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Hokkaido in winter: top 5 highlights

Hokkaido in winter: top 5 highlights

Soaring skyscrapers, dazzling neon lights and high-speed bullet trains packed with commuters may spring to mind when you think of Japan. However Hokkaido, the country’s northernmost major island, is better known for snow-capped volcanoes, hot springs and winter sports.
 Illuminated ice cave at Sapporo Snow Festival. Photo: Shutterstock
Illuminated ice cave at Sapporo Snow Festival. Photo: Shutterstock

Hokkaido in Japan may freeze in winter, but this vibrant destination for winter sports and sightseeing really embraces the cold. Take a look at our guide to Japan's northernmost major island in winter and discover the Hokkaido highlights.

1. Sapporo Snow Festival

Sapporo Snow Festival is held in February and truly celebrates Hokkaido winter weather. The festival started with students building snow statues in Odori Park in 1950 and it's now a major international event. 

Around 2 million people attend each year and enormous ice and snow sculptures are still the biggest draw, with Odori Park alone displaying up to 400 of them. They're also seen at Sapporo Community Dome and on Susukino. And for an idea of the creative scale, think frozen Taj Mahal replicas and anime characters soaring up to 15m. 

During the festival, Tsudome offers snow slides. And you'll also find snowfields where visitors can ride rubber rafts towed by snowmobiles. The festival was virtual in 2021 and, although the 2022 event may go ahead, it's expected to be a scaled-down version.  

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2. Hokkaido drift ice tours

The Sea of Okhotsk is another winter attraction. It's northeast in Hokkaido and known for drift ice which can be seen from January to April between Monbetsu and the Shiretoko Peninsula. 

For the best views take a boat tour. The Aurora icebreaker ship regularly departs from Abashiri during winter. And as it breaks through the drift ice on the Sea of Okhotsk, passengers on deck can actually feel the impact. Remember, temperatures are -10°C, so bundle up well. 

If you want to know more about drift ice, visit Okhotsk Ryuhyo Museum in Abashari. Not only is the phenomena explained here, the Experience Room features real drift ice and an observation deck overlooks both the Sea of Okhotsk and the Shiretoko Peninsula.

To make an early start on your drift ice adventures, think about staying overnight at Hokuten no Oka Abashiriko Tsuruga Resort in Abashiri.

View behind the icebreaker ship on a drift ice tour in Hokkaido, JapanView behind the icebreaker ship on a drift ice tour in Hokkaido, Japan. Photo: Shutterstock

3. Delve into Hokkaido’s winter food

Hokkaido is known for quality seafood and abundant vegetables. Game is big here too, and sika deer are hunted in the region from October to January - sika deer meat is lean, protein-rich and full-flavoured.

Other regional specialities include Tsukemono pickled dishes and Izushi fermented fish. But don't miss Sapporo taikyu. These huge green cabbages are prized for their thick, crunchy texture and they're another Hokkaido vegetable you'll often find pickled.

If you're intrigued by Hokkaido cuisine in winter and hungry for more unusual tastes, think about taking an Insight Guides Food Experience Tour in Japan

4. Winter sports in Hokkaido

Hokkaido offers Japan's best winter sports as snow falls here for an astonishing six month from November onwards. 

Niseko is a popular destination for quality powder-snow and offers five ski resorts. The largest resort, Grand Hirafu, has a total of30 ski runs to suit all levels of skiers and snowboarders, as well as dedicated runs for beginners and families. 

Onsen thermal spas are the Japanese version of après-ski and allow you to soak tired muscles in natural hot spring baths while admiring the surrounding snowy landscape. To enjoy the soothing experience in Hokkaido, stay at Country Resort Niseko, close to skiing and hot springs. 

Biei, Japan at Aoike Blue Pond in winterBiei, Japan at Aoike Blue Pond in winter. Photo: Shutterstock

5. Shirogane Blue Pond

Shirogane Blue Pond near Biei is a must-see in Hokkaido. This manmade pond, famous for its intense blue waters, is a by-product of the Biei River dam, which was built after the volcanic eruption of nearby Mount Tokachi.

The unusual blue colour is caused by aluminium deposits from the Shirahige waterfall, and birch and larch trees protrude from the pond's surface. It's lit up in winter until 9pm and when it freezes, snow on the pond's surface creates a dream-like effect.

To see the remarkable Shirogane Blue Pond, day and night, stay close by at Shirogane Park Hills in Biei. It's a perfect base for pond gazing and other extraordinary winter adventures in Hokkaido. 

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