Take a seriously frosty adventure through Hokkaido.

Say Hokk-hi-do to Japan’s northernmost main island on a 10-day winter exploration of its natural beauty, rich cultural heritage and fabulous festivities. Beginning in Sapporo, discover the crisp notes of whisky at a distillery in Yoichi, have the chance to participate in an age-old tradition of dog-sledding in Shikaoi, see the renowned Japanese crane in Lake Akan, explore the depths of the Shiretoko National Park and possibly float through drift ice in Abashiri. With ryokans to stay in, local Ainu people to meet, traditional onsen to soak in and Hokkaido local drinks to warm you up to check out, you’ll be seeing Japan in a whole new light on this winter adventure.


Start
Sapporo, Japan
Finish
Sapporo, Japan
Destination
Japan
Style
Original
Theme
Expedition
Code
CJSL
Physical rating
Ages
Min 15
Group size
Min 4, Max 12

Why you'll love this trip

  • If your timing is right, you’ll marvel in the lights and wonder of the Snow Light Path festival in Otaru – one of the region’s oldest festivals to celebrate the winter wonderland that Hokkaido is.

  • Escape the icy conditions by relaxing with a soak in a steaming onsen – a traditional Japanese hot spring.

  • Discover the Ainu people at a village visit in Lake Akan. This indigenous community of Hokkaido have a rich culture and long-withstanding traditions which you will be able to learn about on your visit.

  • Go in search for a quintessential image of Japan – the symbolic red-crested crane. These elegant birds inhabit the Kushiro region, and with a knowledgeable guide on hand, you’ll see them in all their glory.

  • Dodge the winter crowds with an unforgettable journey to World Heritage-listed Shiretoko National Park, with a guided tour through the forest in search of Hokkaido’s endangered species.

Is this trip right for you?

  • A key challenge is logistically getting around Hokkaido in the midst of winter when a lot can go wrong – snowstorms, blocked lines and roads, etc – and considerable distances to cover.

  • Not all departure dates will coincide with local festivals and certain activities are only available in deep winter (late January to March). So please read the day-to-day itinerary and check your dates if you want to be in a destination for a certain festival or time period.

  • In some destinations you may be staying in a ryokan, which is a Japanese-style inn. It’s a great taste of tradition, however not everyone finds futon mattresses on the tatami mat floor, tiny bathrooms and proximity to other guests as comfortable as more Western-style hotels and beds. Read more about ryokans in the ‘Accommodation’ section of the Essential Trip Information.

  • While heating inside buildings and trains is cosy, it gets very cold in Japan at this time of year (well below zero), so it's important to be prepared with warm clothes and waterproof shoes suitable for walking on ice and snow. The temperature in northern Japan is well below freezing from November to March and it can be unpredictable, with heavy overnight snow as thick as 50 cm. It's important to come prepared for these weather conditions to best enjoy the trip – a warm jacket that's rain and wind proof, hat, gloves, sturdy walking shoes with good traction are necessary.

  • Hokkaido is a popular place to travel in winter, especially for Japanese travellers, so don't be surprised if some sights or destinations are busy and crowded, especially during festival times.

