Hokkaido is the most northerly part of Japan’s four main islands.
With the exception of Sapporo, the big city life that Japan is so famous for is noticeably absent on Hokkaido. This area is one of the more unexplored region’s of the country, making it a great way to escape the crowds.
We’ve got the best Hokkaido travel tips for you, including a four day Hokkaido itinerary for experiencing the best of Hokkaido summer!
Here are some tips to make the most out of your Hokkaido tour
Japan’s north isn’t quite like the rest of the county weather-wise. Hokkaido is generally cooler than the rest of Japan. Winter is a great time to visit Hokkaido if you enjoy skiing and other snow sports. Hokkaido summer is great for hikers. Spring (April until early June) and Autumn (September until November), however, are the best times to visit Hokkaido.
Visiting Hokkaido in spring sees cherry blossoms (sakura) hit their peak – visit to late April or early May. Autumn then comes with more beautiful colours and the leaves start to change – October is a particularly popular month for visitors coming to experience the colours.
Accommodation in Hokkaido
Since it’s not a typical tourist destination, it’s pretty easy to get great deals on places to stay. Usually most hostels charge 2,500-4000 JPY per night for a dorm room. I stayed at Yu Yu hostel in Sapporo, Takimoto Inn in Noboribetsu and Perry’s House in Hakodate. All are good places to stay and I can recommend them. Takimoto Inn is slightly more expensive, however, and cost me 8000+ JPY per night, but Onsen cost is included in the rate.
Hokkaido is heaven for seafood lovers. You can’t get better seafood than here. Fish markets are a must visit. There are many cheap places to eat in Hokkaido. My favorite was the Ramen noodle shops and Soba Noodles… and of course there’s the tempura. You can get a big bowl of Ramen for 800 JPY. In general, meals range from 250 – 1250 JPY. Also, I preferred buying groceries from the supermarkets, and you can find vending machines almost everywhere. Join this tour to eat like a local and experience the best of food in Hokkaido.
Transportation in Hokkaido
Japan has excellent public transport. Everything runs on time and is very well organised, though quality comes at a price and transportation can become incredibly expensive. Personally, the bulk of my budget in Japan went towards transportation.
Trains are the fastest but most expensive mode of transport in Japan. If you’re traveling for long distances, getting a JR Pass makes sense, otherwise buses are better. They’re cheaper, but take a bit more time than trains. For example, a train ticket from Sapporo to Toya costs approx. 5000 JPY, while a bus ticket costs only 1000 JPY.
However, buses run much less frequently than trains so be sure to check the timetables before venturing out. In most cities you can buy a day bus pass for less than 1000 JPY, which gives you unlimited access to all bus routes for 24 hours. Inter-city bus tickets usually cost around 2,500 JPY.
Activities in Hokkaido
Most attractions like temples, lakes, parks, valleys, and museums are free to enter except for the most popular ones. For instance, visiting Hell Valley in Noboribetsu is free, but you have to pay to use the onsens (Japanese hot springs). To score a deal, look out for city or attraction passes that are valid for a day or more. To give you an idea, a one-day pass to Jozenkie that includes a return bus fare and onsen costs 1700 JPY.
Sapporo is the capital and the biggest city of Hokkaido and is a great place to use as a base. It’s easy to take day tours to nearby cities such as Otaru or Jozankei. In Sapporo itself, must-sees include the TV Tower, Odori Park, University area, and Morning Fish Market amongst other places.
Jozenkei is known as an onsen town, great for autumn leaf viewing. Make sure to visit its dam site and Fatumi Park.
Yoichi and Otaru
A day trip from Sapporo will take you to the town of Yoichi where you must visit the Nikka Whisky Museum. Yoichi is also famous for its fruit and drinks. Don’t forget to try their free samples. After Yoichi visit Otaru, which is most famous for its canal. You’ll be hard pressed to figure out whether you’re in Japan or Europe.
Lake Toya is a paradise for nature lovers where you’ll see the beauty of a volcanic caldera lake right along-side the modern art in the Shikotsu-Toya National Park region. Don’t forget to take the boat cruise that takes you to all of the small islands in the lake. Onsen is a must when you are here.
The onsen village of Noboribetsu is also known as “the department store of hot springs” because of the nine different kinds of hot springs that well up here. It’s a one street village with hot spring hotels on both sides. If you visit Noboribetsu, definitely experience the onsen at Daiichi Takimotokan Hotel. It has 20 different hot spring baths located both indoors and outdoors with amazing views of the Hell Valley.
Hakodate is one city where the mountains meet the beach. On one end of the road you have Mt. Hakodate towering over you and on the other end waves crash on the shore. It’s a sight to behold. The aerial view that you get from Mt. Hakodate is something that dreams are made of. At the base of the mountain lies Motomachi, a neighborhood of steep streets that look like they are from 20th century Europe.
Hokkaido Summer Itinerary: Four Days
Hokkaido is an outdoor-lover’s dream. It’s known best as a northern destination for winter sports and world-class slopes. But Japan’s second largest and least developed island is an ideal summer getaway as well.
