In October 2016, Hokkaido mesmerised me with its natural wonders, and the enchantment continued. Fast forward to the Adventure Travel World Summit 2022 in Lugano, Switzerland, where the big reveal unfolded – Hokkaido will host the Adventure Travel World Summit 2023. Now, in September 2023, I find myself back in Hokkaido, spending 25 days exploring deeper, adding iconic Japanese cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima to the mix. Each step promises both familiar wonders and undiscovered treasures.
As I share my travel tales in upcoming blog posts, let’s dive into the Japan Travel Series by uncovering the top 10 reasons why Hokkaido deserves a prime spot on every adventurer’s bucket list. Join me on this odyssey, where each landscape unfurls as a visual marvel, and every exploration is a story waiting to be shared.
Table of Contents
Top 10 reasons to visit Hokkaido in Japan
1. Sapporo’s Cultural Charms
Embark on a virtual journey to Hokkaido, where the captivating city of Sapporo serves as the perfect starting point to answer the question: Is Hokkaido worth visiting? This bustling capital seamlessly blends modernity with tradition, painting a vibrant tapestry for adventurers like you. As you navigate the pedestrian-friendly streets of Tanukikoji Shopping Street or Susukino, the local buzz, tempting street food aromas, and unique charm set the stage for an epic exploration.
Discover must-visit places in Sapporo, from the panoramic views of Mount Moiwa to the sweet allure of Shiroi Koibito Park’s chocolate factory, shop, and museum. Odori Park, at the city’s centre, offers a scenic escape, with the illuminated Sapporo TV Tower standing tall at its eastern end.
Delight in the world-famous Sapporo Beer at the Sapporo Beer Museum, providing a taste of Hokkaido’s history and craftsmanship. Indulge in Sapporo’s iconic miso ramen, a culinary masterpiece that originated in the city and is a must-try on your Hokkaido itinerary. Ramen Alley presents a variety of mouth-watering options, each bowl telling a unique tale of flavours, including vegetarian and allergy-friendly choices.
For sports enthusiasts, explore the legacy of the 1972 Winter Olympics at Okurayama Observatory and the Sapporo Winter Sports Museum, highlighting the city’s role in hosting iconic sporting events. The ATWS2023 launch party at this historic location became a memorable encounter with the original Ski Jump champion from 1972, adding a unique touch to the array of tourist attractions in Hokkaido.
2. Ainu Culture Immersion
Despite visiting Japan twice earlier, I had not heard about the indigenous people of the region – Ainu. It was quite a surreal and humbling experience to learn about them. Therefore I would highly recommend you to continue your Hokkaido journey with an immersion into Hokkaido’s rich Ainu culture. Begin your understanding at the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum, where insightful exhibits and hands-on experiences await. Engage in Ainu dancing, crafting the traditional mouth harp (mukkuri), and carving Ainu patterns onto wooden coasters, adding unique things to do in Hokkaido to your list.
If you have time and inclination, extend your exploration to the Ainu Kotan village in Lake Akan, a living testament to Ainu traditions. Here, approximately 120 residents in 36 residences breathe life into ancient customs. The air resonates with the rhythms of Ainu dance performances, providing a glimpse into the tales woven through generations. This cultural immersion has become one of the must-visit places in Hokkaido.
Another place worth visiting is the Hidaka area, a historical haven for the Ainu people. The revered Mt. Apoi stands as a sacred monument, steeped in Ainu legends that unveil their profound spiritual connection with nature, a unique thing to do in Hokkaido. Engage in a spectrum of Ainu cultural experiences, from participating in prayer ceremonies to the spirit-deities (kamuy) to barbecuing with the Ainu people, allowing you to absorb the vibrant traditions of this age-old culture, solidifying it as a must-visit place in Hokkaido.