Itinerary

Welcome to Sapporo! Nestled in a wide basin beneath snow-capped mountains, Sapporo is the lovely capital of Hokkaido – Japan’s northernmost main island. You are welcome to arrive at any time today; however, please keep in mind that check in time is 3 pm at your accommodation. There are no activities planned for today until an important group meeting, usually held at 6 pm. Here, you will meet your group leader and travel pals joining you for this winter adventure! After your briefing on what’s to come, why not gather a group together for an optional meal – your group leader will know of some delicious local places to eat for tonight. It's a very special time of year in Hokkaido, as winter brings the best of Sapporo for all to see, so be sure to head out and check out the city.
Accommodation
  • Hotel (1 night)
Meals Included
There are no meals included on this day.
Special Information
It’s very important that you attend the welcome meeting as we will be collecting insurance details and next of kin information at this time. If you are going to be late please let your travel agent or hotel reception know. Ask reception or look for a note in the lobby for more information on where the meeting will take place.
This morning, leave Sapporo and take Japan’s renowned JR (train) network to Yoichi, where you’ll visit Nikka Whisky – one of Japan’s oldest and best distilleries. Built in 1934, its cold climate, crisp clean air, fresh water and proximity to the sea provided an ideal location for founder Masataka Taketsuru to build this distillery and begin producing a high-quality alcohol. Afterwards, continue again by train to Otaru, arriving mid-afternoon. Otaru is a small harbour city with a canal that stretches through its main areas. If you are lucky enough to be visiting Otaru in mid-February, you will be able to enjoy the Snow Light Path festival this evening – one of Otaru’s oldest festivals with lights illuminating the city’s canals, boats, snow tunnels and ice bars along the Temiya train tracks.
Accommodation
  • Hotel (1 night)
Included Activities
  • Yoichi - Nikka Whisky Distillery
  • Otaru - Walking tour
Optional Activities
  • Otaru - Music Box Museum - Free
Meals Included
  • Breakfast
Rise and shine early this morning with a 3-hour journey to Shikaoi. You’ll be travelling by a combination of public bus and train, depending on transport schedules. Once arrived in Shikaoi, have the chance to partake in a unique and traditional experience of this region – a winter dog-sledding activity. Dog-pulled sledges were originally used by the indigenous Ainu people for transport and hunting, and now, these well looked-after Husky dogs pull traditional sledges in Shikaoi’s open wintery landscape. Afterwards, travel on to the Shikaribetsu area of Hokkaido. This lake turns into an ice village in the deep winter months from late January to March, and so you’ll be able to check out structures literally built on the lake. Also today, have a quintessential Japanese experience and soak in a local onsen near the lake.
Accommodation
  • Ryokan Hotel (1 night)
Included Activities
  • Shikaoi - Dog sledding
Meals Included
  • Breakfast
  • Dinner
Special Information
Please note that the lake may not have frozen in December and the ice structures like ice bars or igloos are weather dependent and may not have been built on the lake then.
This morning, make tracks for the port city of Kushiro (approximately 6 hours total). Today is mainly a transport day, so have a good book or a couple of podcasts ready to keep you occupied on your journey. Kushiro is the most populous city in the east of Hokkaido, and is a key transit hub for travellers to Lake Akan National Park. Once arrived, why not check out the main Kushiro River fracturing with sheets of ice slowly floating downstream, or rug up and find a warm izakaya (Japanese-style pub) for an inexpensive meal with your group.
Accommodation
  • Hotel (1 night)
Meals Included
  • Breakfast
Today, take a bus from Kushiro to the Tsurui Itoh Tachi Bird Sanctuary (approximately 1 hour). Here, you’ll have a great chance to observe the red-crowned crane, also known as the Japanese crane. Overhunting and loss of habitat in the 19th-20th century meant that, at one point, less than two dozen cranes were thought to survive in the nearby Kushiro marshes. Luckily because of this community’s conservation efforts, they are still able to be spotted. Their black and white plumage with the distinct red ‘crown’ and graceful posture are a symbol for good luck, fidelity and longevity. Today, you’ll get to see their dancing and graceful flying and hear their mating calls at the sanctuary. Continue on to Lake Akan – a scenic crater lake in Akan National Park, where you can walk forest trails that lead to bubbling mud pools. Today, you’ll also have the special chance to visit a traditional Ainu village, where you’ll be introduced to the history and culture of the indigenous communities of Japan. Ainu Kotan, a village on the shores of Lake Akan, is the largest Ainu village in Hokkaido, and here, you’ll be able to immerse yourself in the culture of this community with a visit to their Memorial Hall, which recreates a traditional poncise (small house). You may also like to book into a special performance at the Ikor theatre – the only place in Japan to see traditional Ainu dance.
Accommodation
  • Hotel (1 night)
Included Activities
  • Lake Akan - Ainu Kotan Village visit
  • Lake Akan - Tsurui Itoh Red-crowned Crane Sanctuary
  • Lake Akan - Ainu Living Memorial Hall
Optional Activities
  • Lake Akan - Akan-Yukar “Lost Kamuy” performance (if scheduled) - JPY2200
  • Lake Akan - Ainu Ancient Ceremonial Dance (if scheduled) - JPY1080
Meals Included
  • Breakfast
Take a public bus from Lake Akan to Abashiri, then transfer on to Utoro (travel time approximately 6 hours). Utoro is the north-western gateway to the World Heritage-listed Shiretoko National Park – touted as one of the last remaining sections of Japan’s true wilderness. This peninsula was known in Ainu as ‘the end of the world’, and many Japanese residents dream of visiting this spectacular region at least once in their lives. You’ll have time to explore this national park, full of wintery landscapes, hidden hot springs and cascading waterfalls. Tonight, you’ll stay in traditional ryokan-style accommodation, and once settled in, you might like to buy a pass into one of the local onsens to soak all of your stresses away.
Accommodation
  • Guesthouse (1 night)
Meals Included
  • Breakfast
  • Dinner
Today, embark on an included wildlife tour with your group through the Shiretoko National Park. As you’ll be visiting in winter, Shiretoko will look quite different to the photos, and may be inhabited by different endangered wildlife than what you may expect to see in other seasons. With an expert guide, keep an eye out for white-tailed eagles, sea eagles, sika deer and red foxes clamouring through the forest. Much of Shiretoko’s wildlife is endangered, so discovering these animals at different viewpoints is definitely worthwhile. You might even learn the local names for these animals! Return to your ryokan for a restful night.
Accommodation
  • Guesthouse (1 night)
Included Activities
  • Shiretoko National Park - Wildlife tour
Meals Included
  • Breakfast
  • Dinner
Leave Utoro in your dust and travel to Abashiri. Depending on the month, drift ice is a feature of this area during winter. As its name suggests, drift ice is sheets of sea ice that travel on the Sea of Okhotsk to Abashiri and stay formed for only a couple of months in the winter. A lot of the time, drift ice cannot be seen from land, and so, it is possible to take a boat tour where the sea is further covered. You may also like to book yourself in to visit the former Abashiri Prison, which has now converted into an outdoor history museum, showcasing the architecture and many artefacts of the Meiji era in the late 19th century.
Accommodation
  • Hotel (1 night)
Included Activities
  • Abashiri - Drift Ice Sightseeing Boat Cruise
Meals Included
  • Breakfast
Special Information
Please note that the drift ice tour will only be available during deep winter (late January to March). If you are travelling in December, the drift ice activity will be replaced with a visit to the former Abashiri Prison Complex. Operating from 1890 to 1984, it was the northernmost and most feared prison in Japan
This morning, transfer by bus to Sapporo (approximately 6 hours). After a big day of travelling, why not head out for a celebratory dinner and drink with your travel crew this evening. You’ll definitely have had a spectacular time exploring the best of Hokkaido’s winter festivals, so hit up local izakaya, karaoke, bars or something else – be sure to ask your group leader of their favourite places to go.
Accommodation
  • Hotel (1 night)
Meals Included
  • Breakfast
With no activities planned for today, you are free to leave the accommodation at any time. Check out time is at 11 am; however, if you would like to spend some more time exploring Hokkaido’s capital, we’ll be happy to organise additional accommodation (subject to availability).
Meals Included
  • Breakfast

