Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan’s Northern Gem

Embarking on a journey to Hokkaido promises a treasure trove of experiences. As Japan’s northern gem, the island beckons with its breathtaking landscapes and an array of seasonal activities that appeal to adventurers, gourmets, and culture enthusiasts alike. My own excitement is palpable when I think of the island’s snow-capped mountains and tranquil forest trails waiting to be explored, as well as its unique heritage which paints a vivid tapestry of Japan’s rich cultural mosaic.

Hokkaido’s distinct seasons offer an ever-changing backdrop for a variety of experiences. In the crisp winters, I can envision carving through powder snow, skiing down its famous slopes. Summer calls for vibrant outdoor adventures among blooming meadows and serene lakes. The island’s cuisine, a reflection of its natural bounty, offers flavors that resonate with authenticity and regional flair. Each visit to Hokkaido is not just a trip but a journey through the heart of Japan’s splendor.

Geographical Overview

Hokkaido, the northern gem of Japan, is characterized by its expansive natural beauty. Here’s a snapshot of its environmental features:

  • Island Boundaries: Bordered by the Sea of Okhotsk to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the south, and the Sea of Japan to the west, the island is enveloped by diverse marine environments.
  • Mountain Riches: Approximately 70% of Hokkaido is cloaked in mountainous terrain, providing a haven for those passionate about the outdoors, with activities such as hiking in warmer seasons and skiing when the snowfall begins.
  • Highest Peak: At the summit, Mount Asahidake stands tall as Hokkaido’s pinnacle, presenting visitors with challenging trails and excellent skiing conditions.
  • Lakes: The crystal waters of Lake Toya, Lake Shikotsu, and Lake Mashu mirror the sky, offering idyllic settings for recreational activities from boating to serene observation.
  • Marine Phenomena: The Sea of Okhotsk is renowned for its seasonal drift ice, a spectacle observable via cruise or, for the more adventurous, by setting foot on the frozen expanse.
  • Water Activities: Those seeking excitement on the waves need look no further than the Sea of Japan, a hotspot for surfing and other exhilarating water sports.
Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem

Hokkaido’s varied landscapes, from its majestic mountains shrouded in the famous “sea of clouds” to the verdant tranquility of its lakes, cater to a spectrum of escapades for each type of explorer. Whether it’s ascending peaks or tracing the coastline, my adventures here have revealed an island that offers a piece of serenity and thrill for anyone willing to seek it out.

Hokkaido’s Seasonal Highlights

Hokkaido’s Summer Delights

During Hokkaido’s warmer months, I find myself immersed in a variety of engaging activities amidst a backdrop of mild weather and breathtaking scenery. Here’s a glimpse into my summer explorations:

  • Mountaineering: Trekking across Hokkaido’s rich, forested trails leads me through captivating landscapes glittered with mountain and valley vistas.
  • Angling Adventures: The pristine waters of the region are a haven for angling, providing a peaceful retreat where I often catch a glimpse of salmon and trout.
  • Floral Displays: The island flourishes with vibrant fields of lavender, sunflowers, and poppies that I love to wander through, absorbing the riot of colors.
  • Cultural Celebrations: I immerse myself in the local culture through summer festivities such as the vibrant Sapporo Summer Festival and the Hokkaido Shrine Festival.

Hokkaido’s Winter Wonderland

When winter descends, the land transforms into a playground for frosty escapades. Here are my top picks for winter activities:

  • Alpine Sports: Renowned for its premium ski resorts, I enjoy carving through powder on slopes that offer expansive mountain panoramas.
  • Frozen Artistry: The Sapporo Snow Festival showcases extraordinary ice sculptures, a display of craftsmanship that draws artists and admirers globally.
  • Thermal Springs: Amidst a landscape swathed in snow, I relax in Hokkaido’s onsen, where the contrast of chilly air and steaming waters creates a serene atmosphere.
  • Festive Glow: Lights and snow collaborate during festivals like the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival, creating an ethereal experience that captivates me every time.