3. Akan Mashu’s Serenity
Looking for things to do in Hokkaido beyond the city? Venture to Akan Mashu National Park for natural wonders. Akan Mashu National Park is an area of volcanic craters and forests, covering 90,481 hectares. The park is famous for its crystal clear lakes, its hot springs, and its unique large-sized marimo, a rare algae species that forms itself into beautiful green balls. It is the only place where marimo of appreciable size form naturally in Japan. A must-visit attraction that you would love to add to your Hokkaido tourist map. Just watching the sun go down on the banks of Lake Akan is such a feast for the senses.
The park is well known for its three beautiful lakes: Lake Akan, Lake Mashu and Lake Kussharo. Lake Mashu is of particular fame. One of the must-do activities here is hiking Mount Meakan, an active volcano in Akan Mashu National Park, offering some of the most spectacular volcanic landscapes in all of Japan.
4. Kushiro Wetlands Symphony
The Kushiro Wetlands National Park, Eastern Hokkaido’s vast marshland, stands as Japan’s largest, encompassing the Kushiro River and its tributaries. As you traverse the boardwalks, the pristine ecosystems come to life, showcasing Hokkaido’s commitment to preservation. Here, the red-crowned cranes, once on the brink of extinction, find a year-round sanctuary.
Learn about the remarkable work of Keisuke Saito and his team working for the Institute for Raptor Biomedicine Japan on conserving the Japanese endangered raptors (eagles/hawks) in Hokkaido. It was such a humbling experience to learn from Saito San how the institute has created innovative solutions to rescue and rehabilitate endangered raptors such as Blakiston’s Fish Owl (Ketupa blakistoni), Steller’s Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus) and White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) among others. It is one of its kind of institutes where doctors, vets and researchers from around the globe come to learn about the solutions that Keisuke Saito has created.
Frankly, I had not even heard about Kushiro before ATWS2023 but once I visited this under-the-radar destination, I felt it is 100% one of the must-visit places in Hokkaido.
5. Hiking in Hokkaido
Whether you’re a seasoned hiker seeking the challenge of Hokkaido’s highest peaks or a nature lover craving a tranquil escape from Sapporo’s bustle, the island offers a myriad of hiking options.
Delve into the volcanic wonders of Daisetsuzan, Mt. Tokachi, and Biei, each trail weaving through untouched wilderness, answering the query, “Best things to do in Hokkaido.”
Embark on a day hike to Mt. Meakan, where a smoking crater and hardy alpine flowers create a sensory feast, becoming one of the best things to do in Hokkaido in September and other times of the year. Traverse the rugged terrain of Mt. Shari, Mt. Rausu, Atosa-nupuri, Mt. Poroshiri, Mt. Tomuraushi, Mt. Rishiri, Mt. Yotei, and Mt Annupuri, each peak offering panoramic views that extend beyond the summit, making them must-visit places in Hokkaido.
For those seeking off-the-beaten-path adventures and looking to go beyond must-visit places in Hokkaido, the trails of Mt. Apoi UNESCO Global Geopark Park unveil rare geology and a unique ecosystem in a half-day hike. Every step becomes a testament to Hokkaido’s untamed spirit, inviting you to connect with the island’s natural beauty.
6. Coastal Charms in Hakodate and Otaru
Explore the maritime charm of coastal cities like Hakodate and Otaru, where history, architecture, and ocean flavours converge, adding more to your Hokkaido tourist map.
Built in the 1920s, Otaru Canal was once a hub of port trade and the warehouses that stand along the banks of the waterway were once used to load and unload cargo. Today it is one of the best places to visit in Hokkaido, and rightly so, how picturesque it is with its shimmering retro lights, old industrial architecture and views of distant mountains on the horizon. While the entire year is a great time to visit Otaru, if possible, plan your trip in February when the Otaru Canal hosts the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival, an eight-day event that sees the town being decorated with candles, lights and snow structures. The festival usually coincides with the Sapporo Snow Festival, which is also well worth visiting in winter.
Otaru Canal’s historic architecture becomes a picturesque backdrop, while Mount Hakodate offers panoramic views that capture the essence of Hokkaido’s diverse beauty. At 334 metres, the sensational lookout on Mount Hakodate is one of Japan’s most iconic and celebrated lookouts, it offers breathtaking views day and night. The summit is accessible via cable car, bus, taxi and car, and has observation platforms and a restaurant and café.
