Looking to make your Japan trip extra frosty this holiday season? Ready to go beyond Tokyo? Does the cold never bother you anyway? Then head northeast to Hokkaido, a marvelous region to behold, especially during winter! With extreme temperature drops (between -4°C – -1°C) come extraordinarily beautiful sights, so get ready for the best Hokkaido winter experiences you can possibly have in Japan.
Winter, which generally takes place from December to February, covers Hokkaido Prefecture in powdery white snow, mirror-like frozen lakes, and man-made sparkling ice sculptures. Although picturesque anytime of the year (see our fall in Hokkaido activity list here!), Hokkaido’s winter season opens up a plethora of snow-based activities and breathtaking sights that’ll make Frozen’s ‘Arendale’ pale in comparison.
From Hokkaido winter festivals to drift ice sightseeing cruises, read on for Hokkaido winter activities that are definitely more exciting than building a snowman.
If spring means pink cherry blossoms, and fall equals crimson leaves, then drift ice must be Mother Nature’s seasonal winter gift! Drift ice, also called ryuhyo in Japan or pack ice, appears to be like a giant white slushie. Consisting of ice floes or individual pieces of sea ice, they occur between January and March, with a peak during February. These pack ice drifted as far 1,000km from Siberia to Japan’s Sea of Okhotsk.
Hop aboard an ice-breaking ship such as Garinko or Aurora II, and set sail to Abashiri Coast for your drift ice sightseeing cruise! These amazing ships crush lumps of ice in its path, letting you observe drift ice up close. If you’re lucky, you might glimpse spotted seals and Steller’s sea eagles from the observation deck. A picture-perfect winter experience awaits!
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Of course, skiing is a staple on any list, but Hokkaido Prefecture is especially known for skiing during winter, with all its rugged mountain terrains and great abundance of snow. Both beginners and advanced skiers will love the challenging ski runs, plus the kids can sled in snow playgrounds.
Check out our detailed Japan Skiing Resorts guide here to read all about these top skiing resorts.
Fishing just got a whole lot cooler—pun intended! Dig a hole and try to catch as much wakasaki (Japanese pond smelt) as you can at the frozen lake. Don’t worry about getting hypothermia—you have the option of fishing inside a cozy vinyl tent, instead of out in the open.
Plus, you’ll get to warm yourself up with a relaxing soak in the hot spring afterwards. Finally, reward yourself with your catch of the day by savoring the pure freshness of tempura! It is an experience you won’t find in Japanese restaurants.
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- Lake Shinotsu Ice Fishing Day Tour from Sapporo
Is fishing not really your thing? No worries! A sightseeing trip to Lake Shikotsu, the second deepest lake in Japan, is right up your alley. View the caldera (volcanic crater) lake’s crystal clear waters, surrounded by high mountain peaks. The winter scenery is something else to behold, especially during the Shikotsu Lake Ice Festival.
Gaze upon the looming volcanic peak of Mt. Usu and surrounding mountains. Admire the heavily snow-capped mountains in the background, crystals forming on the fences, and rainbow-colored lights shining from inside stunning ice sculptures. Book a day tour with KKday to complete the experience with a visit to nearby volcanic hot springs and Showa Shinzan Bear Park.
- Ice Festival Dates: January 25 to February 17, 2019
- How to Get There: Ride the train from JR Hakodate Station to JR Toya Station (duration: 2 hours). Alight from JR Toya Station, and head to Toyako Onsen Bus Terminal by bus (duration: 15 minutes)
- Fares: JP¥5057 – 6743
- Attraction Cost: Free entry (Optional: Volcano Exhibit at Visitor Center will cost around JP¥600)
5. Explore a winter wonderland at Sapporo Snow Festival
Speaking of festivals, you must not miss Japan’s most popular one for winter! This once small-time event— started by students who create snow sculptures in Odori Park—has since become an extravagant event attracting millions of people. The dreamy light-filled event will make you feel like you’ve gone and went straight to heaven.
Admire the splendor of hundreds of ice and snow art and illuminated temples showing off creative light projections. Multiple food stalls line the grounds so you can take your pick of hot ramen, Sapporo beers, and much more!
- Dates: February 4 – 11, 2019
- Cost: Free entrance
- Address: Odori Park, Community dome Tsudome, Susukino Street
One of the top 3 views in Hokkaido, you mustn’t miss Mt. Moiwa, especially during winter! Ride up Mt. Moiwa Ropeway and take in the city lights, sparkling like tiny diamonds. It’s possible to hike a few trails en route to the cable car station. At the top of the observation deck, see the frost covering the entire city like a layer of icing, stretching across Ishikari Plain. Marvel at the panoramic view of the stunning cityscape surrounded by mountains and get a sense of how massive Hokkaido really is.
Are you traveling with your sweetheart? Leave a padlock with a wish or message on the railing, and ring the Bell of Happiness as a symbolic gesture of your love.
You must not leave Hokkaido in winter without indulging in it’s signature food: king and queen crabs! Though, during winter, snow Crabs and hairy Crabs also become seasonally available. Thick, rich, and succulent, the trademark crab dishes at this restaurant is famous throughout Japan. Immerse yourself in the traditional decor and serene dining atmosphere fit for your elegant ten-meal course.
Have your fill of all things crab carefully prepared and served in various ways: crab sashimi, boiled crab or crab tempura. How many times do we need to say ‘crab’ before you start drooling? *wink* Fulfill your crab cuisine fantasies at Koniya Honten Restaurant.
- Book it here: Koniya Honten Restaurant Crab Course
Last, but not least, explore Otaru Canal, a 1,140 meter-long canal, where you can experience Japan’s equivalent of a romantic gondola ride in Venice, Italy. Go during winter and you might believe you’re actually in a European country way up north, thanks to the snow-covered stone warehouses and the promenade. It’s an utterly romantic spot for an unforgettable date night if you’re with a special someone. Go ahead and use the freezing weather as an excuse to snuggle up!
Pro-tip: Plan your trip in February to witness the ‘Otaru Snow Light Path Festival’. Fall in love with the sight of candles in glass floats, serenely drifting down the canal and setting the town ablaze in warm colors.
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- How To Get There: Take an 8-minute walk from JR Otaru Station
Essentials for your Hokkaido trip:
- JR Pass Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass
- Japan Rail Pass
- Suica Card (Airport and Tokyo Pick-Up)
- 4G Pocket Wi-Fi
- Hokkaido Nissan W5 10-Seater Car Rental
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