I have been to Japan well over 20 times and have travelled all over most of the Japanese islands. My favourite island is Japan’s most northern island – Hokkaido. Travel anytime of the year and you will be amazed. Winter is my favourite time. Here is a list of 10 must visit places around Hokkaido! (Click link above to see photos).
Get to Japan’s most northern island – Hokkaido, for some awesome experiences. The starting point to enjoying this journey is a JR (Japan Rail) Pass purchased before you arrive in Japan. This pass is only available to foreign visitors and must be purchased prior to landing in Japan.
While a 7-day (or 14-day) pass is not cheap, you will find that the pass is paid within 2 or 3 days of travel on local fares. Trains (and buses) are very expensive in Japan. Japan Rail has most of the country covered and the pass includes all the fastest bullet trains (except the super-fast Nozomi Shinkansen).
The Tohoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線?) goes north to connect Tokyo with Aomori in Aomori Prefecture on a route of 674 km, making it Japan’s longest Shinkansen line. From here get on a regular train which goes under the sea to Hokkaido Island. Hokkaido is Japan’s northern most large island which forms the head of the dragon-shaped Japan.
Note that Hokkaido’s very first Shinkansen train will start operation in 2016 Spring, connecting northern Honshu island (Shin-Aomori station) with the city of Hakodate on the southern tip of Hokkaido island (Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto). The Shinkansen route will eventually extend further into Hokkaido (likely up to the city of Sapporo), making high speed rail traffic between Honshu and Hokkaido possible.
I have been to Japan over 20 times and can never get enough. I’ve been all over Japan but still have so many places to see. What I do know is that Hokkaido has a special place in my travel heart. So hard to say where the best places are in Hokkaido…but here I’m listing those 10 places which I truly treasure. If you haven’t been there, please go and enjoy!
1. Whooper (or Hooper) Swans
These graceful birds annually migrate from upper Siberia in Russia to the relatively less harsh winters of eastern Hokkaido Island of northern Japan. They congregate on the warmer waters of Lake Kussharo, about an hour north of Kushiro town. From the little village of Kawayu Onsen (with lots of thermal activity and hot springs) it is about 15 km by road to the lake where the swans congregate in two spots (Ikenoyu and Kotan). Both places have very hot spring water flowing into the frozen waters of the lake so feel free to soak in the water with the swans but don’t get burnt in the hot water. While the swans are not particularly welcoming, they won’t bite!
Do spend a day or three in the little village of Kawayu Onsen. Public transport from the village of Kawayu Onsen is limited. Try your luck to hitchhike. I did and got a lift from a German man who’s been living here for 40 years. He eventually treated me with lots of Japanese Saki and German Schnapps in his lodge with private hot springs and sauna all built with imported Finnish Silver Birch logs. Nice guy!
2. The Red-Crowned Crane (or Japanese Tancho Crane)
The Cranes are found around the marshes of the Akan National Park north of the town of Kushiro on eastern Hokkaido Island. In the spring and summer these Cranes breed in Russia’s Siberia region but wisely spend their winters around the Kushiro marshes where the cold is less severe than back in Siberia.
There are a few places to see them: The International Crane Centre (ICC), about 60 minutes by bus north of the Kushiro JR station, is one of the best places to get close to them. Here, on a good day, you will find about 100 or more Cranes, often accompanied by Whooper Swans. If you have your camera with you, you will compete with Japanese photographers (and rarely a foreigner) who tirelessly point their massive Nikon and Canon telephoto lenses at the birds. You must visit at the right time of the year. The viewing area of the ICC can be reached by infrequent public bus from theKushiro JR station. More info at Japan Guide website.
3. The many hotsprings (onsen) of Hokkaido
Hokkaido is well known for its thermal activity and therefore is blessed with many hot springs (onsen). For those who are seeking some rest and restoration, the sublime views and rejuvenating onsen will do their wonders. Relax in the onsen while staring over the mountains and forests!
Most of these onsen are in idillic locations surrounded by mountains, forests, and fuming blowing steam holes. The largest concentration of onsen is around the town of Noboribetsu, an area known for lakes, volcanoes, and natural beauty.
Other onsen across Hokkaido worth exploring are Jozankei Onsen (Sapporo), Toyako Onsen (Toya), Sounkyo Onsen (Sounkyo), Yunokawa Onsen (Hakodate), Tokachigawa Onsen (Otofuke), Niseko Onsen (Niseko), Akanko Onsen (Kushiro), Utoro Onsen, Kamuiwakkayu Falls (Shiretoko National Park), Utoro Onsen (Shari), Asarigawa Onsen (Otaru), Yukichichibu Onsen (Niseko), and Kawayu Onsen (Teshikaga).
All are all interesting and very different in their own way. Go visit them all and tell me which ones you prefer most! In your quest to visit all the onsen, also visit some great sentos! Best time to visit an onsen is in the middle of winter when the outside onsen baths are surrounded but tons of snow. Hokkaido gets a lot of snow!
