Off the Beaten Path: Discovering Hidden Gems on a Road Trip through Hokkaido
Off the Beaten Path: Discovering Hidden Gems on a Road Trip through Hokkaido - Explore Picturesque Landscapes Along the Coastal Route
One of the highlights of any road trip through Hokkaido is exploring the island's stunning coastal landscapes. Instead of taking the faster expressways, opt for the slower coastal routes that wind along the seaside and provide endless opportunities to soak in dramatic scenery.
The Rumoi Coastal Route on the Sea of Japan side treats travelers to the sight of rugged cliffs and rock formations battered by ocean waves. Stop at viewpoints like the Komuke Observation Deck to marvel at how the raging sea has shaped the shoreline over centuries. Further north, the Kamoenai Coastal Route boasts uniquely striated cliffs in eye-catching crimson and white layers. Break up the drive by pulling over at photogenic lighthouses like Cape Notoro or trekking out to hidden pocket beaches only accessible by scenic hiking trails.
On the Pacific Ocean side, the Kiritappu Wetlands offer a peaceful contrast with their calm bays and inlets sheltered from the open ocean. The wetlands attract diverse birdlife, especially during migrations, so keep binoculars handy. Don't miss Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido's largest caldera lake, celebrated for its sapphire waters, tiny islets, and views of Mount Iou dominating the horizon. Stop at viewpoints like Sunayu Lookout or Bihoro Pass for panoramas stretching to the Pacific.
Further south, the eastern peninsulas jutting into the Pacific reveal small fishing harbors and sleepy port towns where time slows down. The harbor at Kaminokuni is especially picturesque when the morning fog lifts to reveal a parade of pastel-hued fishing boats headed out to sea. Nearby Odaito Beach lets you sink your toes into powder-soft white sand with the sound of waves breaking along the shoreline.
What else is in this post?
- Off the Beaten Path: Discovering Hidden Gems on a Road Trip through Hokkaido - Explore Picturesque Landscapes Along the Coastal Route
- Off the Beaten Path: Discovering Hidden Gems on a Road Trip through Hokkaido - Indulge in Fresh Seafood Straight from the Source
- Off the Beaten Path: Discovering Hidden Gems on a Road Trip through Hokkaido - Relax in Secluded Hot Spring Towns
- Off the Beaten Path: Discovering Hidden Gems on a Road Trip through Hokkaido - Hike Through Lush Forests and Flower Fields
- Off the Beaten Path: Discovering Hidden Gems on a Road Trip through Hokkaido - Visit Historic Sites from Hokkaido's Past
- Off the Beaten Path: Discovering Hidden Gems on a Road Trip through Hokkaido - Experience Traditional Ainu Culture Firsthand
- Off the Beaten Path: Discovering Hidden Gems on a Road Trip through Hokkaido - Sample Local Sweets at Small Bakeries
- Off the Beaten Path: Discovering Hidden Gems on a Road Trip through Hokkaido - Drive Through Vast Farmlands and Fruit Orchards
Off the Beaten Path: Discovering Hidden Gems on a Road Trip through Hokkaido - Indulge in Fresh Seafood Straight from the Source
No trip to Hokkaido is complete without indulging in the island's famously fresh and delicious seafood. Thanks to the rich surrounding waters, Hokkaido boasts some of Japan's best seafood that you can sample right at the source.
Seafood connoisseurs won't want to miss Nijo Fish Market in Sapporo, one of Japan's largest wholesale fish markets. Arrive early to watch the lively tuna auctions, where wholesalers vigorously bid on freshly caught tuna shipped in from around the country. Once the auctions wrap up, wander the stalls sampling ridiculously fresh sashimi bowls or hand-rolled sushi. chat with the fishmongers to find out which catch is the freshest that day.
For a quintessential Hokkaido seafood experience, head to coastal towns known for their thriving fishing industries. Places like Kushiro, Kaminokuni, and Abashiri offer dockside fish markets where local fishermen sell the morning's haul. Watch them expertly slice up glistening fillets of just-caught salmon, mackerel, or Pacific saury, and enjoy them as sashimi with a squeeze of fresh lemon. Ask for cooking recommendations based on what looked best that day, maybe grilled scallops or miso-glazed cod.
In eastern Hokkaido, Rausu is famed for its crabs, so order kani meshi, a sublime bowl of rice mixed with chunks of sweet, steamed crab. For a memorable dining experience, dine at a local izakaya pub overlooking the harbor and sample Rausu's famed delicacy alongside a cold beer.
