It’s the time of the year where many people are planning their winter vacation to Hokkaido! And this is when I often get questions from confused travelers on where they should visit, how to get around, which ski resort to go etc. Basically how to even get started?
I don’t blame them. The things about Hokkaido is, it changes rapidly over a year. What you see at the start of a month may be gone by the end of the month. It’s like cherry blossoms. Now you see it, now you don’t. A trip done at the start of winter, would be vastly different from a trip done at the end of winter.
To get you started, so that you don’t waste time planning an itinerary and later finding out it simply doesn’t work for your travel dates, let me try to guide you into what you should consider when you plan your first Winter vacation to Hokkaido.
When to go
Hokkaido’s winter is long. Some would say half a year long, from November to April. Personally, I consider November and April as ‘change of season’ time. And if you ask me, change for season time is NOT a good time to visit Hokkaido. If I have time, I will write a post on what you can do in Hokkaido if you have no choice but to visit during those periods. But for this post, let’s focus on WINTER, which to me is December to March.
My big question to you: What is your interest?
The first thing you need to consider is, what do you want to do in Hokkaido? Do you want to ski? Sightsee? Visit festivals? See animals? WHAT?? Don’t be greedy and tell me you want to do everything. It’s not possible, unless you want to spend the entire winter there. Hokkaido is HUGE and the activities are spread out across the months. FOCUS!
Answer 1: I want to ski / snowboard!
If that’s the case, you can go anytime from December to March. But let me state upfront that if skiing is your interest, you are at the wrong place. This is my personal blog and I don’t ski. So I can’t give good advice on this. I can recommend you the following readings from one of my preferred travel sites, Kids on Board (because I always have kids on board. Like hellooo… My URL says bumble bee MUM. But don’t worry, I welcome questions from readers who are not travelling with kids too!):
Answer 2: I want to play with ice slides! Snow tubes! Ice sledding! Ice rafting! Snow mobile! blah blah blah…
If snow activities as such are what you are after, you should go in January – February. The major ski resorts would have their snow parks (ice slides / snow tubing lanes) up by January. In fact, in February, you don’t even need to go to ski resorts to play with ice slides and snow tubes – they are everywhere! Tourist attractions (e.g. Shiroi Koibito Park) build their own mini ice slides / snow tubing lanes in their premises.
December is a tad too early for these snow activities. Unfortunately, Singaporeans with school-going kids can only travel in December.. right? So if you want to up your chances of enjoying these activities but are restricted to December holidays, push your trip as far back to the end of December as you possibly can.
The only place I encountered snow slides and snow tubing in early December during my December 2014 trip was at TOMAMU. Which is why I always recommend readers to go Tomamu for December trips. Not because Tomamu pays me. (I wish! If I got paid for every reader I recommended to go Tomamu, I can probably afford my next Hokkaido vacation by now.)
Answer 3: I want to see the snow festivals!
In this case, the best time to visit is the week of Sapporo Snow Festival (5 to 11 Feb every year). But you can expect accommodation prices to be sky high during this time.
Besides the Sapporo Snow Festival, many other cities in Hokkaido have their own festivals. So even if you travel outside of the Sapporo Snow Festival period, you can still catch other snow festivals.
