I have always loved winter and snow even more. Coming from the south of France, where it barely snows once every two years, I hardly ever had the chance to discover a beautiful snowy landscape whenever I’d open my shutters on a Christmas morning. But this year, I decided to make my dream come true. As I was in Japan, I decided to fly to Hokkaido to celebrate Christmas literally under the snow.
During my trip, snow was falling every single day. I was frozen to the tip of my nails, but every day, as I watched snowflakes fall from the sky, it warmed my heart. I can’t think about a better place to spend Christmas in Japan than Hokkaido.
Christmas Spirit in Sapporo, Hokkaido
Our first destination in Hokkaido was Sapporo (札幌), the largest city of the northern island. A warm coat, gloves, good shoes, and woollen socks are the least you should wear to face the temperatures of Sapporo in December. It’s not as cold as it is in January or February when the temperatures hover below 0°C, but that doesn’t scare the tourists away who visit the famous Sapporo Snow Festival, the yuki matsuri (雪祭り) and its huge snow sculptures every February.
While we visited the city, we actually realized that Sapporo is built to be livable to its inhabitants during these cold temperatures. Long underground passageways make it possible to walk long distances under the city without exposing your skin to the cold. And when I say passageways, I’m talking about true pedestrian avenues lined with shops and restaurants. A second city stretches out in the basements of Sapporo!
When we arrived on the edge of Odori Park (大通公園), the central park of the city facing the iconic Sapporo Tower (札幌タワー), we were suddenly overwhelmed by Christmas spirit. Large Christmas illuminations had been installed on the snow-covered park. Known as “Sapporo White Illumination”, these illuminations lighten the park from late November until December 25th.
The tower in the photos may look familiar to you, and that is not a coincidence. You probably know of Tokyo Tower, which is a close reproduction to Paris’ Eiffel Tower. Well, it seems that the Japanese are so much in love with our French monument that they also built the Sapporo Tower based on the Eiffel Tower (エッフェル塔). The architect of the Tokyo Tower also designed the plans of Sapporo Tower which make them look very similar, even if Sapporo tower is smaller. As you climb to the top of the tower, you can enjoy a panoramic view of the city.
Except for some islands in Kyushu, there are very few Christians in Japan, so Christmas is not part of Japanese traditions and became popular in the archipelago only very recently. This holiday from the West is, therefore, an opportunity for the Japanese to showcase Western culture, especially in the Christmas markets. The German Christmas Market of Sapporo is a great example of that. Held every year at the foot of Sapporo Tower, you can find pretzels, cold cuts, western crafts, and even Russian dolls. When you walk through the alleys of this Western Christmas market under a mini Eiffel Tower, it’s hard to believe you’re still in Japan!
But by spending all this time under the snow in the middle of the night, we now wanted to warm ourselves in the heated room of a local restaurant to taste some Japanese specialities. There are so many renowned foods in Hokkaido that the only difficulty was to choose one for dinner.
Where to Eat in Sapporo?
This night we decided to try a soup curry, and I think it is the perfect food to warm you up during the cold nights of Hokkaido. Japanese curry is one of the most popular dishes in Japan. But Hokkaido is the only place where they prepare soup with this curry! This speciality is radically different from the curries that can be eaten elsewhere in Japan, topped with a lot of vegetables from the abundant agriculture of Hokkaido. A real delight!
The local food to try in Sapporo includes miso ramen, known to have been invented here. A small alley is also dedicated to ramen, “Gansou Ramen Yokocho” (元祖ラーメン横丁). Classic or topped with shellfish flamed in front of you, you will be spoiled by the variety of ramen that you can try.
If you’re a meat enthusiast, you should definitely try jingisukan (ジンギスカン). This lamb meat speciality is named after the famous Mongolian military leader Genghis Khan. The slices of meat are cooked on a domed-shaped barbecue (it is said that Mongolian soldiers used their helmet to cook the meat) and are seasoned with the unique flavours of the dedicated sauce.
One of the most famous jingisukan restaurants of Sapporo can be found at the Sapporo Beer Garden (サッポロビール園). It can be a great opportunity to visit the museum and to learn more about the history of Sapporo beer (サッポロビール), one of the most popular beers in Japan!
