The Hokkaido Rundown
The most northerly tip of Japan is a world apart from Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima, Kyushu or, indeed, Okinawa. The prefecture island of Hokkaido parlays remarkable natural beauty and a capricious four seasons climate into a brisk tourism trade. Over 2 million people flock to the Sapporo Snow Festival in February alone. Sapporo, the Hokkaido capital and former Winter Olympics host has a magical, almost uncanny ability to make gold out of ice and snow.
The lone metropolis on the island is home to 2 million people and many fine landmarks of note. From the Sapporo Dome to the Sapporo Beer Museum, Odori Park to Susukino nightlife, Sapporo is a full and complete city. While urban Hokkaido, whether Sapporo or Asahikawa, Hakodate or Kushiro, deserves some of your time, the best of the island unfurls elsewhere.
Caldera lakes, volcanic plateaus and summits, spectacular waterfalls, verdant canyons, rugged coastlines, rare wildlife and UNESCO World Heritage scenery all accent the island on the doorstep of Russia. Take a ride to the other side of Seikan Tunnel and discover a nonpareil land of extremes.
Hokkaido’s Top 10
10. Sapporo Dome, by Japanese starchitect Hiroshi Hara, is one of the most indelible stadiums from the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
5. Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park, off the coast of northwest Hokkaido, covers the islands of Rishiri and Rebun, and puts visitors in close proximity to Sakhalin, Russia.
9. Sapporo Beer Museum chronicles the Hokkaido capital’s most famous export.
4. Daisetsuzan National Park encompasses the volcanic heart of Hokkaido island.
8. Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art displays a first class collection of contemporary sculptures, tableaux and multi-media installations by primarily Japanese artists.
3. Shikotsu-Toya National Park contains gorgeous lake and mountain scenery and some of the best onsen on the island.
7. Goryokaku Tower provides superlative panoramas over the city of Hakodate.
2. Akan National Park is famous for otherworldly moss balls, or marimo, but has phenomenal volcanic craters and caldera lakes too.
6. Hokkaido University Botanical Gardens is one of the best horticulture haunts in Japan.
1. Shiretoko, a singular peninsula in northeast Hokkaido, is a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Clock Tower – Has stood at Hokkaido since 1878, and rumours are it has never stopped.
- Foreigner's Cemetery – Where many sailors and other foreigners are interred.
- Goryokaku Fort Ruins – These ruins are a good way to get an idea of what the 1864 Western-style fort was like.
- Hokodate City Museum Annex – Check out weaponry and uniform relics at the church.
- The Russian Greek Orthodox Church – History lovers will want to check out the church restored in 1916.
Hokkaido Art & Culture
- Hokudai Shokubutsuen – This favourite Hokkaido museum offers a look at the Ainu people.
- Hokkaido Jingu – Marvel at the plant and animal life around this stunning temple.
- Hokkaido Museum of Literature – Learn everything you wanted to know about Japanese literature.
- Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art – It features modern works by local and foreign artists.
- Hokodate City Museum of Northern Peoples - Introduces travellers to the lesser-known people of the area.
- Nijo Fish Market – Seafood lovers will jump at the chance to get fresh fish.
- Asaichi – If you like seafood, you can also try this other favourite fish market.
- Tower Records – Music and movie enthusiasts, you are in luck. Have fun browsing.
- Hokkaido Brewery – The perfect place for a beer and souvenirs.
- Tanuki Koji Shopping Arcade – If it is snowing or raining, head inside and shop.
Gay & Lesbian Hokkaido
- April 4 – Celebrated specifically by gays in Hokkaido.
- SA Building in Sapporo – This is a hot, happening place for gay bars.
- Precious Hall – Have fun meeting someone in this mixed bar.
- Newhalf Showclub – Home to one of the wittiest, hottest drag shows in Japan.
- Bar Orb – The hottest nightclub available for lesbians with tasty drinks and a beautiful crowd.
- Hakodate-yama – This is a mountain in Hokkaido that offers a fabulous view of Sapporo and trails to explore.
- Hokkaido University – A beautiful campus for you to feast your eyes on with gorgeous scenery.
- Onuma Quasi-National Park – It has hiking, fishing and canoeing opportunities. Beware of the mosquitoes, though.
- Moiwa-yama Ropeway – Enjoy the views of Sapporo from this aerial lift line and grab a bite to eat.
- Rishiri Rebun Sarobetsu National Park – The park will dazzle you with its wildflower displays.
- Sapporo Winter Sports Museum – Hokkaido introduces travellers to winter sports, complete with hands-on sporting activities.
- Teine Highland – The hottest place for skiing, snowboarding and even showshoeing.
- Sapporo KOKUSAI Skiing Resort – Visit for more downhill thrills.
- Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters – Baseball games are hosted at the Sapporo Dome.
- Consadole Sapport Football Club – Experience a great game at Sapporo Atsubetsu Park Stadium.
