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Of the four main islands that make up Japan, Hokkaido is a little different. Actually, it’s very different. This is partly to do with its geography — all windswept plateaus and freezing Siberian storms — but it’s partly because Hokkaido wasn’t even part of Japan until the mid-19th century. By that time, the mainland had already been shaped by hundreds of years of history, and seen numerous powers rise and fall.
Hokkaido may not have the age-old traditions, temples and samurai towns of Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku, but what it does have are huge expanses of dramatic, mountainous wilderness, a fascinating indigenous culture, and the most spectacular wildlife in Japan.
If you want to see a completely different side of Japan, here are seven reasons why you should head to Hokkaido.
1. Natural Beauty
First and foremost, Hokkaido is all about the scenery. Huge mountains, vast blue lakes, parkland, volcanoes, valleys, cliff-lined coasts, and everything in between. In winter, this is all covered with a thick blanket of snow, which makes it feel even more wild and dramatic.
One of the most awesome natural sights lies off the coast, on the Sea of Okhotsk. This is the most southerly point where you can see drifting sea ice, and taking an icebreaker cruise amongst the floes — keeping your eyes peeled for sea eagles — is a fantastic Hokkaido experience.
Another completely different but equally spectacular landscape is Jigokudani, or “Hell Valley”, in Noboribetsu. Despite its rather forbidding name, Jigokudani is far from hellish – in fact, its sulphurous steam vents, bubbling mud pools and steaming hot river are an awesome sight, especially in the snow and cold air.
Hokkaido’s huge expanses of rugged wilderness are a haven for wildlife, including some very rare species that are hard to find anywhere else.
Foremost amongst them is the red-crowned crane (tancho in Japanese). Famous for its intricate mating dance, which it performs in the snow near Tsurui, this rare and beautiful creature is said to live for 1,000 years.
Further north, towards Abashiri, you can spot Steller’s sea eagles and white-tailed eagles diving for fish amongst the pack ice. Meanwhile, the Shiretoko Peninsula is home to the Blackiston’s fish owl — the largest species of owl in the world.
In addition to its bird life, Hokkaido is home to brown bears (best spotted from a cruise along the coast), ezo deer, red foxes, and flying squirrels — while its seas play host to orca, sperm whales, and Baird’s beaked whales. It’s safe to say, if you’re a wildlife lover, it’s time to pack your bags!
Hokkaido’s seafood is legendary. Everywhere in Japan has great seafood, true, but the bounty of Hokkaido’s seas is particularly delicious and varied. Octopus, sea urchin, cod roe, oysters, crab — you name it, they’ve got it. If you’re going to try sashimi (raw fish) anywhere in the world, it should be here.
Don’t like seafood? Not to worry. Hokkaido is also famous for its melons, sweetcorn, curried soup with crispy fried vegetables, “Genghis Khan” barbecue cooked on a dome-shaped griddle, mouth-watering beef, and some of the best beer in Japan.
4. Ainu Culture
Until Hokkaido was claimed by the Tokugawa Shogunate in the mid-19th century, it was known as Ezo and inhabited by a people called the Ainu. Thought to have descended from the Jomon, who inhabited Japan some 16,000 years ago, the Ainu have a culture, language and religion entirely distinct from that of the rest of Japan. Tragically, most of this was lost when they were forced to assimilate into the Japanese population, and many Japanese people of Ainu descent have no idea of their heritage.
Recently, there has been something of a revival of Ainu culture and identity, and there are now various museums across Hokkaido where you can learn about the Ainu. These include a brand-new National Ainu Museum in Shiraoi, which opened in 2020 and displays exhibits relating to Ainu language, music, dance, clothes, food and crafts.
5. Sapporo Snow Festival
The Sapporo Snow Festival (or yuki matsuri) is one of Japan’s most impressive celebrations. For a week each February, Hokkaido’s biggest city is taken over by giant snow and ice sculptures — not to mention the two million visitors who flock to see them. The sculptures include replicas of famous world landmarks, Mount-Rushmore-esque tributes to pop icons, and giant renderings of everything from Darth Vader to Cup Noodle. There are also snow slides, ice skating, snow rafting, illuminations and all kinds of delicious festival food and drink. It’s a winter wonderland!
6. Amazing skiing
You might not know it, but Hokkaido has some of the best skiing in the world. Blessed with fluffy powder blown in from across the icy wastes of Siberia, the conditions are reliably fantastic — but that’s not even the best of it. Japan has après-ski down to a fine art, so you can spend your evenings soaking in hot springs beneath the falling snow, sipping cocktails in igloos or hot sake in izakaya pubs, and slurping down steaming bowls of nabe hotpot. Honestly, what could be better than that?
The little port city of Hakodate is famous amongst the Japanese for its beautiful night views from the top of its mountain, but to foreign visitors it’s virtually unknown — and for us, that’s part of its appeal. Stop at the morning seafood market for a bowl of sea urchin and rice, climb to the top of a 107-metre observation tower for views over the star-shaped Edo Period fort, go walking in beautiful Onuma Park, then spend your evening bar-hopping in the little alleyways of Daimon-Yokocho. This is one of our favourite undiscovered destinations in Japan.
If you’d like to find out more about the best time to visit Hokkaido and the best things to do when you get there, check out our brand new When to Travel tool. Alternatively, you may be interested in our Winter Highlights Small Group Tour.