Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, is a popular destination for lovers of open spaces, wildlife and outdoor activities. If you want to make the most of a trip to Hokkaido and don’t mind the cold, winter is definitely the best time to visit the island! Many regions of Hokkaido experience a phenomenon called “Neyuki”, where snow accumulates without melting for a period of more than 30 days between late December and late February. This phenomenon is a testament to Hokkaido’s exceptionally cold and snowy climate and is the promise of an incredible winter holiday between the magic of snowflakes and the pleasures of Hokkaido’s world-renowned powder snow.
Hokkaido has established itself on the international tourism scene as the ideal destination for those who want to enjoy a magical winter holiday of snowflakes and enchanting white landscapes. Hokkaido attracts not only tourists who want to relax in cozy hotels and soak in warm onsen waters while admiring the white winter landscape from their room windows, but also winter sports enthusiasts who come to hit the ski slopes and enjoy the so-called Absolute Powder snow.
This winter of 2022-2023 is highly anticipated as it is the first winter holiday where we can travel again since the Covid-19 pandemic. Hokkaido is waiting for you and will not disappoint you because on the treasure island, there is something for everyone! Winter in Hokkaido is often associated with Niseko and some other ski resorts. Few of you know that there are many winter activities that can be enjoyed in and around Sapporo! Sapporo has many charms and in this article, we will introduce you to the many unique, magical and inspiring winter activities that you can experience in the very heart of Hokkaido’s capital city or in its close surroundings. If you are planning your next winter holiday, but are still unsure about which activities to fill your holiday, this article is for you!
For the first time in three years, Sapporo will host the 73rd Sapporo Snow Festival from February 4 to 11, 2023. The event will take place in Odori Park and Susukino, but will not include Tsudome, a sports facility that turns into a real winter amusement park during the event and delights children (but also the older ones!) with its tube slides, snow park golf, snow kick board etc… Around five large snow sculptures that symbolize the Sapporo Snow Festival, small and medium-sized snow sculptures, snow sculptures made by citizens and many fun winter attractions are planned, including stands that will showcase Hokkaido’s food scene. This winter festival promises to be epic! The announcement is still very recent and at the time of publishing this article, we know very little except that the festival will take place in compliance with all the health measures due to Covid-19. The activities may therefore differ slightly from those of previous years, the first major difference being that the festivities will take place on two sites instead of three. For those of you who have never heard of the Sapporo Snow Festival, which is the largest winter festival in all of Japan (or to refresh your memory after a 3-year absence), let’s dive into the details in this section.
The Snow Festival began in 1950 as a small local event with the creation of six snow sculptures in Odori Park by local middle and high school students, snowball fights and a carnival. Against all odds, 50,000 people attended. The enthusiastic response to this first snow festival was due to the city’s endless winter, which offered few opportunities for residents to have fun. The following year, the municipality decided to make it an annual event. Since then, the snow sculptures have grown in size, quantity and sophistication into the Snow Festival we know today.
To name just a few of the important dates in the 72-year-old festival, the first snow sculptures were limited to a height of seven meters, but in 1953 the Sapporo Industrial High School built a sculpture called Shôten, which was fifteen meters high. Its design, based on a vaulting technique using blocks of snow as building stones, required large quantities of snow and the city of Sapporo provided trucks and bulldozers. This was the birth of today’s giant sculptures, which require the use of mechanized means. The 10th anniversary festival in 1959 was featured on television and in newspapers. As a result of this media exposure, the following year’s festival was a huge success and the number of tourists from Honshu, Japan’s main island, increased significantly. In 1972, the Snow Festival, with the theme “Welcome to Sapporo”, was associated with the Sapporo Winter Olympics and the Snow Festival became internationally renowned. In 1984, the two-day event was extended to seven days, to meet the demand, as the festival became very popular and appreciated worldwide.
Prior to the pandemic, the event, which attracted over 2 million visitors not only from Hokkaidō, but from all over Japan and even abroad was held in early February, for 8 days, at three venues: Ōdōri Park, Susukino, and the Tsudomu site (which will not be included in the 2023 event). The following description corresponds to the snow festivals of previous years.
