Hotel rooms all over Japan are usually clean but small. Tall travellers should consider getting a double bed so they can stretch. In the countryside, there may not be any restaurant near your hotel so check and consider reserving your breakfast/dinner at the hotel too (do not wait check-in time to reserve your meals). For a unique experience, stay at a ryokan traditional inn or hotel in the mountains with rotenburo outdoor hot spring…
For cheap nights in dormitories or Japanese rooms, check the 35 youth hostels listed for Hokkaido on the site of Japan Youth Hostels. Camping is possible at designated spots (prepare and/or ask the locals for advice); yama-goya mountain huts are often privately owned so you must make reservations… There are emergency shelters but, obviously, they are there for you only in case of emergency!
Before leaving Japan, download brochures matching your needs & interests on Hokkaido official tourism website “Good Day Hokkaido” and print the pages you find most useful:
- Activities in Hokkaido
- Drive Hokkaido, Knowledge about winter driving, Must-have Handbook for Driving in Hokkaido
- Hokkaido Calendar
- Hokkaido Incentive Tour
- Hokkaido Okhotsk Guide, Okhotsk Sightseeing Map
- Hokkaido Tourist Map, Smart Travel, Travel Around Hokkaido
- Powder Snow Hokkaido
- Welcome to Onsen!!
- “Point at the Sentence” Travel Conversation Booklet
The Japanese Ministry of the Environment also offers interesting brochures about Japanese national parks and nature in Japan:
Travelling with children in Hokkaido requires little special planning. Big stations are accessible with strollers, and priority seats are available in subways/trains for people with young children. So-called “family restaurants” propose various Japanese and international dishes, with all food items visible on photos, and typically with baby seats available.
For convenience, bringing plastic forks/spoons is a smart move. To avoid problems, avoid breastfeeding in public, and remember that taxis rarely have child seats. Your kids are skiers or snowboarders? They will love the powder snow of Hokkaido! They are not? Take them watch the big brown bears!
You need takeaway food & drinks? You need daily products such as tissue, a toothbrush, a pen, earplugs, SD cards…? Just enter a convenience store! You will find many such shops open 24 hours even on national holidays in big cities, at/near big train stations, ports, etc. Very useful in Hokkaido when surrounded by snow: “kairo” heating patches that you can put under your clothes.
At Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, avoid taking photos of the god (basically the area in front of which everybody stops to pray) or of lucky charms on sale. Making photos or videos of anything else is usually accepted: buildings, statues at the entrance, etc. There, as well as in subways/trains, avoid talking loudly or watching videos on your phone/tablet with the sound on.
If you buy food to go, the polite way to eat is near the entrance of the shop, on a bench, on the lawn of a park, or in a food court (common in department stores); avoid eating while walking except maybe if it is ice cream!
Many places in Japan require people to remove their shoes at the entrance; ideally keep a change of clean white socks in your bag to put on then.
Hokkaido is Japan’s biggest producer of marine products, aquaculture, and many agricultural products such as soybeans, potatoes, pumpkins, corn, raw milk, and beef. It is well-reputed in Japan for the quality of both its ingredients and cuisine. Particularly famous products include Yubari melon, giant crab, ikura salmon eggs, uni sea-urchin roe, craft beer (Japan’s first brewery “Sapporo Beer” was founded in Sapporo city in 1876), whisky, and cow milk; do not hesitate to order a cheese fondue or hot chocolate in winter and local ice cream in summer!
Local specialities include tasty Ainu cuisine, Sapporo ramen noodles in a miso-flavoured broth, “Genghis Khan” grilled mutton & vegetables (will you go for an “all-you-can-eat”?), and soup curries. The adventurous can even eat raw fish for breakfast at morning markets. The less adventurous can head for restaurants providing standard Japanese cuisine popular on the mainland (e.g. tempura, sushi) or international restaurants (for e.g. burgers, pizzas, steaks). You will certainly appreciate eating local food in season…Wine lovers will also be pleased to know that Hokkaido produces white & red wine, for example in Tokachi, and that they can join tours and tastings for example at Ikeda Wine Castle!
