The trip to Hokkaido was an enriching trip for me. Little did I know that the island has so much to offer! Hokkaido offers spectacular views of nature (even during winter), great food and plenty of experiences during winter. The countryside is a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo — it’s a good place to go to relax and appreciate the slow life of Japan.
Here’s briefly the things you might find useful before heading to Hokkaido.
(Of course, this is limited to what I’ve experienced during my trip.)
Hokkaido is an island located on the northernmost side of the country. It’s one of Japan’s four island and it’s also the least developed. Because of this, Hokkaido has a rich natural environment and gives its visitors a great view of its forests and wetlands, fields of flowers and landscapes of snow and ice. I had no idea that Hokkaido had such scenic views when I arrived. The view was jaw-dropping — when traveling at the countryside, for a moment I thought that I was in Europe!
Compared to other parts of Japan, Hokkaido is relatively less packed and busy during winter, even when it comes to its capital city, Sapporo. Didn’t see a lot of people at any of the cities I visited (at least not by the standards I’m used to when I’m in Japan). I’m assuming it’s because Hokkaido is a big chunk of land relative to its population — only 5.5 million people spread across a vast area. That said, the island is known for its “slow life”, where people know how to enjoy life better and are more cheerful, relative to the fast-paced and stressful life in Tokyo. Perfect place to chill and unwind.
As for the cost of day-to-day expenses, I didn’t think it was any different from the prices in Tokyo. Traveling here during winter is relatively more affordable, — it’s when hotel rates go down.
Expect to spend more on food because 1) the seafood selection and quality is amazing — the crabs are a big thing and they’re relatively cheaper here; and 2) wholesome produce like fruits and vegetable are part of Hokkaido’s strong points — Hokkaido’s not one of Japan’s major player in the agriculture sector for nothin’!
Experience winter in Hokkaido from the month of December to February (the coldest being somewhere in January).
Moreover, Hokkaido offers a wide range of accommodation for every type of traveller. Check out this seasonal guide by HotelsCombined that lists the top hotels, as well as activities, for every season.
Packing for Hokkaido
The temperature varies across the island. The further north you go, the colder it gets, the thicker the snow.
From my experience, the weather was tolerable even at -5°c, probably because it wasn’t so windy.
Still, make sure you pack innerwear and knits appropriate for winter, including a winter jacket, preferably with a water-resistant shell (because you know… you might feel like jumping into the thick snow when you see it). Also pack wool scarf, gloves and a hat enough to keep you warm and good winter boots that could help you walk on icy and slippery roads.
Bring a lip balm, face and hand cream and tissues, too.
New Chitose Airports is Hokkaido’s main gateway and it serves domestic and international flights.
To get there, you can take direct flights to New Chitose Airport via AirAsia.
You can also opt to land at either Narita Airport or Haneda Airport in Tokyo and take a connecting flight via Jetstar (or other domestic airlines) to Hokkaido. The flight will take roughly 1 hour.
When you reach the airport, spare some time to check out the airport! The New Chitose Airport is a massive airport which has several terminals and a massive mall, where you can have lunch at one of its many Japanese restaurant, buy fresh seafood and Hokkaido produce at its market, watch a movie at the cinema, watch how Hokkaido Royce chocolates are made (there’s a glass factory there!) and meet a life-size figure of Hatsune Miku.
Traveling in Hokkaido
Visiting Hokkaido usually means exploring the different cities within the island.
Ride buses and trains
To do this, you can ride buses or trains (what I did throughout my trip). On the plus side, Hokkaido has a specific JR pass for travelers and the rides promises an incredibly scenic view — imagine mountains covered in snow and super blue sea! However, the places you’re traveling to aren’t as interconnected as it is in Tokyo — plenty of line-changing might be required, hence traveling and carrying luggages (especially when you have kids) may be a little challenging.
Set aside ¥22,000 (RM660) for a 7-day pass.
Learn more about the Hokkaido JR Rail Pass.
While you’re traveling with trains in Hokkaido, you can store your belongings in the lockers located at the train stations before exploring the city so you can travel more easily.
