With snow-covered mountains and tantalizing cuisines, a visit to Sapporo in winter is like transporting yourself straight into a fantastical storybook where the wintry setting enchants us all. Plan your visit now and embark on new adventures and sports, enjoy cultural festivals, relax in hot spring baths, try ice fishing, and more!
Welcome to the enchanting winter wonderland of Sapporo, where the snowy landscapes and festive spirit create a magical experience like no other. As the capital of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, Sapporo transforms into a snowy paradise during the winter months, especially during January and February.
From world-renowned winter festivals to serene snowy landscapes, Sapporo in winter is a captivating destination that promises a once-in-life-time journey into the heart of seasonal beauty and cultural celebration. I hope you’ll join me as we explore the vibrant tapestry of Sapporo’s winter charm, where frosty adventures and warm traditions await. Yes, there will be onsen, miso ramen, and horsehair crab!
The Best Time to Visit Sapporo in Winter
From early November, you can start seeing snow-capped mountains while roaming the city. It’s not until late November and early December that the snowfall begins to descend upon the city.
According to the Japan Meteorological Agency, in 2023, there were 8 inches (21cm) of snowfall in November and 22 inches (56cm) in December. As January rolls around, the snowfall drastically increases, reaching 46 inches (117cm) and 60 inches (151 cm) in February.
For those who wish to ski or snowboard, January and February are the best times to visit Sapporo, but they will also be the busiest. If you prefer to enjoy the general scenery without being too overburdened with snow, late December, early January, and March are great times to visit.
There are also many events throughout these months that you may want to attend, which I will get into below.
Getting Around Sapporo in Winter
With all the snow, navigating around Sapporo can become quite challenging. First, I recommend getting a good pair of non-slip winter boots. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people (including myself!) slip on the snow and ice—trust me, it’s painful.
Sapporo has three subway lines (the Tozai, Namboku, and Toho lines) that can take you anywhere in the city, so this is the best option. Buses are readily available, but heavy snowfall can cause delays.
I don’t recommend driving, especially if you are not accustomed to the snow, as it can be very dangerous. While every car will have snow tires, losing control is still very easy. If you do drive, go very slowly, brake earlier than you think, and brake in pauses, not in one go. Heavy braking can cause the car to skid, leading to a loss of control. Tractors clear the snow throughout the day to keep the roads accessible, but there will still be plenty of snow and ice around. Please take extra caution!
Top 10 Things to do in Sapporo During the Winter
1. Winter Sports
Without a doubt, the most famous activity in Sapporo is skiing and snowboarding. Ski resorts typically open during late November and early December.
Blessed with fantastic natural surroundings and a climate perfect for winter sports enthusiasts seeking the thrill of powder snow, Sapporo is surrounded by various mountains, offering numerous peaks for visitors to indulge in.
One of the most popular spots is Teine, located on Sapporo’s west side. To access it, take the Hakodate Line from Sapporo Station to Teine Station, which takes approximately 15 minutes and costs 340 yen one way. From Teine Station, board the number 70 bus to Teine Olympia Mae Bus Stop, which takes another 15 minutes and costs 380 yen one way (as of 2024).
Mt. Teine gained global recognition in 1972 as Asia’s first Winter Olympic venue to host an alpine ski competition.
The ski resort is divided into the Olympia Zone and Highland Zone. The former suits beginners and intermediates, whereas the latter is for the more experienced, with one or two beginner slopes available.
From the Highland Zone, atop the 3,356 ft (1023 m) mountain, you can shred the slopes to your heart’s content, enjoying stunning views over Sapporo city and the Ishikari Plains. Rental gear and lessons are available for beginners! You can find more details on their website here.
Other ski resorts include Bankei Ski Resort and Mount Moiwa, both easily accessible by public transport. Kokusai Ski Resort is also a popular option for locals but is a little more challenging to access.
2. Sapporo Snow Festival
Sapporo’s most famous event is the Snow Festival, held for one week in early February. In 2024, it is scheduled for the 4th to the 11th.
Three sites hold the snow festival: Odori Park, Susukino, and Tsudome.
Odori Park is the most famous area, as the park is filled with snow sculptures, including some Japanese personalities, anime characters, and mascots. During the evening, the sculptures are illuminated until 10 pm. For a unique perspective, you can also climb Sapporo TV Tower to view the festival from above!