Sea urchin is another Hokkaido specialty found in bustling fishing towns like Yoichi and Otaru. Try uni donburi, a bowl of warm rice topped with briny sea urchin, or uni pasta tossed with slippery noodles. Another iconic Hokkaido seafood dish is scallop hotpot, where sweet scallops are slowly simmered in broth until tender.
Hokkaido's coastline also boasts oyster farms scattered among quiet inlets and bays. Stop at places like Japan's northernmost oyster farm in Soya for briny oysters plucked straight from the sea and shucked before your eyes. Slurp them raw with lemon or as part of a creamy oyster chowder to warm up on blustery days.
Off the Beaten Path: Discovering Hidden Gems on a Road Trip through Hokkaido - Relax in Secluded Hot Spring Towns
After days spent exploring Hokkaido’s majestic landscapes, indulging in fresh seafood, and hiking through lush forests, travelers will undoubtedly crave some rest and relaxation. Luckily, Hokkaido boasts numerous secluded hot spring towns tucked away in the mountains or along undeveloped stretches of coastline. These rural getaways provide the perfect setting to unwind surrounded by nature and experience the restorative powers of hot spring soaks.
One such town is Noboribetsu Onsen, located among a dramatic volcanic landscape complete with steaming pools and multicolored mudflows. This remote mountain valley shelters dozens of traditional inns, or ryokan, renowned for their rejuvenating hot spring baths. Each ryokan sources its own mineral-rich waters from local springs and provides both indoor and open-air bathing options. After a long soak, wander the old-fashioned streets lined with quaint shops and teahouses. Try jigokumushi, a local specialty of vegetables steamed using the area’s volcanic heat.
Along the remote eastern coast, the town of Sarufutsu beckons travelers with its seaside location, long sandy beaches, and access to a national park filled with crystal clear lakes. Check into a local inn like Hinode Ryokan and alternate between relaxing in their rotenburo (outdoor hot spring baths) overlooking the sea and exploring the national park's hiking trails just steps away. End the day with a kaiseki dinner showcasing Hokkaido’s bountiful seafood while you gaze at the moonlit ocean through floor-to-ceiling windows.
For a truly remote experience, head to Rausu in the island’s secluded northeast corner. Yoroushi Onsen sits on a cliff 100 meters above the Sea of Okhotsk and can only be reached via a winding single-lane road. Despite the precarious journey, travelers are rewarded with unparalleled ocean views from the hotel’s outdoor baths. Soothe sore muscles after a long drive by soaking in the calcium-rich waters before indulging in a seafood hot pot dinner and drifting off to sleep with just the soft crashing of waves in the distance.
Off the Beaten Path: Discovering Hidden Gems on a Road Trip through Hokkaido - Hike Through Lush Forests and Flower Fields
In between indulging in seafood and soaking in hot springs, be sure to spend time hiking through Hokkaido's lush forests and flower fields to fully appreciate the island's incredible natural beauty. Hokkaido boasts large swaths of protected wilderness that offer hikers a chance to immerse themselves in pristine landscapes far from the crowds.
One of the most renowned hiking destinations is Daisetsuzan National Park in central Hokkaido, the largest national park in Japan. Here hikers can explore high alpine landscapes, climb up to scenic viewpoints, trek across alpine meadows carpeted with wildflowers in summer, and follow bubbling mountain streams shaded by towering old growth trees. For spectacular fall colors, tackle part of the multi-day 40 km Tokachi-dake Trail that traverses marshes and dense forests in the shadows of volcanoes. Or opt for less strenuous day hikes like the Asahi-dake Trail winding through flower fields to a panoramic perch above the clouds.
Meakan-dake in eastern Hokkaido offers more untouched wilderness to explore. Follow boardwalk trails past steaming ponds and volcanic vents in the volcanic Akan National Park. Or venture into nearby Kushiro Shitsugen National Park, the country's largest wetland, and traverse lengthy boardwalks that meander through acres of marsh grasses to the lakeshore. Primeval forests of towering Erman’s birch trees paint a striking golden glow across the landscape in autumn.
While most national parks lie inland, Shiretoko National Park hugs Hokkaido's remote northeastern coast. Walk through old growth forests draped in moss before emerging to spectacular overlooks of the rugged Sea of Okhotsk coastline far below. Keep an eye out for brown bears and white-tailed sea eagles that inhabit the region. Hardy hikers can tackle multi-day treks like the 4 day Shiretoko Traverse from coast to coast.
Away from the national parks, the countryside offers hikes through bucolic farmland and rolling hills. Near Furano, hike through fields exploding with purple and white lavender from June to August. Or stroll through the Biei rolling hills, where patchwork farms and flower fields unfurl under wide blue skies popularized by Japanese paintings. A network of trails connect hilltop viewpoints overlooking this quintessential Hokkaido landscape.