Hokkaido is Japan’s second largest island and biggest prefecture. Almost 40% of Hokkaido’s population of 5.5 million people is contained in metropolitan Sapporo, the prefecture capital. Altogether, the island has eleven national parks and quasi-national parks.
Sapporo is a vibrant city and a world winter sports capital. The city of 2 million people has ten wards, with Chūō-ku, the de facto downtown, and Minami-ku, with parks and onsen resorts, two of the most popular.
Asahikawa is a city of 350,000 people and major culinary hub in Japan. Principal points of interest include Asahiyama Zoo, Asahikawa Museum of Sculpture in Honor of Teijiro Nakahara and
Hakodate, a city of less than 300,000 people, holds a famous port and squid festival every August and has landmarks like Hakodate Orthodox Church and Mount Hakodate.
Kushiro is a vital hub in eastern Hokkaido and gateway to many national parks.
Chitose is home to the main international airport on the island and a springboard to Lake Shikotsu, Mount Tarumae and Shikotsu-Toya National Park.
Hokkaido Eat & Drink
Connoisseurs of Japanese food culture will find much to love in Hokkaido. The island offers a bounty of fresh fish and seafood, a wide variety of vegetables, eminent staples like Genghis Khan mutton and traces of native Ainu cuisine.
Ramen Yokocho (Suskino, Sapporo) is one of the foremost pilgrimage points for ramen in Japan. The Sapporo laneway is chockablock with noodle purveyors.
Ryountei (8-20 Honchō Goryōkaku-kōe, Hakodate) serves the catch of the day in lovely tatami rooms.
Esta (N5W2-1 Chuo-ku, Sapporo) is a fabulous food court under Sapporo Station.
Mikuni Sapporo (N5W2 Stella Place 9F, Chuoku, Sapporo) Hokkaido born Celebrity chef Mr. Kiyomi Mikuni’s Fusion French – Hokkaido cuisine restaurant. Hokkaido’s freshly produced seafood and vegetables with Mr. Mikuni’s touch just taste heavenly. Panoramic views of Sapporo are also an advantage. Convenient location with direct access from Sapporo station.
Kushidori (N7W4-8-3, Sapporo) is a fine local yakitori chain.
Jingisukan Daruma Rokuyon (1 Field Noguchi Building, Sapporo) is a spectacular bbq emporium with unavoidable, long queues.
Hakodate Ramen Kamome (8-2 Wakamatsuchō Hakodate Station Area) is a popular noodle haven in Hakodate.
Gotoken Restaurant Yukikawatei (4-5 Suehirocho, Hakodate) is quite possibly the best restaurant in Hakodate.
Nishi Hatoba (Motomachi District, Hakodate) is a fashionable waterfront restaurant area in Hakodate.
Rokkatei Maruyamaten (27-174 Minaminijo Nishi Chuo-ku, Sapporo) is a sweet tooth fix and wonderful lunch spot in the Hokkaido capital.
Hokkaido has innumerable annual events to choose from and, needless to say, peerless leisure and recreation on tap, from exquisite national parks to winter resorts.
Toyota Big Air is a world-class event for snowboarders held at Makomanai Open Stadium in Sapporo.
Sapporo Dome, built for the 2002 FIFA World Cup, is home base for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters baseball team and Consadole Sapporo football club.
Sapporo Community Dome is a multi-purpose stadium that hosts flea markets, marathons and various athletic tournaments throughout the year.
Makomanai Indoor Stadium holds concerts and fairs and is the main ice hockey arena in Sapporo.
Sapporo Summer Festival, with lively beer gardens and markets throughout the city from late July to late August, proves that the capital of Hokkaido is much more than a winter destination.
Sapporo Snow Festival is, however, the number one tourist draw in Hokkaido and one of the most popular annual events in all of Japan. Attendance regularly tops 2 million.
Sapporo Satoland is a big amusement park in Higashi-ku with a rural theme.
Sapporo Concert Hall Kitara is home to the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra and hosts the Pacific Music Festival every year.
Yosakoi Soran Festival celebrates traditional dance in Sapporo’s Odori Park every June.
Hakodate Port Festival takes place in August and commemorates the city’s indelible links with and historic dependence on the sea.
When To Go
A penchant for inordinate snow accumulation is precisely what drives some to Hokkaido from November to March and, indeed, keeps others away. Ski resorts do swift business on the island - Sapporo was the first city in Asia to host a Winter Olympic Games after all - and, undeniably, the season helps propel Hokkaido’s untold allure.
Still, while onsen dips feel that much more restorative in January, some visitors may not want to face temperatures of 18°F (-8°C) and a total average snowfall that can eclipse 630 cm, or almost 21 feet. To put it another way, it snows almost every day in Sapporo between December and March. All well and good if you like to hit the slopes but less amenable if you came to explore Hokkaido by car.