Indulging in Hokkaido’s seasonal offerings, from the tranquility of fishing to the exhilaration of downhill skiing, remains a highlight of my travels.

Cities and Towns


In my travels through Hokkaido, Sapporo stands out as the island’s heart with its dynamic ambiance. Home to the famous Sapporo Snow Festival, visitors marvel at the intricate ice sculptures. The city’s culinary scene is rich, highlighted by a celebrated ramen alley, Susukino, and the informative Sapporo Beer Museum. After sundown, the energetic nightlife promises memorable experiences with its multitude of bars and eateries.

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem
Snow FestivalWinter sculptures and festivities
SusukinoCulinary adventures & nightlife
Beer MuseumBrewery history & tastings


Hakodate presents a coastal charm with its scenic night vistas from Mount Hakodate and legendary seafood. The city’s allure is strongest during cherry blossom season, drawing couples for romantic views. By day, the Hakodate Morning Market offers a feast of local flavors, while a walk through the historical Motomachi district imbues a sense of the past.

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem
  • Mount Hakodate for night views
  • Hakodate Morning Market for local food
  • Motomachi – historic area exploration


Furano, recognized for its vivid lavender fields and ski facilities, offers seasonal splendor. Each summer, the sea of purple at Farm Tomita is a spectacle, while in the colder months, the snow-covered slopes become a haven for winter sports enthusiasts.

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem
  • Lavender at Farm Tomita
  • Winter sports hub


Niseko, the pinnacle of winter sports in Hokkaido, is renowned for its superb powder snow. Here, skiing is not just a sport but a way of life. The authentic Japanese culture of Niseko Village coupled with tempting local gastronomy enrich the stay.

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem
  • Premier ski destination
  • Niseko Village cultural experience


Otaru takes you back in time with its picturesque canal and rich heritage in glasswork and music boxes. The Otaru Music Box Museum showcases an extensive variety, while artisanal glassware shops allow for unique souvenirs.

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem
  • Canal-side walks
  • Glasswork & music box culture


Exploring the remote Abashiri offers an insight into its former penal colony through the intriguing Abashiri Prison Museum. The real wonder, however, rests on the sea as drift ice tours provide a glimpse into the interactions of nature and life in the arctic waters.

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem
  • Drift ice experiences
  • Abashiri Prison Museum visit


Lastly, the quaint Utoro is synonymous with relaxation and nature. Positioned by the Sea of Okhotsk, it’s a place to bask in therapeutic hot springs and enjoy the pristine Shiretoko National Park, encapsulating the unspoiled beauty of Japan’s north.

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem
  • Hot springs for rejuvenation
  • Shiretoko National Park for wildlife sightings

Insight into Hokkaido’s Heritage

Indigenous Traditions of Hokkaido

My exploration reveals that the Ainu, Hokkaido’s indigenous people, offer a cultural tapestry quite different from the mainland Japanese norms. They have their own language and spiritual beliefs, holding all natural objects as sacred. My intrigue deepens as I learn about the reverence for both the lush landscapes and the vast ocean that sustains them. A visit to the Ainu Museum in Shiraoi is akin to stepping into a living chronicle, with artifacts, attire and dwellings providing a tangible narrative of the Ainu heritage. Here, I find myself entranced by the intricate carvings and woven textures, which echo the stories of this land’s original guardians.

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem

Cultural Mosaic of Japan in Hokkaido

Venturing beyond, I immerse myself in the wider Japanese cultural sphere that thrives in Hokkaido. The onsen experience stands out as an emblem of tranquility – the traditional hot spring baths offering sanctuary. Equally compelling is the local gastronomy, especially the fresh bounty of the sea. Exploring the various fish markets, I taste the essence of the ocean in the form of succulent Hokkaido crab, rich sea urchin, and delicate salmon. My experience is reflective of a deeply rooted respect for nature’s gifts, which is a common thread underlying both Ainu and mainstream Japanese cultures on the island.

