15 Things to Do in Hokkaido
Located in the northern part of Japan, the island of Hokkaido is the place where all the Japanese go, come the dreaded heat of summer. In fact, Hokkaido's summer temperatures stay several degrees cooler than in the central and southern Japan, giving people some relief from the stuffy, wet season. When autumn comes, there is plenty of beautiful foliage to gaze around and lots of delicious and prized produce. In winter, Hokkaido turns into a world renown ski mecca. Below is a list of things to do in this beautiful place.
1. Try Seafood in Otaru
The town of Otaru is only less than one hour by train from Sapporo, and sits on the seaside. Its seafood dishes are well known across Japan, especially scallops, oysters, sea urchins, fish row, and of course sushi. The city has a decently sized fish and seafood market. Walking through the selling stands and shops is one way to get to know different types of fish and maybe help to pick your next favorite food. It is worth mentioning that Otaru is a beautiful fishing and trade town, with a lot of traditions. One of the most famous events is in winter, when the canal in the city is illuminated by a long line of lanterns. Definitely a must see.
2. See the Sapporo Snow Festival
In the coldest time of the year, early February, Sapporo prepares to welcome visitors from all over Japan and east Asia. During the one-week snow festival, snow sculptors gather along Odori Park, the narrow and long park that runs through Sapporo, where they carve huge mountains of compacted snow into amazing creations. A clever illumination system is also put in place such that the sculptures seem to come to life at night. The sculptures are different each year, as the creators take inspiration by current events, or movies, or such.
3. Party at the Sapporo Beer Festival
Summer time means beer time. While beer festivals and Oktoberfest style beer gardens pop out every where in Japan during summer, the Sapporo beer festival is probably the biggest, with a capacity of 13,000 seats. The same Odori Park is used for the festival, where all the food and drink stalls gather for the occasion. Also, dance events take place as well, such as the famous Bon-Odori dance.
4. Run through the Lavender Fields of Furano
Lavender blooms in summer, and its distinctive violet color can be seen from very long distances away. The area of Furano, in the center of Hokkaido, is famous for having many lavender farms that extend for acres, attracting people who wish to experience the sight of a sea of purple flowers. During the summer there is a possibility to use public transportation such as trains to reach the vicinity of the fields and tour through the farms premises, but since those places are usually in hilly areas, the best way to get there is to rent your own transport.
5. See a Sea of Clouds at Unkai Terrace
In central Hokkaido it is possible to watch a "sea of clouds" (unkai in Japanese). This sea of clouds is a climatic phenomenon and entirely depends on the weather conditions; in facts it can be observed only during the warmer months, when the hot and warm air currents meet in the valley, and as a result, thick clouds cover everything so that one has the impression of floating in the air. The best time of the day is before sunrise, so plan ahead if you want to check it out. There is a platform with a cafe, where visitors can sit and chill while waiting for the clouds to form.
6. Visit a Whiskey Distillery
They say the best alcohol is made in cold areas. This is especially true for the many famous whiskey distilleries in Japan, located in areas where winters are very cold and snowy, but the water (important for the production) is pure and clear. The Yoichi Nikka Whiskey distillery is about one hour west of Sapporo, very close to Otaru town, surrounded by mountains on three sides and the sea on one side, and offers free tours of its facilities to visitors, with the possibility of tasting some of their spirits.
7. Check Out the Star-shaped Fort Goryokaku in Hakodate City
During the Edo period, Goryokaku was a fort, first built to defend against foreign military, then also a theatre of a civil war between shogunate and rebels. After the end of shogunates and feudalism, the fort was converted to a public park. Its shape is a perfect star makes the place very unique, and the water trench all around it contributes to its peaceful, garden-like feel. Obviously, the shape won't be easy to see from within this park, but fortunately, not too far away there is a tower, called Goryokaku Tower, from where the view is more revealing and satisfactory.
