While most regions in Japan experience unbearably hot and humid days through the peak of summer from July to September, Hokkaido sees considerably cooler temperatures with unlimited supply of sunshine. Located on the northern tip of Japan, Hokkaido is known for frigid winter months with daily snowfalls and hailstorms; meanwhile, the breezy sunny summer days are just perfect for sightseeing and embarking on nice long road trips. Hokkaido is one of my favorite prefectures in Japan: the natural sceneries, beautiful mountains and rugged coastlines are unrivaled, and there is absolutely no shortage of fresh seafood and local gourmet to be served with an ice-cold bottle of Sapporo beer, proudly brewed right in the heart of Hokkaido!
Starting from the southern side of Hokkaido, Hakodate is one of the most charismatic cities in Japan. Hop on a vintage tram, and slowly make your way up the hills by the ocean, as you will see rows of houses built during the Meiji era, which bears uncanny resemblance to the Victorian architectural style. The Hakodate Meiji-kan and Red Brick Warehouse are prime examples of Meiji architectural creations that have been well-preserved and remain immensely popular amongst travelers visiting the city. Take a nice relaxing stroll along Yawatazaka, one of the most romantic paths in Japan famed for its scenic views of the Hakodate Port. Finally, as evening descends, head up to Mount Hakodate for one of the most breathtaking night views in all of Japan! Ranked amongst the top 3 best evening views in Japan, this is a must-visit attraction in Hakodate.
On your journey towards Sapporo, you should definitely check out the town of Niseko. While Niseko is better known for its renowned ski resorts during the winter months, there are plenty of activities and water sports that can be enjoyed during summer months as well. The Shiribetsu River runs through Niseko, and it is considered as one of the cleanest and purest rivers in Japan. During summer months, water sports such as rafting, kayaking and canoeing are some of the most popular activities along the beautiful river. Blessed by the natural beauties and mountainous landscape of the region, there are plenty of trails for hiking and mountain biking, while Niseko is also growing as a highly sought-after destination for camping and "workation" adventures! Located near Niseko is Mount Yotei, also known as "Mount Fuji of Hokkaido". Equally as sacred and well-respected, Mount Yotei is the iconic landmark best representing Hokkaido, and you will surely see it from anywhere within town and also on the highway to Sapporo.
Sapporo is one of my favorite cities in Japan, and part of the reason is because it reminds me so much of my hometown Vancouver, Canada, in so many miniscule and subtle ways! With a beautiful backdrop of snow-capped mountain ranges even during the summer, Sapporo is an authentically Japanese city at heart that has also adopted distinctive Western influences. The city is perhaps best described as a beautiful collaboration of the East meeting the West, and perfectly juggling both identities within its own confined space. Unlike other Japanese megatropolis’ such as Tokyo and Osaka, Sapporo is much more relaxed and laid-back in comparison, while it is also trying to build up a fancy downtown core decorated with glamorously bright billboards and glitzy neon lights.
For many foreigners, Sapporo is a distant second home away from home at heart, an unfamiliar walk that somehow traverses back onto memory lane, thanks to the general vibe and energy of the city. Along with its friendly locals, beautiful Meiji-Victorian styled buildings and an endless list of local gourmet selections that can't be found anywhere else in Japan. The Hokkaido Kani (Crab) Ramen is one of my personal favorite dishes that is unique to Sapporo, while many visitors purposely come to Sapporo to taste the legendary "Ghengis Khan" feast, consisted of stir-fried mutton on a metal skillet.
Within the heart of Sapporo, you can start walking from the famous Sapporo TV Tower and adjacent Odori Park, and slowly make your way over to the Sapporo Clock Tower, which also houses the History Museum of Sapporo. Afterwards, make your way to Susukino Streetcar Stop if you haven't already found the iconic Sapporo Beer billboard, which is best viewed at night when it's lit up. Continue southwards to Nakajima Park, where you will find the beautiful Hohei Kan, a historical landmark that highlights Meiji era style architecture. Hop back onto the streetcar and head over to Mount Moiwa Ropeway Station, hop on the cable car and ascend to the observatory deck located on top of Mount Moiwa. This is the perfect sunset viewing spot in Sapporo, you can enjoy the ultimate birds' eyes view of the City of Sapporo and neighboring regions, perhaps even seeing Mount Yotei on clear days!
Finally, a trip to Sapporo just isn't complete without stopping at the beloved Shiroikoibito Chocolate Factory, and the Sapporo Beer Hall and Museum! Both attraction sites are designed and built to European styling, and as soon as you set foot into the center of both attraction sites, you would immediately feel as if you had been magically transported to the other side of the planet! You may join guided tours into the chocolate factory and beer museum, advanced reservations are required, and early bookings are highly recommended.
Just northeast of Sapporo is the town of Furano, renowned for its abundance of flowers spread over fields after fields for as far as the human eyes can see, almost like a designer carpet that was quilted by mother nature. During summer months, millions of visitors stop at Furano to explore this magnificent Cinderella-like floral paradise right in the center of Hokkaido. The drive to Furano takes approximately two and a half hours, and there are also plenty of special seasonal trains bound for Furano from Sapporo as a secondary option.
