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Thinking of visiting Hokkaido? Here’s everything you need to know.

Japan’s second largest island is over 800 kilometres from Tokyo, but only a few hours away by bullet train – so there’s no reason not to consider visiting Hokkaido.

Even if your trip to Japan is short, it’s well worth saving a few days to experience this completely different side of Japan.

Because, boy, is Hokkaido different.

Sure, you’ll still see plenty of onsen7-11 convenience stores and ramen houses (serving some of the best ramen in Japan!), but Hokkaido is a world away from the lights and colours of Tokyo.

Busy streets filled with grey suits and oversized coats are replaced by desolate mountains and layers of traditional dress.

And, as much as I LOVE everything about the Tokyo lifestyle, Hokkaido has a real raw feel that should earn it a place on any Japan itinerary.

The question is: When is the best time to visit Hokkaido?

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Things to do in winter in Hokkaido Japan


The best time to visit Hokkaido

Hokkaido’s geography makes it an interesting island to visit. Every season has something completely different to offer, so the best time to visit Hokkaido will depend on which side of the island you want to see.

Hokkaido in summer

In summer, Hokkaido attracts crowds of tourists who flock to see Furano’s famous lavender fields in full bloom and the natural art of Patchwork Road’s crop fields.

If these are top of your list of things to do in Hokkaido, summer will be your only option.


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Hokkaido in winter

Hokkaido in winter is a completely different story. Colourful fields become endless stretches of colourless snow, which sometimes stands higher than the houses it surrounds.

In winter, Hokkaido attracts just as many tourists as it does in summer, if not more. Many people, both Japanese and international tourists, head to Hokkaido’s small villages to take advantage of the many ski resorts.

The best time to visit Hokkaido, though? If you want a truly unique and authentic Hokkaido experience – the kind that will leave an entirely different flavour of Japan on your tongue – I’d say somewhere in-between.



Hokkaido in March: The best time to visit?

We visited Hokkaido in March and it was a fantastic time to go (if you can stand a little cold!). In March, you can enjoy the beautiful Hokkaido winter without facing the harshest weather.

Hokkaido quiet and almost free from tourists in March, meaning you can see the ‘real’ Hokkaido.

More than that, though, the magic of the Hokkaido winter still lingers very visibly. Snow is everywhere (and there’s a good chance you’ll see it falling!), so the ski resorts are still in full swing.

When we visited the small but popular ski village of Sounkyo, there were only a handful of skiers enjoying its slope on a Friday afternoon and ski rental was a very affordable $35 dollars per day. 

It’s still a little chilly but sunny on most days – just make sure you pack some sunglasses because it gets bright with all the white snow around!


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sounkyo hokkaido ski resort


And then there are the landscapes. If there’s one reason you should visit Hokkaido in the winter, it’s to see the landscapes.

Many of the villages in Hokkaido are built into valleys surrounded by jagged mountains. Pack your camera – and make sure it’s insured – because it makes for amazing photos.

It also makes for an (arguably even more) amazing view to wake up to when you get out of bed in the morning. That alone is an experience that’s worth braving the Hokkaido winter weather for.

I’m usually the kind of person to run away at the first sight of anything cold and white, but the snow and ice made Hokkaido’s landscapes so dramatic and dreamy, I was almost converted.

As for the two Canadians travelling with me? I knew it was some pretty epic snow when even they were impressed.

 

 


Adding Hokkaido to your Japan itinerary

March is also a great time to visit Hokkaido because you can time it with the Hanami cherry blossom festival in the south of Japan. 

While Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka are bursting into bloom, Hokkaido is still waist-deep in snow – meaning you can enjoy two of the best things to do in Japan in one trip.

Plus, if you time it well, you’ll be able to make it to the Sounkyo Ice Waterfall Festival and still travel back down south in time for the blossoms. Just make sure you take your trip to Hokkaido into consideration when you’re planning what to pack for Japan!

And if you’re kind of gutted that visiting Hokkaido in March means you’ll miss out on the summer flowers, Hitachi Seaside Park is an easy 2.5 hour day trip from Tokyo by train.

As long as you have more than one week in Japan, it’ll be easy to fit in a trip to Hokkaido. The trains are super fast, and you’ll certainly get your money’s worth on your Japan Rail Pass. Just make sure you buy it before you go so save money!


Yumoto Noboribetsu hotel and onsen hokkaido


Where to stay in Hokkaido in Winter

Hokkaido has so many cool cities and cute villages that there’s no shortage of places to stay and things to see. The bad news is you will probably only scratch the surface of this magical winter island, but the good news is that it will be pretty magical wherever you end up.