Engaging in the Outdoors

Trekking Adventures

Embracing Hokkaido’s rugged landscapes, trekking sits at the pinnacle of outdoor pursuits. The region’s trails cater to varying expertise, from casual walkers to avid mountaineers. Notable treks at Daisetsuzan National Park carve through alpine scenery, while Shiretoko National Park presents wildlife-rich routes. In the Niseko Annupuri Range, every step promises awe-inspiring vistas of verdant forests and reflective lakes. Here’s what enthusiasts can expect:

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem
  • Diversity of trails
  • Panoramic mountain views
  • Access to untouched natural beauty

Downhill Thrills on Snow

Come winter, Hokkaido transforms into a snowy haven for skiing enthusiasts. The region’s reputation for fine powder snow is well-deserved, making it a hotspot for both snowboarders and skiers. Renowned ski resorts like NisekoFurano, and Rusutsu present slopes that cater to all skill levels. The experiences on offer include:

  • World-Class Slopes: From gentle inclines to challenging descents.
  • Varied Activities: Beyond skiing, including snowboarding and aprés-ski.
  • Night Skiing: For an elevated experience under starlit skies.

Whether I prefer the calm of a hike or the rush of the slopes, these outdoor endeavors in Hokkaido promise exhilaration and connection with nature.

National Parks

Expansive Wilderness of Central Hokkaido

Exploring central Hokkaido’s natural beauty leads to the expansive Daisetsuzan, occupying the island’s core. This park encompasses a variety of landscapes, from soaring peaks like Asahidake to soothing hot springs and waterfalls. My adventures in the park often involve observing the local fauna, which includes brown bears, deer, and elusive foxes.

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem
  • Highlights: Asahidake, wildlife, hot springs
  • Activities: Hiking, wildlife viewing

Shiretoko Peninsula’s Natural Splendor

On the eastern edge lies the rugged Shiretoko Peninsula, encapsulating Shiretoko National Park’s pristine wilderness. Its dramatic coastline boasts cliffs and waterfalls that descend into the ocean. In my personal experience, the Shiretoko Five Lakes offer some of the most breathtaking vistas. This spot is a treasure trove for anyone keen to experience nature in its unspoiled state.

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem
  • Highlights: Shiretoko Five Lakes, rugged coastline, hot springs
  • Activities: Sightseeing, hiking, soaking in hot springs

Volcanic Vistas of Eastern Hokkaido

Heading to eastern Hokkaido, the volatile beauty of the volcanic region becomes evident. I find Akan National Park’s simmering craters, like Mount Meakan, intriguing to explore. A must-see feature of this park is Lake Akan, where the startlingly clear blue-green waters and marimo algae balls captivate visitors.

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem
  • Highlights: Lake Akan, active volcanoes, marimo algae
  • Activities: Volcano trekking, hot springs, observing marimo

Culinary Delights in Hokkaido

Hokkaido’s dining scene is a treasure trove of exquisite tastes, particularly for those who relish seafood. The Hokkaido crab, renowned for its sweetness, is a culinary gem not to be overlooked. Its versatility allows enjoyment in a variety of preparations, from sushi to a succulent grilled feast.

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem

For beer enthusiasts, a glass of Sapporo represents the pinnacle of local brewing achievement. The Sapporo Beer Museum offers an inviting exploration into Japan’s brewing traditions, capped off with a tasting of this iconic beverage.

Ramen aficionados will be delighted by the rich, umami-packed miso ramen, a hallmark of Hokkaido’s local cuisine. This noodle dish, with its robust miso-infused broth, is ubiquitous in the region’s ramen shops.

Jingisukan adds a hearty option to the dining experience, featuring succulent grilled mutton complemented by fresh vegetables. It’s not only a filling choice but also steeped in history, taking its name from the legendary Genghis Khan.

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem
  • Hokkaido Seafood: Unparalleled freshness, diverse preparations.
  • Sapporo Beer: A storied brew with a deep local heritage.
  • Miso Ramen: A warming bowl of miso broth and noodles.
  • Jingisukan: An engaging, communal grilled mutton dish.