4. Several thermal active areas with boiling mudpools and sulphur smoke chimneys
Wherever there is an onsen, there is some thermal activity. Probably the most concentrated area of activity is around Noboribetsu. Enjoy Jigokudani (Hell Valley) and nearby Mount Usu-zan which is an active stratovolcano in the Shikotsu-Toya National Park. Here you can see entire villages covered in recent lava flows. Steaming vents abound.
Further northeast, the area referred to as Iozan (Sulfur Mountain), near Kawayu Onsen just south of the swans, is very interesting. Its yellow, sulfurous vents can be viewed from a close proximity and you can fairly freely walk around the steaming, smoking area – but be careful! Eggs, cooked by the natural heat of the mountain, are usually on sale near the vents. Its a short walk from where you should be staying at the village of Kawayu Onsen.
5. The Tomamu Ski Resort
Tomamu Ski Resort (星野リゾートトマム). This modern, high class ski resort in central Hokkaido, is located about 90 minutes by train south of Sapporo. The oneway fare is about 4500 yen and is fully covered by the Japan Rail Pass. Free (and very modern) shuttle buses operate between the Tomamu Station and the ski resort.
The resort covers two mountains and has a large selection of trails to choose from. In addition to beginner slopes and groomed trails, Tomamu has several slopes aimed at enthusiast skiers including expert runs, a well maintained terrain park, and sanctioned tree skiing within resort boundaries (a rarity among Japanese ski resorts). The resort is also known for idillic illuminated Ice Village which is a collection of domes constructed entirely of snow and ice. The domes house a restaurant, bar, shop, and a lovely wedding chapel.
6. Aquarium at Otaru
The Otaru Aquarium is one of the greatest aquariums (or oceanariums) in Japan, and certainly in the world.
The aquarium is the largest in Hokkaido and famous for its live shows featuring about 150 marine mammals of 13 different species, as well as the hands-on feeding experience for visitors. The main building features about 5,000 sea creatures of 250 different species, with a primary focus on creatures that live around Hokkaido and in the polar regions.
The Otaru Aquarium in the west of Hokkaido, approximately 1 hour by car from Sapporo.Airport. You can also get there from Sapporo on the JR Hakodate Main Line. Further north takes you to the Shakotan Peninsula.
7. The Shokutan Peninsula
Located on the west coast of Hokkaido, the Shakotan Peninsula (積丹半島) is a mountainous peninsula which projects some 30 kilometres (19 mi) into the Sea of Japan. The Peninsula forms part of the Niseko-Shakotan-Otaru Kaigan Quasi-National Park. It offer stunning and unspoilt scenery where close encounters with wildlife, such as foxes, is very real.
Look out for Candle rock, Cape Ougon, the Shimamui Coast, and Cape Kamui. Take a bus from JR Otaru station for the 1 hour and 25 minutes (pricey) trip past the entrance at Yoichi and on to Bikuni, and then about 2 hour and 20 minutes to Cape Kamui. Busus are very infrequent. Unless you have a full day to spend here, better take a private vehicle. The scenery is very special indeed.
8. Furano and Biei
Furano and Biei are known for their expanse of cultivate flowers fields and tranquility of the region. Hire a bicycle and cycle around the area. The best time to visit is during July, when the lavender fields are in bloom. Furano is close to many great hiking trails, including: Furano-dake, Ashibetsu-dake, and Tokachi-dake. During winter, Furano turns into a popular downhill and cross country skiing resort.
From Sapporo its almost 2 hours northeast to Furano and then another 40 minutes to Biei. The Japan Rail connects Sapporo with Furano and Biei.
9. City of Hakotade
Locted in the south of Hokkaido Island, Hakodate is the third biggest city in Hokkaido after Sapporo and Asahikawa. With an estimated population of about 280,000 people, the city is quite vibrant and very scenic. Its known for its great seafood markets.
Probably the greatest attraction is the city views, in particular the night views over the city from Mount Hakodate. The ropeway is the standard way to get up the mountain and will land you at the summit station in just three minutes. When taking the ropeway, try facing the back of the car and looking out the right-hand window. From this position, you’ll get the best views! Hokodate also has the Yachigashira and Yunokawa onsens.
10. Frozen seas and ice breakers at Abashiri
The town of Abashiri in the far north east of Hokkaido is famous for drift ice sightseeing with the icebreaking ship Aurora. This spectacular expanse of drift ice is formed when the greatest river in the Far East, the Amur, traverses the borders of China and Russia before emptying into the Sea of Okhotsk. This frozen mass of freshwater and saltwater then spread south which forms a white mysterious mass which can be seen from the Okhotsk shores around the end of January.
While mid winter (end of January) is the best time to visit, do call in advance as global warming seems to melt this ice faster than ever before. The train from Sapporo to Abashiri takes about 5.5 hours. A bus from the Abashiri station to the docks takes about 10 minutes. Watch out for the graceful White-tailed Sea-Eagle (Ojiro-washi) around the Abashiri docks.
Other incredible areas to explore include Lake Toya, Akan National Park, Daisetsuzan National Park, and Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park.