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I’m a big fan of winter. I love snow, winter sports and sunny cold days that turn into bright starry nights. I’m always up for winter experiences anywhere in the world. When the chance came to visit Hokkaido and Tokyo, Japan, during the coldest months of the year, I jumped at it. I knew winter there would be different than at home in Canada and was delighted to find how true this is. After all, isn’t that why we travel? My guide to 11 unconventional things to do in Hokkaido in winter shows why spending winter in Hokkaido, Japan, is the same, yet wonderfully, beautifully different.

hokkaido mountain in winter

Where is Hokkaido

Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands. It’s located to the north of Honshu, the largest and most populous of Japan’s islands. 

Hokkaido is separated from Honshu by the Tsugaru Strait to the south, and from Russia’s Sakhalin Island by the Soya Strait.

The Sea of Okhotsk is to the north of Hokkaidoʼs coast. This is where seasonal ice floes arrive in winter, creating impacts on the local climate and providing unique adventure opportunities for visitors. The largest cities are Sapporo, Asahikawa, Hakodate and Kushiro.

How cold is Hokkaido in winter

Similar to cold weather regions in Canada and the United States, winters in Hokkaido can get downright chilly. Average winter temperatures in Eastern Hokkaido are around -4C (21F) but can drop down to -30C (-22F) when an Arctic flow comes to town. During my January visit, evening temperatures dipped to -20C but rose to -5C during sunny daytime hours. 

mt oakan in akan hokkaido

Is Hokkaido worth visiting in winter

Yes! If you love winter activities at home, you’ll love them in Hokkaido too. With the added benefit of getting to enjoy delicious Japanese food and outstanding onsens.

Even if you’re winter-phobic, I wager Hokkaido’s winter will win you over, simply based on the opportunity to warm up in an onsen.

11 Things to do in Hokkaido in winter

Go birding

At the Akan International Crane Centre outside of Kushiro, visitors can view beautiful and endangered, red-crowned cranes, tancho, eating dried corn in the fields during the winter months. There are around 2,000 tancho in Hokkaido. As spring approaches, the cranes perform elegant dances and mating rituals to attract mates. In breeding season, the elegant and stately birds move to the nearby wetlands to hatch and raise their young.

red crowned crane walking on snow hokkaido

At the Crane Centre I was introduced to the adorable long-tailed tit, or Shima Enaga bird. This tiny white ‘snow fairy’ may well be Japan’s cutest bird. I plan to return to Hokkaido to find it in the wild.

shima enaga bird in the wild

The Institute for Raptor Biomedicine Japan, also north of Kushiro, specializes in raptor rescue and rehabilitation. Dr. Yukiko Watanabe, DVM, and her team help endangered species like the White Tailed Eagle, Blakiston’s fish Owl, and Steller’s Sea Eagle recover from injuries sustained by trains, wind turbines and human predation. Birds are released back into the wild if they can be successfully rehabilitated. Otherwise, they live out their days at the Institute, where the public can visit them and learn more about these magnificent raptors.

Visit active volcanoes

There are few places where you can drive within 100 feet of an active volcano, but Hokkaido is one of them. Mt Io, or Iozan (lit. “Sulfur Mountain”) is an active volcano near Kawayu Onsen. Mt. Io is a sulfur mountain (io means sulphur) with many bubbling hot spring and steaming volcanic vents. Visitors can walk up to them (though don’t get too close). It’s an awe-inspiring sight. You’re literally witnessing the earth vent itself. 

Unique refreshments and souvenirs are available from the Iozan Visitor Center. At the gravity-fed Kawayu Onsen, the water’s PH is very high, so all metallic items must be removed before you dip into its therapeutic waters.

sulphur vents at mt io

Experience ice canoeing 

Winter canoeing is similar to summer canoeing. It’s peaceful and calm, just colder, which means dressing up warmly in layers, mittens and hats. Canoeing along the unfrozen Kushiro River in Kushiro Shitsugen National Park connects you with nature and permits some really outstanding birding. We spotted a Stellar Sea Eagle, Kingfishers, Crested Kingfishers, mallard ducks, and a black kite hawk. As it’s winter, frost blooms in the shoreline ice, creating delicate ‘frost flowers’ and frozen icicles dripping from tree branches.