With a humid continental climate, the island has four distinct seasons. Summertime highs range from 63°F (17°C) to 79°F (26°C) in July and August but the most comfortable months for outdoor tourism are usually June and September.
What To Miss
Rather than any overt urban perils, the principal hazards of Hokkaido have more to do with a severe winter climate and a relative remove and paucity of people. The national parks, alpine resorts and desolate, bucolic areas that lure so many to the island, while beautiful without question, can pose some basic dangers in inclement weather.
Hokkaido is rightfully famous for onsen and unfurls a thermal volcanic deluge on weary travellers in need of a recuperative soak. Some of the big ones, however, have become veritable tourist traps and seem much more like amusement parks than serene, curative baths. Sōunkyō, in Daisetsuzan National Park, is one such resort and welcomes close to 3 million visitors a year. If you like to people-watch, enjoy the spectacle. Otherwise, Hokkaido has plenty of small, humble onsen in store.
Similarly, some complain that in recent years, the wildly popular Sapporo Snow Festival has lost whimsy and credibility because of mass corporate sponsorship. While still a fun time, the festival is perhaps not as fanciful or impulsive as it once was.
While Sapporo is the chief node of Hokkaido, without doubt, a robust domestic air network makes it possible to fly from the likes of Tokyo-Haneda or Osaka-Kansai to a variety of towns on the island.
New Chitose Airport is the main airport in Hokkaido. The hub consistently ranks behind only Tokyo-Narita and Tokyo-Haneda in total traffic, which can amount to as many as 18 million passengers a year. Major international destinations on the New Chitose roster include Beijing-Capital, Busan, Hong Kong, Seoul-Incheon, Shanghai-Pudong and Taipei-Taoyuan. New Chitose Airport is less than one hour from Sapporo by car and a 36 minute rapid rail ride to Sapporo Station.
Other transport alternatives exist, of course, to arrive in Hokkaido. While the island is not yet on the shinkansen (bullet train) network, Japan Rail Pass visitors from Tokyo, Osaka et al. can always stop in Aomori, a city on the northern tip of Honshu, and switch over to the express train for the ride to Hokkaido through the 53.85 km Seikan Tunnel. A number of luxury sleepers, such as the Tokyo-Sapporo Hokutosei, Tokyo-Sapporo Cassiopeia and Osaka-Sapporo Twilight Express, offer more leisurely (and expensive) journeys from Honshu to Hokkaido.
The ferry is a more affordable choice and convenient for those who want to take a vehicle onto the island. Some boats can be quite comfortable, with saunas, gyms and private cabins. Ports of call include Hakodate, Otaru, Muroran and Tomakomai – all close enough to Sapporo to make the ferry a viable option.
Travel within Hokkaido is not always as urbane as on Honshu. The island is vast and the rail network, while perfectly fine for inter-city travel, is inadequate for access to national parks and more scenic, remote corners. Reliable coach bus service, however, emanates from Sapporo throughout the entire island. Car hire is the best option, bar none, for easy, rapid access to onsen resorts and national parks. Just be mindful when you get behind the wheel in the winter months, when Hokkaido roads can become acutely ominous.
Within the capital and de facto hub of Hokkaido, a decent public transport network comes in the form of the Sapporo Municipal Subway, Sapporo Streetcar and aerial lifts to Mount Teine and Mount Moiwa. Sapporo Okadam Airport offers regional flights within Hokkaido, above and beyond New Chitose Airport.
The northernmost prefecture in Japan, the island of Hokkaido is second in size in the archipelago nation and has a wonderful capital in the vibrant city of Sapporo. Where the prefecture of over 5.5 million people shines however, is in spectacular natural beauty on a grand scale. Far different from the human crush and bright lights of Tokyo, Hokkaido is a place of geographic and climatic extremes.
With coastlines on the Sea of Japan, Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean, and several active stratovolcanos, Hokkaido is home to vast swaths of awesome wilderness. The island can feel wonderfully remote at times and is actually closer to Russia, the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on Sakhalin Island for example, than Tokyo or Osaka. Visitors flock to Hokkaido to explore national parks like Shiretoko, Akan, Shikotsu-Toya, Daisetsuzan and Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu. The island has over a dozen other prefecture parks to choose from, some of which contain spectacular waterfalls, verdant canyons and volcanic plateaus.
Attractions & Activities
- Shiretoko National Park
- Akan National Park
- Shikotsu-Toya National Park
- Daisetsuzan National Park
- Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park
- Asahikawa Sake Tours
- Hot Springs
- Hokkaido Shrine Festival
Restaurant & Nightlife
- Yukijirushi Parlor
- Michel Bras Toya Japon
- Chico's Pub
- The Galway
With Sapporo as a yardstick, Hokkaido has a humid continental climate, with four distinct and extreme seasons.
- Winter (December to February) -10-2°C
- Spring (March to May) -5-17°C
- Summer (June to September) 12-26°C
- Fall (October to November) -5-8°C
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