If you don’t know what famous local products to bring back as souvenirs for your friends and family after your trip to Hokkaido, consider chocolate sweets (Shiroi-koibito “white lover” chocolate is very famous), Rokkatei’s “Marusei Butter Sandwich” (cream of white chocolate, raisins, and Hokkaido butter between two biscuits), curry-taste potato chips, etc. readily available at the airports.
Japanese people are very friendly and many will try to help you even if they don’t speak English. They will be particularly happy if you can say a few words in Japanese language such “Aligato” (thank you) or “O-i-shi-i” (it’s delicious)… Learn a few simple words during your flight to Japan!
Like other foreign languages, English is still a challenge almost everywhere in Japan. Fortunately, you can see many signs and addresses around in English (Roman alphabet). There are also many tourist information centres where you can ask questions and get brochures in English. If you worry about your meals, head for restaurants in touristy places or belonging to big chains: you will certainly find menus in English or with photos of the dishes. Russia being very close to Hokkaido, you may see Russian writings too here and there.
There is no law against same-sex activities in Japan, and Hokkaido is relatively safe for everybody. Standard hotels normally accept gay/lesbian couples but many so-called “love hotels” do not accept couples of men (the staff may suspect illegal deals). Note that public displays of affection are relatively rare in Japan even for heterosexual lovers.
Hokkaido is getting more and more ready to welcome Muslim visitors, and the situation is improving every year. Some hotels in Sapporo city (near New Chitose international airport) and at ski resorts have prayer rooms and halal restaurants, and there is even a mosque in Sapporo city: Sapporo Masjid! Dedicated maps were printed but the quantity is insufficient for all Muslim travellers so look for information online and print it before travelling to Hokkaido. For example: “Sapporo, Chitose & Otaru Muslim-Friendly Map” by Hokkaido Muslim Inbound Promotion Committee.
Please note that many Japanese traditional meals are prepared using pork (e.g. the broth of ramen noodles is usually pork-based) so check where you can eat in advance on specialized sites. If you have a doubt, you can say “Buta nashi!” (without pork!), “Buta dame” (pork impossible), “Sake nashi!” (without alcohol!), or “Sake dame” (alcohol impossible).
In Japan, smoking is allowed in some restaurants and coffee shops. Smoking in the streets may be outlawed by local governments so check with the staff of your hotel, restaurant or tourist information centre to avoid fines.
Japan is quite convenient and safe for solo travellers (even young women). As in any country though, let somebody know your plans if you go hike, trek or camp alone so that somebody can act if anything unusual happens. Similarly, check the weather forecasts as well as the weather of the past few days as rain/snow may render rivers difficult to cross, etc.
Tourist information centres are open in many cities, towns and villages; check inside the train station or in front of its main exit. Even if the staff does not speak English, you should find usable maps and brochures there. Have a look in the lobby of your hotel too.
Good Day Hokkaido – Hokkaido official tourism website
You are expected to carry bags with you when hiking, etc. to bring back all your trash to the right place; do not bury your trash in the forest even if it is biodegradable! In the cities, bags may come handy too because there are few trash bins in the (really clean) streets; you will find trash bins at many train/subway stations and convenience stores though.
Vegans & Vegetarians
Vegans and vegetarians should prepare their trips to Hokkaido carefully because the Japanese cuisine is not vegan- or vegetarian-friendly: many dishes include fish extracts (even soy-based tofu is often prepared using bonito) or meat extracts (even ramen noodles topped with vegetables are often served in a pork-based broth). However, many hotels have a breakfast buffet with lots of choice so you may consider staying at such a hotel and start your day with a big meal.
Besides, Hokkaido is a big producer of vegetables and fruits so you can find “farm” food in many places, and just ask “niku nashi” (without meat), “sakana nashi” (without fish), “tamago nashi” (without egg), and “gyunyu nashi” (without cow milk). Finally, you can find “onigiri” rice balls at most convenience stores and fruits at supermarkets.