WHEN TO GO / WHAT TO SEE & DO
WHEN TO GO / WEATHER
Hokkaido is a lot cooler than the rest of Japan and it’s summers offer relief from the typical Japan humidity and rain. The best time for sightseeing in Sapporo is in summer, from July to August, when the average temperatures are in the low 70’s. These temperatures are perfect for sightseeing, however you should come prepared for cooler weather as temperatures have been known to fluctuate throughout the day. It’s best to pack for all seasons!
Winter here is different story altogether and winters are harsh, with cold fronts from Siberia bringing lots of light powdery snow with below zero temperatures and frozen seas. This has earned Hokkaido the reputation as a skier’s and snowboarder’s paradise.
The average temperature in January, is 25°F. If you visit during winter, be sure to prepare hats, gloves, mufflers, and other winter clothing accessories as well as warm outerwear like coats. As Hokkaido is so large, there can be large temperature differences depending on the location. Depending on where you go and when you go, be sure to think about the weather when you pack.
With clearly defined seasons, every season in Hokkaido brings its own spectacular sights.
Spring (April - June)Spring is dramatic in Hokkaido. As winter snow and ice melt the island is transformed into a green wonderland. Bamboos , birch, spruce and oak bring sprout new leaves, and tulips and irises bloom en mass. In early May, Hakodate, Matsumae and Sapporo celebrate spring and the cherry bloossom season with their fsakura hanami festivals. Mid-May also brings a return of dolphins and whales to Hokkaido’s waters. Spring also has a fraction of the crowds compared with the busy summer season.
Summer (July - August)
Hokkaido is the only place in Japan that avoids the summer monsoon, and its pleasant summer climate and numerous activities, attract many visitors. The main attraction during summer are the spectacular fields of lavender, poppies, lilies that cover the rolling hills. Furano draws visitors from near and far, and in July its fields are transformed into a pungent sea of purple lavender. Tomita farm offers tractor-drawn rides through its acres of lavender and sells lavender-infused products in its gift shop and café, including lavender ice cream and pudding.
There are also countless opportunities for hiking, pristine camping, wildlife viewing, healthy cuisine and the many other activities on offer. Go whale watching in July and August and you’ll see dolphins or whales of some kind almost every time.
Fall (September - November)
The stunning fall foliage is the main draw for visitors during the fall. A spectacular show of colors explode from Hokkaido's mountains. The countless shades of orange, red, brown and yellow are truly mesmerizing. Enjoy road trips, hiking & trekking, camping, hot springs on cool nights and incredible local cuisine.
Winter (December - March)
Winter in Hokkaido is heavenly for those who love snow, pure & clean air, nature, and the stark wilderness. Winter visitors to Hokkaido can experience dramatic snow-covered landscapes, frozen mountains, dazzling hot springs, unique wildlife, unbelievable seafood and local cuisine, winter festivals and some of the best powder snow for skiers and snowboarders in the world.
In the freezing month of January, the drift ice in the Sea of Okhotsk is a great spot for seeing Steller’s sea eagles and white-tailed eagles, as well as spotted seals and awe-inspiring Steller sea lions, resting on the ice.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
For many the unspoiled wilderness of Hokkaido’s National Parks are number one on the agenda, offering endless hiking, biking and wildlife viewing opportunities. Others are attracted to its flower gardens, high-quality agriculture and seafood, hot springs, and powder skiing.