The actual dates of the festivals vary year to year. But as a rough guide, here are the dates from the past 2 years, sorted by region:
|Area||2013-14 Season||2014-15 Season|
|Sapporo Snow Festival||Central Hokkaido||5/2 – 11/2||5/2 – 11/2|
|Otaru Snow Light Path
||Central Hokkaido||7/2 – 16/2||6/2 – 15/2|
|Chitose-Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival||Central Hokkaido||24/1 – 16/2||30/1 – 22/2|
|Showa Shinzan Snowball Fight||Central Hokkaido||22/2 – 23/2||28/2 – 1/3|
|Onuma – Hakodate Snow & Ice Festival||Southern Hokkaido||1/2 – 2/2||7/2 – 8/2|
|Asahikawa Winter Festival||Northern Hokkaido||6/2 – 11/2||6/2 – 11/2|
|Sounkyo Ice Fall Festival||Northern Hokkaido||18/1 – 30/3||24/1 – 29/3|
|Tomamu Ice Village||Eastern Hokkaido||29/11 – 22/3|
|Obihiro Ice Festival||Eastern Hokkaido||31/1 – 2/2||6/2 – 8/2|
|Lake Shikaribetsu Ice Kotan||Eastern Hokkaido||25/1 – 31/3||24/1 – 22/3|
|Tokachigawa Swan Festival Sairinka||Eastern Hokkaido||24/1 – 1/3||24/1 – 1/3|
|Abashiri Okhotsk Drift Ice Festival||Eastern Hokkaido||8/2 – 11/2||7/2 – 11/2|
|Shiretoko Fantasia||Eastern Hokkaido||5/2 – 12/3||5/2 – 12/3|
|Lake Akan Ice Festival Fuyu-Hanabi||Eastern Hokkaido||2/1 – 16/3||31/1 – 15/3|
|Kawayu Diamond Dust||Eastern Hokkaido||23/1 – 24/130/1 – 31/11/2 – 28/2|
(And hello, if you plan to copy and paste the above information anywhere, like TripAdvisor forum or Hardwarezone forum or your own blog, I honestly cannot stop you. But at least give credit by linking back to this page okay? I spent a long time sieving through the internet in Japanese to gather all these dates.)
What I want to highlight in the table above is that, you can see that the festivals take place throughout the whole of Hokkaido, and the dates can vary as much as one week from year to year. But as long as you travel any time from February to March, there will be some festivals for you to catch.
Answer 4: I want to take the ice breaker cruise!
Now.. this one requires a bit of luck. Ice-breaker cruises operate from end January till April. For e.g. The Icebreaker ship Aurora at Abashiri ran from 20 Jan to 5 April 2015. But even if you go during this period, there is no guarantee you will be able to see drift ice When I visited Abashiri / Monbetsu for 2 days in March 2010 for the purpose of taking the ice-breaker cruise at either city (I thought staying longer would up my chances), there was NO drift ice in sight for the whole of those 2 days. Whereas on a random day in February 2010 when we took the Ryuhyo Norokko train, we saw drift ice from the train. So you can plan to be at Abashiri / Monbetsu any time in February – March, but remember there is no guarantee.
Answer 5: I want to see the penguin parade!
The penguin parade at Asahiyama Zoo is again a popular must-visit on many people’s itinerary. BUT, be mindful that it only starts in end December. They cannot give an exact starting date because it is weather-dependent. As a rough guide, here are the starting and ending dates for the penguin parade for some of the years:
|Start date for penguin parade||End date for penguin parade|
|15 Dec 2005||26 March 2006|
|9 Dec 2006||18 March 2007|
|11 Dec 2007||20 March 2008|
|28 Dec 2008||31 March 2009|
|8 Dec 2009||7 April 2010|
|19 Dec 2010||28 March 2011|
Translated from this page.
Can you see how much it fluctuates from year to year? So I would say to go in January – March to be safe.
Again, if you have no choice because you are restricted by Singapore’s school holidays, go as far back in December as possible. And keep your fingers crossed.
There is a less well-known penguin parade at Noboribetsu Marine Park NIXE. This parade takes place throughout the year. You can read more about my visit here.
Answer 6: I want to enjoy onsen!
Doesn’t matter when you go then. Onsen are open all year round and they are ubiquitous throughout Hokkaido. But the best time to visit is again in Februrary – March, because there will be festivals at some of the onsen towns, such as:
- Lake Shikotsu
- Lake Akan
- Tokachigawa Onsen
- Sounkyo Onsen
Where to go
Again, this depends on your interest.
Head to the ski resorts, the ones more well catered for foreigners being Niseko, Rusutsu, Tomamu and Club Med Sahoro.