The snow sculptures are displayed in Odori Park, a 1.5-kilometre stretch of nature divided into 12 identical plots of land (1-12 chome) in the heart of Sapporo City. These sculptures of all sizes are illuminated from sunset until 10pm. It is interesting to discover the festival by day but also to be charmed by its unique atmosphere at night. As soon as night falls, a light show brings the huge snow sculptures to life. This show gets more and more sophisticated every year. We can’t wait to discover the special light effects for the coming year! At the Susukino site, you can admire the ice sculptures on display, which are also illuminated at night and bring a festive atmosphere to the area. And finally, at the Tsudomu site, attractions such as a giant slide allow visitors to enjoy the snow both indoors and outdoors.
During the snow festival, Odori Park also features an incredibly large ice rink (22 meters east to west and 17.5 meters north to south) that will delight all members of the family who want to skate outdoors in a unique atmosphere, under the iconic Sapporo TV Tower. A huge 24 meter high and 65 meter long jumping ramp hosts the best Japanese snowboarders and freestyle skiers whose incredible tricks will delight you! There are also food stalls where all of Hokkaido’s winter specialities are concentrated at your fingertips, allowing you to eat and warm up! There is something for everyone, from the famous ramen, zangi (fried chicken), Jingisukan (Mongolian barbecue), butadon (pork bowl) to the delicious fresh seafood…
If you visit Sapporo in winter, you can also experience the city under a beautiful blanket of snow and experience the real Hokkaido winter. The city is festive between the Illuminations and the Christmas market in December, followed closely by the Snow Festival in February. The silhouette of the city’s iconic landmarks disappear on a layer of snow and the pavements become veritable tunnels with walls of snow that can exceed 1.50 meters. It’s quite an adventure in Sapporo in winter! And to complete your trip in Sapporo you might want to try your hands at some very unique and local winter experiences, such as smelt fishing on ice, a very friendly experience that you can enjoy right in Sapporo or nearby suburbs.
Smelt ice fishing is a popular winter activity for Japanese and foreign visitors. This leisure activity is perfect for families, friends and couples who want to experience the real winter in Hokkaido. Smelt, called wakasagi in Japanese, is an important food fish native to the lakes and estuaries of Hokkaido. The activity of smelt ice fishing, called wakasagi tsuri, is a unique winter cultural experience linked to the past traditions of Hokkaido. This leisure activity is fun and tasty. People in Hokkaido look forward to the winter months when they can enjoy ice fishing with their partner, family or friends, and share a moment of conviviality while eating delicious fried smelts.
Half an hour’s drive from Sapporo is the Barato River, a picturesque recreation area where people come to escape the hustle and bustle of Sapporo and enjoy nature all year round. In winter, the frozen river, whose surroundings disappear under a blanket of white snow, is home to a multitude of colorful tents where you can enjoy ice smelt fishing, protected from the wind and cold. To make the most of this unique activity, we recommend that you take part in our unique excursion from Sapporo Station. Private transportation, equipment rental and the services of a professional local fishing guide are included, so you don’t have to worry about organization and you can enjoy ice fishing in the best conditions, even beginners.
After a 30-minute transfer by private transport, you will arrive near the fishing spot and have the opportunity to rent boots and warm overcoats. Remember that winter temperatures can drop below 0 degrees, even on a sunny day! After putting on several layers of warm clothes, you will go to the frozen river and the professional guide will show you how to fish and give you some tips on how to maximize your catch! The guide will explain how to attach the bait to the rod. The bait is tiny because the wakasagi fish are themselves small, measuring about 10 cm long. This part of the fishing can be quite difficult for beginners, but the guide will help you. The fishing varies from day to day and can be more or less successful, but the guide will do everything to help you catch as many fish as possible!
After the demonstration, you will enter your tent, or stay outside if the day is not really windy and you prefer to enjoy the snowy landscape, to try your hand at ice smelt fishing! You will be warmed up in your tent, which can accommodate six people, so you can have a private space if you are in a group or benefit from this activity to make new friends!
After fishing, you will enjoy the smelt you caught yourself in hot tempura (fried in batter), an easy and tasty way to enjoy wakasagi. Salted and flour-covered smelt are deep-fried in oil and served with a squeeze of lemon. The bite-size tempura fresh, warm, and crunchy smelt that can be eaten from head to tail is the perfect winter treat to get before going back to Sapporo!