While I visited Hakodate for its views, it is quite a hit for its seafood as well. Indulge in ocean flavours at its bustling seafood markets, where the catch of the day ranges from squid to crab, contributing to the best things to do in Hokkaido.
Hakodate, a vibrant harbour gateway, stands as a fusion of Japanese and Western influences, offering a delightful blend of tasty seafood, relaxing onsens, and breathtaking night views. Being the oldest city in Hokkaido, it is 100% among the must-visit places in Hokkaido.
7. Year-round Festivals in Hokkaido
Immerse yourself in the vibrant tapestry of Hokkaido’s year-round festivals, where each season brings celebrations, from summer to winter and everything in between. Don’t miss the spectacle of the Sapporo Snow Festival in winter, where the city transforms into a winter wonderland adorned with dazzling ice sculptures, one of the best things to do in Hokkaido in winter. Explore other winter festivals like the Asahikawa Winter Festival and the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival, each offering a unique blend of tradition and spectacle, making them standout attractions in Hokkaido.
As seasons change, dive into the Sakura Night Illuminations at Goryokaku Park in April/May or the Higashimokoto Shibazakura Festival in June. Experience the rhythmic beats of the YOSAKOI Soran Festival in June and the traditional vibes of the Hokkaido-Jingu Shrine Traditional Festival in June. Summer brings the Toyohira River Fireworks Show and the Otaru Ushio Festival in July, while August boasts events like the Noboribetsu Jigoku Festival and the Hakodate Port Festival. September is the month of Sapporo Autumn Fest. The festivals paint a kaleidoscope of Hokkaido’s cultural richness, inviting you to celebrate each season in style.
8. Winter Sports in Hokkaido:
Japan stands tall among the world’s top destinations for skiing and snowboarding, and Hokkaido is at the heart of this winter sports paradise.
Hokkaido receives some of the world’s highest snowfall thanks to the cold winds from the Sea of Japan, creating ideal conditions for winter sports enthusiasts. From the renowned Niseko, the largest ski resort in Hokkaido, to smaller resorts nestled in hot-spring villages, Japan caters to all levels of expertise. Whether you’re a beginner, an expert, a family with young children, or a couple seeking adventure, Hokkaido’s ski resorts offer a perfect blend of culture, nature, and exceptional skiing and boarding opportunities, answering the query, “Best things to do in Hokkaido for young adults.”
Even if you’re not into skiing or snowboarding, Japan’s winter adventures extend to cultural experiences, outdoor activities, and superb cuisine. The snowy landscapes, outdoor hot springs, and seasonal food create a captivating winter atmosphere, making it one of the best things to do in Hokkaido in winter. Explore the powder snow and carve lines on the slopes of Niseko, Hakuba, the Japan Alps, and traditional hot spring towns, adding more to your Hokkaido tourist map.
Beyond skiing and snowboarding, discover other winter activities like icebreaker cruises and red-neck crane watching in Kushiro and Lake Akan, adding layers of adventure to Hokkaido’s winter wonderland.
9. Culinary Odyssey Across Hokkaido:
Embark on a gastronomic journey across Hokkaido, where every meal becomes a reflection of the island’s culinary excellence, another must-try thing in Hokkaido.
Start in Sapporo, where street-side delicacies at Nijo Market and hidden gems like Ramen Alley beckon. Dive into local favourites like Jingisukan (grilled lamb) and soup curry, each bite offering a taste of Hokkaido’s unique flavours. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, I highly recommend you to visit Veggy Way in Sapporo which places a real emphasis on eating for health.
Venture to Kushiro’s Nishikicho Wet Market, a sensory delight of fresh seafood and local produce. Immerse yourself in the vibrant atmosphere as you sample the region’s finest catches, exploring more attractions in Hokkaido.