I generally recommend going Eastern Hokkaido during winter. A classic route I recommend is as follows:
1) New Chitose Airport
3) Obihiro (Tokachigawa Onsen)
5) Lake Akan
9) Sapporo (with day trip to Otaru from here)
10) New Chitose Airport
If you are there during the Sapporo snow festival period, then stay around Sapporo. Go for the Sapporo Snow Festival and take side trips from Sapporo to visit Otaru Snow Light Path, Asahikawa Winter Festival and Chitose-Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival.
If you are visiting after the Sapporo snow festival has ended, then go to Eastern Hokkaido. You can see from the snow festivals table above that Eastern Hokkaido has the most festivals stretching into March.
Choosing a ski resort in Hokkaido
What is the difference between Niseko / Rusutsu / Tomamu / Club Med Sahoro? How to choose?
Again, let me put a disclaimer that I do not ski. I am assuming you are asking this question as someone who, just wants to try skiing for a day or two, as part of a larger sightseeing trip. If you want to know which ski resort is best for skiing per say (like how powdery is the snow, how challenging are the runs, how good are the instructors, is there ski-in ski-out etc.), please find a website that is specific to skiing.
Let’s say you are like me, just want to play in the snow, maybe just go for a ski lesson to try try. This is what I think of each of the above ski resorts.
- They are extremely foreigners friendly. Everyone there speaks English, from the hotel concierge to the service staff at restaurants.
- Their ski instructors come from all over the world. You will not encounter language barrier during ski lesson.
- You are not restricted to one ski area or one resort.
- You have a wider variety of dining options.
- It lacks Japanese character. I did not feel like I was in Japan while I was there. I felt like I was in some ski resort in just about any other country that speaks English.
- Japanese hospitality
- Tomamu Ice Village
- Reasonably priced
- Dining options are limited to what is offered within the resort
Club Med Sahoro
- All inclusive resort
- Expensive (but then again, considering it is all-inclusive, some may think it is not really that expensive after factoring in cost of ski equipment rental, lessons and food.)
- Dining options limited to what is available in the resort
So my conclusion?
If you have never skied before and really want to learn to ski, spend a few days at Club Med Sahoro to pick up skiing.
If you know how to ski already, and want to improve your skiing, go to Niseko.
If you are a leisure traveller who just wants to spend a day trying out skiing, go to Rusutsu or Tomamu, whichever is along the way where you are going. (i.e. if you are staying around Central Hokkaido, I recommend Rusutsu. If you are going to Eastern Hokkaido, I recommend Tomamu.)
Do you have something less run of the mill?
If you have more time and would like to get off the beaten track in Hokkaido, here are some other things you can consider doing.
Winter Sightseeing Trains
There are 3 trains that run in Hokkaido ONLY in winter: Okhotsk-No-Kaze, Ryuhyo-Norokko and SL Fuyu-No-Shitsugen. You can read more about them here.
Swim in Drift Ice
That’s right. The icebreaker cruise is not the only way you can enjoy the drift ice up close. You can actually join adventure tour groups to walk and swim with drift ice at Shiretoko! Visit the official website of the adventure company, Goziraiwa Sightseeing.
From December to early March, you can find snow monkeys enjoying a hot spring bath at Yunokawa Onsen near Hakodate. You can find out more from Ling’s account on kidsonboard.net.
Every year around Christmas, cities around Japan light up with their own illumination events. If you are from Singapore, this is akin to our annual Orchard Road light-ups. The most famous illuminations in Hokkaido are Sapporo White Illumination (read about my visit here) and Hakodate Christmas Fantasy. While they are pretty small compared to illuminations in other parts of Japan, such as the Kobe Luminarie or Sagamiko Illumillion (read about my visit here), they are still worth checking out if you are in Hokkaido in December.
Should I self-drive or take public transport?
As a general rule of thumb, if you have never driven in snowy condition before, I would say MINIMIZE your driving. However, some scenic areas in Hokkaido are just difficult to get around without a rental car.
If you want to go skiing, there is really no need to self-drive. Ski resorts are the most difficult places to drive, because of the heavy snowfall and mountainous roads. Use buses (or train for Tomamu) to get to and fro ski resorts.
But if you are doing a scenic tour of nature spots and national parks, then you may want to consider self-driving.