The Susukino site, known as Sapporo’s entertainment district, is lined with spectacular ice sculptures that glisten amongst the neon lights. You can admire the incredibly detailed sculptures and take photos at the designated spots. There’s even an ice bar where you can pick up a drink to get you in the festival mood!
The last is the Tsudome site, located northeast of Sapporo Station. It’s perfect for families, as the venue has snow slides, snow rafts, and more. There is an inside space, including gourmet booths, a rest area, and a children’s play area.
3. Park Christmas Illumination and Market
If there’s one thing Japan gets right during the festive period, it’s illuminations. From November to December 25th, Odori Park is embellished by spectacular lights that will put you in the Christmas spirit. Started in 1981, these illuminations have gained recognition as one of Japan’s top three light displays.
Each block across the park has a different theme, from walkways of glistening lights to a giant glowing purple flower. In the background, the ever-present Sapporo TV Tower, with its own illuminations, watches over the city.
Close by is a small Christmas market with food stalls offering festive foods, drinks, and trinkets to indulge in.
In addition to Odori Park, the streets and trees outside Sapporo Station (Ekimaedori) are lined with special illuminations until mid-February.
4. Hot Springs (Onsen)
What better way to warm up from the freezing temperatures than with an onsen? While staying in Sapporo, I highly recommend booking a hotel with an onsen. One of my favorite choices is Onsen Ryokan Yuen Sapporo, a modern ryokan (Japanese-style inn) with stylish, clean, and comfortable rooms, complemented by an amazing onsen!
If your hotel doesn’t have an onsen, there are a few spots you can enjoy during the day. One of the most popular is Teine Onsen Honoka, which comes with various onsens, a sauna, bedrock baths, a rest area, and more! It’s a fantastic spot to spend a relaxing evening (or even a whole day) by yourself or with your friends and family. Not to mention, it’s close to Teine Ski Resort so that you can slide in straight after a day on the slopes.
I recommend using rotemburo (outdoor bath) so you can enjoy the mix of the cold weather and warm onsen. Also, there’s something magical about bathing in an onsen with falling snow! If you are not familiar with hot springs in Japan, check out our onsen etiquette guide.
5. Ice Fishing
One unique way to embrace the winter cold is to go wakasagitsuri or smelt fishing. But this isn’t ordinary fishing. From January to March, many rivers and lakes freeze as the temperatures drop, so this is the time you can fish for smelt on top of the ice.
Small holes are drilled through the ice and into the water, allowing you to use the small fishing rod to collect some smelt. All the equipment is provided, and you can fish inside the comfort of a tent (sometimes with a heater!) to shield yourself from the cold. At the end of the experience, you’ll be treated to some fresh smelt tempura!
Sounds like something you’d like to try your hands on? Book your wakasagitsuri experience using Activity Japan!
6. Shiroi Koibito Park Illuminations
One of Sapporo’s most famous souvenirs is Shiroi Koibito—a cookie with chocolate sandwiched between langue de chat biscuits. If you’ve never tried one, I recommend buying a pack, which you can find at any souvenir shop.
Shiroi Koibito Park is open to the public for a fee of 800 yen for adults and 400 yen for children aged 4-15. Infants (aged 0-3) can enter for free. To reach the factory from Sapporo Station, take the Namboku Line on the subway to Odori Park. Then, transfer to the Tozai Line to Miyanosawa Station and walk for 10 minutes. The entire journey takes around 40 minutes and costs 290 yen one way (as of 2024).
Inside, you can watch the famous cookies being made and enjoy various attractions, such as project mapping and a cookie workshop, making it a fun day for couples and families.
Nevertheless, the real winter magic lies outside. From mid-November to the end of March, the inner courtyard is filled with around 100,000 lights that dazzle visitors. Surrounded by British Tudor-esque buildings, the courtyard transforms into a magical winter wonderland, featuring interactive displays that create the ultimate winter experience.
7. Sapporo Food
Sapporo, and Hokkaido in general, are blessed with an abundance of fantastic food. No matter where you go, you’ll find a variety of dishes to savor the unique flavors of local Hokkaido cuisine.
