A Winter Railway Adventure around Southern Hokkaido & Northern Tohoku
Japan’s natural beauty spans across all four seasons, but many would consider that winter is one of the best seasons to appreciate its splendour. This is a time when the country transforms into a snowy wonderland, and when it comes to winter, the snowiest regions in Japan travellers include Hokkaido (北海道) and Tohoku (東北).
Map of Hokkaido (left) and Tohoku (right). (Image credit: Google Maps)
Hokkaido is an immensely popular region among travellers especially in winter for many reasons: fluffy powder snow that is perfect for winter activities, scenic hot spring resorts, delectable cuisines, and more. As for Tohoku, the region is known for its numerous panoramic spots, larger-than-life snow festivals, diverse cuisines… the list just goes on.
In winter, the southern part of Hokkaido and the northern part of Tohoku are particularly beautiful to visit. The southern part of Hokkaido includes the following cities: Sapporo (札幌市 Sapporo-shi), Otaru (小樽市 Otaru-shi), Noboribetsu (登別市 Noboribetsu-shi), Toya (洞爺 Tōya-shi), and Hakodate (函館市 Hakodate-shi). For northern Tohoku, it includes the following three prefectures: Aomori (青森県 Aomori-ken), Akita (秋田県 Akita-ken), and Iwate (岩手県 Iwate-ken).
Travelling around southern Hokkaido and northern Tohoku by train in winter. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company (bottom-left), photoAC)
For this article, I will share some highlights of southern Hokkaido and northern Tohoku during winter, and how you can experience them by rail, which is one of the best ways to travel around the regions during the season.
Are you ready? Then get yourselves warm and let’s go on a winter railway adventure!
① Southern Hokkaido (南北海道)
Winter is perhaps the most popular time for visitors to make their way to Sapporo, with the most prominent winter event being the Sapporo Snow Festival (さっぽろ雪まつり Sapporo Yuki-Matsuri). As one of the most recognised winter festivals in Japan, the event is held in the first week of February every year at several locations in the city.
Aerial view of Sapporo Snow Festival along Odori Park. (Image credit: 北海道観光振興機構)
The festival takes place at several locations in Sapporo, with the main venue situated along Odori Park (大通公園 Ōdōri-kōen). During the event, the park will be lined with numerous eye-catching snow sculptures of various sizes, and there will even be the International Snow Sculpture Competition, where various participants will compete on which has the best sculpture during the week-long festival. Another venue in Sapporo is in areas around Susukino (ススキノ), and here, visitors can marvel at intricate ice sculptures that are as equally remarkable as they are imaginative.
To get to Odori Park, visitors can take a 10-minute walk from Sapporo Station (tip: the station and park are directly connected via an underground walkway , and visitors can use this to avoid the cold weather in winter).
For more information on the 74th Sapporo Snow Festival 2024, you can refer to the following website: https://www.snowfes.com/en/
Sapporo (札幌) ⇒ Otaru (小樽)
Otaru Canal in winter. (Image credit: 北海道観光振興機構)
After visiting Sapporo, why not make a day trip to Otaru? The small harbour city is less than an hour away by train, and is one of the most popular day trip destinations among visitors to Sapporo, whether it is during winter or any other season throughout the year. Best of all, the train ride from Sapporo takes less than an hour per one-way, and the train travels on a coastal route along Ishikari Bay (石狩湾 Ishikari-wan), so passengers can get to enjoy a scenic sea view as well!
Although Otaru is worth visiting at any time of the year, winter is a wonderful season to explore the city, as the season welcomes the stunning Otaru Snow Light Path (小樽雪あかりの路 Otaru Yuki Akari no Michi) held every February and the Otaru Snow Story (小樽ゆき物語 Otaru Yuki Monogatari) that takes place from early November to early January. During this period, the city will be illuminated with lights and small snow statues, adding further to the mood and atmosphere of the winter festivity.
Inside the Otaru Music Box Museum. (Image credit: 北海道観光振興機構)
Other attractions that are not to be missed in Otaru include the iconic Otaru Canal (小樽運河 Otaru Unga), which often serves as the main backdrop for the city; and the Otaru Music Box Museum (小樽オルゴール堂 Otaru Orugōrudō), a magical museum featuring different kinds of European-style music boxes. Do not forget to check them out when you visit Otaru, especially in winter!
