It may be an island, but Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest, is boundless in terms of attractions. There’s something for every traveller to see, do and eat in Hokkaido: visit a volcano, dip in the hot springs, climb a mountain (or ski down one!) and enjoy the famous food and drink native to this northern region.
1. Shikotsu-Tōya National Park
Shikotsu-Tōya National Park has 1,000 square kilometres of beautiful scenery, hiking, onsen (natural hot springs) and two lakes, including Lake Toya, a caldera (volcanic) lake that never freezes. Three active volcanoes (Showa-Shin-zan, Usa-zan, and Tarumae-zan) surround Lake Shikotsu, which is a great place for hiking, camping and vista viewing. Unwind at the hot springs in Noboribetsu , which features a bevy of springs, including one called “hell” because of its smell.
Yes, you guessed it, the city is that Sapporo—home to Japan’s number-one beer, which was first brewed here in 1876. But when you visit the capital (and largest city) of Hokkaido, you can do more than tour the Sapporo Beer Museum (and get a tasting, of course). Hit up Ramen Alley (Ramen Yokocho) on Ganso Sapporo Street with its dozen ramen joints at various price points for tourists and locals alike. Or find your own personal favourite noodle spot, as they’re scattered throughout the city.
3. Otaru Canals
The port city of Otaru faces the Ishikari Bay, and just 25 minutes north of Sapporo, so it’s a popular tourist destination. The restored, picturesque canal running through the city (once an important transport hub) is peppered with Victorian-style street lamps. Take a glassmaking class in Otaru, where glassmakers got their start making oil lamps and “fishing balls” for the city’s many fishermen (and you can visit the city’s famous herring mansion and eat some of the salty fish, too).
4. Blue Pond of Biei… and Shirahige Falls
After a volcanic eruption, a man-made dam caused Biei’s pond to turn a bright blue – but only sometimes, depending on the weather and season. Without wind, “the pond looks as if it were an enormous mirror laid out on the ground,” one tourist said. Spiritual seekers also appreciate the serenity of the forest surrounding it. A five-minute drive away is the 30-metre-high Shirahige Falls—named so because its frothy waters resemble a white beard.
You can hike and bike up Mount Hakodate, or better yet, take a car, bus or gondola to see the famous nights views from the observatory. You’ll look out over the bay and city 334 metres below. The Michelin Green Guide: Japan gave the experience 3/3 stars.
Aerial lovers can also see the mountain from Goryokaku Tower, a 107-metre-high view overlooking the star-shaped fort, once a crucial defence line, but now a public park famed for its cherry blossoms (hanami).
The port town of Kushiro, “the town of the mist,” faces the Pacific and exudes mystery. Walk around Kushiro Marsh, and take in the 2,000 varietals of animals and plants, including the Hokkaido deer and Japanese Cranes. These once nearly extinct creatures are now the national bird (also known as the Red-Crowned Crane), and you can feast your eyes on it and the species’ many cousins at the Japanese Crane Reserve.
Powderhounds, the website for skiers and snowboarders, calls Niseko “the powder capital of the world.” Its great snow is why it’s the most popular international ski destination in Japan. “Deep not steep” is the reputation of Hokkaido’s snow, which constantly piles on.
8. Rishiri Island
It takes an entire day to climb the 1,721 metres to the top of Mount Rishiri, a volcano that has been dormant for thousands of years, located at the centre of the small, remote island in the north of Hokkaido. You can also bike, which might be equally challenging. If you want to experience a fresher volcano, see head to Mount Uso in Shikotsu-Tōya National Park, which most recently erupted in 2000.
For travellers to Japan eager to get off the beaten path yet still experience nature, culture, food and fun, Hokkaido is the place to go.