Reasons to Travel to Hokkaido
Few people outside Asia undertake the journey to reach Japan’s northernmost territory and natural heaven, Hokkaido. The island is the second largest in Japan, but the least inhabited, which makes it a soothing respite from the crowded urban zones of Tokyo and Osaka. Whether you’re looking for sunshine and summer vibes or a winter wonderland, Hokkaido shines in every season and is home to some of the most charming towns in Japan. Here are the essential reasons to make the voyage.
Winter’s Celestial City
People from all over Asia come to Hokkaido in winter to see the famous powdery snow, known as ja-pow. The heavens cover the landscape in a mystical, white glow starting in November. Snow festivals kick off later in the season to celebrate, including the Sapporo Snow Festival, specializing in snow carvings, the Otaru Light Path Festival, where snow lanterns light the quaint canals and Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan, where the entire event takes place on a frozen lake with an outdoor onsen. If you decide to join in the festivities make sure you pack warmly, because temperatures dip below freezing in December and January.
Shredding the Pow Pow
Hokkaido is an incomparable snowboarding and skiing destination with over two hundred ski resorts. The season runs from December to April with the town of Niseko being the most acclaimed place to hit the slopes. But there are also other world-class ski areas to explore such as Rusutsu and Furano or if you want to do something more extreme, make your way to Mount Yotei for some adventure skiing. As global warming increases and snowfall lessens around the world, more people are making the pilgrimage here in search of some of the world’s best snow. And the island is primed to continue to yield mountains of white because of the atmosphere created by the Sea of Japan and the winds of Siberia.
Spending time in an onsen is a part of daily life in Japanese culture and a fundamental element of any trip through Nihon. Nowhere are these springs as abundant and healing as in Hokkaido. A must visit is the town of Noboribetsu and Hell Valley, where eleven kinds of thermal waters bubble up from the earth. Other popular onsen sites are Jozankei, near Sapporo, and Yunokawa Hot Springs in Hakodate. Check-in, slip into your robe and prepare for all of your worries and aches to melt away as hours roll by. Be aware in Japan there is still a stigma around tattoos, especially in the onsens. If the desk agents see tattoos, they may not let you enter the bathhouse, so cover up until you are inside or buy a bandage to cover up smaller tattoos.
In Full Bloom
Although known for its wintry glamour, Hokkaido in the summertime is another kind of magic. As the rest of Asia suffers under typhoons and high humidity Hokkaido lounges in mild weather from June to August. It is the ideal place to escape the peak of summer as Mother Nature unfurls flowers in every color of the rainbow. Japanese in the know drive across the prefecture with the windows down, breathing the pristine air and scoping out their ideal insta worthy flower viewing spots. Some of the most scenic places are the Furano lavender fields, the sunflowers in Hokuryu, and the flower hills of Biei.
The Great Outdoors
No one travels to Hokkaido without being awed by its natural splendor. Its six national parks and five quasi-national parks are full of lakes, active volcanoes, virgin forests, and soaring mountains. Whether by car, cycle or on foot there is much to see; from Shikotsu-Toya National Park with its hot springs and active volcano, Mt. Usu, to the three crystalline lakes of Akan National Park and onwards to Shiretoko National Park, a World Heritage site with thermal waterfalls. With the plethora of parks there are plenty of places to camp out and become one with nature, but keep an eye out for the local brown bears as you stargaze.
Hokkaido, with so much eye-popping nature, is meant for the open road. Do yourself a favor and rent a car to explore its parks and sleepy towns on your own schedule. You’ll be rewarded with miles of fresh air, stunning mountain vistas and if you’re lucky the occasional Ezo fox or Sika deer sighting. Make sure you pack your international license and secure your rental car well ahead of the summer season as many domestic travelers take to the roads these months.
Pure Sky Pure Taste
Hokkaido is legendary for delicious food grown on its virgin landscape and harvested in unspoiled seas. The island produces over half of the milk in Japan and is most famed for its creamy, high-quality dairy, especially the cheese, yogurt, and ice cream. The first thing to do when you arrive is to find a shop carrying the locally baked cheese tarts or the renowned soft-serve ice cream and dig in. Besides the stunningly fresh seafood, you can also find the vivid Yubari King melon, a cantaloupe cross that melts like candy in your mouth.
Peace Out in the Land of The Rising Sun
Whether you start in Sapporo and head west toward Hakodate or meander the eastern edges towards Shiretoko, Hokkaido is a destination where you can slow down and contemplate a more traditional side of Nihon. Make the effort to reach this northern Japanese realm in the coming seasons for a chance to hike, ski and soak your way into the heart of north Japan.