Otaru Canal (小樽運河)
Address: Minatomachi, Otaru, Hokkaido 047-0007
Access: 10-minute walk from Otaru Station (小樽駅)
Otaru (小樽) ⇒ Noboribetsu (登別)
Limited Express Hokuto on the Hakodate Main Line. (Image credit: photoAC)
When travelling to Hokkaido in winter, the trip would not be complete without a visit to a hot spring resort, right? Hokkaido has plenty of famous destinations for hot springs, and one of them is Noboribetsu (登別). From Sapporo, the city is easily accessible by taking the Limited Express Hokuto (北斗) on the Hakodate Main Line, and the journey would take less than 90 minutes.
Jigokudani in Noboribetsu during winter. (Image credit: 北海道観光振興機構)
Noboribetsu is lined with many hot spring resorts that attract many visitors seeking that special hot spring moment, and during winter, soaking in a hot spring bath while being surrounded by a snowy landscape makes for an unforgettable experience. And did you know that Noboribetsu has different types of hot springs? There are up to 10 types altogether, each with its own unique mineral content, and it’s worth checking them all out.
One of the highlights of Noboribetsu is Jigokudani (地獄谷 Hell Valley), a spectacular valley featuring sulfurous streams and hot steam vents. It is also one of the main sources of the city’s hot spring waters and is worth checking when visiting the city.
Address: Noboribetsuonsen-cho, Noboribetsu, Hokkaido 059-0551
Access: Take a 15-minute bus ride from Noboribetsu Station (登別駅) to Daiichi Takimoto-mae (第一滝本前) bus stop. From there, walk for 10 minutes to reach Jigokudani.
Noboribetsu (登別) ⇒ Lake Toya (洞爺湖)
Lake Toya in winter. (Image credit: 北海道観光振興機構)
If you are looking for a change in scenery, especially a more scenic lake view, then make your way to Lake Toya (洞爺湖 Tōya-ko), yet another top-rated destination in Hokkaido. The serene views of the lake, especially during the snowy winter season, make it one of the must-visit destinations among visitors, and best of all, it is very accessible by rail.
At Lake Toya, visitors can enjoy a leisurely pleasure boat ride to *Nakajima Island (中島 Nakajima) in the centre of Lake Toya, or hop on the Mt. Usu Ropeway (有珠山ロープウェイ Usu-zan Rōpuwei) to enjoy a panoramic view of the lake from Usuzan-Toyako Observation Deck (有珠山洞爺湖 展望台 Usuzan-Toyako Tenbōdai).\
*Note: Nakajima Island is closed during winter, and is open to the public only during non-winter seasons.
Lake Toya Illumination Tunnel. (Image credit: 北海道観光振興機構)
Visitors to Lake Toya in winter can look forward to something special as well: the Lake Toya Illumination Tunnel (イルミネーショントンネル Iruminēshon Tonneru)! Located along the banks of the lake, the dazzling 70m tunnel features up to 400,000 LED light bulbs that brilliantly light up from 18:00 to 22:00 from early November to early March. You can find out more about the tunnel here.
Lake Toya Illumination Tunnel (イルミネーショントンネル)
Address: 69 Toyako Onsen, Toyako, Abuta-gun, Hokkaido 049-5721
Access: Take a 15-minute bus ride from Toya Station (洞爺駅) to reach Lake Toya Bus Terminal. From there, walk for 10 minutes to reach the tunnel.
Lake Toya (洞爺湖) ⇒ Hakodate (函館)
Hokkaido Komagatake (background) in the distance along Hakodate Main Line. (Image credit: photoAC)
For the final stop in Hokkaido, visitors can head down southward to the city of Hakodate, which is also accessible by rail. Plus, there is a big surprise for visitors heading to the city by train: a sight of the majestic Hokkaido-Komagatake (北海道駒ヶ岳 Hokkaidō-Komagatake) in the background of Lake Onuma (大沼 Ōnuma) on a clear day!
Motomachi District in winter. (Image credit: 北海道観光振興機構)
Hakodate turns into a winter wonderland during the snowy season, and there are several must-visit spots around the city. For instance, visitors can make their way to the foot of Mount Hakodate (函館山 Hakodate-yama) to explore Motomachi District (元町 Motomachi). The district features many historical European-influence buildings, and the slope along the district is a favourite scenic spot among visitor. In winter, the trees lining the slope will be brilliantly lit up for an unforgettable sight.