This isn’t a secret, many Japanese visitors flock here to appreciate its alpine landscapes and escape the humidity and high temperatures the rest of the country endures.
We had a long, four-day weekend to uncover the island’s natural treasures. Since it wasn’t enough time to explore the whole island, we focused our efforts on central Hokkaido’s lakes, hot springs, mountains, and farms.
DAY 1: Arrive and Drive to Niseko
Flights arrive at the New Chitose Airport outside of Sapporo. A rental car is the best way to roam around the island freely. Rental agencies often offer a GPS in the vehicle, just make sure that the agency switches the voice to English. Don’t fret if you can’t read Kanji, destinations can be input using telephone numbers.
It’s a two-hour, winding drive from the airport to Niseko. This district is most famous for its amazing powder snow and winter resorts. Though sleepier in the summer, it’s a convenient base for discovering the area’s parks, lakes, and onsens (hot springs).
Check into the chic and cozy Kimamaya Hotel in Hirafu. The nine-room boutique hotel offers amazing, personalized service; complimentary access to its cedar and stone spa tubs; and breakfast at The Barn, a lofty restaurant connected to the hotel. After settling, head to Niseko Village. If it’s early enough, try the famous vegetable buffet at Prativo followed by ice cream or cream puffs at Milk Kobo.
Should you have an hour to spare, hike the wooded nature trail near the Hilton.
Spend the rest of the afternoon window shopping and scouting a place to eat dinner back in Hirafu, followed by a relaxing late-night soak in one of Kimamaya’s spa tubs.
DAY 2: Explore Lake Toya
The northern side of Lake Toya, part of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park, is only a 45-minute drive from Hirafu. A full day can be dedicated to lazily driving the perimeter of the water-filled caldera. Stop at any points of interest – like overlooks and parks – that capture your interest. The following were some of our favorite highlights:
Toyako Sculpture Park: Stroll among the large-scale artwork at this waterfront park, located near Sobetsu. Pick up some snacks from a roadside stand and enjoy it on one the park benches that offer stunning views of the lake. There are several free lots for parking along the way.
Uzusan Ropeway and Trail: After seeing Lake Toya up close, get an aerial perspective from atop Mount Usu. The ropeway, a fancy name for a gondola, leads to 360° panoramic views from two observation decks perched upon the side of the active crater. The start of the Outer Rim Trail is located from the furthest platform. From here, it’s a 40-minute, one-way trek along the the edge of the crater where hikers can get a better look at smoking fumaroles and vistas of the Pacific.
Toyako-cho: On the northern side of the lake lies the quaint town, Toyako-cho. There’s a pretty, little pier and beach behind the Toya Mizunoeki market. Across the street from it is Cafe Lake Toya, a delightful spot for coffee, freshly baked goods, and elegantly prepared crepes and galettes.
DAY 3: Journey to Sapporo
Time to bid Niseko farewell for the brighter lights of Hokkaido’s capital, Sapporo. The city makes a good gateway for exploring more of the island’s northerly sites.
Connoisseurs of fine spirits should take a gander at Nikka Whisky’s Yoichi Distillery. The admission is free and English speakers can take a self-guided tour of the facility with the aid of a supplied brochure or cell phone app. After learning about the manufacturing process, head to the tasting room for three, free samples of their cheaper drinks. Or go to the pub-like Whisky Drinking Club to pay and sip on the higher-quality stuff. End your visit at the gift shop where you can purchase popular blends or special ones that are unique to that distillery.
From the distillery, take the scenic route along the bay and stop at Otaru’s charming canal district for lunch or drinks.
Check into your hotel after arriving in Sapporo. We stayed at the Sapporo Grand Hotel, a standard business-style hotel with a good location near many of the city’s main attractions. Spend the afternoon walking around the city to see sites like the TV Tower, Clock Tower, municipal parks, and markets. Take a break and relax at one of its many beer gardens.
DAY 4: The Fields of Furano
Leave early in the morning for a two-hour drive north to Furano. The area is noted for its patchwork landscapes and flower farms.
Stop at Farm Tomita, an institution that’s been cultivating flowers for over 50 years. Wander around and breath in its colorful fields, most notably the hillside lavender one. Don’t forget a selfie stick. This is a photo opportunity paradise. It’s free to park and walk around the grounds, the farm makes its money from food and souvenir sales.
Refuel on a wholesome lunch at the quaint, Hobbit-like Navo Café in downtown Furano.
Proceed toward Biei for more outdoor fun. Stop at mystical Aoiike Blue Pond, a body of water artificially created after a dam was built. It engulfs dead birch trees and gets its eerie aquamarine color from aluminum hydroxide deposits.
Continue to the Shirahige Waterfall and end your vacation bathing at one of the three nearby onsens: Shirogane, Fukiage, or Kamihoroso hot springs. The entrance fee costs only a few dollars and towels can be rented for a nominal fee.