This is truly a fun and exciting outdoor experience that will appeal to all members of the family, even those who are chilly or not too fond of fishing! It’s a winter activity you won’t forget and will allow you to experience the local life of Hokkaido! Ice smelt fishing is now so popular with foreign visitors that there are many variations of this activity: fishing in a luxuriously furnished tent with a bottle of wine to sip hot, fishing combined with the famous Jingisukan barbecue (Japanese grilled mutton dish prepared on a convex metal skillet or other grill), half-day or full-day trip, and so on. You can really tailor this activity to your wishes and make it a special and unique moment.
In this section, we will introduce five very fun and magical winter activities that you can also enjoy in Sapporo or nearby Hokkaido metropole.These different activities will allow you to fully appreciate the joys of Sapporo’s beautiful snow but also the incredible landscapes between city and nature because let’s not forget that Sapporo, surrounded by mountains, is a city where nature is within reach.
Snow horse riding is a very special experience that will delight the whole family, from the youngest to the oldest. Rides can last from 30 minutes to a full day and are suitable for all levels of riders, requiring no special skills. For those who want to reconnect with nature and explore the beautiful scenery near Sapporo in a relaxing way, don’t hesitate to include winter riding in your tour during your stay in Sapporo!
Winter horse riding is a magical moment of perfect osmosis between man, animal and the enchanting nature of Hokkaido. The dreamlike landscape around you takes on a new dimension as your field of vision expands and you can admire the snowy wonders as far as the eye can see. Enjoy the gentle, rhythmic steps of the horse as it quietly sinks into the snow. In winter, horses are less nervous than in summer because there are no flies or other insects to disturb them. Also, while it can be uncomfortable to ride a horse in summer because of the heat, in winter it is really nice to feel the warmth of the horse’s body warming you. In winter, nature is silent and allows us a deeper immersion.
Every moment becomes magical, like the mist created by the horse’s breathing, whose suspended droplets glisten in the sunlight. Whatever the weather on the day of your ride, Hokkaido’s winter always has a certain poetry about it: whether it’s the winter mist that blurs the landscape, the snowflakes that fall from the sky, or the vast white plains that seem to be a carpet of diamonds glittering in the sunlight. All of nature seems to be engaged in a magnificent ballet with a mysterious atmosphere worthy of a storybook. Dreamers, nature lovers, horse enthusiasts, etc. don’t miss this unforgettable experience to enjoy the snow in a different way.
Snowshoeing is certainly one of the most popular winter activities in Hokkaido, as not only can it be done almost anywhere, but it is also affordable and accessible to everyone, requiring no special skills. Snowshoes are specially designed for walking on thick layers of inconsistent snow. During your tour, your nature guide will explain how to wear the snowshoes, give you some tips on how to walk in these cumbersome shoes and help those who have difficulties to fasten the straps. Easy to put on, after a few awkward steps, you will quickly get used to walking with these big snowshoes on your feet and be ready to enjoy a hike in an incredibly beautiful white landscape.
Snowshoeing is the ideal winter activity for those who want to enjoy the recreation of snow, become children again and have fun in the incredible powder snow of Hokkaido. Each step sinking deliciously into the powdery snow feels wonderful and the soft crunch of the steps is delightful to the ear. Your guide will show you how to have fun falling backwards before drawing an angel in the snow, or running with those snowshoes before jumping into the snow and sinking into the soft cottony stuff.
Snowshoeing can be fun, but it’s also a great way to soak up the beauty of the winter landscape, whether it’s getting lost in the vast, snow-covered plains as far as the eye can see, enjoying the light and shade of the silent forests where the sun’s rays play hide-and-seek with the bushy branches of the fir trees, or sliding down the fluffy sides of the mountains. While admiring the tranquil nature around you and enjoying the vivid color palette between the pure white of the snow echoing the vibrant blue of the sky, you will also enjoy listening to information about the area you are walking through and its inhabitants. In winter it can be easier to see animal tracks in the snow. Keep your eyes open as you may encounter ezo-deer, birds or cute ezo-red squirrels!