two people canoes on kushiro river in winter
frost flowers form on kushiro river

Snowshoe at Lake Mashu and Lake Shikotsu

There are myriad places to enjoy great snowshoe hiking in Hokkaido. Hiking in the snow around Lake Mashu’s beautiful deep blue, sometimes described as “Mashu Blue” is a scenic winter walk. You’ll surely spot many deer who scour the snowy ground for hard-to-find green shoots.

cloudy lake mashu

At Lake Shikotsuko near Chitose, put on microspikes to walk and descend down the snowy path fringed with Sakelin fir trees towards the frozen “Nanajo Ootaki” or great waterfalls. This stunning winter wonderland of giant blue icicles and half-frozen water is a must see. To get here, book a half day trip excursion with Ocean Days in Lake Shikotsuko.

Lake Shikotsuko is encircled by mountains, one of which is Mount Tarumae. Tarumae ranks among Japan’s most active volcanoes and most recently erupted in 1981. While we were snowshoeing near the lake, we noticed the mountain venting a large white cloud of steam. 

lady in red coat snowshoeing at lake mashu

Experience onsen culture in Hokkaido in winter

I was looking very forward to experiencing a Japanese onsen during my visit and was lucky to visit several in Hokkaido. They did not disappoint. I absolutely loved the freedom of the onsen experience, especially sitting in an outdoor hot spring pool while it snowed. Heaven.

What is an onsen? It’s a term used in Japan to refer to a type of hot spring. Usually a natural hot spring heated by geothermal activity, typically located in mountainous regions. The water from an onsen is said to have therapeutic properties. Many Japanese and visitors enjoy visiting onsen resorts to relax and soak in the hot water.

In addition to the physical benefits, onsen also offer a unique cultural experience in Japan. Many onsen have been in operation for centuries and are an important part of Japanese tradition. 

Visitors to onsen are typically expected to follow certain etiquette, such as bathing naked in separate gender-specific areas and washing thoroughly before entering the hot spring. Onsen resorts often offer a variety of amenities, including restaurants, traditional Japanese inns (ryokan), and massage services.

Note: Photography is not allowed in onsens. I was permitted to take this outdoor shot as we were the only ones there.

onsen hot spring in japan

Onsens in Eastern Hokkaido

Hokkaido has the largest number of hot springs in Japan, with 250+ hot spring resorts. Each has an abundance of hot spring water and a wide variety of hot water types (spring qualities). While I couldn’t visit them all, here are some of my favorites.

Akan Yuku no Sato Tsuruga is a luxury hotel overlooking Lake Akan. It has two large and unique outdoor hot spring baths located on the first floor and rooftop of the hotel. The secluded bath on the first floor overlooks the lake shore. The bath on roof has scenic views of the lake as well as the surrounding mountains and forests. Both the onsen baths are open 24 hours a day, and switch gender access at set points throughout the day. This ensures that everyone gets an opportunity to enjoy both onsen experiences.

At the gravity-fed Kawayu Onsen inside Akan Mashu National Park, the hot spring water’s pH of 1.4 is very high. So all metallic items must be removed before you dip into its therapeutic waters. Not keen to bathe in your birthday suit? There is a free public foot bath near the Eco Museum Center in the town.

The Marukoma Onsen is a historical ryokan on Lake Shikotsuko with unique hot spring baths that are also open to non-staying visitors. The baths are located right along the lakeshore and are connected to the lake by small canals, allowing for an exchange between the pools’ hot water and the lake’s cool water. Marukoma also has conventional hot spring pools, which are gender segregated.

As if that’s not enough

Shikotsu Lake tsuruga resort spa Mizunouta is a modern resort spa hotel on Lake Shikotsuko. It’s home to a small but relaxing onsen with a delightful private outdoor hot spring pool area. The water here is known as Bijin no Yu, ‘water of the beautiful,’ as the water is soft, with moisturizing properties for the skin. 

