famous intriguingly-named trees, some named after car and cigarette commercials.
If Furano and Biei’s multi-coloured floral panoramas still haven’t supplied you with quite the right image for your Instagram feed, or if you are just keen to witness an amazing natural phenomenon with your own eyes, then stop off at nearby Blue Pond, coloured an incredible azure by naturally occurring minerals dissolving in its waters.
A picturesque harbour city about 45 minutes by train from Sapporo, Otaru is famous for its picturesque canal district, winter snow lantern festival, and mouthwatering sushi.
Ride the train a short while northwest from Sapporo, and you will soon arrive in Otaru. A major fishing and trading port since the 1800s, many western-style former warehouses, residences and office buildings owned by shipping companies dot the town, making for an architecturally interesting and aesthetically-pleasing townscape.
Step back in time with a stroll along Otaru Canal in the town’s attractive canal district. The canal played an important role in Otaru’s port industry in the first half of the twentieth century, until the introduction of modern port facilities. In the 1980s, the handsome redbrick warehouses lining its banks were transformed into shops, restaurants and museums. Local artists hawk their wares by daytime, while old-fashioned gas lamps cast a gentle old-time glow by night, making it a pleasant place to stroll whatever time of day or night you arrive.
The canal area is at its most photogenic during the Otaru Snow Light Path festival, held each year in February to coincide with Sapporo Snow Festival, when the city is decorated with hundreds of candle-lit snow lanterns.
When you’re ready for lunch, duck into one of the city’s hundred or so sushi restaurants, including twenty-six on Otaru Sushi Street, for an ocean-fresh sushi lunch. For the adventurous, sweet shrimp (April-November) and red sea urchin (May-August) are the local delicacies that you simply must try.
After lunch, take a turn along Sakaimachi Street before heading back to Sapporo. Lined with impressive western-style buildings constructed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they are now converted into restaurants, cafes, boutiques, gift shops, museums and even a glass workshop. Otaru makes the perfect daytrip from Sapporo or the perfect stop-off en route from Sapporo to Niseko or other destinations further south.
Today you depart Sapporo and begin your journey southwest through several other of Hokkaido’s top destinations. First stop: demon-infested hot spring town Noboribetsu.
Take the JR Hokuto express direct from Sapporo Station to Noboribetsu Station (journey time: 1 hour 25 minutes). Then catch a taxi or bus 15 minutes from the station to the hot spring town itself. Noboribetsu is Hokkaido’s most famous hot spring resort towns. It boasts more than ten different kinds of thermal waters, which are considered some of Japan’s best.
Many of the town's mineral-rich springs originate from the so-called “Hell Valley”, a dramatic volcanic valley located in the hills above the town. This is the main attraction other than the thermal baths, and a must-see for visitors to the town. From the town centre, follow the walking trail 30 minutes up into the hills and you will arrive at the valley. Marvel at its otherworldly landscape of yellow and orange volcanic rock, steaming craters and vents, odorous sulphurous gases, and naturally-occurring hot-water ponds and streams.
Keep an eye out for bright red and blue demon sculptures on your way. They are the town's mascot, since in ancient times the townsfolk believed that only monsters could survive the baking temperatures of Hell Valley. If you're visiting in August, make time for the Noboribetsu Hell Festival (Noboribetsu Jigoku Matsuri), which sees the town temporarily invaded by the valley's residents. At other times, you can 'meet' the ogres at the Devil's Fireworks ceremony held every Thursday and Friday evening.From the valley, a further 20-30 minutes walk will bring you to Oyunuma Pond, an amazing sulphurous hot-water pond that boasts a surface temperature of around 50 degrees Centigrade. From the pond, the Oyunuma River, an equally amazing hot-water river, winds its way through the forest. Follow the river as it flows among the trees for almost a kilometre, pausing to strip off your socks and shoes and enjoy a 100% natural hot-water footbath (ashiyu) on the way.
Stay overnight in one of Noboribetsu’s numerous ryokan (traditional inns) or hotels, where as a staying guest you will be guaranteed access to the hot spring baths as part of your accommodation package, before heading to your next and final Hokkaido destination the following day.
From Noboribetsu, Hakodate is a further 2.5 hours by direct JR Hokuto express. The train runs along the coast for most of the route, offering scenic views of Uchiura Bay.
The sights you’ll want to see in Hakodate are split between the north and south of the city, so checking into a hotel near the main station is probably your best bet in terms of convenience. Once you’ve dropped off your bags, hop on a Hakodate City Tram for the 30-minute ride from Hakodate Eki-mae station to either Goryokaku-mae Station or Keisatsusho-mae Station, from where it is a 10-minute walk to Fort Goryokaku.
This impressive fortress was constructed in the late Edo Period (mid 1800s) to defend Hakodate against the threat of imperialist powers. For a bird’s eye view of the huge, star-shaped citadel, shimmy up to the observation deck of 107-metre tall Goryokaku Tower. Over 1000 cherry blossom trees were planted when the fort and its surrounding grounds were turned into a public park in the 1910s. Time your visit for early May to capture those enviably perfect shots for Instagram.
After lunch, hop on a tram south for 20 minutes to Jujigai Station and spend your afternoon exploring the interesting architecture of Hakodate’s downtown Motomachi area - the main area takes about 30 minutes to traverse end to end on foot.
