Most folks with even just a passing interest in exploring the ski fields abroad will have heard of Hokkaido. Japan’s untamed, rugged north, Hokkaido is an island that sits at the top of mainland Japan. It’s a land of incredible, untouched nature, with a cultural legacy that’s different from the rest of the nation – a vibrant city and massive dumps of snow.
To get you a little more familiar with the area, and get you inspired for your next snow holiday, here’s an overview of some of Hokkaido’s highlights, with a few ‘green’ (off-season) spots thrown in for good measure.
For first-timers in Hokkaido, it’s best to plan a little time in the region’s capital Sapporo to get your bearings and feel the pulse of Hokkaido’s city life. Home to the ubiquitous Sapporo beer, a world-renowned snow festival (Sapporo Yuki Matsuri), exceptional food and culture and plenty of ski options, it’s the perfect place to begin.
Sapporo city life: A crash course on all there is to enjoy
The first thing you’ll want to do when touching down in Sapporo is eat. Luckily, the city bursts at the seams with incredible cuisine that tantalises the tastebuds. The city’s central and tourist-friendly Nijo Market, is a fresh seafood market slinging fresh sashimi, juicy winter crab, and oysters. Grab a seat at a kaisendon (sushi bowl) joint and dive in.
If you prefer something a little warmer, then hunt down Sapporo Beer Garden. The locals up here love a good lamb BBQ (known as Genghis Khan), washed down with a few icy pints of Sapporo beer; join them! For something to warm your belly, two local soupy dishes are competing for real estate in your belly, Sapporo miso ramen and soup curry. The former is miso ramen, most often topped with a local Hokkaido butter and corn; the latter is a spicy Japanese soup flavoured curry that will warm you up like nothing else.
Go restaurant hunting in the neighbourhood of Susukino, in the heart of Sapporo city. Impossible to miss with its bright neon-lit signs and laneways dotted with tiny eateries, it’s also an excellent spot to hunt down a late-night parfait (shime-parfait), a strange local culinary quirk.
Beyond food, you’ll find Sapporo also has a big passion for arts and culture. If you have time up your sleeve, consider setting aside a day to explore the city’s more civilised side with a visit to Sapporo Art Park, the Isamu Noguchi designed Moerenuma Park, or the Tadao Ando crafted Hill of the Buddha shrine.
Let it snow: Six places that put the ‘wow’ in Ja-pow
Reader, you’re probably planning a visit to Hokkaido for one major purpose, to ski, so let’s get into it. The region has a diverse selection of ski resorts for all levels and interests, so it’s best to ‘choose your own adventure depending on what you’re looking for. If it’s convenience you’re after, Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort and Sapporo Teine both offer easy access from the city. Both are full-fledged ski resorts where you can enjoy soft powder snow, and on a clear day, the slopes boast a spectacular view of the ocean. Sapporo Teine was also the venue for the Sapporo Winter Olympics.
Niseko Annupuri is possibly the region’s most famous resort after Hirafu. It has a huge range of ski options for all levels. It is popular, so if you’re into vibrant after-hours life it’s great. There are four ski resorts in Niseko United area: Niseko HANAZONO Resort, Niseko Mountain Resort Grand Hirafu, Niseko Village Ski Resort and Niseko Annupuri International Ski Resort. Therefore, you’ll never run out of things to see and do. For more information visit the Niseko official homepage.
For something a little different, and a little more ‘out of the way’ Iwanai Resort around an hour away from Niseko has CAT Skiing (snowcat) tour packages, offering unparalleled access to incredible backcountry terrain. Just remember, it’s worth hiring a local guide to discover the best terrain safely.
About 60 kilometres north of Sapporo sits the large Kiroro Resort, a destination in international circles with excellent backcountry skiing options. With plenty of family-friendly attractions and early snowfall, you’ll find plenty of things to keep you busy.
Looking for a challenge? Then Asahidake is for you. Positioned right in the centre of Hokkaido, it’s a ski destination on a still-smoking volcano. It has only one lift but plenty of ungroomed, unpatrolled terrain, meaning that it is a backcountry haven. However this is a place for only the most experienced of skiers, so hiring a local guide is strongly recommended.
National parks: a guide to the region’s green scene
If you missed the snow season or just want to come back and see a different side of this naturally diverse island, an exploration of Hokkaido’s national parks is on the cards. Volcano moon-scapes, steaming onsens, sweeping fields of green, hiking, water sports, and endless opportunities for outdoor adventure await.
Rishiri Island and Rebun Island are two of Hokkaido’s most unique little green features. They’re remote islands sitting at the northern tip of the region. Part of Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park boasts stunning hiking trails lined with unique flora and scenic coastal fishing villages. Explore this region to discover a Japan you didn’t know existed.
Sitting on Hokkaido’s east coast, Shiretoko Peninsula protruding into the Sea of Okhotsk feels like an untouched corner of the Earth. The region is also home to the famous natural ‘drift ice’ (in Japanese: ryuhyo) natural phenomenon, which is well worth adding to your itinerary for an unforgettable trip. Once you visit you’ll understand why the area is also a World Natural Heritage Site, with plenty of pristine nature, and outdoor adventure opportunities like kayaking, walking and hiking.
Visit in summer to explore the almost surreal beauty of the Shiretoko Five Lakes (知床五湖, Shiretoko Goko). Crafted by the eruption of nearby Mount Io and fed by underground springs, the lakes and surrounding region are the embodiment of the fierce nature and humbling beauty of Japan’s untouched nature.
Getting to Hokkaido – surprisingly easy!
It is also well worth noting that while Hokkaido feels like the rugged, untamed north overflowing with pristine nature, in reality it’s easily accessible from mainland Japan and Europe.
Near Sapporo, New Chitose Airport is only nine hours from Europe with direct flights from Helsinki on Finnair. Meanwhile Asahikawa Airport only 90 minutes from Tokyo, even more reason to dust off that ski gear start packing. The Finnair flight is scheduled to resume in July 2022. Please check out the Finnair website for the latest information.