NATIONAL PARKS / WILDLIFE
More than two million acres of land is dedicated to national parkland on Hokkaido. The island boasts 8 national parks:
• Shiretoko National Park - this eastern penninsula park, where bears roam in the wilderness and bathe in hot waterfalls, was recently designated as a World Heritage Site
• Goko Five Lakes, Shiretoko National Park
• Akan National Park - known for its mysterious lakes, including Lake Akan
• Onuma Quasi-National Park - peaceful lake near Hakodate in southern Hokkaido
• Daisetsuzan National Park - Japan's largest national park, located right in the middle of Hokkaido, and a paradise for extreme hikers
• Kushiro Wetlands National Park
• Shikotsu-Toya National Park - a number of volcanic hot springs, two beautiful caldera lakes with rumbling volcanoes and mossy canyons make scenic Lake Toya one of Japan's most popular tourist destinations
• Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park - covering the small islands off Wakkanai at the northern tip
Shiretoko National Park
If you really want to get away from it all, head to Shiretoko National park on the northeastern tip of Hokkaido. Shiretoko means “the end of the world” in Ainu, and that’s literally where it is! In 2005 UNESCO designated it a World Heritage site, labeling it “one of the richest integrated ecosystems in the world,”. If you’re a wildlife enthusiast, this park is a must!
The 95,000-acre national park is open year-round, but the prime hiking season is June through September. The most epic hikes lead across the volcanic backbone of the peninsula, but gentler routes are also rewarding, and even a few hours in this pristine wilderness will send your soul soaring.
The park includes a variety of landscapes including old-growth forest that blanket the volcanic mountains, steep cliff faces rising from the coast, wetlands, lakes, waterfalls and hot springs. It’s also rich in a variety of wildlife, including Yezo brown bears, sika deer, Yezo red foxes, and a variety of birds, including Steller’s sea-eagles.
Shiretoko is prime bear country and has one of the highest brown bear densities in the world. The Five Lakes of Shiretoko area has high walkways that provide an easy vantage point even for novice wildlife watchers. There are also nature trails on the ground, with a 3km loop taking you through Shiretoko’s primeval forest. During the time of year when the bears are active, you can enjoy guided tours through their habitat. The best way to see them, however, is from the sea, where you have an over 90% chance of spotting bears walking along the coast. Eco-friendly bear-watching tours provide an unforgettable experience.
The best time for bear watching is spring and from late summer through autumn. Spring also offers good sightings when bears go in search of food near the coast, when inland areas and mountains are still covered with snow. From the end of summer through the fall they are often spotted near river mouths, where they catch salmon returning from the sea.
Note: If you’re hiking, be sure to carry bear bells or bear spray. Keep your food outside of your tent if you’re camping; hang it from trees or store it in a bear-proof box.
Shiretoko also has a rich marine ecosystem, due to the drastic drop in the seafloor at the eastern side of the peninsula. The islands geographical and topographical characteristics facilitate complex interactions between the terrestrial and marine environments, which makes it possible for a variety of organisms of both northern and southern species to live on this peninsula. It boasts one of the most diverse whale populations in northeast Asia and is home to a whopping 13 species of whales. Sperm whales and baird's beaked whales are a common sight in the waters of Shiretoko, and minke whales visit in spring and summer. Humpback whales are seen occasionally. It is also one of East Asia's best spots for watching orcas.
Daisetsuzan National Park
Daisetsuzan National Park is a fantastic mountaineering location and offers climbers a ropeway takes you high up in the mountains. As deciduous forest at the foot of the mountains gives way to a mixture of conifers and broadleaf trees and then Siberian dwarf pine forest and alpine plants in the highlands, you’ll see almost every species of wildlife that Hokkaido has to offer, including Yezo brown bears, Yezo red foxes, weasels, stoats, mountain hares, chipmunks, flying squirrels, red squirrels, Yezo deer, shrews and more.
The park also has stunning meadows of wildflowers flowers.
Rausu is rich in nature with an abundance of beautiful seasonal scenery. The sea in this area is home to a large variety of marine wildlife. Cruises around Rausu are offered throughout the year. The winter cruises run from late January to mid-March, and you can see drift ice, Steller’s sea eagles and white-tailed eagles. Rausu is the only place in the world where you can see Steller’s sea eagles and white-tailed eagles on drift ice. They migrate here to feed off the Alaskan Pollock that come here in the freezing winter months. If you’re lucky, you may see spotted seal or ribbon seal on the drift ice.
During late spring and summer you’ll see orcas and minke whales. Occasionally fin whales and humpback whales also frequent these waters. The area also provides refuge for the thousands of short-tailed shearwaters that migrate here from Australia.