Snowshoeing is so popular that we can also do this activity at night to see another side of snowy Sapporo. On an energizing snowshoe hike in Asahiyama Memorial Park, you can experience the breathtaking night views of Sapporo from the hills overlooking the city, often considered one of the three most beautiful night landscapes in Japan. The night has charms that the day does not, such as the twinkling stars that echo the lights of the city below. Contrasting with the glittering landscape, you will also experience nature at night and have fun searching for local wildlife along the way.
Curling is a precision sport played on ice with circular granite stones, cut and polished to an international standard (maximum diameter 30.48 cm, minimum height 11.43 cm and weight between 17.24 kg and 19.96 kg). The aim is to place the stones as close as possible to a circular target drawn on the ice, 40 meters away, called “the house”. The particularity of these stones is that the base is not flat but concave, which gives the stone an effect that tends to follow a curved trajectory, hence the name of this sport : Curling. The degree of curvature depends on a number of factors during play, including the speed at which the stone is thrown, the preparation of the ice and the heat as it slides across the ice.
Curling is a team game, played between two teams of four players each. A game usually consists of six to ten ends and lasts an average of two hours. In each end, each player on each team is allowed two stones. When the stone is delivered, it must be released in the middle of the lane before the hog line is reached. With each delivery, two players equipped with brooms vigorously rub the ice in front of the stone to change its trajectory or increase the distance the stone travels. The sweepers are responsible for assessing the speed of the stone, sweeping to ensure the correct force of the delivery and communicating this information to “the skip”, the captain of the team. The role of the skip, who usually stands in the house, is to observe the trajectory of the shot and to call for a sweep to modify the curve. Communication between the sweepers and the skip is essential because the trajectory of the stone is influenced by the speed of the shot. The sweep requires a lot of effort and can be the most physically demanding part of curling. One of the best parts of curling is the powerful sweep of the players and the loud applause of the audience.
While you will try yourself at curling, you will first wear the special shoes. One of the soles of these shoes has a thin stainless steel strip to allow sliding. The other foot is covered with a thin layer of rubber, so that it sticks to the ice, or at least slips as little as possible. Then you will learn how to walk (slide) on the ice, trying to keep your balance. It is a real challenge that will bring you many moments of fun! After this small practice you will learn how to throw the stone while aiming at the target and to sweep the broom. And then you can enjoy the excitement of a mini game! Whether you’re a family, a couple or a group of friends, this is a really great activity that everyone will enjoy. The fun of curling is of course being on the ice, but not only that. The game is called “chess on ice” and it is a game of strategy, much more difficult and fun than it looks! You will not see the time pass between rounds, immerse yourself in the strategy of the game and the desire to win!
You can not miss all the fun and uniqueness to experience an Olympic sport in Sapporo. Hokkaido has the largest number of year round curling rinks and is home to many upcoming Olympic athletes. Men’s curling made its first appearance at the Olympic Winter Games in 1924 in Chamonix and then appeared as a demonstration event. Curling became an Olympic sport again at the 1998 Games in Nagano.This is definitely the kind of local winter activity you want to try in Sapporo. This indoor activity (the rink’s temperatures are kept at 7 degrees) can also be a welcome break between all your outdoor activities! To give you a better idea of curling, you can watch the incredible curling shots from Beijing 2022 on this video!
If you are looking for adrenaline and speed, snowmobiling is definitely for you! For those who love driving, speed and challenges, we can only recommend this winter activity.
No driving license is required to drive a snowmobile. Although the snowmobiles found in Hokkaido are relatively small (250cc), they are heavy and can be difficult to handle. This small motorized vehicle is powered by one or two tracks and equipped with skis for steering. The fun of this activity also lies in the fact that, as this activity requires some technique, you can see your driving skills improve.
Early snowmobile enthusiasts were seduced by the freedom of movement through fields and forests. With this vehicle you can cover a long distance, where a car cannot go, enjoying the beauty of the landscape and the pleasure of speed. The maximum speed allowed is about 60 km/hour, but the feeling is greater because the vehicle is close to the ground. Even if you are not a fearless person, let yourself be tempted by this snow activity!
Enjoy the snow in the flat areas, but also challenge the mountainsides on the way up and down. The guide will choose the most suitable route for your driving skills and both beginners and experts can enjoy it to the full. Once you are in the mountains and the engine is switched off, you can immerse yourself in the deep peace of nature and simply enjoy the breathtaking views. You will have the opportunity to see the city of Sapporo, all covered in a beautiful white blanket, from the top of the hills.
