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.
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.
Breakfast Included: 9 Lunches Included: Dinner Included: 3
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.
Yoichi - Otaru
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.
Shikaoi - Lake Shikaribetsu
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.
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.
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.
Shiretoko National Park
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.
Shiretoko National Park
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.
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.
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.
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).