In Biratori, experience the traditional flavours of Robata’s barbecue, where skilled chefs grill high-quality meats to perfection, creating a smoky and succulent feast, a unique culinary experience in Hokkaido.
Explore Nibutani’s Ainu culture through Yuk Ohaw, a hearty soup featuring venison, wild vegetables, and grains—a true embodiment of local Ainu cuisine and a must-try thing in Hokkaido. Indulge in Amaya’s Makunouchi-bento, a visually appealing Japanese boxed meal that harmonizes Hokkaido’s seasonal ingredients in a delightful ensemble, contributing to your culinary journey across Hokkaido.
At Urakawa Yushun Village AERU, savour the communal joy of Genghis Khan, a barbecued lamb and mutton dish that brings people together over a shared feast, showcasing Hokkaido’s diverse culinary offerings.
Navigate Hakodate’s seafood markets for a diverse array of fresh catches, from squid to crab, and savour local specialities like grilled scallops and kaisendon, adding more to your list of things to do in Hokkaido. Hakodate, known as the “city of gourmet food,” has become a haven for those seeking culinary delights surrounded by the ocean’s bounty, making it one of the best things to do in Hokkaido.
If you are a whisky or wine lover, you must go on a tasting adventure in Yoichi, sampling local libations at the Yoichi Distillery, sake breweries, and wineries, each sip infused with Hokkaido’s distinct terroir.
10. Hokkaido – A Hot Spring and Ryokan Paradise:
Did you know that Hokkaido, Japan’s northern gem, is a hot spring haven with 251 Onsen areas? These hot springs are nestled in breathtaking locales, from scenic coastlines to evergreen-speckled valleys, enhancing your Hokkaido itinerary.
Discover the variety of hot spring water types, each with its unique composition. Jozankei Onsen, Shikotuko Onsen, Toyako Onsen, Noboribetsu Onsen, Niseko Onsen, and Asarigawa Onsen are among the most famous, making them must-visit places in Hokkaido. Each onsen presents an abundance of hot water and a distinct spring quality, creating a therapeutic experience that adds to the unique things to do in Hokkaido.
Fun fact: it would take 251 days to explore them all! But what makes Hokkaido’s Onsen culture truly special?
Meet the unsung heroes of onsen culture – the Onsen Masters and Onsen Sommeliers. With just 5 Masters in all of Japan and an impressive 26,000 Sommeliers, they’re the experts guiding us through onsen etiquette and unlocking the full benefits of these natural wonders. During my visit to Oyunuma Onsen in Niseko, I had the opportunity to meet Tsutomu Sato, one of the five Onsen Masters in Japan.
He shared his onsen wisdom, teaching the art of relaxation and divulging the secrets of onsen manners, along with the science behind their therapeutic benefits. When queried about Japan’s profound onsen culture, he cited two reasons: Japan’s abundance of volcanic activity. Moreover, Japanese people boast a slightly lower average body temperature of around 36°C, in contrast to the global average of 37°C. This unique trait amplifies the harmony of soaking in Hokkaido’s geothermal onsens.
Take your hot spring adventure further by indulging in a stay at a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn that offers an authentic cultural experience. The journey begins on arrival, where you trade your shoes and clothes for slippers and a comfortable Yukata robe. Relax in a tatami mat room, savour green tea, soak in the onsen’s soothing waters, and enjoy seasonal kaiseki cuisine, making it one of the best things to do in Hokkaido.
In conclusion, the exploration of Hokkaido transcends the ordinary. From dynamic city life to tranquil natural reserves, Hokkaido beckons every adventurer to unlock its treasures and go beyond the must-visit places. Is Hokkaido worth visiting? Absolutely, and this comprehensive guide is your key to an immersive journey filled with contrasts and discoveries, echoing the spirit of adventure. Stay tuned for more articles that capture the essence of Hokkaido’s beauty and excitement.
Further Reading about Japan
I was invited by ATTA & Visit Hokkaido for ATWS 20023. However, the views and pictures shared above were personally experienced by me in my last two visits to Hokkaido. Please do not copy anything without any written permission.