Rent a car
Or you can rent a car to take you around. It’s the most convenient choice, actually. Driving on your own offers flexibility — you just need to know where to go and the navigator (every car has one) will take you there. Because of the snow and possibly slippery roads though, you’ll have to drive slowly and be more careful on the road.
Set aside ¥6,500 (RM195) at a minimum for a 5-seater car per day.
Learn more about JR Car Rentals in Hokkaido.
Cities in Hokkaido
Hakodate is Japan’s earliest port city, opened for international trade after being isolated from the rest of the world in the Edo era, located at the southern tip of Hokkaido. That said, there are a lot of western influences seen in the city — from the bay and residential areas, administration buildings, the city’s own fort and its streets and slopes, giving the city a romantic air. Because it’s a port city even today, the city gets supplies of fresh seafood daily and is known for its variety of seafood. Hakodate is also known for its stunning city view from Mt. Hakodate, deservingly rated a 3-star Michelin.
- Old Public Hall
- Orthodox churches
- Skyline view from Mt. Hakodate
- View of the city from Goryokaku Tower
- Shop at the morning market
- Fresh seafood dishes at the markets
Stay at Hakodate International Hotel for a great view of the bay area and amazing breakfast buffet.
Furano is located somewhere in the middle of Hokkaido, famed for its organic produce and lavender fields. Furano also has notable ski resorts, favored for being relatively less busy compared to the more popular Niseko, but no less awesome. Because people all over the world come (in fact, some migrated) to Furano, it has plenty of restaurants serving cuisines of different parts of the world.
- Shopping at the Ningle Terrace
- Exploring Furano Kan Kan Village
- Furano omelette curry
- Fresh milk (I mean really, out of this world fresh milk) and cheese at The Cheese Factory
Stay at Hotel Natulux Furano for its strategic location and modern industrial design room. This hotel also offers its muslim visitors prayer dresses, praying mats (with qibla compass) and the Quran.
Rusutsu is another known resort city in the mountains which offers plenty of activities in winter. Snow mobile, banana board, dog sled, building a snow hut — you name it, they have it.
- Everything else I mentioned just now
Noboribetsu is a high area so famed for its hot spring water, located 30 minutes away from the New Chitose Airport. It’s called the hot springs theme park for a reason: the ground beneath me was supplying 10,000 tons of 9 different kinds of hot spring water a day to the resorts nearby! Locals in the ancient times acknowledged that the muddy river flowing with hot water here is good for their health. Centuries later, it was turned into the healing center of Japanese soldiers. Lots of ryokans started popping up and soon after a train station was built, Noboribetsu became a popular destination for those seeking to experience its hot spring water.
- Jigokudani Hell Valley
- Footbath in hot spring water
- Experience onsen at one of the resorts
Stay at Park Hotel Miyabitei for its strategic location, variety of onsen and generous buffet spread of breakfast and dinner.
Parks in Hokkaido
Here’s a famous quasi-national park located less than 30-minutes away from Hakodate. It’s known for providing a picturesque views and the massive, distinguished dormant volcanic mountain, Mount Komagatake. During winter, the park offers a lot of winter activities for people of all ages.
- Fishing on a frozen lake
- Riding a snowmobile on top of a frozen lake
The highlight of this national park is the massive Lake Toya, Japan’s 3rd largest calderak lake, formed by a volcano eruption some 110,000 years ago. On the way up to the observatory, the journey is long, but you won’t even think about taking a nap in the car because the view is too spectacular! On a high hill, you’ll see beautiful mountains covered in snow on one side and Lake Toya, on the other. It’s worth going just for the scenery and within seconds you’ll be wishing your home had this view.
Things you can do at the observatory
- Learning how to make soba
- Shopping for produce
That’s roughly the things you can see and do in Hokkaido during winter. I’ll be writing about the specific places I’ve visited in Hokkaido soon. Leave a comment if you have any questions or need further details and I’ll provide more to the best of my ability.
Think this guide to Hokkaido is useful? Please share it!