Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaidō, is best known globally as a ski and snowboard destination – thanks to its legendary powder snow.
Outdoor adventure is the main reason to visit this naturally stunning region; beyond winter sports, the green season brings opportunities for epic hikes, cycling and camping trips, or simply slowing down and appreciating the photogenic landscapes.
Travel in Hokkaidō is different than elsewhere in Japan: it’s more nature than people, and points of interest can be far apart. This makes it the best place in Japan for a road trip; otherwise, you’ll probably want to stick to one area – so as to not spend most of the trip in transit. Plan the perfect trip to Hokkaidō with this guide to things that all first-time visitors need to know.
When should I go to Hokkaidō?
The best time to visit depends on what you plan to do and where you plan to go. For skiing and snowboarding, January and February are considered peak season (though most resorts stay open well into spring). Sapporo Snow Festival – Hokkaidō’s most famous festival – is also held in February, and during these months you’ll need to plan ahead, booking accommodations as early as possible.
While winter is the most popular time of year for international travelers, summer is peak season for Japanese visitors. July, August and September are the months for hiking, camping and cycling in and around the island’s spectacular national parks. Hokkaidō summers are mild compared to the rest of the hot and humid country, and typhoons don’t usually reach this far north (though they can mess up your flights from elsewhere in Japan).
Note that autumn, and then winter, comes early to Hokkaido. Snow can fall as early as September in the mountains, signaling the end of green season: trails and seasonal lodgings close, as do many roads. By November, snow could be falling in Sapporo, which means it is also getting cold, and will stay cold until sometime in April. Higher elevations start to thaw around May, though mountain peaks may retain snow into early summer.
How long do you need in Hokkaidō?
Hokkaidō, being vast, rewards long stays. If you’re coming to ski or snowboard, the answer is probably as long as you can afford. With only a few days, you’ll want to stick to one resort; with a week, however, you could visit two resorts, for different experiences, or spend a couple of days exploring Hokkaidō’s capital city, Sapporo.
It’s hard to imagine coming to Hokkaidō for less than three days, unless you stick to Sapporo or Hakodate, at the southern reach of the island. With three or four days, you could visit some combination of Hakodate, Sapporo and Shikotsu-Tōya National Park, the easiest of Hokkaidō’s six national parks to reach. Alternatively, you could use one of the island’s regional airports to get out to one of the more remote parks, like rugged and wild Shiretoko National Park, and go off-grid for a few days.
With more like seven or eight days to work with, your itinerary could include several highlights; you could cover some distance, or explore one region in depth. With two weeks, you can really get to know the island, its fascinating topography and complicated history, and visit some truly off-the-beaten-track spots – like the islands that make up Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park in Hokkaidō’s far north.
Is it easy to get to and around Hokkaidō?
Hokkaidō is easy to reach thanks to New Chitose Airport, which has international connections to cities across Asia; frequent daily flights to Narita and Haneda airports in Tokyo and Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto); and other connections to regional airports around Japan. Direct trains connect the airport to Sapporo, the main transport hub for the island, in under 45 minutes.
It’s also possible to take the shinkansen – Japan’s iconic bullet train – from Tokyo to Hakodate; the journey, which travels through the oft-overlooked Tōhoku region, takes four hours. The shinkansen doesn’t go any further north than Hakodate (yet), but you can continue to Sapporo via limited express train, the next fastest train class. Sapporo itself is easy to get around; it’s compact and has subway and bus networks.
Limited express trains connect most of Hokkaidō’s major cities, and with a combination of these and local trains or buses it is possible to get to most places you’d want to go – including campgrounds, trailheads and snow resorts – entirely by public transportation. Rail passes, like the Japan Rail Pass and the Hokkaido Rail Pass, can make travel around the island more economical.
A car, of course, gives you more flexibility; rentals can be booked online to pick up at New Chitose Airport (with the right paperwork).
Top things to do in Hokkaidō
Niseko United is the resort that put Hokkaidō on the map as a ski and snowboard destination. It’s the biggest (actually four resorts in one); has the most amenities, including a cosmopolitan après scene; and consistently superlative powder. More recently, travelers have begun seeking out less well-known resorts, like Rurutsu and Furano, or back-country tours up peaks inside Daisetsuzan National Park. For the shortest of trips, you can’t beat Sapporo Teine, a popular local resort within 30 minutes of the city.