In summer, Dall’s porpoises, Baird’s beaked whales and sperm whales come to the Nemuro Strait. It’s one of the only places in Japan where you can see male sperm whales. As many as 300 orca and 180 sperm whales have been sighted in the Nemuro Strait. Nowhere in Japan can you see more orcas in the wild than in Rausu.
Hokkaido is a prime birdwatching spot and is already known as one of the top winter birding and wildlife photography locations on Earth. Situated on the East Asian Flyway, a migratory route connecting northeast Asia with Southeast Asia and Australasia, Hokkaido gives sanctuary to avian residents, summer visitors, winter visitors, and long-distance migrants.
The island is home to a number of iconic species including it’s symbolic bird, the red-crowned crane, known as “the god of the wetlands” in Ainu. Named after the red area on their heads, the red-crowned crane is an enormous bird with a wingspan of over 6ft. Towards the end of the 19th century these magnificent birds wall almost wiped out by overhunting and development, but they are now recovering with a current population around 1,600. Vast flocks can be seen at sanctuaries during feeding season in winter. You’ll see these birds in Kushiro Shitsugen National park and also at Kushiro Wetlands in summer.
Besides the cranes you’ll see Blakiston’s Fish Owl, white-tailed eagle, the winter visiting Whooper Swan and Steller’s Eagle, and the Spectacled Guillemot and Siberitan Rubythroat that come here in summer to breed.
The wild plants are also beautiful. Throughout Hokkaido you can see mixtures of conifer and broadleaf forest, creating stunning colors in autumn. Hokkaido’s autumn leaves are a mixture of red, yellow and all shades in between, creating a vivid palette that you won’t see in any other country.
And the alpine flower fields dotted throughout Hokkaido are a must-see. Rebun Island in Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park in the north of Hokkaido has beautiful flower fields even at low altitudes. The Daisetsuzan mountains that I mentioned before have a stunning patchwork of flower fields, and Koshimizu Primeval Flower Garden in the Okhotsk region is breathtaking.
Hokkaido offers an enticing selection of hot springs (onsen), in both luxurious modern resorts and also deep within the mountains. If you like the idea of lounging in hot spring splendor overlooking a gorgeous mountain lake, head to Marukoma Onsen Ryokan, located right on Lake Shikotsu in western Hokkaido - remember, a tiny towel is all your allowed to take into the bath. If views of greenery are more appealing, Yawaraginosato Hoheikyo Onsen, about an hour from Sapporo, is set among hills that are green in spring, summer, and fall and white with snow in winter. Its three rotenburo—outdoor hot spring baths—are renowned for the mineral-rich spring water that flows in from the surrounding mountains
Much of Hokkaido’s population lives near the sea and as a consequence, fresh seafood features heavily in their cuisine. Virtually wherever you go on the island you’ll be able to taste the outstanding seafood that comes from the island’s cold, plankton-rich waters. Specialties include seafood rice bowls, crab dishes including hairy- and king crabs, Sushi, squid and salmon. Akkeshi’s oysters, Saroma’s scallops and the northwest coast’s sea urchin are considered among Japans very best seafood. There’s also an abundance of healthy seaweed such as kelp. Various Yezo venison dishes have also attracted attention in recent years. The Yezo deer population is enormous at present, and is affecting the local ecosystem, so these venison dishes don’t just provide people with a good meal, they also help to protect the region’s nature.
More unexpectedly, Hokkaido produces most of Japan's dairy products. Other unusual local specialties include asparagus, corn, and squid ink ice cream.
Distinct in appearance, language, and custom, the Ainu are thought by most scholars to have originally settled in northern Honshu, Sakhalin Island, and the Kuril Islands as well as Hokkaido. Today the remaining 24,000 Ainu are largely concentrated in Hokkaido, where the culture has experienced something of a resurgence in recent years. Three exemplary places to learn about Ainu culture and traditions are the villages of Poroto Kotan, Nibutani, and Ainu Kotan.