Winter to Spring: 10 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Do in Hokkaido

Japan’s scenic northern island might be world-famous for being a skier’s paradise, but there’s plenty else to discover—from incredible wildlife to family-friendly attractions.

Imagine floating over miles of snow-covered grounds at up to 1000 meters in the enjoyable privacy of your own wicker basket.

1. Go hot-air ballooning

While destinations like Cappadocia and the ancient city of Bagan are famous for the iconic sight of hot-air balloons, Hokkaido offers a unique experience for those who don’t fancy jostling with the crowds. Imagine floating over miles of snow-covered grounds at up to 1000 meters in the enjoyable privacy of your own wicker basket—with barely another balloon in sight.

Bird’s eye view from the hot air balloon.

Best enjoyed in Furano between January and March, travelers can enjoy a 20- or 30-minute flight over the spectacular countryside, where Mount Tokachi and the beautiful Daisetsu National Park can be seen from bird’s eye view. As one ascends, the heated air inside the balloon will keep you snug and warm even in the harshest winter.

More information here.

For 1500 yen, one can rent a fishing pole, bait, chair, as well as access fishing tents where they’re sheltered from the elements.

2. Try ice fishing 

Each winter, Lake Abashiri in Abashiri Quasi-National Park freezes over, turning it into a wonderland perfect for activities like smelt fishing, snowmobile riding, and banana boat. For 1500 yen, one can rent a fishing pole, bait, chair, as well as access fishing tents where they’re sheltered from the elements. Patience is a virtue if one intends to catch anything at all from the tiny holes dug through the ice. When the fish does bite, the entire tent rejoices with you. After which, take your catch to the nearby restaurant and have them prepared tempura style—a delightful snack on a cold winter’s day.

November to March is the best time to see as many as 300 tancho cranes visiting on a single day.

3. See cranes up close

Commonly portrayed in traditional Japanese art, the beautiful tancho crane can be seen up close at the Akan International Crane Center, located just a 20-minutes’ drive away from Tancho Kushiro Airport. While bird watching can be enjoyed all year round, November to March is the best time to see as many as 300 tancho cranes visiting on a single day during the artificial feeding that’s carried out at the neighboring observation center. Fun fact: These birds stay in mating pairs for life and are revered as a sign of good marriage.

When winter comes around, these swans journey from Siberia to Japan, taking pride of place on the lake.

4. Admire graceful swans

Lake Kussharo, the largest caldera lake in Japan, is home to more than 300 graceful whooper swans. Here, be prepared to marvel at the fluffy white creatures as they glide across the cobalt blue lake, surrounded by Mt. Mokoto and Mt. Samakkarinuburi. Make a beeline for the sunaba (sandpit), where a natural hot spring bath awaits—it is also the best spot to view the swans. During summer, the lake is abuzz with recreational windsurfers and sailors. But when winter comes around, these swans journey from Siberia to Japan, taking pride of place on the lake.

Aside from seeing large sheets of ice broken into pieces, keep your eyes peeled for wild animals.

5. Take an icebreaker cruise

Typically, an icebreaker ship is purpose-built to help provide safe passageways through ice-covered waters for other boats and ships. But with the Abashiri Drift Ice Sightseeing and Icebreaking Ship, you get the sense that it’s built for the sheer pleasure of travelers. Comfortable leather seats and floor-to-ceiling glass windows allow guests to witness the icebreaking process on the Hokkaido coast of the Okhotsk Sea when drifting sea ice appears around Abashiri in mid to late January. Aside from seeing large sheets of ice broken into pieces, keep your eyes peeled for wild animals such as seals, yezo deer, and ezo red fox. To learn more about drift ice, make a pitstop at the Okhotsk Ryuhyo Museum after. Visitors will be able to touch a real block of real drift ice, as well as see a damp towel freeze solid in sub-zero temperatures.

More information here.

One of the main building’s five radially constructed wings.

