Often teased as Japan’s ‘Adventure Island’, each activity outdoes the last on Hokkaido Island. Its capital Sapporo has no shortage of shopping sprees and foodie finds, as a city well-accustomed to its population doubling when the snow festival makes its warm welcome. If you step outside of the bright city lights, brace yourself for some of the most radiant landscapes you can find in all of Japan.
The Famous Flower Fields
Hokkaido’s short-lived flower season makes its mark. Its most famous attraction is without a doubt Farm Tomita: a never-ending array of vibrant meadows broken up with tasteful and traditional shops or cafes. All colours of the rainbow can be found here, but purple in particular as Farm Tomita just so happens to be the proud owner of Japan’s largest lavender field. Nothing can compare to the flowers’ fragrance in person, but the nearby perfume workshop comes pretty close.
Smaller in size but an equal in beauty is Shikisai No Oka, also known as the Panorama Road. Nestled in the small town of Biei, these rainbow fields are enchanting to the eye. A novelty experience is riding up and down the hills on a tractor or kart; but walking with a view like this is more than fine.
Whilst you are in Biei, make sure to check out the unbelievable Shirogane Blue Pond. This unusual attraction may be manmade, but the bright water is still surreal.
Sapporo Snow Festival & Skiing
As Japan’s favourite winter destination, Hokkaido hits different in the snow. The numbers agree, as each year the Sapporo Snow Festival attracts around 2 million visitors.
From entire buildings to anime darlings, the creativity found at Sapporo Snow Festival is unsurpassed. Whilst the biggest ice sculpture was made 50 years ago (25 meters high), the talent is overwhelming every time. Typically held in February, the Sapporo Snow Festival transforms the capital into a Kingdom of Ice.
Just as popular are Hokkaido’s ski slopes. Niseko is the golden child of Japanese ski resorts, and considering all the different activities available here, it is easy to see why. But if you are struggling to book a spot, then consider Furano: a quieter, cosier alternative.
Sapporo: The Heart of Hokkaido
As far as regional capitals go, Sapporo is pretty green. Its most popular attractions can typically be found outdoors in one of several parks. Maruyama Park takes the top spot, if not for the weeping cherry tree which attracts masses in Hanami season, then for the Hokkaido-Jingu Shrine. Protected by four guardian deities, secure your luck either by buying a charm or writing a wish on a wooden plaque.
Enter into the saccharine Shiroi Koibito Park for just 800 yen (€5); a world which could have been made by Willy Wonka himself. A self-described ‘Chocotopia’, you can make your own cookies and chocolate treats in the Dream Kitchen workshops: including local delicacy, the Shiroi Kobito biscuit. Maybe it is just all the sugar, but there is something delightful about this olde-worlde Tudor town.
But if you have always preferred savoury to sweet, then a bowl of hot noodles and broth may be more to your liking. The birthplace of Japanese staple Miso Ramen, this dish is a regional favourite especially during the winter months. The classic take is a simple miso broth packed with vegetables, but there have been plenty of spin-offs since.
Just one hour away from Sapporo, Lake Shikotsu makes for an exciting day trip and detour outside of the city. Its crystal clear waters intertwine with sloping mountains, including the volcano Mount Tarumae. Aside from hiking to see the lava dome, you can let off some steam at the nearby Onsen.
Hiring a canoe is one of the more standard lake activities, but did you know that Lake Shikotsu is a prime diving spot? Considered to have some of the best water quality in Japan, diving in Lake Shikotsu is often described as floating through the air.
But when the water freezes over, Lake Shikotsu has a different kind of appeal. During the winter months of January and February, the lake is transformed into an ice festival. In contrast to all the snow, the sculptures are illuminated with shades of rainbow.
Otaru: ‘Wall Street’ of the North
Step into yesterday with a trip to Otaru, Hokkaido’s unique port city and former trade centre. Framing the city is the wide river canal which draws people into the banks for a leisurely stroll. Or if you want to feel the magic up-close, then you can join one of the 40 minute cruises that depart from Chūō-bashi.
Aside from the simple joy of being near water, Otaru has enough activities to keep you entertained all weekend. Uncover the history of Hokkaidō’s indigenous Ainu community at the Otaru City Museum. Marvel at the well-preserved Former Aoyama Villa: one of several Herring Mansions built by wealthy fishermen back in their hay-day.
Set aside some cash for purchasing special souvenirs. From quirky and colourful glassware to craft-your-own music boxes, unleash your creativity at one of Otaru’s different workshops. Celebrate your work over a glass of whiskey at the Yoichi Distillery, or sample some sake at the Tanaka Brewery.
When to visit
There is not really a definitive best time to visit Hokkaido, and so planning a trip to this region comes down to personal preference more than anything.
Due to its northern location, the seasons work a little differently in Hokkaido compared to Mainland Japan. Summers are short and winters are long, with not a sign of spring until the middle of April. Hokkaido's Hanami season does not begin until a month later than the likes of Tokyo and Kyoto.
Here is a quick guide to the seasons in Hokkaido:
🌸Spring (Mid-April to June): Hokkaido's cherry blossom trees may be late bloomers, but they are still a sight for sore eyes. The weather begins to warm up around May, but even in spring there is a small chance of snow. We are not in Hokkaido’s high season just yet, so now is a great time for seeing attractions before the crowds start coming in.
Suggested Activities: cherry-blossom viewing, Plum Festival, boat rides in Otaru.
🌞Summer (June to August): Hokkaido’s sunshine season is one of the most popular times to visit for all the right reasons. Its rainbow flower fields have fully bloomed by this point, so get your cameras out and start snapping! Temperatures rarely go above 27°C here; making Hokkaidō ideal for those prefer mild summers.
Suggested Activities: flower fields, Lake Shikotsu, Obon Festival (August).
🍂Autumn (September to Early November): Summer was fun while it lasted, but there is so much beauty to be found in these later months. The autumn foliage transforms Hokkaido’s forests into stunning shades of copper, adding a special touch to hiking trails. And if you visit early enough in Autumn, you may even be able to seek a final peek of the flower fields.
Suggested Activities: hiking trails, museums & workshops, Sapporo Autumn Festival (a foodie’s dream come true).
❄️Winter (Mid-November to Early April): It is the most wonderful time of year and Hokkaido is no exception. The whole island is decked in snow as the world-class Sapporo Snow Festival dawns closer and closer. Words do not begin to describe the winning sculptures, which only seem to get more ambitious every year! Even outside of this 7-day extravaganza, Hokkaido is a true winter wonderland. Its skiing resorts in Furano and Niseko are revered amongst the country, so make sure to book your spot well in advance.
Suggested Activities: Sapporo Snow Festival, skiing, hot air balloon rides.