Formerly called Yeso, the island of Hokkaido is Japan’s second-largest island behind Honshu but ahead of Kyushu and Shikoku. It’s home to some beautiful nature, culture, gastronomy, and heritage dating back to prehistory.
While it doesn’t feature famous cities like Tokyo, Nagasaki, or Matsuyama, the island of Hokkaido is still a great destination for tourists thanks to its ski resorts, hot springs, hiking trails, and Buddhist temples. It’s also home to the Ainu people who were the first inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago.
In this article, we’re going to look at the best things to visit on a trip to Hokkaido so you don’t miss anything. Just follow our guide!
Hokkaido’s Capital City: Sapporo
Hokkaido’s capital Sapporo is nicknamed the star of the north. This could be due to the snow, the architecture, the beer, or the culture of the northern island of Hokkaido.
Sapporo was a colonial city founded in 1866 by the Japanese who were trying to “civilise” the island to the detriment of the local Ainu people who’d been there for thousands of years.
Nowadays, Sapporo is home to 2 million people and has changed a lot even though it still features the scars of colonisation. It’s one of Hokkaido’s and Japan’s main tourist destinations due to its many attractions:
- Sapporo TV Tower
- Sapporo Beer Museum
- Historical Village of Hokkaido
- Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art
- The Hokkaido Jingu Shrine
- Maruyama Park
- Botanic Garden Hokkaido University
- Sapporo Odori Park
- Sapporo Fushimi Inari Shrine
- Sapporo Dome
- Maruyama Zoo
You can also relax in one of the city’s onsens (hot springs). Onsen Hoheikyo is one of Sapporo’s most famous. If you’re old enough, we also recommend visiting the Sapporo beer museum and trying it.
In terms of food, Sapporo doesn’t need to worry about Shibuya, Nagoya, or Okinawa. The city is famous for its white chocolate (try some Shiroi Koibito biscuits), horsehair crab (Kegani), miso ramen, and dairy products.
You should know that the cost of accommodation in Sapporo is quite reasonable. You can party in the Susukino district or visit monuments in the Chuo district. In any case, you’ll get to see a lot of Hokkaido’s essential sights.
Skiing at Niseko
If Hokkaido is famous for one thing, it’s winter sports. It’s one of the most popular winter sports destinations and Niseko is home to 4 ski resorts: Annapuri, Hirafu, Hanazono, and Niseko Village.
Skiers all over the world have come to have a go at Niseko. You can rent ski or snowboarding equipment and hit the slopes. Cross-country skiing and hors-piste skiing is also available.
If you’re travelling to Hokkaido, it’s highly recommended that you have a go at skiing and take skiing lessons if you’ve never done it before. You should also know that Niseko is quite famous and can get very busy.
That said, it’s usually quieter than some of Europe’s most popular ski resorts so if you love the mountain air and skiing, you’ll want to spend your winter holidays in Niseko.
Shiretoko National Park
This national park is considered to be one of the best-kept parts of Japan and one of the most breathtaking areas of natural beauty. If you want to visit Japan and Hokkaido, in particular, you’ll want to make time to hike around here.
The Shiretoko peninsula is a UNESCO World Heritage site. This protected park is a great destination for those who love the mountains and forests and are maybe done with skiing for the time being.
You can find flora and fauna that you wouldn’t find anywhere else in Japan. This is a peaceful place so make sure that you don’t bother the local wildlife.
Deer, foxes, and eagles can all be seen in the park.
To get there, you’ll have to pass via Rausu or Utoro and it’s recommended that you travel by car as the bus network is quite limited.
Bathe in the Noboribetsu Onsen
You probably wouldn’t think that anything is relaxing in “Hell Valley”, but you’d be wrong! Noboribestu at the foot of the Hiyori volcano in the southwest of Hokkaido is home to thermal springs. Locally, hot springs are known as onsen and in Japan, they’re particularly good.
Even in winter when it’s snowing and everyone’s skiing, you can still go to the hot springs. The onsens in the town are surrounded by Japanese Oni demon sculptures, just to remind you that you’re still in hell...
Jigokudani, or Hell Valley, is an area that has been shaped by volcanic activity over the centuries. Mount Hiyoriyama is responsible for the volcanic steam plumes that surround the trails.
You can also follow the Oyunuma River trail (recommended in autumn) and dip your feet in the warm water, even when it’s cold or snowing!