You can also do a combination, for e.g. if you want to visit Eastern Hokkaido, you can take train till Kushiro. From Kushiro, rent a car to drive to the crane area (Tsurui) and around Akan National Park.
Is it safe to drive in winter?
In short? Honestly? NO. But in Hokkaido, when visiting scenic areas such as Akan National Park, you may not have much of a choice unless you join tour groups. (Then again, when I was in Hokkaido in December 2014, a tour bus carrying a Singaporean tour group got into an accident, skidding off the highway. So you really never know.)
What can you do to prevent accidents
- Drive SLOW. And by slow, I mean not exceeding 50km/h. Even on expressways.
- Double Google’s driving time estimates for winter drive. No kidding. If google says you need 2 hours to get from Point A to B, allocate 4 hours for that drive.
- Drive in bright day light. Make sure you plan to reach your accommodation of the day by 4pm. The sun sets at 4+ and it is pitch dark by 5pm. NEVER drive after dark in winter.
- Do not be tempted to speed. I know, this is the same as the first point. But I cannot emphasize this enough. Hokkaido is HUGE and when you have hundreds of kilometres to cover, YOU WILL BE TEMPTED TO SPEED. It takes a lot of discipline (or in my case an accident + near accident from 2 previous trips) to learn that you should NEVER speed when driving in winter.
- Step on that brake WAY in advance. You cannot e-brake in winter. You see a traffic light coming up? Start slowing stepping on the brake bit by bit to slow down in advance. You see the road sign saying there’s a curve coming up? Start applying those brakes.
- Get ready to make your turnings. Your GPS says you need to make a turn soon? SLOW DOWN. Don’t attempt a last minute turn. If you miss your turning, just miss it. Find a safe place to U-turn back. (e.g. turning into a roadside convenience store and going back where you came from.)
What are some of the things that may happen when driving in winter?
They are covered by snow. Careful not to drive onto oncoming traffic! Look for a sign hanging from the top in the middle of roads that says “中央線” with an arrow pointing down. It is pointing to where the centre divider is so that you don’t drive onto oncoming traffic.
No. If you keep too near your side of the road, you may end up driving into a roadside ditch.
Follow the tyre markings left behind by the previous cars.
Yeah, it happens. When it snows too heavily, the fresh snow covers up tyre markings very quickly. Which is why you should use well-travelled routes (e.g. expressways) as much as possible. The more cars that use the road, the higher chance there will be tyre markings. Makes sense? Winter is NOT the time to skimp on toll fees.
Yes you did! In winter, you cannot see the stop lines at pedestrian crossings. Plus if you are still getting used to the braking distance required, you may find yourself stopping at a red light too late and ending up on the pedestrian crossing. You’ll get stares by the pedestrians. But just remember my point on braking early and do an estimate of where the stop line would be!
Sometimes junctions will have a sign that says “停止線”. It indicates where the stop line is. Stop behind that sign, otherwise will be stopping on the pedestrian crossing.
Yes you can, when you are safely inside the tunnel and the road is dry. But note that the entrances and exits of tunnels tend to be very icy. So once you see some snow or ice on the road towards the end of the tunnel, slow down immediately. The first moment you go back onto the snow / ice is the easiest to skid.
I think I would stick to the train
If you are using the train extensively, you may want to consider getting the Hokkaido Rail Pass. You can read more about it here. To determine if it is worth it to get the pass, add up the total cost of your rail trips using hyperdia and compare it to the price of the pass.
If you are only using the rail sparingly, some other cost-saving passes include:
- Sapporo-Otaru Welcome Pass
- Asahiyama Zoo Pass
- Round-trip Ticket between Sapporo and Obihiro / Kushiro
- Round-trip Ticket between Sapporo and Hakodate
This is all too complicated. Can you just plan an itinerary for me? I am travelling in …
Fine. In my next post (not sure when so don’t hold your breath), I will suggest some classic itineraries for various periods of travel in Hokkaido during winter. Till then, hope this post has been useful in getting you jump started! And if you need any help, feel free to leave a comment.
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