Hokkaido is an outdoor-lover's dream. It's known best as a northern destination for winter sports and world-class slopes. But Japan's second largest and least developed island is an ideal summer getaway as well.
This isn't a secret, many Japanese visitors flock here to appreciate its alpine landscapes and escape the humidity and high temperatures the rest of the country endures.
We had a long, four-day weekend to uncover the island's natural treasures. Since it wasn't enough time to explore the whole island, we focused our efforts on central Hokkaido's lakes, hot springs, mountains, and farms.
DAY 1: Arrive and Drive to Niseko
- Flights arrive at the New Chitose Airport outside of Sapporo. A rental car is the best way to roam around the island freely. Rental agencies often offer a GPS in the vehicle, just make sure that the agency switches the voice to English. Don’t fret if you can’t read Kanji, destinations can be input using telephone numbers.
- It’s a two-hour, winding drive from the airport to Niseko. This district is most famous for its amazing powder snow and winter resorts. Though sleepier in the summer, it’s a convenient base for discovering the area’s parks, lakes, and onsens (hot springs).
- Check into the chic and cozy Kimamaya Hotel in Hirafu. The nine-room boutique hotel offers amazing, personalized service; complimentary access to its cedar and stone spa tubs; and breakfast at The Barn, a lofty restaurant connected to the hotel. After settling, head to Niseko Village. If it’s early enough, try the famous vegetable buffet at Prativo followed by ice cream or cream puffs at Milk Kobo.
- Should you have an hour to spare, hike the wooded nature trail near the Hilton.
- Spend the rest of the afternoon window shopping and scouting a place to eat dinner back in Hirafu, followed by a relaxing late-night soak in one of Kimamaya’s spa tubs.
DAY 2: Explore Lake Toya
The northern side of Lake Toya, part of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park, is only a 45-minute drive from Hirafu. A full day can be dedicated to lazily driving the perimeter of the water-filled caldera. Stop at any points of interest – like overlooks and parks – that capture your interest. The following were some of our favorite highlights:
- Toyako Sculpture Park: Stroll among the large-scale artwork at this waterfront park, located near Sobetsu. Pick up some snacks from a roadside stand and enjoy it on one the park benches that offer stunning views of the lake. There are several free lots for parking along the way.
- Uzusan Ropeway and Trail: After seeing Lake Toya up close, get an aerial perspective from atop Mount Usu. The ropeway, a fancy name for a gondola, leads to 360° panoramic views from two observation decks perched upon the side of the active crater. The start of the Outer Rim Trail is located from the furthest platform. From here, it’s a 40-minute, one-way trek along the the edge of the crater where hikers can get a better look at smoking fumaroles and vistas of the Pacific.
- Toyako-cho: On the northern side of the lake lies the quaint town, Toyako-cho. There’s a pretty, little pier and beach behind the Toya Mizunoeki market. Across the street from it is Cafe Lake Toya, a delightful spot for coffee, freshly baked goods, and elegantly prepared crepes and galettes.
DAY 3: Journey to Sapporo
Time to bid Niseko farewell for the brighter lights of Hokkaido’s capital, Sapporo. The city makes a good gateway for exploring more of the island’s northerly sites.
- Connoisseurs of fine spirits should take a gander at Nikka Whisky’s Yoichi Distillery. The admission is free and English speakers can take a self-guided tour of the facility with the aid of a supplied brochure or cell phone app. After learning about the manufacturing process, head to the tasting room for three, free samples of their cheaper drinks. Or go to the pub-like Whisky Drinking Club to pay and sip on the higher-quality stuff. End your visit at the gift shop where you can purchase popular blends or special ones that are unique to that distillery.
- From the distillery, take the scenic route along the bay and stop at Otaru’s charming canal district for lunch or drinks.
- Check into your hotel after arriving in Sapporo. We stayed at the Sapporo Grand Hotel, a standard business-style hotel with a good location near many of the city’s main attractions. Spend the afternoon walking around the city to see sites like the TV Tower, Clock Tower, municipal parks, and markets. Take a break and relax at one of its many beer gardens.
DAY 4: The Fields of Furano
Leave early in the morning for a two-hour drive north to Furano. The area is noted for its patchwork landscapes and flower farms.
- Stop at Farm Tomita, an institution that’s been cultivating flowers for over 50 years. Wander around and breath in its colorful fields, most notably the hillside lavender one. Don’t forget a selfie stick. This is a photo opportunity paradise. It’s free to park and walk around the grounds, the farm makes its money from food and souvenir sales.
- Refuel on a wholesome lunch at the quaint, Hobbit-like Navo Café in downtown Furano.
- Proceed toward Biei for more outdoor fun. Stop at mystical Aoiike Blue Pond, a body of water artificially created after a dam was built. It engulfs dead birch trees and gets its eerie aquamarine color from aluminum hydroxide deposits.
- Continue to the Shirahige Waterfall and end your vacation bathing at one of the three nearby onsens: Shirogane, Fukiage, or Kamihoroso hot springs. The entrance fee costs only a few dollars and towels can be rented for a nominal fee.