The northern-most prefecture of Japan offers some of the most breathtaking landscapes and varied wildlife in the country. The winter season in Hokkaido is not to be missed.
Hokkaido—the northern-most prefecture of Japan—is an island filled with natural beauty in every season. It had always been my goal to visit this island, and with the winter season offering a myriad of snowscapes and wildlife adventures, it was the perfect time to go for my first visit…or was it?
Where’s the snow?
The 2019-2020 winter season in Hokkaido started much later than in previous years. In fact, the annual Sapporo Snow Festival, which began on January 31, had a difficult time preparing for it with the lack of snow available to create the various sculptures. The city had to use snow and ice from surrounding areas to be able to complete the many outstanding sculptures that were built for this world-famous festival.
This lack of snow wasn’t just in Sapporo though. The much warmer-than-usual temperatures graced the entire country resulting in a milder winter with significantly less snowfall early in the season in many areas of the country.
This weather wasn’t entirely bad for us though, as we chose to rent a camper van in Sapporo to drive all around the island, experiencing all that it had to offer. Driving was fairly easy, and even though we had white-out conditions, they were only short-lived, allowing us to drive right through the storm.
Hokkaido did not disappoint.
Our Camper Van
Our camper van from Smile Camper Sapporo was your standard Toyota Grand Hiace. The compact yet roomy 4WD vehicle was just the right size for the two of us, and allowed us to drive efficiently and easily compared to other larger camper vans.
What do you need to drive in Japan?
At the very least you will need an international driver’s license from your home country. Make sure to get it from an approved location. If in your home country the driver’s side is on the left of the vehicle, you will need to learn how to drive on the right side of the vehicle. It was my first time driving in Japan but I got the hang of it pretty quickly. Driving on the not-so-busy roads of Sapporo helped ease the process I would think.
Driving Around Hokkaido
Here’s a rough idea of where we drove in Hokkaido. Starting from Sapporo, we went counter clockwise around the island hitting specific areas that I had planned to visit for photography.
Our trip was 10 days in all, stopping at various points for photography and fun, and sleeping in various places like parking lots and michi-no-eki (roadside stations). This post will go through a summary of my trip, but I will go through more details of each major parts in separate posts, so please feel free to read through those too, which contains a lot more photos from those sections.
For those interested in my full itinerary, here’s what I did, with the numbers in brackets corresponding to the location on the map above:
|February 9||Arrive in Sapporo (1)||Sapporo hostel||Arrive at night|
|Feb. 10||Full day in Sapporo||Sapporo AirBNB||Sapporo Snow Festival|
|Feb. 11||Pickup rental van (2); drive to Mt. Tomamu (3)||Hoshino Resort parking lot||Ice Village at night|
|Feb. 12||Drive to Kushiro (4)||Otowa bridge parking||Up Mt. Tomamu in morning; evening red-crowned crane photos|
|Feb. 13||Full day in Kushiro||Otowa bridge parking||Red crowned crane photography|
|Feb. 14||En route to Notsuke Peninsula (5)||Akkeshi michi-no-eki||Seafood market lunch in Kushiro; grilled oyster dinner in Akkeshi|
|Feb. 15||Drive to Rausu (6)||Harbour parking lot||Notsuke peninsula morning/afternoon|
|Feb. 16||Drive to Utoro (7), then to Lake Mashu (8)||Lake Mashu observatory parking lot||Oshinkoshin waterfall|
|Feb. 17||Drive to Kussharo (8), then to Lake Akan (9)||New Akan Hotel with rooftop Onsen||Lake Mashu observatory sunrise; Sunayo during day; Lake Akan at night|
|Feb. 18||Drive to Biei (11)||Biei Observatory parking lot||Stop at fox farm (East of 10 on map); Sounkyou ice festival en route to Biei|
|Feb. 19||Full day in Biei||Blue Pond parking lot||Photographing trees/landscape; Blue pond at night|
|Feb. 20||Drive to Furano (12)||Super Sento (Bath and sleeping complex)||Visit Farm Tomita, Ningle Terrace|
|Feb. 21||Return vehicle in Sapporo||Hotel near Mt. Zao||Flight to Sendai|
Club Med Tomamu and Hoshino Resort Tomamu Ice Village
These two high-end resort hotels cater to the skiers and snowboarders that come here for the powdery snow. The complex is quite large, including a huge indoor wave pool, shopping areas, and several restaurants, and sits on the base of Mt. Tomamu, which stands 1239m above sea level, and the shorter Tower Mountain just beside it.
We came to see the Tomamu Ice Village, which was lit up at night when we arrived. We didn’t have too much time here since we arrived quite late—we may have been the last visitors to enter—but I managed to get some snaps of the area, which was pretty much empty as we walked through it.
We parked our van in the parking lot nearest the gondola ride that goes up Mt. Tomamu since our plan was to go to the top the next morning to see what we could find.