The pursuit of sweet indulgence leads to the Yubari melon, a fruit celebrated for its exceptional flavor. Similarly, the Soft serve ice cream serves as a creamy counterpart, offering a delightful finish to any meal.

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem

As I traverse Hokkaido, I make it my mission to immerse myself in the local specialties, each offering a distinct narrative of this region’s culinary identity.

Festivals and Events in Hokkaido

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem
  • Sapporo Snow Festival
    • Date: Occurs every year on February 5th.
    • Locations: Odori Park, Tsudome, Susukino.
    • Highlights: Majestic ice sculptures, food stalls, live entertainment.
  • Winter Celebrations
    • Various winter-themed festivities, including the Otaru Snow Light Path, enchant visitors with snow-laden pathways illuminated by a multitude of lights.
  • Summer and Autumn Gatherings
    • The warmth of summer invites me to the Hokuryu Sunflower Festival, boasting a sea of over a million sunflowers.
    • As the leaves change, the Niseko Autumn Food Festival tantalizes my taste buds with local cuisine and dances to live tunes in September.

Note: My visit to these events allows me to indulge in not only the visual feast but also immerse myself in cultural experiences ranging from traditional dances to modern music performances.

Shopping and Souvenirs

Hokkaido’s Retail Adventures

Visiting Hokkaido, I immerse myself in a retail paradise, from eclectic keepsakes to exquisite crafts and contemporary fashion finds. A standout experience is the Otaru Canal area where the once operational storehouses now offer delightful glassware, local snacks, and aromatic coffees, ideal for those leisurely 2-3 hour treasure hunts.

Malls and Markets

The triple mall cluster at Sapporo Station, particularly Stellar Place, boasts an array of shops catering to diverse tastes and needs. Amid this bustling shopping hub, it’s clear why countless travelers earmark time here to satiate their consumer cravings.

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem
  • Souvenir Treasures in Sapporo:
    • Tanukikoji — A mecca for Calbee and Nestle enthusiasts.
    • Kobushiya — A treasure trove offering an extensive range of mementos.
    • Kita Kitchen — The go-to spot for famed regional Hokkaido specialties.

Those with a penchant for ale can’t skip the Sapporo Beer Museum. Not only do I get schooled on the history and creation of Japan’s beloved brew, but I also indulge in Sapporo’s finest beers, making for a delectable cultural dive.

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem

Nestled within the Sapporo Beer Garden, the museum is part of a larger gastronomical complex home to multiple eateries and boutiques, perfect for concluding a day of indulgent exploration and shopping, with choices well-aligned to fit any budget.

Journeying to and Through Hokkaido

Arriving in the Northern Jewel

My journey began with a flight from Osaka to Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport, the primary gateway into Hokkaido. For those traveling by Shinkansen, the transfer at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto station to a local train will carry you to Sapporo, marrying efficiency with the scenic landscapes whizzing by your window.

MethodStarting PointDestinationNotes
Air TravelTokyo/OsakaNew Chitose AirportQuickest route to the heart of Hokkaido
ShinkansenTokyo/OsakaShin-Hakodate-HokutoTransfer here for a train to Sapporo

Upon arrival, I found that Hokkaido’s transportation network is both robust and traveller-friendly. Sapporo Station operates as the nerve center, connecting all corners of the island with ease. For those like me, who planned on frequent travel by train, the Hokkaido Rail Pass proved invaluable, offering unlimited trips and significant savings.

  • Trains and Buses: Connect major cities and tourist spots
  • Hokkaido Rail Pass: Unlimited JR Hokkaido train travel
  • Car Rental:
    • Available at airports/stations
    • Ideal for freedom and flexibility

Practical Advice for the Road

Travel in Hokkaido requires some foresight, especially regarding public transportation. It’s crucial to stay informed of the timetables and routes. Although typically punctual, be mindful of possible delays or disruptions due to the weather, which can often be mercurial, particularly in winter with its heavy snowfall.

Tips for Smooth Travel:

  • Check schedules in advance
  • Be prepared for weather-related delays
  • Consider renting a car for unrestricted movement

Hokkaido’s travel system, provided one is prepared, allows for a smooth and pleasing travel experience through this stunning region.