The peaks of Daisetsuzan, which means "playground of the gods" in the language of the Ainu, the Indigenous peoples of Hokkaidō, can also be explored on foot in summer. Along with Shiretoko, it’s among the best national parks for multi-day treks. Aforementioned Shikotsu-Tōya National Park is home to caldera lakes and hot spring resorts; the new National Ainu Museum is in nearby Shiraoi.
While for many the whole point of Hokkaidō is to get away from city life, it should be noted that Sapporo – Japan’s fifth largest city – is an excellent place to spend some time, with dining and shopping opportunities, as well as some interesting sights, like a park designed by sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Historic port city Hakodate has some unique charms, including a morning market to rival Tsukiji in Tokyo.
My favorite thing to do in Hokkaidō
This is going to sound extremely American of me, but my favorite thing to do in Hokkaidō is drive. Driving in Tokyo, and really almost anywhere else in Japan, stresses me out; Hokkaidō, with its wide roads through vast country landscapes, feels just about the only place in the country where I can attempt an American-style road trip – windows down, stereo up and all that. Many motorcyclists from around Japan come to Hokkaidō for this reason, too.
I’ve also been fortunate to eat really, really well in Hokkaidō – mostly thanks to my work on Lonely Planet’s From the Source, and the team that helped put that together. I still think about the meals (and the people!) from that research trip; I don’t want to single any place out, but Menya Saimi and Daruma Honten in Sapporo and Kikuya Shokudō in Hakodate – in the morning market, actually – are probably the easiest to seek out.
How much money do I need for Hokkaidō?
On one hand, Hokkaidō can be the ultimate Japan budget destination: in summer, there are campgrounds, including free ones. Some people really do cycle around parts of Hokkaidō, and travelers on two wheels (cyclists and motorcyclists) can stay in bargain crash pads called "rider houses," where a futon in a shared room usually costs no more than ¥1000. Washing, meanwhile, can be done in one of the island’s many public hot springs.
Peak snow season is another story: resort areas like Niseko have mostly upmarket lodgings, where rooms cost what they would at any other international resort. Cheaper options exist, but you have to look for them, and book months in advance. Lift tickets, however, are generally considered a good deal; a one-day all-mountain pass for Niseko United for the upcoming season costs ¥9500 – much cheaper than passes at resorts in North America, for example.
Otherwise, prices are fairly similar to elsewhere in the country.
- Capsule hotel: ¥8000
- Basic room for two: ¥25,000
- Self-catering chalet: ¥40,000
- Train fare to Sapporo from the airport: ¥1150
- Bus fare to Niseko from the airport: ¥3000
- Coffee: ¥500
- Ramen in town: ¥1000
- Ramen on the slopes: ¥1600
- Beer: ¥800
How do I stay safe while traveling in Hokkaidō?
Winters in Hokkaidō are no joke. In January and February, temperatures rarely reach above freezing, while cold winds from Siberia bring dumps of pillowy snow. This makes for excellent skiing and snowboarding but also treacherous roads and off-piste conditions; take caution and consider joining a tour or using a guide if you have ambitious plans. Even in peak summer, temperatures can drop in the mountains, so take care to pack appropriately.
You’ll also want to read up on bears. Though not frequent, higuma (brown bear) attacks do occur in Hokkaidō and hikers typically attach bells to their packs to ward them off. Information centers at the national parks are a good resource — be sure to stop in before setting out on a hike.
What shall I pack for Hokkaidō?
Major snow resorts all offer competitively priced gear rental packages, so you don’t have to have your own equipment to ski or snowboard in Hokkaidō. You can even rent a whole snow outfit, though there will be size restrictions. Some campgrounds offer gear rental, including tents, sleeping bags and camp stoves or grill sets, but this is more likely to require Japanese language skills to sort out. You can find shops selling outdoor equipment and clothing in Sapporo and Niseko. Montbell is a popular Japanese outdoor brand.