The other good news is that Hokkaido isn’t the only part of Japan worth visiting during the colder months. Japan in winter is a totally unique experience, so you can complete your trip with these five other places in Japan worth visiting during winter.

Most visitors enter (and leave) Hokkaido island via Sapporo. Hokkaido’s capital city is a bustling hub of entertainment, dining and shopping.

There’s not a whole lot to see and do in Sapporo – compared to the rest of Hokkaido, at least – but it’s worth spending a night or two here. Soak up the city’s atmosphere, watch the sunset over the city from the TV Tower, and prepare yourself to enter a more rural Japan.


hokkaido in winter sapporo city


Things to do in winter in Hokkaido

If you’re still not convinced about travelling to Hokkaido in winter, perhaps these five unmissable things to do there will sway your mind!

1 – Visit a traditional onsen

A visit to a Japanese onsen (hot spring) is a must when visiting Hokkaido. These geothermal hot springs were traditionally used as a natural bath for residents (and sometimes monkeys as well!). 

Although you can visit onsen in other parts of Japan, you’ll appreciate it more in Hokkaido. There’s nothing like slipping into a natural hot bath when it’s freezing outside.

Many of the hotels in Hokkido’s ski villages have their own on-site onsen, but nothing can beat Noboribetsu for a truly unique experience.

Hotels in Noboribetsu are on the pricey side. A more affordable way to experience the hot springs of Hell Valley is stay a nearby town (such as Muroran) and get a day pass to the Yumoto Noboribetsu hotel to enjoy the on-site onsen. 

2 – Stay in a ski village

A couple of nights in a ski village such as Sounkyo will be everything you need relax and immerse yourself in the Hokkaido mountains. I spent several nights at Sounkyo Onsen Kumoi and loved the whole experience.

If you’re a keen skier, you might want to linger a little longer, but even non-skiers will be charmed by these magical villages.

Imagine snow-covered mountains, frozen waterfalls and very few people for miles around. It’s a wintry heaven that even I, a lifelong winter hater, loved.


A boardwalk in Jigokudani during winter in Hokkaido Japan
Feel the heat in Jigokudani, also known as Hell Valley

3 – Explore Jigokudani (Hell Valley)

Right next to the Noboritbetsu springs in Jigokudani.

This expansive area is one of the most unique landscapes you’ll probably ever see. Although its name is pretty foreboding, it’s a beautiful place to explore. 

Most of the trails close during the winter months, but a couple of them stay open. You can easily spend a few hours discovering the natural hot springs, blowholes and impressive scenery – just take care if the paths are slippery!

4 – Slurp on Hokkaido ramen

Why does ramen taste even better when it’s cold? Hokkaido ramen is my favourite type of all – it’s so creamy – and it’s even better when you come in from the cold.

Even if you’ve tried ramen elsewhere in Japan, don’t skip this local dish while you’re in Hokkaido.

5 – Cool off in an ice pavilion

The people of Hokkaido LOVE an ice festival, so no trip there is complete without some snowy fun. 

The Ice Pavilion in Kamikawa is open year-round extends outdoors during the winter. Inside, you’ll find ice tunnels, sculptures and mazes, as well as have the chance to face -40 C temperatures!

Click here to buy your ticket online before you go.


 

Kamikawa Ice Festival
The Ice Pavilion goes outdoors when it’s snowy outside!

Planning a trip to Hokkaido in March

Visiting Hokkaido in March is magical, but you’ll want to go prepared. Here are a few more things to keep in mind.

Does it snow in Hokkaido in March? 

Yes! If you visit Hokkaido in March, you’re almost guaranteed snow. 

Is there still snow in Sapporo in March?

While most of Hokkaido will be covered in snow in March, the capital can be a little hit or miss. 

You’ll definitely be able to see it on the mountains in the distance, but don’t expect to see it lining the city streets.

What clothes to wear in Hokkaido in March

As you can imagine, Hokkaido is COLD is March! Make sure you pack plenty of layers – something similar to what you’d wear in Iceland in winter would be appropriate.


When I first arrived in Hokkaido, the “do not use air con – heating only” sign in the hotel had me a little bit worried (and not just because I hadn’t packed the right things at all).

Just the thought of visiting an island covered in 5-foot high snow might send shivers down your spine too, but don’t let the weather put you off. You may get an icy reception from the air, but the people are some of the warmest in the world.

Seeing Hokkaido in March, when winter is still very much in the air but that air is starting to warm up in preparation for spring, is a truly magical experience.