With strong winds and blowing snow the next morning, we where in for a real treat! It was fine when we got off the gondola at the top, but it quickly became windy and started snowing heavily while we walked on the trails into the Cloud Walk and Cloud Bar, seen below.
While initially it seemed like we were the only ones there, little by little skiers and snowboarders came up and filled the snow-covered landscape with pops of colour from their winter gear. This photo of people enjoying warm drinks in the cold exemplifies the feeling of being there.
Kushiro and Red-Crowned Cranes
From Mt. Tomamu, we drove to Kushiro, which was our first real photo stop that I had planned. Having always wanted to photograph these once-endangered species, I made it a point to stay here an extra day so that I had ample time to do so. It didn’t hurt that the famous seafood market was also located only a 45min. drive away from the feeding ground of the red-crowned cranes.
I’ll create another post for the full details of photographing these beautiful and elegant cranes, but in the meantime, here’s a look at the seafood lunch we got at the market. This market is widely known for its pay-what-you-choose seafood bowls, where you first choose your size of rice bowl, then go around to select seafood vendors who offer the freshest of fish to put on top of your bowl. You pay for whatever you put on your bowl from any of the participating vendors.
The Notsuke Peninsula, located on the east coast of Hokkaido, was an area that I put on my list of places to go to, but didn’t really know what to expect from it. I was pleasantly surprised upon arrival to see some beautiful landscapes teeming with wildlife frolicking the fields.
I will have more details of this area in a separate post as well.
Rausu and Shiretoko Peninsula
My next photo adventure that I was looking forward to was in the Shiretoko Peninsula. This area is another wildlife-lover’s paradise as every winter, ice floes around this peninsula from the far reaches of Siberia. The ice floe also attracts Steller Sea Eagles from Russia, and therefore is a popular destination for photographers looking to photograph these sharp-eyed birds.
My sunrise-cruise photographing these sea eagles did not disappoint, and I will go into more details in a separate post.
Lake Mashu, Lake Kussharo, and Lake Akan
I wish I could say more about these three locations, but I didn’t have the best of luck weather-wise when I went.
Lake Mashu is a crater lake in Akan National Park that is known to be the clearest lake in the world…if you can see it of course. We drove to the first observatory section only to see absolutely nothing from the fog. It was getting late so we decided to park in the parking lot and stay there for the night in hopes of getting a better view in the morning.
In the morning, we were woken up around 5am by the sound of snow plows clearing the parking lot for the day’s guests. After waking up, we were yet again disappointed to see nothing but fog hovering over the caldera, making visibility next to nothing from where I stood. There are trails that lead to the second and third observation areas, but the trail seemed to be closed from all the snow that had fallen recently. As disappointing as it was, we had left hoping for better luck in our next destination.
Lake Kussharo—also located in Akan National Park—is the largest caldera lake in Japan. If you hike up to the observatory, on a clear day you should see a beautiful island situated in the middle of Lake Kussharo. However, with overcast weather again, and heavy amounts of snow falling down, I barely got the view I was hoping to get.
Sunayu, situated on the eastern side of Lake Kussharo, is a popular tourist attraction mainly because of the number of swans that visit the area. The hot spring warms that particular area of the lake, making it an inviting location for these swans. There are a lot of swans here, and it’s your chance to photograph them with the beautiful mountains in the background.
Our last destination in the area was Lake Akan, located about an hour’s drive away from Lake Mashu. We arrived there at night so we didn’t get a clear view of the lake unfortunately. This was also our first night not sleeping in the van, as we opted to sleep at the New Akan Hotel that had a beautiful view of the lakeside from its rooftop Onsen (hot spring).
We visited the Ainu Village nearby, which is a settlement of the indiginous people of Hokkaido. About 120 people live here producing traditional crafts that are world-famous. The shops were unfortunately all closed as it was a little early, but we were able to appreciate their craftsmanship from peering in through the windows.
Kita Kitsune Fox Farm
Located in Kitami, this unexpected adventure happened to be en route from our drive from Lake Akan to Biei. My initial thought of a fox farm brought images of foxes in small, confined areas, so I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy this.
To my surprise though, we walked into a rather large fenced-off area where we saw several foxes enjoying the premises, and sleeping in the snow. I saw everything from fox fights to fox lovers that made for some wonderful photos.
Biei and Furano
I ended my Hokkaido adventures with another highlight of the trip. Seeing the beautiful snowy landscapes of Biei and Furano was so inspiring as an artist. The minimalist landscapes were around every corner, so needless to say, I took many photos.
I will share with you some of my favourites in a more detailed post coming up soon.
Stay tuned for additional posts on select major locations across Hokkaido! In the meantime, if you’ve ever been to Hokkaido, let me know in the comments below on what you liked!
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