Ice fishing on Lake Akan

Ice fishing is a popular winter activity in Hokkaido. In the beautiful Lake Akan region, the fish of choice is wakasagi, or Japanese pond smelt.

The fish is tiny but the thrill of sensing the small tug of the fish at the lake bottom creates big excitement. We were warm and cosy in a fishing cabin complete with woodstove, wooden floor and chairs as we waited for the fish to bite.

After fishing, take your wakasagi to the lakeside tempura restaurant, where the chef batters and flash fries the fish for you for a near-instant snack. Then work off your fish fry by skating around the frozen loop on Lake Akan.

lady in red coat ice fishing on lake akan hokkaido

Kayak and SUP on the Shikotsuko River

Winter kayaking and paddleboarding? It’s a thing in Lake Shikotsuko because the lake is so deep it never freezes, and neither does its river.

Of course, you will have to pull on a dry suit because the water is -2°C and hypothermia with set in quickly if you fall into the water. But having donned a dry suit, booties and gloves, you’ll be ready to paddle either kayak or board on the river, where there can be a bit of a current at times. 

But it’s peaceful listening to birds and watching deer make their way up and down to the river, and a great way to connect to nature in winter.

lady in blue hat paddle boarding in hokkaido in winter

Take a walk on the ice

Hokkaido’s cold winters mean frozen lakes suitable for walking, skating and snowmobiling. In Lake Akan, rise early for a sunrise walk on the ice in search of frozen air bubbles under the snow. When you place your phone right on the ice to take a photo, the bubbles appear to go on for infinity – it’s incredible. See what I mean?

ice bubbles on lake akan

Hokkaido is also home to a unique winter activity, the ‘drift-ice walk.’ Participants wearing dry suits walk on drift ice floes (known as ryuhyo), usually in the Shiretoko area of eastern Hokkaido, on the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk. 

The drift ice floats usually appaers around late January. Guided tours permit guests to dip and float (carefully) in the sea, taking photos of themselves on top of the 70-cm-thick drift ice.

Not keen on a frozen dip? Observe the drift ice at close range on a boat cruise tour. Popular vessels include the Aurora with capacity for about 400 passengers, and the icebreaker Garinko-go II, which has equipment to bust a path through the drift ice. Be on the lookout for bird and sealife, like seals and Stellar Sea Eagles. Reservations should be booked in advance.

ice blocks on shore in northern hokkaido

Marvel at the Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival

Sapporo’s Snow Festival may be larger and more famous outside of Japan, but you can’t beat the location and colorful magic of the Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival. This annual festival takes place from late January to late February. 

This magical winter celebration is a frozen wonderland of ice towers, mazes, tunnels and icy birch forests. The Festival’s creators use sustainable birch branches and trunks to fashion the tower sand maze structures. At night, everything is illuminated in a colorful and beautiful show. The festival includes fun events like ice slides, Japanese food booths and skating.

person standing in ice blue tunnel at Shikotsuko ice festival

Go skiing in Hokkaido

Hokkaido is one of the best places to ski in Japan, with a variety of fantastic mountain resorts inviting skiers and riders to enjoy epic dry powder conditions.

Niseko is perhaps the most well-known ski resort in Hokkaido, famous for its consistent snowfall, variety of accommodation and powder snow. It’s located near Sapporo in the western part of Hokkaido and is made up of four interconnected ski areas. 

Furano: Located in central Hokkaido and is known for its wide slopes and long runs. It has beginner and advanced ski runs and is a popular destination for families.

Rusutsu: Located in western Hokkaido and is known for its tree runs and off-piste skiing. It has a variety of courses for all levels and is also popular for its amusement park.

Kiroro: Located in western Hokkaido and is known for its deep powder snow and uncrowded slopes. It has a mix of beginner, intermediate, and advanced courses.

Tomamu: Found in central Hokkaido and is known for its modern facilities and wide runs. It has a variety of courses for all levels, as well as a large indoor wave pool.

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Disclosure: The writer thanks JTB Corp. Hokkaido Branch for hosting her stay in Hokkaido. As always, her love of Shima Enaga birds, onsens and Japan are honest and her own.

Photos: Claudia Laroye; Pixabay

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