Shiroi Koibito Park: A Perfect Christmas Attraction for Families
If you’re travelling with your family or if the holiday season awakes the child inside you, Shiroi Koibito Park (白い恋人パーク) is the perfect place to enjoy the magic of Christmas. Shiroi Koibito is a famous cookies brand. These small cookies filled with white chocolate became so inextricably linked to Hokkaido that it has finally become one of the symbols of the island. The factory of these cookies is located in Shiroi Koibito Park, a theme park about chocolate and sweets. The park is open all year, but I truly think that it gets even more magical during Christmas.
In addition to the tour of the factory and the small attractions offered outside, you can take part in workshops to learn how to make chocolate, and to taste all kinds of chocolate preparations. This is also the perfect chance to pick up some souvenirs, and Shiroi Koibito cookies are one of the most popular souvenirs of Hokkaido.
Warming Up in Hokkaido’s Onsen Hot Springs of Jozankei
The previous year, I had the opportunity to visit Hokkaido during the fall. I went to Jozankei (定山渓), a small hot spring village one hour by bus from Sapporo. During the fall, the momiji maple leaves made this place absolutely wonderful, turning the landscapes into natural paintings full of colour. I enjoyed my stay in Jozankei so much that I definitely wanted to go back to this village and to discover this landscapes under the snow.
It was a radical transformation! The warm colours from my memories had been replaced by the perfect white coating of snow over the whole area and muffled the sound of our footsteps.
If you like snowy landscapes as much as I do, you cannot resist the beauty of this village during the winter. But even if you don’t go there for the snow, Jozankei has much more to offer than its landscapes! This village was built on natural hot springs, and there is nothing better than to warm up in the middle of the winter than to have a good soak into a hot onsen bath.
The numerous ryokan of Jozankei gives you the chance to enjoy onsen and Japanese traditional luxury fully. Our stay at the Hana Momiji Ryokan in Jozankei was arguably the most comfortable moments of our Christmas holiday travel. The spacious traditional tatami rooms and futon beds are already a great reason to stay in a ryokan. But these traditional Japanese inns are also known for their gourmet dinners. And with the exceptional ingredients of Hokkaido, these dinners are absolutely delicious.
Asahikawa, Visiting the Heart of Hokkaido
Asahikawa (旭川) is the second-largest city of Hokkaido. Close to Mount Daisetsuzan, the highest mountain of the island, it is the perfect destination for outdoor activities: hiking and cycling during the warm seasons, and skiing during the winter.
Asahikawa is also a culturally interesting city to visit. You can learn more about the indigenous people of Hokkaido, the Ainu (アイヌ) in the museum of Asahikawa dedicated to the Ainu’s history.
I enjoyed visiting Asahikawa on foot, walking through the streets covered with snow. Locals were very kind and welcomed us with a smile, like in the Asahikawa Science Museum (科学館サイパル). A small observatory stands on the roof of the museum. When the museum staff saw that we were heading toward the observatory, they hurried to give us a tour. They even opened the telescope to show us the few stars visible through the clouds, a wonderful memory. Exactly the kind of special moment that can be experimented only when you visit Japan outside of the main touristic destinations.
The vibrant nightlife of Asahikawa made the evening in the city very pleasant. Strolling between izakaya (居酒屋) and ramen restaurants in snowy alleys illuminated by Christmas decorations gave a magic atmosphere to our night in Asahikawa.
The Penguins of Asahiyama Zoo
I must confess that I don’t have a strong interest in zoos. It was more or less against my will that I was dragged to Asahiyama Zoo (旭山動物園), a 40-minute ride from the city. But I have to admit that this zoo has some interesting features, especially if you go there during the winter.
Asahiyama Zoo is the most northern zoo of Japan, and it’s actually quite surprising to find a zoo in such a cold place. The animals of Asahiyama Zoo are therefore species acclimatized to this kind of climate. Braving the cold and the heavy snow, you will meet animals from Hokkaido including sika deers or wolves, but also all kind of species from the northern parts of the globe, such as polar bears, seals, and polar foxes — many animals that find similar conditions of their native biotopes, in Hokkaido. If we can legitimately argue that the living conditions of animals in a zoo are in no way comparable with their wildlife, Asahiyama Zoo nonetheless seeks to highlight the behaviour of their animals and their instinctive way of life.
Although located in the far north of the country, Asahiyama Zoo is one of the most visited zoo in Japan. There is no doubt that the reason of such a success is due to the real star of the zoo: the emperor penguins. Twice a day (from late December to mid-March), the penguins can go out of their enclosure to stroll in the zoo in front of children amazed by these cute animals waddling on the snow.
