Why You Should Go to Hokkaido in Winter—Even if You’re Not a Skier

Skiers and snowboarders flock to this Japanese winter wonderland for its piles of snow, but there are plenty of other reasons to visit the northernmost island prefecture—here’s how to spend your trip there whether you’re hitting the slopes or not.

Why You Should Go to Hokkaido in Winter—Even if You’re Not a Skier

Hokkaido is a popular ski destination, but there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the snow.

Photo by Kanuman/Shutterstock

With snowfall accumulations of up to 45 feet each winter, the northern Japanese island prefecture of Hokkaido has garnered the attention of wide-eyed powder hounds from around the world. There are a handful of formidable ski resorts to choose from, including Furano and Rusutsu, but foreign ski and snowboard enthusiasts seek out Niseko in particular.

It comprises four resorts across Mount Niseko-Annupuri—Annupuri, Niseko Village, Grand Hirafu, and Hanazono—which share one all-encompassing “Niseko United” pass and are linked by trails and ski lifts. Even more appealing for nomadic snow worshippers? The four-in-one ticket is part of international multi-resort passes from Ikon and Mountain Collective. However, you don’t need to be a skilled skier or snowboarder to enjoy Hokkaido’s snowy haven.

Humans aren't the only ones who love relaxing in hot springs; these Japanese macaques zen out in Hakodate, Hokkaido.

Humans aren’t the only ones who love relaxing in hot springs; these Japanese macaques zen out in Hakodate, Hokkaido.

Photo by Neptunestock/Shutterstock

Soaking It Up

The Japanese tradition of bathing at an onsen (a hot spring thermal bath) is a year-round pursuit throughout the country, but it’s especially therapeutic during a cold Hokkaido winter. Of the several onsens across Niseko, one in particular offers relaxation with a view: The rotenburo (outdoor pool) at the Hilton Niseko Village is the ideal vantage point from which to admire Mount Yotei, “the Mount Fuji of Hokkaido.” If you’re not hitting the slopes, go earlier in the day to get the view without the après-ski crowds.

As an alternative, there’s Goshiki Onsen in the middle of the tranquil, forested backcountry of the Annupuri resort. For a more upscale, secluded onsen experience, stay at Zaborin, the luxury ryokan (traditional inn) in the backwoods of the Hanazono resort.

No matter where you decide to soak, the basic etiquette is the same. Onsens are fully nude facilities separated by gender. The first step is to disrobe and put on a yukata, your cover-up when you’re not bathing. It’s customary to wash before and after you soak at the bathing stations—individual stalls with a stool, a handheld shower, a bucket, and soap, shampoo, and conditioner. Once clean, submerge in the geothermally heated, mineral-rich waters and relax.

Note that tattoos are still considered taboo in Japanese culture, so if you’re sporting ink, you might want to check on policies with specific onsens through a concierge or local tourism center. Still have questions about onsen etiquette? We’ve got you covered.

Street vendors sell local fare like crab in Hokkaido.

Street vendors sell local fare like crab in Hokkaido.

Photo by icosha/Shutterstock

Eating It Up

Japanese cuisine is more than sashimi and ramen. Each region has its specialties, and Hokkaido is known for its dairy, its vegetables, its lamb, and its seafood.

Hokkaido produces half of the country’s milk, 90 percent of its cheese, and some delicious desserts. Milk Kobo, the dessert and pastry shop of Takahashi Dairy Farm in Niseko Village, dishes out yogurt, soft-serve vanilla ice cream, the famous Hokkaido cheese tart, which rides the line between sweet and savory, and quintessential cream puffs.

The flavors and textures of grilled meats, Japanese eggplant, and root vegetables come together in a bowl of hearty Hokkaido soup curry, a popular dish that originated in Sapporo, the island’s largest city. It’s the specialty of Tsubara Tsubara, a casual eatery in lower Hirafu, the closest town to the four mountain resorts. Puku Puku Tei, in upper Hirafu, serves another warming regional dish: jingisukan, which translates to “Genghis Khan,” a sizzling platter of vegetables and lamb.

Hokkaido is largely responsible for Japan’s reputation as a source for delicious fresh seafood. Savor Hokkaido oysters on the half shell or share some shabu shabu at Niseko Village’s marketplace-style eatery, the Crab Shack, where snow crab legs cook in tableside pots of broth.

Learn to ski on the slopes in Hokkaido, many of which overlook Mt. Yotei.

Learn to ski on the slopes in Hokkaido, many of which overlook Mt. Yotei.

Photo by atthle/Shutterstock

Playing It Up

Many travelers to Hokkaido hail from warmer climes, and some may even be experiencing snow for the first time. So if you’re new to winter activities, you won’t be alone. The easiest way to enjoy Hokkaido’s winter weather is, literally, a walk in the park. Snowshoe your way to the base of Mt. Yotei—and slide down a snow chute to frozen Half Moon Lake in Hangetsu-ko Shizen Park—on a guided tour with the Niseko Adventure Centre in Hirafu.

If going on your own two feet feels laborious, you can fulfill your North Pole fantasies on a reindeer-pulled sled tour at Niseko Village. Looking for more horsepower? Snowmobiling tours through the foothills of Mt. Yōtei allow you to dash through the snow at speeds upwards of 30 mph.

Of course, if you want to learn how to ski, baby steps—and bunny slopes—first. Each of the ski resorts in Niseko offer ski and snowboarding lessons, so that you will be ready to hit the bigger slopes on your next winter trip to Hokkaido.

>>Next: Escape From the Modern World on a Pilgrim’s Path to Japan

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