I love Hokkaido in every season, but there are a number of good reasons why spring here feels so unique. In Japan, the season of changing winds and pink petals comes last to Hokkaido. Whereas Tokyoites and Osakans are already sweating in the heat of the southern summer, Dosanko (Hokkaidoans) are basking in a wide-array of blossoms, a resurgent sun and in the freshness of the spring air. Cherry blossom, pink phlox, yellow mustard, rapeseed, tulip and lilac festivals, to name a few, make ideal destinations for family sightseeing, a local gourmet experience, or a spring photoshoot. You can combine the gorgeous and constantly blooming landscapes with a number of fun and adventurous activities to make the best out of your spring visit to Hokkaido. Here is our selection of the top 10 things to do in Hokkaido that you don’t want to miss this spring.
1. Matsumae’s Month-long Hanami Matsuri
Gentle pink petals dancing in the air, masses of laughs and happy faces, smoky barbecues tantalizing the taste buds: hanami matsuri, or cherry blossom viewing festival, is the main spring event all over the country. At the southern tip of Hokkaido is Matsumae town, which not only houses the northernmost castle in Japan, but also has one of the longest hanami matsuris. The traditional atmosphere of the 17th century castle town offers the most authentic hanami matsuri experience in Hokkaido and ranked as one of the top 100 sites for sakura viewing in Japan. There are over 10,000 cherry trees of 250 different varieties, which makes Matsumae’s festival uncharacteristically long, with blooms lasting from late April to late May. Come here with your botany book to see how many kinds of cherry trees you can find.
2. Whale & Dolphin Watching
Would you like to try your luck at spotting marine wildlife in Hokkaido? If so, quickly finish your shopping in Sapporo and endeavor on a great nature tour to the remote eastern part of the island which is blessed with an abundance of nature. Off the coasts of Nemuro, Shiretoko and Abashiri, boats ply the waters from early April to October, providing opportunities for dolphin and whale watching. You’ll have the chance to see Pacific white-sided dolphins, Dall's porpoises, minke and orca whales. Experience the atmosphere of the northern sea with its unique marine life, great seafood and beautiful warm-hearted people. While on the way to your destination, enjoy the pure nature of eastern Hokkaido with its numerous lakes, rivers, waterfalls and hot springs.
3. Scenic flights over Blooming Flower Fields
They say that the large is best seen from a distance, so take the opportunity to go on a scenic flight over the picturesque Hokkaido landscape! A glider, a helicopter or a Cessna, which one do you prefer? As a beautiful technical wonder, a glider travels across the sky only by the force of wind. The gliders’ sky park is located In Takikawa city, half way from Sapporo to Asahikawa. Takikawa is also one of the largest producers of canola in Japan, where large fields are covered in brilliant yellow flowers from late May until early June. If you prefer pink, better take a scenic flight at Takinoue or Higashomokoto Pink Moss Festival for all the pink you can imagine. The two venues are very similar as they both offer pretty hills of bright pink blossoms, little carts that take visitors around the parks, pink phlox ice cream and other locally produced delicacies. Moreover, if you have some extra money and courage to spare, I recommend taking a memorable scenic flights over the parks. You can choose between a helicopter at Takinoue or a Cessna over Higashimokoto. These one of a kind experiences guarantee memories that will last a lifetime.
4. Spring Whitewater Rafting
Rivers in Hokkaido are mostly timid. They are nice for relaxing eco-rafting for families with young kids. All that changes for a short time in the spring, when copious amounts of melting snow dramatically increase water levels of the mountain-fed rivers, and Hokkaido’s rapids become the real deal. April rafting is definitely worth trying if you happen to be in Hokkaido at this time of year, like adrenaline and are in good physical condition. You won’t forget the excitement of being flushed down a surging river, adjusting and balancing the raft with the ever-changing element of water, and navigating your way down with the help of a professional instructor.
5. Horseback Riding beneath Cherry Blossoms
Did you know that the Hidaka region in Hokkaido is Japan’s largest breeding grounds of thoroughbred horses? If you love horses, to visit Hidaka and learn about the region’s famous breeds & brands is a must. The most exciting time to visit Hidaka is spring, all because of Japan’s beloved sakura blossom. Shinhidaka, a town famous for horse farms, organic horse-oil beauty and health products, and thoroughbred ranches, is also one of the best cherry blossom locations in Hokkaido. There are many spots in Hidaka for cherry blossom viewing, the most famous being the Nijukkan Road, with 3 000 trees blooming altogether in mid-May. With this late date, Hidaka takes the prize for the latest cherry blossom viewing region in Japan. Now imagine yourself riding an award-winning pure bred horse beneath the fluttering cherry blossoms. It’s almost a dream, isn’t it?
