Go bird watching:
Winter in Hokkaido! The beautiful snow bunting (ユキホオジロ) is a wild Arctic bird that only appears in Hokkaido in winter. Hokkaido abounds in bird life and is a bird watcher and photographer's dream at anytime of the year and in any season! In winter the cold Siberian weather moves across Hokkaido and brings with it an abundance of winter birds.
Visit a Yuki Matsuri:
Japan excels at festival time and winter showcases some spectacular Yuki Matsuri (snow festivals) throughout a number of cities and prefectures, particularly on the northern most island of Hokkaido. The Sapporo Yuki Matsuri is held annually commencing from the first week of February. There are three main sites in Sapporo. These are situated at Odori Park, Susukino and Tsudome. Odori Park is the festival's main site and features huge snow and ice sculptures as well as a variety of food stalls and some small children's snow slides. Susukino is Sapporo's nightlife district with the main street featuring ice sculptures and hosting the annual Ice Sculpture Competition. Tsudome is a large outdoor area which includes an inside food court selling local food and an outdoor ice cafe. Outdoors there are many winter activities for everyone to enjoy. These include long ice slides for all ages, snow mobile rafting, snow zip lines and snow playground for young children. See my previous blog in February last year for further access and transport details plus information on more of Hokkaido's snow festivals.
Enjoy skiing, snowboarding and winter sports:
If you want powder snow then head to Hokkaido for some of the world's best powder snow and ski resorts! The huge amount of powder snow falling across Hokkaido is due to the winter winds crossing the Sea of Japan from Siberia.
Sapporo has two ski resorts that can be easily accessed from the city centre - Sapporo Teine and Sapporo Kokusai. Sapporo Teine is a small ski resort situated only 40 minutes from the city centre by train to JR Teine Station (10-15 minutes) and then another 30 minutes by JR bus to Teine Highland ski resort. Sapporo Kokusai can be easily accessed by shuttle bus from Sapporo and takes approximately one hour. Kokusai is popular with locals and can be very busy at weekends. Both resorts offer ski runs for families and beginners as well as large areas allowed for those seeking the adventure and thrill of off-piste skiing.
Resorts situated west of Sapporo include Niseko, Kiroro and Rusutsu. For many years Niseko has been the most popular Hokkaido ski resort for Australian skiers and snow boarders; famous for its constant and deep powder snow. Coaches run regularly in winter from Sapporo (approximately 3 hours) and also from New Chitose Airport, Alternatively you can take the train to Kutchan Station and then connect by bus to Niseko. Over the past 20 odd years I have seen Niseko grow from a small ski village to a large international winter resort with four interlinked ski resort areas. However in more recent years there has been a shift by Australians to discover Japan's famous powder snow by experiencing other ski resorts that are dotted throughout Hokkaido. Kiroro is a destination ski resort consisting of upmarket hotels offering a variety of winter snow activities. It does not have a village but is popular due to its abundance of snow and is also popular with family groups. There are coaches departing from Sapporo, New Chitose Airport and Otaru. Kiroro can also be enjoyed as a day trip from Niseko by taking the shuttle bus from Niseko (about one hour). Rusutsu is similar to Kiroro in that it is a destination ski resort without a true village. Rusutsu offers lots of activities for families and also incredible off-piste, tree skiing and heli skiing for experienced skiers and snowboarders.
Central Hokkaido resorts include Furano, Tomamu and Sahoro. Furano is a great option that combines all the facilities of a resort ski area as well as having the nearby traditional town of Furano with shops and restaurants. There is a choice of inns and hotels with the Furano Prince Hotel having ground floor ski-in/ski-out adjacent to the ski lifts and the delightful fairy light lit-up Ningle Terrace Arts and Crafts Village. Winter shuttle buses are available from New Chitose Airport and Sapporo (approximately 2.5 to 3 hours). The closest airport is Asahikawa Airport with shuttle buses taking 1 hour to Furano. Don't miss the famous Asahiyama Zoo in Asahikawa, featuring the daily march of the penguins and a large variety of winter animals such as polar bears and seals. Tomamu consists of two twin towers of the luxury hotel group, Hoshino Resorts and also Club Med Tomamu. The resort offers a small number of runs and terrain for all levels from beginners to advanced plus off-piste and tree skiing. The resort of Sahoro is similar to Tomamu offering a hotel and also Club Med Sahoro. Club Med Tomamu and Club Med Sahoro are both all inclusive resorts with meals, drinks, ski and snowboard lessons included plus lots of activities to appeal to all ages for a hassle free winter holiday.
Soak in an onsen hot spring:
If you love soaking in outdoor hot springs in the snow then you are going to love Hokkaido's onsen towns with outdoor foot baths and rotenburo baths!