Noboribetsu’s main attraction is still the onsens, though, which are worth stopping at if you’re in Hokkaido. We recommend going in winter as it’s not as busy. The Ainu Museum that was criticised for mistreating animals closed recently and has been replaced by the National Ainu Museum.
Visit the Coastal Town of Abashiri in Hokkaido
A town famous for its prison?
There’s more to it than that. Abashiri is a coastal town in the northeast of Hokkaido and it’s most famous for being home to the first maximum-security prison in Japan. Nowadays, the town is famous for the floating ice in the bay that people from all over Japan come to see.
Originally a fishing town, Abashiri was a place where people could watch the ice floating on the water and the whales swimming by. In addition to that, you can:
- Board the Aurora icebreaker ship.
- Visit the Okhotsk Ryu-Hyo Science Museum.
- Visit the observatory.
- Enjoy the views from the Mount Tento observation deck.
- Learn more about the prison, which is now a museum.
- Take a tour of the Moyoro Kaizuka-kan Museum
- Watch the sunset over Lake Saroma.
We also recommend that you spend a full day here to make sure you visit everything.
The Toya-Usu UNESCO Global Geopark
Lake Toya was formed by a volcanic eruption around 110,000 years ago and Mount Usu was formed in much the same way between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago. These two geographical features make up the Geopark.
You can walk around the volcanoes and visit the islands on the lake. You can also relax in one of the onsens (hot springs).
There are several festivals organised throughout the year, too. We recommend that you go to the geopark during your time in Hokkaido as it’s just an hour from Niseko where you can go skiing.
The Port Town of Hakodate
Hakodate is Hokkaido’s third-largest city in terms of size and, for a long time, it was the entryway onto the island. Mount Hakodate overlooks the city and offers incredible views of the countryside and the city itself.
In Hakodate, you should visit the star-shaped Goryokaku Fort, which has been converted into a park and national monument where the Japanese come to partake in hanami (flower viewing). There are also various churches and religious buildings to visit.
If you visit Hakodate, don’t hesitate to head to the market to try some of the local dishes. Speaking of local dishes, we recommend the Hakodate shio ramen, which is great for warming you up in winter.
Mount Yotei: Fuji’s Little Brother
Not far from Lake Toya, you might be able to see a mountain that looks an awful lot like Mount Fuji. This is Mount Yotei, the highest peak in the south of the island. With a height of 1898m, Mount Yotei is one of the 100 most famous mountains in Japan, which, for a particularly mountainous country, is a tough list to get into.
Mount Yotei has the nickname Ezo Fuji, with Ezo being the old name for Hokkaido.
You can hike up Mount Yotei and discover some spectacular views and see some of the wildlife local to the region. There are 4 different paths to the top and the Kutchan route (which will take around 5 hours) is the most popular. If you love adventure and want to see some incredible panoramas, head up Mount Yotei (summer and autumn only!).
Hokkaido’s second-largest city, Asahikawa makes up part of the island’s urban heart. Stop off here to try to famous Asahikawa ramen (with soy sauce) or Otokoyama sake.
The city’s most popular attraction is the zoo where you can see many species that you wouldn’t get to back home. The best thing is that the animals in the zoo enjoy large enclosures that replicate their natural habitat.
Asahikawa is also the home of Buichi Terasawa, a Japanese manga artist famous for Goku Midnight Eye and Cobra.
The Buddhist Cemetery of Makomanai Takino
The Makomanai Takino cemetery was designed by the famous Japanese architect Tadao Ando and is a unique space where you’ll first be welcomed by Easter Island heads.
You’ll then make your way up to a giant stone Buddha surrounded by a hill of concrete with the Buddha’s head just popping out of the top. It makes for an interesting sight and the cemetery also features sculptures by the artist.
You can find a replica of Stonehenge just before the space for tombs.
Finally, we recommend that you be careful as Hokkaido is known for its earthquakes. In 2018, there was a 6.6 magnitude earthquake that left many people injured and caused 41 deaths. Make sure you do your research before you go and that you’re aware of the proper precautions that you need to take in the case of an emergency.
Now you should know a bit more about what to see and do on a trip to Hokkaido. To learn more about Japan and its main islands, check out our other articles on the subject.
You could also learn some Japanese through private tutorials with one of the tutors on Superprof!