If forests, mountains, rivers, and lakes are your thing, then Hokkaido is arguably the best place in Japan for you to be. Hokkaido can be divided into five main regions, when it comes to getting out into nature– Daisetsuzan National Park, Shikotsu-Toya National Park, Akan National Park, Shiretoko, and Rishiri and Rebun. That being said, nature is hardly out of reach; there is generally something exciting to do within half an hour in any direction, no matter where you are. Whether it be hiking, sailing through the skies, hitting the slopes, or even just relaxing in an onsen, there is always something new to enjoy. The heart of the Hokkaido is in its nature.
Hang-gliding, paragliding, skydiving and gliding are available all over the island. To get yourself started, try checking out JMB Rusutsu paragliding school southwest of Sapporo or the Tokachigawa Nature Centre in Otofuke. Hot air ballooning is also readily available. Kamishihoro, at the south end of Daisetsuzan National Park, holds a Hot-Air Balloon Festival in August. At night, the gas burners light up the balloons – it’s spectacular.
River kayaking and canoeing are very popular in Hokkaido. A large number of companies exist to rent equipment and provide guide services, especially near national parks. The Niseko Adventure Centre (NAC) is a good place to start, but consider that outside of Niseko, you’ll likely need a passable proficiency at Japanese.
There are also several places that offer river sports such as Lake Toya and Tomakomai. To branch out, head towards Yoichi to experience ocean surfing.
Cycling and Running
Hokkaido is hugely popular for long-distance cycle touring, road, and mountain biking. The best way to join is to get out on one of Hokkaido’s many empty roads. Keep an eye out for cycling event posters around your town.
With running, as with cycling, you’re never more than a week out from an event somewhere in Hokkaido. Check out the website RUNNET for information. Outside of events, running through your town is sure to make you a couple of friends.
If you’re new to hiking, its not too late to start. Peaks like Kuro-dake, Asahi-dake, or Meakan-dake, which offer incredible views without tremendous effort. Tougher climbs include Yotei-zan, Rishirifuji, Shari-dake, or Tokachi-dake. If you’re looking for more technical mountaineering, consider contacting blogger Leon Roode, the Hokkaido Bush Pig. He’s a genial New Zealander with more experience in Hokkaido’s back country than almost any other foreigner you’re bound to meet.
This pastime may require some reading. Japanese guidebooks like the 日本100岩場 are solid rock climbing guides, and you can find outdoor climbing areas in Kamui Kotan, Miharashi, Hakodate-yama, and Akaiwa.
Indoor climbing gyms are a great place to start climbing. In Sapporo you’ll have your choice of gyms at Shugakuso and Whippersnapper, Rainbow Cliff, and NAC. In Asahikawa, you’ll find bouldering at Shugakuso and Wall of Early Morning Light.
The snow sports in Hokkaido are world-class – just ask the droves of Australians that can be found at Niseko every winter. Hokkaido’s ski fields are great and generally not too busy, but what sets Hokkaido apart is its powder snow, found plentifully off-piste and in the back country. The season varies in length from year to year, but quality snow can usually be found from December through April. The list of winter activities is extensive. Besides skiing, snowboarding, and cross-country skiing, there are a variety of snowsports awaiting you in Hokkaido.
On the Ice
Ice fishing is extremely popular amongst the Japanese, and it is common to see tent villages appear on top of frozen lakes every weekend. Lake Shikaribetsu, in the southern Daisetsuzan foothills, has an elaborate ice bar, ice onsen and (somewhat rudimentary) ice hotel every year, from January to March.
Rock climbers frustrated by the weather might like to give ice climbing a try. There are a number of waterfalls around Hokkaido which freeze in the winter and can be climbed. The season tends to be short, February to March, but the climbs are beautiful. Sounkyo Gorge, Oketo, Maruseppu and Abashiri are good places to head for. Equipment for this sport can be expensive, so you might want to try one of the rock climbing gyms.
For the slightly more aggressive amongst you, how about a snowball fight tournament? Your team wins by either stealing the other team’s flag, or by eliminating other team members with well-aimed, regulation-sized snowballs. There are tournaments in Toya and Tokachi, as well as a smattering of smaller town events. Keep in mind that Japanese teams take these events very seriously, wear uniforms, and train all year.
Safety and Bear Safety
There is an estimated population of about 2,000 – 3,000 Hokkaido Brown Bears or “Higuma.” According to Hifumi Tsuruga, bear researcher at the Southern Hokkaido Wildlife Research Station, there are several things you can do to avoid encounters. Hike in groups. Invest in a bear bell or bear spray. If all else fails in an attack situation, the Higuma, like sharks, have a very sensitive nose, so strike it on the nose. Higuma encounters are still considered very rare; your confidence in your safety will grow with your outdoor experience.
Safety conditions out of our control happen, the following is within your control. Be aware of your surroundings and pay careful attention. These are the common essentials to bring with you on your adventures:
Bear spray • Sun protection • Maps from ranger stations • Compass • Cell phone and an extra an battery
pack • Water/food • Extra layers and emergency blanket • First aid kit – plus a knife, super glue, duct tape • Headlamp • Fire starter: waterproof matches (preferred) or a lighter • ID and Insurance Card • Good hiking boots.
Safety and Gear
Plan out your trips ahead of time and prepare to run into some closed trails/roads, and old maps. Let a few friends know where you’re headed. Research local websites and ask friends about destinations and trails. Many cities and towns have outdoor clubs and local recreation centre employees who are eager to share information. Even small towns have ‘local experts.’ There’s a lifetime worth of outdoor experiences awaiting you from flowing rivers, rocks to climb, slopes to ski, and landscapes which inspire. Enjoy.
When it comes to shopping for serious outdoor goods, the general consensus is to find the store ‘Shugakuso,’ which has gear for rock and ice climbing, hiking, camping, skiing, and trail running in stock. More recreational goods can be found at stores like Super Sports Xebio or Sports Depo. These stores can be found in most bigger cities. If you’re in the neighbourhood, check out Sapporo Factory– it hosts a big sporting goods outlet where you’ll find brands like Columbia, Haglofs, and Japan’s own Montbell. Second-hand shops also have good options for gear.