Hokkaido in Winter

The northern most island in the Japanese island chain, Hokkaido is also the largest island and is largely undeveloped compared to the other islands. More well known for its beautiful scenery and ski resorts, as well as, the source of Sapporo beer, Hokkaido is still not as popular a destination as the rest of Japan for tourists. Well, I think that first of all it is not easily accessible. You can travel there by car, plane or train, but flying is the easiest and fastest. Secondly, the cost of travelling to Hokkaido itself is pretty expensive.

Update: As of March 2016, the Shinkansen or bullet train now goes to Hakodate from Tokyo in around 4 hours, making it more convenient to travel there. More information on the Shinkansen service can be found here. And for visitors to Japan, we can use the Japan Rail Pass for this ride, making it even more economical to travel.

We went to Hokkaido in the winter of 2009 because some of my family members wanted to have some skiing activities. Hokkaido is well known for its fine grade of powder snow which is perfect for skiing. Before this trip, I didn’t know that snow had different grades. Getting to Hokkaido meant that we had to transit in Tokyo for a domestic flight. Due to the irregularity of the flights to Hokkaido, we had to stay the night in Narita to catch the transiting flight the next day. The flight from Tokyo lands in New Chitose Airport near Sapporo. You can travel in Hokkaido on your own with a rental car and GPS, but since it was winter and we were not familiar with driving in snowed out roads, we followed a tour from Singapore.

A kawaii Pokémon plane at New Chitose Airport.
A kawaii Pokémon plane at New Chitose Airport.

The local people of Hokkaido are called the Ainu and they have a different culture compared to the rest of the Japanese. We were brought to see a traditional Ainu village. Well, it’s not really traditional but more of a replica village to showcase the Ainu culture..

A statue of an Ainu warrior.
A statue of an Ainu warrior.
Fishing is one of the main activities of the Ainu and they salt and dry the fish in the open.
Fishing is one of the main activities of the Ainu and they salt and dry the fish in the open.

Noboribetsu

Hokkaido has a lot of volcanic activity just like the rest of Japan. In the town of Noboribetsu, we could see a volcanic valley. There are also numerous hot springs located here.

Enter the valley of death if you dare...
Enter the valley of death if you dare…

We visited a samurai theme park. This looks like some kind of Japanese samurai film set. I think because it was winter and temperatures were freezing or below, there weren’t that many visitors.

Greeted by 2 not so fierce looking samurais at the front gate. And, do samurai wear glases?
Greeted by 2 not so fierce looking samurais at the front gate. And, do samurai wear glasses?
The park was largely deserted probably due to the extremely cold weather.
The park was largely deserted probably due to the extremely cold weather.
We were treated to performances by actors. But sadly we couldn't understand any of it, since it was all in Japanese.
We were treated to performances by actors. But sadly we couldn’t understand any of it, since it was all in Japanese.
A lovely winter scene near the samurai theme park.
A lovely winter scene near the samurai theme park.

Lake Toya

This was our premier onsen (hot spring) stop with a stay at a luxury hotel with outdoor onsen facilities. Lake Toya is itself a volcanic crater with an island in the center. There are numerous hotels around the edge of the crater lake, each with its own onsen.

Snow frosted rocks and Lake Toya in the background.
Snow frosted rocks and Lake Toya in the background.
The island in the center of the crater lake.
The island in the center of the crater lake.
Our onsen hotel.
Our onsen hotel.
Temperatures are always below freezing and icicles form everywhere there is water dripping.
Temperatures are always below freezing and icicles form everywhere there is water dripping.
Some local berries on the trees beside the lake.
Some local berries on the trees beside the lake.

For those who are unfamiliar with Japanese customs for onsen bathing, you have to be completely in the nude. No swim trunks or suits are allowed for hygiene reasons. Of course, for most of us this is quite a novel experience, but to the Japanese, this was normal. There are separate onsen facilities for males and females. I could see fathers and sons, and sometimes grandfathers all completely naked and soaking in the hot springs together. Same for the ladies.

So there I was soaking naked in the outdoor hot spring in the night. The air temperature was below freezing, snow flakes were falling on my face and I could see the stars in the night sky. As long as I kept my body submerged in the warm water, I wouldn’t freeze. The Japanese recommend that you soak yourself in the hot spring, then jump out and soak in the icy cold water, and repeat. This is supposed to improve your blood circulation, but I didn’t try it since that would probably put me in hospital.