From Furano, I decided to drive directly all the way up to Cape Soya, the northernmost point in Japan. While the drive was long and slightly rushed, I was determined to arrive in time for sunset. The efforts certainly paid off, as it was truly one of the most breathtaking sunsets I have ever viewed in Japan to this day! The journey along the way is very scenic and reminded me of the famous Oregon Coastal Drive in America. The views were just simply breathtaking, while listening to the sounds of angry tidal waves crashing onto the shoreline on a windy summer day definitely elevated the overall experience.
I finally made it to Cape Soya just in time for the magical sunset. Not many visitors can say that they have set foot on the northernmost edge of Japan, as the journey from Sapporo requires a lot of time commitment and dedication. While standing at Cape Soya, I was only 43 kilometers away from the Russian Island of Sakhalin, while Tokyo would've been over 800km away! Sakhalin was also known as Karafuto under Japanese rule until the end of WWII, when Russia seized control of the entire island along with the neighboring Kuril Islands.
After the sun had set for the evening, I decided to spend the evening in the town of Wakkanai, the northernmost city in Japan with a population of just over 33000. Up until a few years ago, Wakkanai served as the only gateway to Sakhalin with daily scheduled ferries serving both ports. The ferry service has been discontinued since 2019, but there are talks about service resumption towards the near future. Wakkanai is the only city in Japan where you will find both Japanese and Russian on all major road signs, especially in the vicinity close to the ferry terminal. Wakkanai is a very quiet seaside town that is also somewhat eerie and spooky… While I was happy to spend the night at Wakkanai and did some quick sightseeing in the following morning, spending time in this town has definitely made me feel just a little more thankful about my humble tiny condo hidden within Central Tokyo.
The following day, I drove along the Eastern coast of Hokkaido from Wakkanai to Abashiri. The main attraction in the town of Abashiri is its notorious prison, the Abashiri Prison built in 1890 and decommissioned in 1983. The former penal institution has since been repurposed as the one and only prison museum in Japan, offering visitors a very realistic experience of incarceration inside one of the most feared Japanese prisons comparable to the Alcatraz in California. One of the most unique features of Abashiri Prison Museum is the Prison Canteen, where visitors can pay and taste an actual prison meal as served to prisoners throughout Japan to this day! While the food isn't bad by any means, I definitely wouldn't label it as "fancy" or "gourmet" either.
Directly adjacent to Abashiri is Shiretoko National Park, where visitors can go for a scenic drive along its rugged coastlines. Abashiri is also conveniently located near one of Japan's most famous scenic drive, the magnificent Road to the Sky. To access the Road to the Sky, simply take Route 334 and drive all the way to the Eastern endpoint. For the best views, please make sure you visit on a clear sunny day.
Leaving Abashiri and Shiretoko National Park, our next destination was Lake Akan, a beautiful lake with a popular tourist onsen town. The drive to Lake Akan takes you up and down hills after hills, and straight through long stretches of windy and twisty roads hidden within forested plains, finishing off with magnificent and expensive views of the mythical Mount Oakan along the way. Arriving in the town of Lake Akan, there are plenty of hotels with scenic onsens located right by the beautiful lake.
The Ainu people are the aboriginal inhabitants in modern-day Northern Honshu, Hokkaido, Russian Sakhalin and Kuril Islands for thousands and thousands of years. The shops at the Ainu Village at Lake Akan are some of my favorite places to shop for souvenirs in Hokkaido, as most of these unique Ainu handicrafts aren't easily found anywhere else, and the prices are very reasonable given their uniqueness and characteristics.
My final destination on my road trip bucket list is Naitai Highland Farm, located in the heart of the Tokachi region. The Tokachi region of Hokkaido is well-known for dairy productions, and Naitai Highland Farm is one of the largest dairy farms in Japan, occupying what seems like an entire mountain's worth of highland plains. The drive up to the Observatory Deck and Naitai Highland Welcome Centre is exactly how I'd imagine the road to heaven looks like, perfectly scenic no matter which direction you glance towards at any given time! Once you reach the Welcome Centre, treat yourself to a delicious burger and ice cream while cherishing the incredible view of the land, the magnificent mountains sitting in the picture-perfect backdrop, and the scale of the highland plains laid directly in front of your overwhelmed eyes.
And that's a wrap! The perfect itinerary for the ultimate Hokkaido Road Trip during the summer! To pace yourself comfortably without feeling the need to rush, give yourself at least 5 days from Hakodate, or 3 days from Sapporo and ending in Sapporo. Another important advice, please do NOT attempt to go through this road trip in the winter! Many roads are closed during the winter months between November and April due to snow accumulations and icy conditions, and the few that remain open will be treacherous even for the most experienced and skilled drivers. For more detailed recommendations for Hokkaido and anywhere else within Japan, please visit Wanderplans.com and start planning your dream vacation to Japan!