Off the Beaten Path: Discovering Hidden Gems on a Road Trip through Hokkaido - Visit Historic Sites from Hokkaido's Past
Hokkaido has a rich history that is fascinating to uncover during your travels across the island. From ancient indigenous Ainu cultural sites to relics of Hokkaido's frontier era, historic attractions provide an illuminating glimpse into the region's past.
One highlight is the medieval fortress of Matsumae Castle in southern Hokkaido, the only Japanese castle on the island. This imposing 17th century complex with black lacquered walls and ornate gates reveals the pivotal role Matsumae played in controlling trade with the Ainu during Japan's feudal Edo Period. Wander through the inner citadel's tatami-floored rooms and climb up to scenic lookouts on the ramparts overlooking the Sea of Japan. Nearby Fukuyama Castle ruins and Kita-Fukuyama Fortress provide more glimpses of how the Matsumae clan maintained its stronghold over the island.
On the remote Shiretoko Peninsula, visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kaminoko Hot Spring, an Ainu village populated since the 15th century. Here you can see remains of traditional irori hearths and learn about indigenous Ainu customs through mask carvings and cultural performances portraying rituals like iyomante, or bear sending ceremonies. Nearby Shiretoko Nature Center's exhibits provide more insight into how the Ainu sustainably coexisted with Hokkaido's wildlife for centuries.
In southern Hokkaido, the Open-Air Museum of Little World showcases historic buildings transplanted from across the island, including watermills, farmhouses, shrines, and even an Ainu village complete with thatched roof homes. Costumed interpreters demonstrate traditional daily life, like wielding samurai swords or printing with wooden blocks, transporting visitors back to Hokkaido's frontier era.
Up north in Wakkanai, the Yorodoko Fort Community recreates a 1920s village from when Japan expanded its settlements northwards across Hokkaido. Tour authentically constructed houses, cafes, and even an arrest processing center providing an immersive experience. Nearby at Cape Soya, a monument marks Japan's most northern point, reminiscent of when explorers reached this frontier edge after trekking across the island's wilderness.
Off the Beaten Path: Discovering Hidden Gems on a Road Trip through Hokkaido - Experience Traditional Ainu Culture Firsthand
For travelers intrigued by indigenous cultures, Hokkaido offers a rare opportunity to gain firsthand experiences of traditional Ainu practices that have endured on the island for centuries. Today, many Ainu embrace sharing their customs not only as a way to earn supplementary income but also to boost awareness of Ainu identity among Japanese society.
Several established places across Hokkaido provide accessible and authentic ways for visitors to engage with Ainu culture in respectful ways. One prominent location is the Ainu Kotan village in the Shiraoi district, easily reached on a day trip from Sapporo. At Ainu Kotan, English-speaking guides explain key aspects of traditional lifestyle, from the centrality of white-tailed deer and salmon to animist spiritual beliefs. Displays in thatch-roofed houses showcase handcrafted wood and textile crafts, while live demonstrations feature ceremonial dances and weeping rituals. Guests can also try archery, listen to traditional tonkori instruments and epic yukar ballads, and sample smoked venison stew.
On the remote Shiretoko Peninsula, the tiny seaside village of Ichani provides homestays with Ainu community members to learn about their culture. Ainu hosts warmly share heritage over cups of home-brewed black distinct sweet duodums cookies. Visitors might get invited to help smoke fish or watch eagle hunt training before gathering around the irori hearth at night to hear elders chant traditional uvaman songs. Before leaving, guests always receive handwritten notes in Ainu script as mementos.
Ainu culture historically revolved around nature, as reflected in customs like iyomante bear sending rituals or fishing for salmon on Sakhalin-style dugout canoes called itaomachip. On the northeast coast in Abashiri, the Okhotsk Ryuhyo Museum provides hands-on experiences celebrating this heritage through seasonal activities led by Ainu guides. Come winter, visitors can carve Hokkaido-style itak wood tags commemorating dreams for the new year or learn to make ropes from elm bark like those used for catching octopus. During summer salmon runs, guests stand waist-deep in frigid rivers and try catching fish with traditional spearing techniques passed down generations.
Off the Beaten Path: Discovering Hidden Gems on a Road Trip through Hokkaido - Sample Local Sweets at Small Bakeries
Indulging in Hokkaido's diverse array of baked goods and sweets is a treat for travelers with a sweet tooth. Beyond the sugary selections at convenience stores, keep an eye out for small local bakeries tucked away in rural towns across the island. Trying their lovingly made creations provides a delicious opportunity to experience regional specialties using Hokkaido's famed local ingredients.