Start with the Kanemori Red Brick Warehouses, just a few minutes walk northwest of the tram stop. Hakodate was one of the first Japanese cities to be opened up to foreign trade after Japan’s self-imposed period of isolation ended in the 1850s, and many historical buildings from that time have been preserved, including this handful of warehouses along the bay area - nowadays they house shops, restaurants and a beer hall rather than piles of goods for trading.After Hakodate opened up, an influx traders from other countries such as Russia, China and the west arrived, settling in the Motomachi district, where they constructed many western-style buildings as their residences and places of business. The Old British Consulate, the Old Hakodate Public Hall, the Old Central Post Office, and several Christian churches have all been preserved intact.
As your week in Hokkaido draws to an end, you can choose to continue your journey onto Japan’s main island south towards Tokyo, or stay and explore more of Hokkaido’s treasures.
If you’re heading on to mainland Japan, take the train 20 minutes back up the line to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station, from where you can pick up the bullet train. It will transport you from Hakodate to Shin-Aomori Station in Aomori, on the northern tip of Japan’s main island of Honshu, in just over an hour. Alternatively, if you have more time on your hands or just prefer the scenic route, then the Blue Dolphin ferry (operated by Tsugaru Kaikyo) will carry you across the Tsugaru Straits from Hakodate to Aomori at a more sedate pace, arriving in 3 hours 40 minutes.
Alternatively, if you have more time to spare exploring Hokkaido, winter sports and national parks are two of its major draws left off the above itinerary. Allocate a few days for making the most of the powder at one of Japan’s world-class ski resorts in winter-time or venturing out to appreciate the stunning scenery, wildlife and natural phenomena in the untouched wilderness of one of Hokkaido’s handful of National Parks in other seasons.
Winter Sports and National Parks
If you’re an avid skier or snowboarder visiting Japan in winter, you will surely want to hit the slopes in one of its world-class ski resorts. Luckily you'll be spoiled for choice in Hokkaido.
Foreigner-friendly Niseko is Japan’s most internationally famous ski resort, offering endless powder snow, long runs, backcountry, and apres-ski. It is made up of three major resorts: Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village, and Annupuri. Shell out for the Niseko All Mountain Pass (from 6300 yen) if you want to try all three.
Rusutsu is another large, famous ski resort spread over three mountains on the other side to Niseko of Mt Fuji's doppelganger, Mt Yotei, which makes a great backdrop or location for your snowy adventures. In winter only, a shuttle bus operates twice a day between the two resorts. Finally, blanketed by snow in winter, central Hokkaido's summer flower fields transform into Furano, a popular ski resort offering various runs, cross-country and downhill courses.
Meanwhile, if you’re a nature lover visiting outside of winter-time, then making time for an exploration of one of Hokkaido’s six national parks should be your top priority. If you’re lacking your own wheels or have limited time, head to Shikotsu-Toya National Park for caldera lakes, hot springs, and ski resorts (Noboribetsu and Niseko’s Mt Yotei both fall within the park’s borders). Named for its twin caldera lakes, here you can enjoy a variety of outdoor activities, from hiking to hot springs.For unspoiled nature, go to Daisetuzan National Park. Hokkaido’s largest and wildest park, it boasts a larger surface area than many of Japan’s smaller prefectures, and is a paradise on earth for hikers, animal lovers, and hot spring devotees. Stay at Asahidake Onsen, little more than a cluster of quaint wooden buildings at the foot of Mt Asahidake, or Sounkyo Onsen, a more touristy Bavarian-style town at the bottom of Mt Kurodake - both places have ropeways and chairlifts to get you to or from the summit if you prefer.
Akan National Park in eastern Hokkaido consists of three crater lakes surrounded by volcanoes. Lake Kussharo is the largest of the three; Lake Mashu boasts some of the clearest waters in the world; and Lake Akan is home to marimo, a species of rare algae that grows into bright green spheres the size of soccer balls.
Shiretoko National Park on the rugged Shiretoko Peninsula jutting from Hokkaido’s northeast coast offers beautiful, unspoiled nature and interesting outdoor activities all year-round, from brown bears in summer to drift ice tours in winter. An easy way to get a taste of Shiretoko’s pristine nature is at Shiretoko Goko (Five Lakes), via its collection of elevated wooden walkways and nature trails with scenic views of the surrounding lakes, mountains and wilderness.In 2005, the Shiretoko Peninsula was added UNESCO World Heritage 2005 for its ecosystem and biodiversity. The northern tip of the peninsula is only accessible by boat or multi-day walking tours. Sightseeing boat cruise from Utoro town is the easiest option to view the peninsula’s dramatic cliffs, waterfalls and marine and land-bound wildlife, from foxes, deer and brown bears to dolphins, whales and sealions. In winter, drift ice (ryuhyo) arrives in the Sea of Okhotsk from northeastern Russia between late January and early April. Experience the amazing natural phenomenon on a boat tour or don a wetsuit and head out on an “ice walk tour”. The ice is usually at its best in February.
Bird lovers should make a beeline for Kushiro-Shitsugen National Park, Japan’s largest marsh and wetland habitat which supports its only known population of endangered red-headed Japanese Cranes. In winter there are numerous opportunities for viewing the birds’ fascinating mating dance at the park’s museum, breeding centre and sanctuaries, feeding grounds, winter roosting grounds, and observation points.
Meanwhile, if remote islands are your cup of tea, then Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park is for you. Rishiri and Rebun are two tiny islands floating off Hokkaido’s northern tip. Both offer scenic hiking trails through forests and tiny fishing villages with panoramic coastal views. Rishiri Island has a dormant volcano at its centre, while Rebun Island is well-known for its wealth of gorgeous alpine flowers. To access the islands, you’ll first have to travel to Wakkanai before catching the Heart Land Ferry across to the islands.