8. Gaze at the Night View of Hakodate Bay
While in Hakodate, there is also the possibility to go up to Mount Hakodate, which is really a hill and is only about 350 meters high. But the panoramic view from the observatory is definitely something worth checking. It is possible in fact to see the thin peninsula representing the southern tip of Hokkaido Island, together with both the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean, not to mention the possibility to see as far as the Tohoku region, in the main Honshu island. Either by bus or by ropeway, there is no shortage of transport to reach the observatory, but make sure to be there before sunset, as it is said to be the best time of all.
9. Ski or Snowboard
When winter comes, Hokkaido is a destination to keep in the list. It's geographical position ensures several meters of snowfall each season. There are a lot of ski resorts, and due to increasing popularity among foreigners, English speaking staff are everywhere at these ski resorts and villages. Head to Furano, Asahikawa, Niseko or Rusutsu for some serious winter sports.
10. Try Grilled Mutton (Jinjisukan)
The name of this dish is "Genghis Khan", but really it is mutton meat grilled on charcoals. So, it is basically yakinuku (grilled meat in Japanese), but it has this peculiar name in Hokkaido as it was believed that this was the meat eaten by the Mongol populations, whose leader was the infamous Genghis Khan (the Mongols actually didn't invade Japan). Curiously enough, this style of cooking, and the use of mutton meat, is a specialty of Hokkaido only. Foodies going to Hokkaido, make sure to try this dish.
11. Drive Around the Scenic Roads
A good way to visit Hokkaido is to rent a car and drive. Roads in Hokkaido can be driven safely and stress-free. Also, because there aren't so many cars around, roads are relatively empty and wind through mountains and forests, or along the coast. There are several scenic drives, such as Higashi Okhotsk, Soya, Taisetsu-Furano, Kushiro-Mashu and Hakodate-Funkawan. Each is different, so pack as many as you can in your car trips.
12. Reach the Northernmost Tip of Japan
Cape Soya is at the northern tip of Japan, and can be reached basically any time of the year, although it is more difficult in winter due to the freezing of the water and potentially the roads and ground. There can be also strong and very cold wind, not necessarily only in winter, so make sure to pack some clothes specifically for the current weather situation. On a fine day, the Russian island of Sakhalin can also be seen. Near the lighthouse sitting on one of the cliffs, there is a stone pyramid as a monument, that became the symbol of Cape Soya.
13. Cycle Around the Green Landscape in Summer
While driving can be enjoyed year-round, cycling is a different story. The summer months, basically between May and October, are best for hopping on your favorite two-wheeler and riding through the varied nature of Hokkaido. It is also great to camp while on a cycling trip, as this will put you in direct contact with nature. There is the possibility to choose among loop tours, like the Shiretoko area loop, cut through Hokkaido's north-south area passing mountains and valleys, stick to the coastal roads to enjoy the view of the seaside from sunrise to sunset. There is plenty of online detailed information on cycling routes like this one, distances and accommodation, tips, gear and such, so it really is a matter of doing some research and then hitting the road.
14. See the Blue Pond in Furano
The Blue Pond (Aoi-ike) in the Furano area is somewhat special. The minerals in the water of this pond are such that make the water–always crystal clear year-round–look of a beautiful shade of blue. Depending on the weather conditions and the sunlight, the colors vary across the blue spectrum. In winter the pond water is frozen, but still maintains its sharp blue color in contrast to the snowy landscape around. The pond is not located too far away from the lavender fields, and buses run regularly, although just a few per day.
15. Try the King Crab
If there is one food that represents Hokkaido, king crab is that food. Those gigantic crustaceans only live at best in cold waters, so Hokkaido seas are an ideal habitat for them. They can grow to impressive sizes, and at lest once in a lifetime one should eat king crab, or so the people of Hokkaido say. There are plenty of restaurants where you can find crab dishes, or alternatively fish markets will surely offer more than what money can buy. Crab is also a well known souvenir, so in case you didn't have time to try some, the airport shops will ensure you won't leave Hokkaido without it.