Snow-covered Goryokaku. (Image credit: 北海道観光振興機構)
Another attraction in Hakodate that is not to be missed is Goryokaku (五稜郭 Goryōkaku), an iconic star-shaped fort that has attracted visitors from all over the world. Although the fort is a particularly popular spot in spring when it is enveloped in cherry blossoms, it is equally stunning in winter as well, when the fort is covered in snow and lights up after night falls.
Address: 43-9 Goryōkaku-cho, Hakodate, Hokkaido 040-0001
Access: Take the Hakodate Bus No. 78 from Goryōkaku Station (五稜郭駅) and get off in front of Goryokaku Park. From there, take a 7-minute walk to the park.
② Northern Tohoku (北東北)
Hokkaido Shinkansen exiting the Seikan Tunnel. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)
After Hakodate, it is time to bid farewell to Hokkaido and make our way to Tohoku (東北 Tōhoku), the northeasternmost region of Honshu. Visitors can easily make their way to Tohoku from Hokkaido via the Hokkaido Shinkansen (北海道新幹線) which runs through the Seikan Tunnel (青函トンネル Seikan Tonneru).
Geibikei (Iwate Prefecture)
Geibikei Gorge in winter. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)
After exploring Hokkaido, it is time to head south and make our way to Iwate Prefecture to see one of the most captivating natural sights in Tohoku: Geibikei Gorge (猊鼻渓 Geibikei). With a length of 2km, the gorge is widely known for its remarkable limestone cliffs that are up to 100m tall, and visitors can take a leisurely 90-minute pleasure boat ride along the Satetsu River to appreciate the sheer beauty of the gorge.
Pleasure boats with sheltered roofs (left) and kotatsu (right). (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)
Although most visitors would explore Geibikei Gorge in the summer or autumn, winter is a season that offers visitors an exceptional experience. During this period, the pleasure boats will be fitted with sheltered roofs to protect them from the weather, and a kotatsu (こたつ table with foot warmer below) will also be in place to keep the guests warm during their rides.
Imagine gazing at the snow-laden cliffs while staying cosy on the pleasure boats… quite a novel experience, don’t you think?
Geibikei Gorge (猊鼻渓)
Address: Machi-467 Higashiyamacho Nagasaka, Ichinoseki, Iwate 029-0302
Access: 5-minute walk from Geibikei Station (猊鼻渓駅)
Oga & Kakunodate (Akita Prefecture)
Namahage Sedo Festival. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)
Akita is one of the snowiest prefectures in Japan, so visitors can look forward to something special in the prefecture, especially in winter. In Oga Peninsula (男鹿半島 Oga-hantō) on the western side of Akita, there is the Namahage Sedo Festival (なまはげ柴灯まつり Namahage Sedo Matsuri) where visitors would get to see ogre-like deities visit local homes during the New Year to remind children to behave properly, adults to be hardworking.
The namahage has been designated as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2018, and during the festival, visitors can witness performers dressed as the deities dancing around a bonfire. Quite the spectacle, don’t you think?
Namahage Sedo Festival (なまはげ柴灯まつり)
Date & time: 9-11 February 2024, 18:00–20:30 (Festival is usually held on the second Friday–Sunday of February each year)
Venue: Shinzan Shrine
Access: Take the special bus service from JR Oga Station (男鹿駅). The bus only operates during the festival dates.
Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street in winter. (Image credit: photoAC)
Want to experience something extraordinary? One of the most popular attractions in Akita is Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street (角館武家屋敷通り Kakunodate Bukeyashiki Dо̄ri), a historical street featuring several former samurai residences that is particularly renowned for its cherry blossom scenery.
However, in winter, the street turns into a snow-filled wonderland that is worth checking out for visitors in Akita. The weeping cherry blossoms (しだれザクラ Shidarezakura) will be enveloped in snow, resulting in a wintery scenery that is unforgettable in its own way.
Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street (角館武家屋敷通り)
Access: 20-minute walk from Kakunodate Station (角館駅)
Hirosaki (Aomori Prefecture)
Hirosaki Castle in winter. (Image credit: photoAC)
When it comes to famous attractions in northern Tohoku, one of the most prominent examples is Hirosaki Castle (弘前城 Hirosaki-jō) in Aomori’s city of Hirosaki. It is renowned as the only original castle keep in Tohoku, and the surrounding Hirosaki Park (弘前公園 Hirosaki-kōen) is widely regarded as one of the best cherry blossom-viewing sites in the region.