One of Japan's best known onsen towns is Noboribetsu Onsen. This historical spa town is particularly famous for its natural spring waters that flow down from Jigokudani (Hell Valley).
This results in naturally created spring waters with more than nine different kinds of thermal water. Besides Jigokudani, you can also find nearby the town many famous historical sites, an aquarium, a horse park, a bear park, a folk museum and even an Edo-period theme park! The town features a variety of traditional ryokans and hotels with onsen baths as well as a public onsen in the centre of town. Noboribetsu can easily be accessed from Sapporo, New Chitose Airport or Hakodate. Noboribetsu Onsen Hot Spring Festival is celebrated every year in February.
Sounkyo Onsen is located in Daisetsuzan National Park and is surrounded by mountains. It is one of my most favourite onsen towns in Japan, which I have visited many times in winter. A particularly beautiful time to visit is in February during the Sounkyo Ice Waterfall Festival. Huge 13 metre high ice sculptures form tunnels and an ice palace to walk through. There are carved ice lanterns on the ground which are lit to navigate your way through the village of an evening and massive fireworks that light up the sky and reflect brilliant colours on the snow. Small and large ryokans feature a variety of onsen baths and many have outside rotenburo baths. The sudden rush of cold air as you open the bath-house door to the outdoor onsen, icicles hanging from exposed eaves and sinking into the hot spring water in the middle of a snow storm is a delightful memory of Hokkaido's winter onsen! You can catch a direct bus to Sounkyo from Sapporo, or from Asahikawa, with some ryokans providing a complimentary shuttle bus from Sapporo. Japan Rail trains also depart from Sapporo and Asahikawa however you do need to transfer to a bus at Kamikawa Station for the last 30 minutes to Sounkyo. I have used all methods of transport over the years with, of course, the direct bus (public or complimentary) being the easiest. However if you are holding a Japan Rail Pass or Hokkaido Rail Pass then the train is also easy and the most economical.
Jozankei Onsen is a very popular onsen town as it is situated inside Shikotsu-Toya National Park only an hour from Sapporo. Due to its closeness to Sapporo it has grown to be a rather large onsen town with dozens of ryokan, some allowing day visitors to pay to enter their baths.
Toyako Onsen is situated beside Lake Toya, one of the most beautiful caldera lakes in Japan formed by ancient volcanic activities. There are over 50 spring sources that flow from Toyohira River to Toyako Onsen. These spring waters contain abundant minerals including sodium chloride, sodium bicarbonate and sulphur. There are many large luxury hotels bordering the lake with rooms offering private hot spring baths and beautiful views of the lake. As well as private and public onsen the lake's promenade features onsen foot baths. I think winter is the best season to visit Lake Toya with beautiful snowy views of the lake, wild birds, winter illumination and fireworks to enjoy.
See the drift ice on an Abashiri icebreaker ship:
Travel from Sapporo through Asahikawa and on to Abashiri on Hokkaido's north-eastern coast. Abashiri is famous for drift ice in the Sea of Okhotsk. The drift ice forms in winter in Russia and is blown onto the northern coastline of Japan. In late January don't miss taking the drift ice sightseeing cruise on the icebreaking ship Aurora. Along with the massive ice flow many winter animals including deer, foxes, seals and an abundance of birds can also be seen resting on the ice.
I stayed in an onsen resort located in the vast wilderness of Abashiri in the middle of winter.
A blizzard was blowing when the train pulled up at Abashiri Station and snow was heavy on the ground and piled high around buildings. I had phoned ahead and the resort sent a complimentary car and driver to collect us from Abashiri Station. We chatted to the driver and I mentioned we were going to the Abashiri Prison Museum in the morning. He then made a diversion and took us across a small bridge and to the front door of the current Abashiri Prison, relocated in 1984 from the original site. Similar to San Francisco's Alcatraz Prison the original, isolated prison was Japan's most notorious and most feared prison for almost 100 years. Only the most hardened criminals were brought to this forbidding place on the Okhotsk Sea amidst the harsh winters that bring the Siberian drift ice to its shore. Arriving at the resort we were welcomed warmly, enjoyed a huge multi course Japanese dinner, tip toed out into the snow for a steaming hot onsen bath and then snuggled into our cosy futons. The snow was heavy the next day however we had sightseeing to do, mainly the fascinating Abashiri Prison Museum and the Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples (a small museum that focuses on the culture of not only Japan's indigenous Ainu people but also all northern people from Lapland through to Siberia. If you have the time I can highly recommend travelling across Hokkaido to this beautiful and isolated area.
Written by Rondell Herriot, Co-Managing Director Saizen Tours
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