Welcome to Hokkaido
If you are SOFA status based in Okinawa or mainland Japan you are probably wondering what are the must see’s in Hokkaido ?
Making list like this is like trying to pick your 10 favorite songs. It probably does and should change all the time but here are Niseko Military leaves top 10 things that have stood the test of time as great destinations.
Some are well known and others could still be considered ” secret spots ” from a tourism point of view.
The following are in no particularly order and we have tried to find a balance between summer and winter activities.
We have left out the sights and sounds of Sapporro city and Otaru as our focus is on wilderness experiences and adventure travel but if shopping is more your thing then Sapporo city just around central station and Odori place would also get a special mention.
1. The Sapporo Snow festival
The Sapporo snow festival has something for the whole family and prior to covid was becoming an international icon and dare we say it almost a victim of it’s own success.
The Sapporo snow festival first started in 1950 , when local middle and high school students created six snow sculptures in Odori Park. By 1959 over 15,000 participants were involved in construction of ice and snow sculptures and it started to draw hundreds of thousands of guests. By 2020 over 2 million tourists walked the main strip of city and enjoyed the festival.
Early February each year the entire main street from Odori park to Susukino are transformed by 30 foot ice and snow sculptures that literally now takes an army ( Japanese self defense force ) to prepare and model. But it’s not just the sculptures you can enjoy traditional street food and music, watch snowboarding demonstrations and do some great shopping.
Sadly due to the covid but the 2020 and 2021 Sapporo Snow Festivals were canceled but in some good news the 72nd Sapporo Snow Festival scheduled for 2022 has been confirmed to be running and will occur in Odori Park and Susukino from Feb 5th- Saturday 12th of Feb ( Subject to covid conditions)
We recommend you start your experience in the afternoon and go through into the evening so you can see the transition from day to night take affect and witness the amazing light shows. Remember to dress really warm, on a cold night in Sapporro it’s almost impossible to have too many clothes ( particularly for kids ) take your clothes, down jackets, belaclavas and thick gloves.
Entry to festival site is free and to get their from Sapporro station take the subway 2 stops up to Odori station and then walk you way up to Susukio. Directions are well marked and easy to follow during the festival times.
If you are on a budget you may wish to consider booking a hotel just out of the main drag and getting a train into the action. Prior to covid prices were getting very high for inner city hotels over the festival time.
For more information there is a great official English website here
2. White water rafting in Niseko
What water rafting has been a Niseko icon with summer sport lovers for generations and there are no shortage of qualified guides to navigate you safely down the rapids of the Sheribetsu river.
This beast of a river is feed from the snow melt from the mightly mount Yotie and other large ranges and it spans 126 Km and it moves about 72 cubic meters of water each second.
The rivers proximity to Niseko means it’s a great option to combine with a Niseko family holiday and take advantage of the cheaper prices on offer . In mid spring around late April it’s peak flow is considered a grade 3-4 rapid making it suitable for adrenaline junkies seeking a real thrill whilst it summer and autumn it mellow out to a grade 1-2 giving good options for families to take advantage of the breathtaking views whilst not giving the kiddies PTSD.
Our 2 recommend providers for this experience are Lion Adventures and NAC. Both are industry leaders and have an excellent safety record.
3. Skiing Rusutsu
Rusutsu is less famous than it’s sibling Niseko just 40 minutes drive away but there are some very good reasons why you should consider some time at Rusutsu.
Built back in the boom of the ” Mercedes 80’s ” in Japan no expense was spared in construction of the Rusutsu resort with it’s own theme park, indoor kids rids and slightly creepy trumpet playing robots.
But really the reason you want to consider Rusutsu is the quality of the snow when you take into account the crowd factors.
With Niseko bathing in it’s international glory powder hounds were finding empty runs and untracked backcountry well into the afternoon at Rusutsu. If you snow skiing or boarding is thing, and only your thing you may be tempted to give Niseko a miss in the busy years and head straight to Rusutsu.
Another great option is to add a trip to Rusutsu before or after your trip to Niseko.
For more information here is link to the Rusutsu resort
4. Nikka Whiskey distillery in Yoichi
The story of Nikka Whiskey is interesting as the whiskey itself.
It started with a man named Masataka Taketsuru who was born into family of sake brewers. After trying Scottish Whiskey he become obsessed with trying to recreate the complex flavors of peated whiskey and traveled to Scotland where he became an apprentice at James Calder and even enrolled at the University of Glasgow to study chemistry.
All these things would be pretty unremarkable if the year was not 1918. Travel between the Japan and the West at this point was still very rare and it’s hard to imagine the hardships he would have endured. Not to mention he decided to Marry a Scottish lass and bring her back to Japan right through the middle of world war 2.
But what is really remarkable is the Yoichi Whiskey itself.
Blending Japanese attention to detail and respect for tradition with Scottish know-how developed over centuries has lead to whiskey that continues to win awards to this day. Nikka won ” Worlds best blended malt ” at the international spirits challenge in 2019. To this day ” Yoichi single malt ” remains my favorite entry level whiskey that drinks better than many other whiskeys twice the price or even higher.
5. Lake Toya
Lake Toya is only a 45 minute drive from Niseko and Niseko ML highly recommends you do not miss the chance to see it when you come and visit Niseko. It’s spectacular both through summer and winter.
Formed out of the remnants of an old volcano and surrounded by one that’s still a little active you quickly realise you are in a very special space.
The water here can be very cold with the lake having average depths of 117 metres with it’s deepest point being 180 metres but many brave Hokkaido locals still see it as a great chance to cool of the summers.