To remind us of the power of nature, there was a new mountain created from volcanic activity.
To remind us of the power of nature, here is a new mountain created from volcanic activity. The Japanese call it Mt Showa Shinzan.
This mountain is pretty young by geographical standards.
This mountain is pretty young by geographical standards.
Stopping in the countryside for a photo stop on the way to our ski resort.
Stopping in the countryside for a photo stop on the way to our ski resort.

Rusutsu Ski Resort

There are many ski resorts in Hokkaido. The one that we stayed at is called Rusutsu. Prior to skiing, we had a snow shoe walk in the park around the resort. This was my first experience walking in snow shoes and also a snow storm. Walking in snow shoes requires you to walk with a certain technique to avoid getting stuck in the knee deep snow. Very soon, we all had aching muscles due to the unnatural gait.

A view of the ski slopes at Rusutsu.
A view of the ski slopes at Rusutsu.
The snow started to fall quite heavily in the middle of our walk.
The snow started to fall quite heavily in the middle of our walk.
Snow gets everywhere inside your clothes, then it melts and wets everything.
Snow gets everywhere inside your clothes, then it melts and wets everything.
After the snow storm had abated, I could only see our footprints in the snow.
After the snow storm had abated, I could only see our footprints in the snow.

After the snow walk and experiencing a snow storm, I felt that I had enough of snow for a life time. Sure, for folks like us from the tropics, snow is something exotic and something that we can only dream of. But in reality, it gets stuck into your hair, clothing and socks. After that it melts and everything gets wet and uncomfortable.

The winter wonderland scene in Rusutsu. This was the view out of my hotel room window.
The winter wonderland scene in Rusutsu. This was the view out of my hotel room window.
Hokkaido is famous for seafood, and we had a hearty buffet dinner that evening.
Hokkaido is famous for seafood, and we had a hearty buffet dinner that evening.
Huge scallop. I can't remember how many I ate.
Huge scallop. I can’t remember how many I ate.
Papa and baby snowmen.
Papa and baby snowmen.

 Otaru

This is a small harbor city and is well known for its picturesque architecture. It was quite a joy to walk the snow filled streets amongst Victorian era looking buildings. It certainly made me feel like I was in some European village instead of Japan.

The canal area of Otaru with its vintage architecture.
The canal area of Otaru with its vintage architecture. As you can see, it was snowing again.
Another snowfall with below freezing temperatures.
Another snowfall with below freezing temperatures.
We had our lunch stop. Here they have live crabs for sale.
We had our lunch stop. Here they have live crabs for sale.
The snow covered streets of Otaru. We had a walking tour of the town.
The snow covered streets of Otaru. We had a walking tour of the town.
The famous Music Box Museum.
The famous Music Box Museum.
There is a steam powered clock just outside the Music Box Museum.
There is a steam powered clock just outside the Music Box Museum.
You can find all kinds of music boxes inside the museum.
You can find all kinds of music boxes inside the museum.

Sapporo

This is the largest city in Hokkaido and also its capital. Most of the population of the island lives here and almost all of the commercial and industrial activities takes place here. The train and bus services from other parts of Japan also end here.

We visited a chocolate factory. I'm not sure how good are the chocolates, but the decoration of the place was quite nice with all the Christmas lights.
We visited a chocolate factory. I’m not sure how good are the chocolates, but the decoration of the place was quite nice with all the Christmas lights.
Merry Christmas in Japanese, I presume.
Merry Christmas in Japanese, I presume.
The Sapporo TV Tower in Odori Park. This is large park in the city's centre and is the main site of the Sapporo Snow Festival.
The Sapporo TV Tower in Odori Park. This is a large park in the city’s centre and is the main site of the Sapporo Snow Festival.
Nijo Market which is actually quite small. You can find fresh food here, especially seafood.
Nijo Market which is actually quite small. You can find fresh food here, especially seafood.
Fresh fish for sale.
Fresh fish for sale.
Crabs for sale too.
Cold water crabs for sale too.
One of our best meals was eating wagyu beef.
One of our best meals was eating wagyu beef.

Overall, Hokkaido offers a lot of activities all year round. The scenery changes from summer to winter. You can read a complete guide produced by HotelsCombined on where to stay during each season. The rugged wilderness of the island also offers a change of scene from the orderly and congested city life of Tokyo. I would probably make a visit again in summer season when opportunity arises.

9 thoughts on “Hokkaido in Winter

    1. Thanks for your post. I only spent a short time in Otaru (like 3 hrs only), so I don’t really have a favourite thing. I must say the numerous shops selling all kinds of novelty food were fun.

  1. Onsen bath seems a little bit extreme to me LOL not sure I will do that or not? hmmm.. Anyway cool post with lots of details. AA just started route to Sapporo, means its open for consideration hehe. Im just concerned with the language bit..

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