For a crash course in Hokkaido sweets, head to Furano Delight in the countryside outside Furano. Their selection spotlights many iconic Hokkaido treats like Yukichichibu mochi stuffed with sweet azuki bean paste, fluffy castella sponge cakes made with fresh Hokkaido milk, and Kan Kan Mochi dango dumplings coated in toasted soybean powder. Chat with the friendly owner to learn the stories behind each item as you nibble dainty cookies and cream-filled pastries. Don't miss their raved-about cheesecakes which incorporate local Biei potatoes and fresh dairy from nearby farms.
In Otaru, create your own custom cheesecake from the impressive array of flavors at Otaru Cheesecake No Ichie. This local bakery offers both classic versions like plain or blueberry alongside unique Hokkaido twists like yubari melon with mascarpone. The delicate, melt-in-your-mouth texture highlights the incredible richness of Hokkaido's milk. For another local delight, try their cheesecake served alongside a whisky glass filled with thick, sweet Otaru milk soft serve.
Up in Asahikawa, ChouChouGang is a patisserie crafting French fusion desserts with Hokkaido flair. Their fruit tarts piled high with seasonal berries, grapes, and melon are artfully constructed. Don't miss their signature Kamui Mint Roll Cake - fluffy layers of matcha sponge cake with fresh cream, wrapped in a crisp cookie shell. The fresh mint and matcha flavors are the essence of summer in Hokkaido. For a takeaway treat, grab a box of their tiny financier almond cakes in flavors from pistachio to chocolate before you depart.
On your way up the dramatic Ororon Line train route, hop off at Horoka and stretch your legs at Cafe Go. Their country-style cakes capture the rustic heart of rural Hokkaido, like fluffy yogurt cake made with local Yubari melon and eggs from the owners' chickens. In winter, warm up with generous slices of coconut pudding mont blanc cake topped with cornflakes for added crunch. The friendly owner delights in sharing fun local snaps as you relax by the wood stove, surrounded by the scenic forests and farms of north Hokkaido.
Off the Beaten Path: Discovering Hidden Gems on a Road Trip through Hokkaido - Drive Through Vast Farmlands and Fruit Orchards
Beyond the scenic coastlines and mountain ranges, Hokkaido's interiorHeartland beckons road trippers withquaint farm roads winding throughpatchwork fields, dairy pastures dotted with grazing cows, and neat orchards heavy with ripe, juicy fruit. Although often overlooked, meandering through Hokkaido’s agricultural lands provides an authentic glimpse into a side of Japan steeped in rural traditions and reveals the origins of the fresh flavors that define Hokkaidian cuisine.
One of the island's most breathtaking farming landscapes unfurls around Furano andBiei, where gently rolling hills extend as far as the eye can see. Striking swaths ofpurples, pinks, and whites color the countryside from June to August when the lavender fields burst into full bloom. Stop to wander throughUMe Farm's expansive fields, pausing to breathe in the relaxing floral scent and gaze out over flowers bobbing in the breeze. At Farm Tomita, sample ice cream and sweets infused with freshly distilled lavender oil. Beyond the flowers, quilted patches of barley, wheat, and potatoes blanket the hills in lush green hues.
Further north, the Tokachi Plains harbor some of Japan's most fertile, perfectly flat farmland. Cruise along narrow routes bounded by golden fields of swaying wheat and expansive vegetable plots supplying Hokkaido’s famed produce. Watch farmers tending crops by hand and machines harvesting potatoes destined for chip factories. In winter, snow covered plains stretch uninterruptedtowards distant mountains with only stark, lonely barns punctuating the pristine vistas.
No trip through Hokkaido's farms is complete without indulging in fresh-picked fruit. Follow the well-marked Fruit Line road winding through the orchards outsideSapporo. Local outlets like Lavka Farmstand offer picker-to-plate fruit along with crisp ciders and jams, while Niegota Farmlets you hand select ripe cherries, apples, and grapes right off the vine. Touring in autumn provides a bounty of crunchyFuji apples—juicy, sweet, and bursting with flavor thanks to Hokkaido’s cool climate.
South of Sapporo, the Oasa area gorgeously captures Hokkaido's pastoral beauty. Stop at MichinokuFarmfor stunning views across their fields backed by the mountains ofDaisetsuzanNational Park. Their small farmer's market sells seasonal vegetables, honey, dairy, and prepared foods like velvety obstortes. Nearby Maruyama Zoo immerses guests in Oasa's bucolic countryside with strolls past paddocks housing Hokkaido native animals like wildYezo deer and red-crowned cranes.