Otaru, A Romantic Town on Christmas Eve
The last destination of our trip to Hokkaido was Otaru (小樽). Accessible from Sapporo by about 30 minutes by train, this small seaside town is known to be a romantic destination. It sounded like the perfect destination to spend Christmas in Japan. If traditionally, we celebrate Christmas with family in France, Christmas in Japan is more for couples who meet in fancy restaurants and give gifts to one another.
Most of the charm of this town comes from its Western-inspired architecture from the late 19th century, which is very unusual in Japan. You can fully enjoy this particular atmosphere in Sakaimachi shopping street (堺町通り商店街). Numerous shops and restaurants of all kinds line in this long, seemingly endless, street. It is the best place to discover a wide variety of handmade glass products, the famous craftwork of Otaru. The snow was continuously falling, and it wasn’t long before I walked into a store to warm up. Each time I was amazed by the wonderful Christmas decorations, overwhelmed by the magical Christmas atmosphere of Otaru!
To enjoy Otaru’s food, I strongly advise you to explore one of the town’s fish markets. Otaru is a port town, so you’ll find plenty of fresh seafood. The fish markets are not only pleasant to visit, it is also the perfect place to try some of the freshest seafood you can ever eat. I fell in love with the affordable raw fish donburi of Otaru’s markets. These bowls of rice topped with all kind of sashimi are one of the best donburi I ate in Japan. And if you’re not fond of raw fish, you might as well enjoy some seafood grilled on site.
Lovers enjoy taking a stroll along Otaru Canal during the night. While walking along a small path lit by lampposts, you can enjoy the view of some old brick warehouses on the other side of the canal.
That evening, heavy snow was falling and the bitter cold was a bit too much for us. It was time to walk toward the restaurant to celebrate Christmas in a Japanese way!
For Christmas, the Japanese often enjoy a fancy dinner in some western restaurants, but we didn’t come to Hokkaido to eat French food. Instead, we decided to take full advantage of the local food by booking a table in a sushi restaurant. Enjoying a delicious Hokkaido chirashizushi (ちらし寿司) for Christmas Eve while watching thick snowflakes falling on the streets of Otaru— I couldn’t dream of a better way to spend Christmas in Japan!
Practical Information on Getting to Your Christmas in Hokkaido
How to Get to Hokkaido
The cheapest and fastest way to go to Hokkaido from the rest of Japan is the plane. New Chitose Airport (新千歳国際空港) can be reached by a 1.5-hour flight from Tokyo or a 2-hour flight from Osaka or Fukuoka.
The shinkansen bullet train (新幹線) also reaches Hokkaido, though travelling from Tokyo to Hokkaido takes more than 4 hours and is more expensive than by plane. However the journey is now covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
How to Get to Sapporo
Sapporo city is easily accessible from New Chitose Airport. The Rapid Airline trains, accessible straight in the airport through the New Chitose JR Station (JR新千歳駅) will bring you to Sapporo in only 30 minutes.
Many shuttle buses also run between the airport and various location in Sapporo city.
How to Get to Jozankei
Going to Jozankei from Sapporo station (札幌駅) by bus takes around 1 hour. You will have to take a bus from the Kappa Liner located at the bus stop number 12 of Sapporo Station (a bus headed toward Jozankei 定山渓温泉 / Hoheikyo Onsen 豊平峡温泉.) You can get off the bus at the “Jozankei Yu no Machi” station (定山渓湯の町). The ride costs 770 yen.
How to Get to Asahikawa
JR trains connect Asahikawa and Sapporo. The trip takes around 1.5 hours and costs around 5,000 yen (price varies depending of the chosen train). The trains are covered under the Japan Rail Pass.
Minorly longer, though cheaper than the train, buses rides between Asahikawndmnd Sapporo take about 2 hours. One way trip costs 2,300 yen, and a round trip 4,350 yen.
It is also possible to fly directly to Asahikawa from Tokyo (1hour and 40-minutes) or from Nagoya (2 hours).
How to Get to Otaru
Several trains ride between Otaru and Sapporo station. It only takes 30 minutes with the fastest trains and 45 minutes with local trains. The ride costs from 750 yen to 1,280 yen depending on the train and is also covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
Some trains also connect Otaru and New Chitose Airport. You can reach your destination in 1hour and 10-minutes, though be careful not to miss your train, as there are only a few trains that run in a day!
Yes, Hokkaido is cold during the winter and you must have some warm clothes in your suitcase, but if you decide to celebrate Christmas in Hokkaido, you will discover a brand new Japan surrounded by snow — the perfect atmosphere for the holiday season!