But why not consider Hirosaki Castle in winter? During this season, to see the castle being covered in snow is a unique exeprience, and the park will have the magnificent Hirosaki Snow Lantern Festival (弘前城雪燈籠まつり Hirosaki-jō Yukidōrō Matsuri) that features more than 100 snow sculptures and food stalls.
Winter Cherry Blossom Light Up at Hirosaki Park. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
Best of all, visitors can experience the Winter Cherry Blossom Light Up every night from December to February, when the trees at Hirosaki Park will be illuminated with pink light to look as though cherry blossoms are blooming. Looks amazing, doesn’t it!
Bonus: do you know that Aomori is Japan’s top producer of apples? The prefecture is often known as the “kingdom of apples”, and Hirosaki is one of the best places to explore the prefecture’s wide variety of apples and apple products. Check out the article here to learn more about Aomori’s most prized fruit.
Hirosaki Snow Lantern Festival (弘前城雪燈籠まつり)
Address: 1 Shimoshiroganecho, Hirosaki-shi, Aomori 036-8356
Access: Take the Dotemachi Loop bus from Hirosaki Station (弘前駅) to Shiyakushomae (市役所前) bus stop, and walk for 5 minutes to reach Hirosaki Park.
Hirosaki ⇒ Aomori (Aomori Prefecture)
Aomori Lights and Paper Pageant. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)
After Hirosaki, visitors can make their way to Aomori (青森市) and get off at Aomori Station (青森駅 Aomori-eki), where another winter surprise awaits. In February, they can experience the Aomori Lights and Paper Festival (あおもり灯りと紙のページェント Aomori Akari to Kami no Pējento) and feast their eyes on eye-catching illuminating paper lanterns placed in several areas around the city, including around A-FACTORY and Nebuta Museum WA RASSE, and they are prepared using classic Nebuta techniques, the same ones used for the famous Aomori Nebuta Festival.
Seeing the paper lanterns lighting up the city in the cold winter will surely welcome the hearts of all visitors with their warmth and hospitality, don’t you think?
Aomori Lights and Paper Festival (あおもり灯りと紙のページェント)
Address: Several locations around Aomori City
Access: 5-10-minute walk from Aomori Station (青森駅) for Nebuta Museum WA RASSE, A-FACTORY, Ferryboat Memorial Ship “Hakkoda-Maru” (八甲田丸).
Recommended itinerary ①
Recommended itinerary #1.
Southern Hokkaido and northern Tohoku have plenty of sights for winter, and getting around the two regions by train is relatively easy. Visitors can spend almost a week exploring the places and special events mentioned above, and they can consider flying into New Chitose Airport and following the itinerary above.
Recommended itinerary ②
Recommended itinerary #2.
Alternatively, visitors can also consider travelling from Tokyo and exploring northern Tohoku before slowly making their way northward to Hokkaido and leaving from New Chitose Airport. With this itinerary, they can make a one-way trip without returning to the same place of origin, and begin from Tokyo and end at Hokkaido.
Travelling around Japan in winter is an immersive experience that everyone should enjoy once in their lives, and the two regions that are worth doing so are southern Hokkaido and northern Hokkaido. As among the snowiest regions in the country, the two regions will showcase how beautiful the country is when winter arrives, and trains are among the best ways to get around.
Why not consider heading to southern Hokkaido and northern Tohoku for your next winter escapade? It might be your most memorable experience yet, and set you off for more railway adventures around Japan!
Recommended rail passes
The JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass (top) and JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass (below). (Image credit: JR East)
If you are wondering which passes allow you to travel around southern Hokkaido and northern Tohoku, then look no further than the JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass, which enables visitors to have unlimited train rides on JR East and JR Hokkaido lines in the valid areas in the two regions. The pass is ¥35,000 per adult, and if visitors follow Recommended Itinerary #2, they can save more than ¥16,000 in train fares!
Alternatively, visitors who plan to fly into and out of New Chitose Airport can consider getting the JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass for ¥30,000. With this pass, they can follow Recommended Itinerary #1 and save even more money on train rides: more than ¥25,000 altogether!
The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)
Header image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company (top), photoAC (bottom)