6. Visit a prison museum

Possibly one of the most unusual museums you’ll encounter in Hokkaido, the Abashiri Prison Museum offers a glimpse into prison life in the past. Built in the 1890s to house more than a thousand criminals, the prison shot to fame thanks to a yakuza movie series directed by Ishii Teruo. Today, the museum houses the prison’s old buildings, including the main building’s five radially constructed wings, a bathhouse, a punishment chamber, as well as a law court. Meanwhile, the modernized Abashiri Prison remains in operation at the foot of Mount Tento.

More information here.

When snow blankets the flower fields, expect a different sort of charm altogether.

7. Frolick in a flower farm

The photo-worthy Farm Tomita in Furano makes a lovely destination all year round, with colorful flower fields that stretch as far as the eye can see.  During summer and spring, catch seasonal flowers like lavender, red poppies, and baby’s breath before enjoying treats like honey melon and lavender soft serve. When snow blankets the flower fields, expect a different sort of charm altogether—where barren trees stretch artistically to the skies, set against a sea of white. Even then, visitors will be able to see the popular noshi hayazaki lavender all year round in the greenhouse that’s in the middle of the fields. 

In their natural habitat, they walk towards the sea to catch fish in a similar manner.

8. Observe how penguins walk

Be prepared to whip your cameras out (in an orderly manner, as it’s Japan after all) as a waddle of adorable king penguins makes their round. The penguin walk, a highlight of the popular Asahiyama Zoo, takes place each winter between end-December and mid-March, twice a day depending on schedule. Visitors ought to note that these animals aren’t being made to put up a performance of sorts, but are in fact following their instincts to walk in a straight line as a group. In their natural habitat, they walk towards the sea to catch fish in a similar manner. Penguins aside, the zoo also showcases various animals in unique enclosures that allow for close observation from various angles. Examples include a glass tunnel through the penguin pool, as well as glass domes right in the middle of the wolf and polar bear enclosures. 

The atmosphere is festive with fairy lights and snow-covered walkways.

9. Visit charming log cabins in a forest

Like a scene right out of a fairy tale, Ningle Terrace (the locals call it Ninguru Terrace) is a collection of charming log cabins in a pine tree forest, located just minutes away from New Furano Prince Hotel. Photogenic by day and magical by night, these cabins house craftsmen and artists plying their wares, alongside a cafe serving baked goods, ice cream, and cheese platters. During winter, the atmosphere is festive with fairy lights and snow-covered walkways. Visitors can expect to discover handmade knick-knacks, as well as participate in workshops to create paper art, miniature wooden figurines, and make their own kaleidoscope.

More information here.

In sub-zero temperatures, brilliant hues light up the sky.

10. Enjoy fireworks in the cold

When night falls, Lake Akan becomes a fitting backdrop for the fuyu hanabi (winter fireworks) held as part as the Lake Akan Ice Festival between February and March. During the day, family-friendly activities like ice fishing and snowmobile are offered.

Be sure to have your camera ready for the fireworks.

As the skies turn dark, eager crowds start to gather out in the cold in anticipation of the firework displays. In sub-zero temperatures, brilliant hues light up the sky, mimicking colorful blooms. 

More information here.

The cobalt-blue Kaminoko Pond.

Bonus #1: Adventurous travelers can also embark on a snowshoe tour to the cobalt-blue Kaminoko Pond (literally a mountain god’s lake in native Ainu language), a pond believed to be the son of Lake Mashu.

The key to walking on thick layers of snow? A pair of hardy snowshoes!

The journey itself is quite the treat, with snow-covered paths and flowing rivers that don’t freeze as the water is believed to come from a spring.

A surreal winter wonderland at Sounkyo Ice Fall Festival.

Bonus #2: A trip to Hokkaido isn’t quite complete without a visit to one of the many winter festivals. Held annually from January to March, Sounkyo Ice Fall Festival in Sounkyo Onsen, Kamikawa Town is well-known for its ice sculptures, food stalls, an ice pub, as well as a Hyoto Shrine.

More information here.

This article was brought to you by Japan National Tourism Organization.

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