6. Abashiri Crab Competitions - Gourmet Paradise
The city of Abashiri, in the east of Hokkaido, is known for drift ice, delicious seafood and the notorious Abashiri prison. The severe winters guaranteed strict punishment for political prisoners, who were forced to survive by the rough and cold waters of the Sea of Okhotsk. In mid-winter, the sea is awash with drift ice from the northern Pacific, making it the world’s southernmost location for drift ice and a perfect opportunity for great wildlife viewing. Steller’s sea eagles and seals hunt for fish from the drift ice as crabs, living at the bottom of the sea, feed off high-quality plankton that give their meat a rich flavor. Japan’s best crabs come from the Sea of Okhotsk, none more so than the blue king crab found only in these waters. As spring arrives and the drift ice retreats, crabs become an easy catch. In late May, the town holds a special "Spring Crab Battle" with chefs from more than 30 restaurants trying to outdo each other in their mastery and originality of crab preparation. Arrive early at the Abashiri Port for a peak at the morning catch and put yourself on a strict crab diet: crab fried rice, crab rice bowl, crab egg rolls, crab risotto, miso crab, grilled crab, crab crab crab! There is no end to it!
7. Spot Tancho Red-Crested Cranes and Grey Heron Offspring in Kushiro
Kushiro Shitsugen Wetland is Japan’s largest wetland in Hokkaido with 170 kinds of birds appearing here throughout the year. Spring is breeding time for the tancho red-crested crane and grey heron which reside here. Take a walking tour or canoe trip with a nature guide and try your luck with wildlife spotting. Or just enjoy the spectacular natural environment of the rehabilitated wetlands, one of the most successful conservation projects in Japan. Another way to enjoy bird watching is by visiting Kushiro Zoo, one of the largest in Japan. The zoo is mainly devoted to the conservation of red-crested cranes through the Protection and Breeding Center. From spring to summer, the zoo also comes alive with a grey heron colony of over 100 nests. The zoo’s setting is unique in that it breaks the separation between wildlife within and outside its boundaries.
8. Flower Marshlands
There are plenty of marshlands in Hokkaido which are carefully protected and studied, giving visitors the opportunity to learn about these unique ecosystems. Kiritappu-shitsugen Wetlands extend along the east coast of Hokkaido beside the Pacific Ocean. At high tide, seawater flows in along rivers, inundating the central parts of the wetland. Hare’s-tail cotton grass, day lilies and a variety of other colorful flowers compete for space within the wetlands, giving the marsh its charming name. Visitors can enjoy leisurely boardwalk strolls among the flowers and birds or take a guided tour if they are interested in learning about wetlands’ flowers, birds and insects. If you are lucky, you’ll be able to spot red-crested cranes and ezo-shika, Hokkaido deer. If you want to leave your mark here, you can volunteer to help locals maintain and repair the boardwalks, all of which have been built and preserved by local residents and past volunteers.
9. Sansai Hunting
The unmistakable flavor of spring is fresh vegetables. In Japanese supermarkets, among freshly grown asparagus and spinach, you can encounter a surprising variety of stems, leaves, roots and sprouts that maybe you have never seen before, yet alone eaten. They are universally called sansai, mountain vegetables, which derive from the traditional lifestyle of an agrarian past and appear on supermarket shelves for a short time in spring. Seri, tsukushi, fuki, tara no me, yama udo and other wild edibles don’t always have specific names in English, which in a way makes them even more enticing to try in a seasonal spring tempura. If you’re feeling adventurous, head out on a sansai hunt tour to the mountains with a nature guide, who will teach you about the edible wild vegetables, and how to harvest and cook them for a traditional Japanese meal.
10. The End of Skiing & Snowboarding Season
In late April, with the powder long gone, you can head out to Hokkaido’s mountains wearing only a T-shirt and shorts and see adventurous kids strapped into their snowboards perfecting their selections of jumps and tricks in spring “hit” parks. The end of the season is also marked by a Costume Parade, where you can encounter cosplay and manga heroes right on the slopes. If you are fond of mountains and people-watching, Niseko is your best bet. Here you may forget you are actually in Japan as blond Aussies & Kiwis, reluctant to bid farewell to another spectacular winter, loiter among Hirafus many choice restaurants and spirited bars. Here you can have the best pizza in Hokkaido, dine at Michelin rated restaurants and sample a large variety of excellent international cuisine.
Wherever your adventures in Hokkaido take you this spring, get out there, enjoy nature and be happy!
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