This video will allow you to discover a little more about this unique Hokkaido activity:.
Ski and snowboarding
Japow, short for “Japan Powder”, is the iconic premium powder of Hokkaido. So fine, in fact, that skiers and snowboarders from all over the world dream of experiencing Japow at least once in their lives. In Hokkaido, it’s not just the snow that is fantastic. The island has many deciduous forests that make the ski resorts incredible. You feel like you are in the middle of the wilderness and free. Hokkaido’s ski resorts, including Sapporo, provide a sense of freedom like nowhere else in the world! You can glide through beautiful and mystical glades that invite you to dream, so magical that you think you have wandered into a storybook!
Sapporo, which faces the Sea of Japan, enjoys consistent and stable snowfall, and the quality of its snow is equal to that of other famous ski resorts. Let’s not forget that Sapporo City hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics, as evidenced by the Ōkurayama Ski Jumping Stadium, which also includes the Winter Sports Museum and the Mount Okura viewing platform. Not surprisingly, Sapporo’s snow is some of the best in the world and there are plenty of runs in and around the city for beginner and advanced skiers and snowboarders. Your only task is to choose the ski resort that suits you best!
Sapporo and its surroundings have many ski resorts, all with the same quality of snow but the difficulty of their slopes and their charms vary from one ski resort to another. There really is something for all tastes and levels of skiing. Very family-friendly, these ski resorts are also perfect for beginners in skiing or snowboarding.
Sapporo Bankei ski area, located only 30 minutes from Sapporo city, offers ski lessons and beginner programmes. At this ski resort, you can learn to ski before discovering the pleasures of this activity. The resort is also known for its night skiing, which allows you to experience the magical light landscape.
Sapporo Moiwayama, located about 20 minutes from the center of Sapporo, is a ten run resort, many of which are small but all varied and unique. The ski resort has a wide slope ideal for beginners and young children, a 38° slope for the more audacious, slopes in the woods for the more adventurous, etc. The resort is for skiers only, so beginners can practice without fear of being disturbed by snowboarders. In addition to the variety of slopes, the site itself is magical, overlooking the city of Sapporo, and at nightfall you can enjoy the beautiful view of the city lights.
Sapporo Teine, where the Winter Olympics were held in 1972, is divided into two zones: Olympia Zone, a family zone where the slopes are mainly for beginners, and Highland Zone for intermediate and advanced skiers, creating areas where skiers of all levels can enjoy themselves. It is accessible by bus (1 hour) and train (about 40 minutes) from Sapporo, and the snow quality is as good as in any renowned ski resort.
Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort is another popular ski resort for locals and tourists alike. Located only an hour from the city, it receives plenty of snow and with a total of seven courses, the resort is an ideal base for full fun in the snow.
Even if you’re traveling with children who are too young to ski or snowboard, all the resorts in the Sapporo area have snow tubing and sledding runs, perfect for all ages. Little ones won’t be bored and will enjoy simple pleasures like running before diving into the soft, fluffy snow or building igloos and snowmen. For little ones who have never seen snow before, a trip to Sapporo in winter is an incredible experience that will leave them with unforgettable memories!
I hope that reading this article will make you want to visit Sapporo this winter. Even now, it’s not too late for our amazing team of travel consultants to help you plan a dream winter holiday in Hokkaido! Not only will you be able to enjoy the amazing winter festivals (I invite you to read the article, Sapporo: Winter Festivals with Snow Sculptures and Christmas Decorations: https://hokkaido-treasure.com/column/037/ ), but also the fun activities we have presented in this article, which we can organize and customize for all members of the family.
Let’s not forget to mention the city’s incredible gastronomy, from the must-try ramen to the delicious curry soup that will warm you up after a day in the open air, to the fresh seafood and the evening parfaits (you can learn a bit more in this article, Sapporo: the capital of Hokkaido: https://hokkaido-treasure.com/column/008/ )! Sapporo and the surrounding area also has some great onsen facilities that you can enjoy during your hotel stay or on a day trip. It is a great feeling to slip into the hot spring water after a fun day in the wilderness. We look forward to receiving your requests for this 2022-2023 trip to Hokkaido. Let’s enjoy the winter in Sapporo!