Meals

9 breakfasts, 3 dinners

Transport

Train, Public bus, Private vehicle, Boat

Accommodation

Hotel (6 nights), Guesthouse (2 nights)

Included activities

  • Yoichi - Nikka Whisky Distillery
  • Otaru - Walking tour
  • Shikaoi - Dog sledding
  • Lake Akan - Ainu Kotan Village visit
  • Lake Akan - Tsurui Itoh Red-crowned Crane Sanctuary
  • Lake Akan - Ainu Living Memorial Hall
  • Shiretoko National Park - Wildlife tour
  • Abashiri - Drift Ice Sightseeing Boat Cruise

Dates & availability

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Important notes

1. A Single Supplement is currently not available for this trip due to limited rooms at many of our properties.
2. This trip does not include a Japan Rail Pass. You will need to buy your own train tickets for any independent rail travel you wish to do in Japan.
3. Due to the rapid increase in tourism in Japan and in the lead up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics it has been necessary to go outside our traditional tour leader sources. As a result our passionate, professional and trained tour leaders may be local Japanese or long term foreign residents in Japan.
4. We are currently unable to book pre or post tour accommodation at our start & finish point hotels due to limited room availability. We recommend booking a hotel of your choice through an online booking engine if you are planning to stay longer in Japan.
5. Luggage that can be carried easily will be more suitable than suitcases for this trip due to the streets being wet, muddy, or snow-covered when travelling at this time of year.
6.The activities and festivals available in Hokkaido are largely weather dependent. Depending on the time of your travel, different activities may be arranged depending on their availability. Please check the day-to-day itinerary for details.

Essential trip information

Want an in-depth insight into this trip? Essential Trip Information provides a detailed itinerary, visa info, how to get to your hotel, what's included - pretty much everything you need to know about this adventure and more.

View Essential Trip Information

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