Lodging Choices in Hokkaido

When I travel to Hokkaido, settling into a fitting and cozy place is essential. I have discovered a range of lodging options that cater to various preferences and financial plans.

  • Onsen Resorts: For those who enjoy indulging in the hot springs, onsen resorts are the prime pick. With a selection of rooms that reflect both Japanese tradition and Western comforts, these resorts offer a serene retreat.
  • Affordable Stays: If saving is a priority, Hokkaido doesn’t disappoint. Hotels like the Hotel WBF Grande Asahikawa provide snug rooms without a hefty price tag — an optimal solution for the frugal traveler.
  • Ryokans: Those yearning for the authentic Japanese experience should consider a ryokan. For instance, Takinoya in Noboribetsu Onsen area provides tatami mats, futon bedding, and exquisite local cuisine alongside its rustic charm.
  • Hot Spring Baths: A must-do regardless of where I stay is to revel in a hot spring bath. These rejuvenating baths can be found in numerous resorts and hotels, the perfect way to ease tired muscles from a day of exploration.

Notable Attractions in Hokkaido

Vibrant Caldera Waters

Surrounding by forested hills, the tranquil caldera waters of this lake provide an idyllic setting for leisure activities. I frequently recommend boat tours, angling opportunities, and the rejuvenating hot springs found on its shores for a serene escape.

Mystical Aqua Mirror

I was captivated by the surreal hue of this water body, a byproduct of human intervention and natural mineral content. The pond is framed by trees and serves as a photographer’s paradise, especially in the reflective hours of morning or dusk.

Purple Scented Seas

When late June arrives, the rolling hills take on the vivid purple of blooming lavender. My visits are graced with aromatic breezes, and the region offers a visual feast for the eyes — a celebration of florals best enjoyed in the warmth of summer days.

Renowned Viticulture Hub

Tucked within the scenic Furano region, this winery showcases an array of wines reflecting Hokkaido’s terroir. Visitors can delight in wine-tasting sessions and dine with views over the vine-striped landscape, making for a refined gastronomic journey.

Thermal Springs Resort

The restorative springs within Shikotsu Toya National Park spark my interest for their therapeutic reputation. The resort, a haven for those seeking wellness, is complemented by nature trails and wintertime slopes, not to mention the intriguingly eerie Hell Valley nearby.

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem

Eco-park of the Century

This expansive natural park offers I an opportunity to engage with diverse ecosystems. Here, one can explore on foot, by bike, or on horseback, and savor dishes crafted from the freshest local produce, embodying Hokkaido’s commitment to nature and sustainability.

Arctic Encounter

At the heart of Asahikawa, this zoo is a testament to conservation and immersive animal habitats. My experiences here are transformed by observing polar bears and penguins in environments that reflect their wild ecosystems, bridging the gap between humans and nature.

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem

Enchanted Craftsmen Village

A stroll through this shopping district transports I to a woodland fable. Wooden chalets glow with warmth, offering artisanal crafts and keepsakes. In winter’s embrace, the area becomes a twinkling wonderland, reflecting Furano’s enchanting spirit.

Panoramic Spectacles

The sweeping vistas from Hokkaido’s various vantage points are a must-see. From the urban panorama atop the Sapporo TV Tower to the night view at Mt. Hakodate Observatory, I find each deck presents a unique canvas of the region’s majesty, whether bathed in daylight or city lights.

Things to Do in Hokkaido: Exploring Japan's Northern Gem

Pre-Departure Tips

  • Discover Nature: Embrace Hokkaido’s stunning landscapes.
  • Culinary Delights: Explore diverse local cuisines.
  • Essential Planning: A trip here needs careful itinerary crafting.
  • Diverse Attractions: There’s much for every interest.
  • Future Visits: Include Hokkaido on your Japan journey list.

I've been living in Japan for over 10 years. I tell you about all the pros and cons of life through the eyes of a foreigner.

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