Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido is a hugely popular tourist destination during the winter season, as skiers and snowboarders alike flock to Niseko for its world famous deep powder. Outside of the winter season, however, Hokkaido is skipped by foreign tourists and only attracts domestic tourism when the leaves change colour from late September.
We boarded an AirAsia flight from Kuala Lumpur to Sapporo in autumn and were stunned by the lack of tourists as it is an outdoor adventure playground with unparalleled beauty. Here is an account of what we discovered as we hitchhiked and camped our way through Hokkaido.
Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido and most likely your first destination as it’s home to New Chitose Airport, which welcomes daily international flights. It is also well known for Sapporo Beer and Hokkaido cheese tarts. Needless to say we were in heaven! We recommend taking a tour of the Sapporo Beer factory to sample some of the hoppy nectar. Eat your body weight in Hokkaido cheese tarts served warm and irresistible. A train along the coast or a drive around the surrounding area, taking in the autumn colours, will give you a real introduction to Hokkaido.
Niseko is desolate outside of the winter season as it’s an entirely seasonal destination. However, it’s an example of the great outdoors at its finest. You can take in the views of stunning mount Yotei from numerous vantage points such as Half Moon Lake (Hangetsuko). We recommend hiking the beast at least once during your stay but be prepared for an arduous nine-hour round trip. Niseko is also home to some of Japan’s premier white water rafting routes, downhill mountain biking and picturesque tennis courts. We played tennis in the shadow of Mt. Yotei during which a snow fox gingerly approached our court and an eagle flew overhead. Amazing.
Otaru & Yoichi
Located a mere 20km from one another, Otaru and Yoichi are made for a one-day trip. Otaru is famed for the canal and old railway running through the city centre. It is also home to one of Japan’s finest fresh fish markets. Make sure to get your sushi on, it will not disappoint.
Yoichi is most famous for the Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery, where a free tour, which enlightens tourists on the whisky making process before a free tasting session at the end. Continue along the coast from Yoichi to discover two incredible peninsulas, Cape Shakotan and Cape Kamui. Be sure to visit these natural beauty spots where the cliffs cascade into the bluest of seas.
Tarumae is one of Japan’s most active volcanoes. A half-day hike will provide stunning vistas over the autumn foliage to Lake Shikotsu on one side and the Japanese sea on the other. As you approach the top you will hear the roaring crater, bellowing out sulphur fumes over the bleak land barren since its last eruption in 1981. Shikotsu is also home to one of Japan’s finest onsens, overlooking the lake and steaming in the cold air—perfect for an autumn evening after a long hike.
Uchiura Bay is located on the east side of Hokkaido near Lake Toya, which offers fantastic hiking and views of the island encompassed by the lake. But the real reason people head to Uchiura Bay is the surf. Autumn is the best time of year for the waves and you will be rewarded if you’re brave enough to enter in zero-degree conditions.
Overall if you are a nature lover or adventure seeker looking to escape major tourist routes and discover natural wonders, then Hokkaido is the place for you … but be sure to keep an eye out for those notorious Hokkaido bears!
GETTING THERE AirAsia X flies to Hokkaido via Sapporo. For flight info and fares, visit airasia.com.