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Things to do in Hokkaido, Japan

Hokkaido Starts Here

For many travelers, the topic things to do in Hokkaido is monolithic. Whether that means skiing in Niseko (as it most commonly does) or road-tripping amid the lavender fields of Furano, people tend to head to Japan’s northernmost island with a single goal in mind.

I can tell you from personal experience that this isn’t the best idea. And not just because, as travel as in the rest of life, I prefer not to put all my eggs in one basket.

Rather, it’s that in spite of Hokkaido’s vast size (or maybe because of it), appreciating the island requires experience its richness and diversity. Continue reading to plan an adventure that magnifies Hokkaido’s magic instead of obscuring it.

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When Should You Visit Hokkaido?

On one hand, many of the things to do in Hokkaido I’m about to list are highly seasonal. For example, you can’t enjoy the colorful flowers of Furano outside the hottest part of summer; you can ski the slopes of Niseko in January, but not (unless climate change catastrophically accelerates July). To put it another way, Hokkaido is a 365-day destination—there’s always something to enjoy.

On the other hand, even destinations that are at their best during one season offer charm and enjoyment during the other three. Otaru’s culinary prowess shines even after its icicles have melted; Hakodate’s Goryokaku Fort looks as magical overflowing with autumn leaves as it does when cherry blossoms are pouring out of it. Which month is the best month to visit Hokkaido? Whichever one is convenient for you to make the journey.

My Favorite Hokkaido Destinations and Experiences

See what all the fuss about Sapporo is

 

I’ll be honest: It’s taken me a lot of time to harbor the love for Sapporo that it deserves. The neon-lit streets of Susukino left me cold during my first mid-winter trip; when I came several summers later, in-between excursions to wilder destinations in Hokkaido, strolls through lush Odori Park served mostly as a means of recharging. I only truly saw Sapporo for the amazing city it is when I ended my 2021 cherry blossom trip here, which is ironic given the city’s general lack of sakura trees.

Enjoy Hakodate’s cherry blossoms and night view

 

Indeed, many of my favorite things to do in Hokkaido are actually in Hakodate, a city so far south it’s practically in Honshu. Unlike was the case with Sapporo, Hakodate was love at first sight for me. This has multiplied every time I’ve returned, whether I was enjoy the famous “night view” from atop Mt. Hakodate, eating controversial ika odori don at Hadakote Morning Market or looking down on the hundreds of cherry blossom trees planted within star-shaped Goryokaku Fort.

Get out of town, maybe a long way

 

I’ve started with the island’s two largest cities, but the reality is that most things to do in Hokkaido—the best ones, certainly—are far outside its urban cores. Well, some (such as Otaru, famous for its icicle-lined canal and dramatic sea views) are not so far. However, you’ll definitely need some time to enjoy the spaciousness of Kushiro and Shari in far eastern Hokkaido, or to enjoy the hot springs and hiking on offer at Lake Toya and in Noboribetsu.

Savor lavender season in Furano

 

Hokkaido, as I’ve stated several times in this article, is all about its four seasons. In recent years, summer has taken center stage, particularly amid the rolling lavender fields of Furano in central Hokkaido. Particularly, but not exclusively: The nearby Biei Blue Pond is astonishing during the warmer months, which are also the best time to enjoy the wild animals on display at famous Asahikawa Zoo. Summer is also an awesome season for produce, from lush, orange melons to the Hokkaido milk soft cream often served inside of them.

Hit the slopes of Niseko in winter

 

I’ll be honest: I only learned to ski at 30, and barely at that. I wouldn’t trust myself on even the beginner ski slopes at Niseko, even if the general atmosphere of the town (not to mention, the gorgeous scenery that abounds everywhere in its vicinity) is worth the trip there. Indeed, winter in Hokkaido isn’t just for ski enthusiasts. Walk along the aforementioned icicle-lined canal of Otaru, or get up-closed and personal with cranes at Lake Akan, just outside of Kushiro.

Is Hokkaido Worth Visiting?

Hokkaido is worth visiting, as long as you’re clear about what you expect. For instance, if you travel to Niseko to ski for a few days, or fly to Sapporo long enough only to complete a summer road trip circuit to Asahikawa and back, you shouldn’t expect to be able to appreciate the vastness of the island. Likewise, your first trip to Hokkaido is unlikely to reveal the full ranges of colors and charms of the island, given how well-defined and utterly different its seasons are from one another.

Indeed, my favorite among all the things to do in Hokkaido is probably returning. My understand of the island deepens every time I go back; along with it, so does my love. Conversely, when I first traveled to Hokkaido in early 2015, I spent such little time there, and cast my proverbial net so woefully small that I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. I hadn’t cut my own path through Hokkaido’s brush, or even followed the proverbial tourist trail very far—I’d simply left a few footsteps.

 

Other FAQ About Visiting Hokkaido

What is Hokkaido famous for?

Hokkaido is famous, among travelers, for the ski fields of Niseko. Other attractions, experiences and products people might know include the Hakodate night view, Asahikawa Zoo, lavender fields of Furano, Sapporo beer and the culture of the indigenous Ainu people.

How many days in Hokkaido is enough?

The longer you can spend in Hokkaido, the better. The island is massive; because the Hokkaido Shinkansen won’t start operations until 2030 (and even when it does, its scope will be limited), it takes a long time to cover ground here. You should plan on spending at least a week in Hokkaido at a time—and returning several times, at least once for each of the island’s four seasons.

Is it worth going to Hokkaido?

It’s worth going to Hokkaido if you can devote the time and energy to the island that it deserves, and if you have a clear objective of why you’re visiting, such as to ski in Niseko, to eat your way through Hakodate Morning Market or to see the beautiful cranes of Kushiro. As a general rule, the most abstract your idea of Hokkaido before traveling, the less satisfied you will be after you depart.

The Bottom Line

I hope you’ve got a better idea of things to do in Hokkaido now than you did when you arrived. More than that, however, I hope you’ve had—in a good way—a reality check. Hokkaido’s four seasons, rugged landscape and vast size means that it can be one of the wildest and most fulfilling destinations in Japan to explore. On the other hand, if you don’t devote the requisite time to this task, or have a clear idea of your travel objectives before your trip, you might find yourself disappointed, as I was after my ill-fated first visit to the island. One way to make sure your time in Hokkaido lives up to all your expectations for it? Hire me to create a Japan itinerary for you!