There are some great options to add on to a trip to lake Toya such as a walk around the volcanic ruins where an eruption of Mount Usu that occurred on the 31st of March 2000. There is also a ferry service that takes you to the island in the centre of the lack and has some great views as you get there.
Below is google maps link for the departure point of the ferry
6. Ski Niseko
This one is dear to our hearts. You never forget your first love and for many including us the reason for coming to Hokkaido in the first place was to ski Niseko.
With over 48km of ski runs there is always something to discover even for us locals that have been riding here for years. Niseko won “Japan’s best ski resort ” in 2014 and also has many awards under it’s belt.
There is also an ” X factor ” about Niseko. Maybe it’s the onsens, the food, the backdrop of Mount Yotei hovering over the town or the vibe of the ski town in full swing, peppered with the rich and famous. But we still feel it here once winter comes alive and we hope you get the chance to too.
Niseko United is made up by 4 individuals resorts that climb the sides of the impressive Mount Annupuri and meet at the summit. This means that you can always find a side of the mountain that is most favorable to the wind, light and snowfall that has occurred. In short a trip to Niseko means you have a very high change of experiencing amazing Japanese powder snow.
It’s also a great place to visit if you Japanese is not up standard with the resort and surrounding restaurants being well catered towards an international English speaking audience.
Most of the nightlife and and slope activities centre around the lower Hirafu village. It is serviced by 2 convenience and for a larger range of food the town of Kutchan is an easy 10 minute drive away. Grand Hirafu is the largest resort and still considered the heart and soul of Niseko
A google map of the base of the Grand Hirafu lift is shown below
You can learn more about military discounts for Niseko ski trips on the link below
7. Climbing Mount Yotei
Mount Yotei is undisputed king of the Niseko landscape and was regarded highly by the traditional Ainu people of the area. It’s still classfied as an “Active ” volcano but has not seen an eruption since over 1000 BC. Towering at over 1800 metres it’s Hokkaido’s answer to mount Fuji and you will no doubt spend coutless time staring up at it.
But for others that’s not enough.
Only a summit will really suffice for their Yotei experience and they will be rewarded with a birds eye view of the crater on it’s summit and take it it’s 360 degree views of the area.
In summer it is a demanding but manageable 8 hour return hike and it winter it transforms to a serious backcountry adventure where you can ski or snowboard back down to the base. It’s a popular winter backcountry activity but you do need the safety gear and backcountry training to navigate your way back down in one piece.
There is also an option to stay in a hut near the summit for a small reasonable fee. ( currently closed due to covid )
Whatever your season make sure you research the local weather conditions and ideally use a guide or at least take an experienced local up there with you. When the weather turns ugly at the top of Yotei it can turn real ugly !
A trusted and recommended resource for both summer and winter routes up Mount Yotei is the Hokkaido wilds website
A google maps to the start of the Hirafu route is shown below
8. Yukichichibu Onsen
Yukichichibu is Niseko Military Leaves recommendation for a traditional Onsen experience in Hokkaido although there are many amazing Onsens to chose from.
Located high above Niseko it can be little dodgy to get up there during the heavy snowfalls of the winter months but those that brave the journey are rewarded with a truly remarkable Onsen experience.
Yukichichibu features a mud bath for ladies and is located near a natural volcanic pond with the strong sulphuric scent that reminds you that this is a very special place. The water here has a very high mineral content such that the water here matches it’s onsight ramen. Thick, soupy and rich.
The average 40 degree temperatures are the perfect combination to relieve tired stressed and sometimes cold bodies and and I’m sure you will agree any story told in an Onsen becomes infinitely more interesting.
Unfortunately Tattoos are still forbidden in traditional onsens such as Yukichichibu so if you have anything other than a very small one you may want to give this experience a miss.
If your new to onsens to worth taking the time to get to know some of the etique around their use and remember to be a little quiet in your conversation and manner once inside. The website below has some great tips on how to get the most out of the onsen experience.
You will need a car to get to Yukichichibu.
Below is a google Maps link to Yukichichibu Onsen,
The blue pond
The blue pond is located a few hours drive north of the city of sapporro and somewhat of a distance to most of the other must see’s on this list.
We certainly don’t recommend just driving all that way for one attraction but if you are doing a road trip around Hokkaido it’s quite likely you will find yourself in the Furano area and the blue bond is definitely worthy of a stop.
It’s a also a bit of a funny story.
The blue pond was never meant to be a tourist attraction. It started it’s journey as a man made overflow reserve designed to take the pressure of the river should there be an eruption. However natural minerals from the rock leached into the water and with the forest now poking up through the crystal blue water makes for a shutter bugs dream.
Further information can be found on the Shirogane visitors center on the link below
A google maps link for Shirogane blue pond is shown below
10. The Niseko Food festival
The first Niseko food festival was launched in 2017 and it has been growing rapidly ever since. A brainchild of the Niseko tourism board it involves all of Niseko’s hospitality and entertainment community coming together right on harvest season so it’s Hokkaido fresh.
About fifteen of Niseko’s most famous restaurants and bars will showcase their special dishes for the festival using the freshest autumn harvest produce. Different live performances every day from local musicians also make it a great festival for letting your hair down and seeing the local culture in full bloom.
You can chose between woodfired pizzas, authentic indian curries or go for more of the modern Japanese fusion coming out of Niseko. There are also a number of local beer breweries also ready to strut their stuff as well as ginger beer and other non alcoholic options.
As a Niseko resident myself the Niseko food festival is now the major community event on our calender
The festival currently operates right in the heart of Hirafu and google maps link is below.
The Niseko food festival also features in our upcoming Autumn adventure tour
What about when ?
We hope that covers some of the why to visit Hokkaido.
In regards to when read our blog on this topic on the link below