The go-to food to escape the winter chill is miso ramen. What’s better than a bowl of steaming hot noodles wrapped in a deep, sweet, and umami-packed miso broth? If that doesn’t sound delicious enough, add some melt-in-your-mouth char siu pork, and you have the perfect meal. Finish your ramen bowl like a true local and order a side of rice to soak up all that remaining soup.
As the winter season rolls around, horsehair crab comes into season. As the name suggests, the small crab is covered in delicate hair with sweet flesh inside. You can find horsehair crab in many izakayas, restaurants, and specialized stores, where you can enjoy it in kaisendon (seafood rice bowl) and other dishes featuring fish like tuna, salmon, and scallops. I recommend trying Shihachi in Tanukikoji or the Sapporo Central Wholesale Market. While many people visit Nijo Market, I find it to be a tourist trap.
For the most delicious crab experience, consider dedicated crab restaurants like Kani Honke, located in front of Sapporo Station. Here, you can order courses (or a la carte) with various dishes, all featuring crab. Of course, you can enjoy horsehair crab and other types, such as king or snow crab.
8. Winter Views
There is something magical about the winter scenery in Sapporo. The twinkling city lights reflect off the snow, becoming brighter than at any other time of the year. There are plenty of spots throughout the city where you can get a vantage point, overlooking the city, the sea, and even the mountains to Furano in the east!
Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium is my favorite spot, which often goes under the radar. From Maruyama Bus Station, board the Kuramaru (くらまる) bus directly to the ski jump. The Ski Jump was one of the competition venues for the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympic Games, and you can visit the museum to learn more about its history.
If you take the ski lift to the observatory, you’ll be greeted by a view that looks down the spine of Odori Park and the entire city.
Another popular spot is Mount Moiwa. Ride the cable car to the summit observation deck. On a clear day, you’ll have a panoramic view of the whole city, with views of Ishikari Bay and the mountains towards Furano. If you wait until dusk, you’ll witness the twinkling city lights reflecting off the snowy mountains, creating a night view you will never forget!
9. Visit Hokkaido Jingu
At the turn of the year, Japanese people participate in an event known as hatsumode. They visit their local shrines to make wishes for the current year and pick up their fortunes, known as omikuji.
In Sapporo, many visit Hokkaido Jingu (Hokkaido Shrine) under the falling snow. This year, I lined up before midnight to participate in hatsumode as soon as the new year began. You start by making your wish at the main shrine.
Then, I picked up my omikuji and an omamori (good luck amulet) for good health.
Outside the main shrine, some food stalls offer classic street foods such as takoyaki and yakisoba.
It gets well below freezing after midnight, so I warmed up with some oden!
Visiting the shrine at midnight is a uniquely Japanese experience that I highly recommend! There’s a special atmosphere as everyone is excited for the coming year. Plus, who doesn’t love street food at midnight?
You can also visit the shrine at any other time to make your wishes and pick up your omikuji and omamori.
Next to the shrine is Maruyama Park, where you can enjoy a relaxing walk while enjoying all the snow.
10. Head Outside the City Center
While central Sapporo has many activities to enjoy, don’t be afraid to venture further out from the city center. Many other unique landmarks exist, such as Moerenuma Park to the east or Sapporo Art Park to the south. My favorite spot to take friends and family visiting Sapporo is the Hill of the Buddha—a cemetery designed by world-renowned architect Tadao Ando.
It is most popular during summer, as the hills are covered in beautiful lavender. However, in winter, as the snow descends upon the 13.5-meter Buddha statue, there’s a more serene and tranquil atmosphere. To get there, take the Namboku Line from Sapporo Station to Makomanai Station. Then, board the 106 bus to the Hill of the Buddha.
Ready to venture out further? Then take an hour’s train ride from Sapporo Station to the port city of Otaru. Here, you can enjoy the many glass-making activities (Otaru is famous for glass), indulge in some seafood, or take in the city’s charming scenery.
Alternatively, head southwest to Jozankei, a hot spring resort, where you can soak in some of Hokkaido’s best hot springs while gazing at the snowy mountains.
A visit to Sapporo in the wintertime is truly an unforgettable experience. The choose-your-own-adventure possibilities—skiing, dining, and the culture—are as vast as the surrounding wintry scenes.
The whole atmosphere changes when the snow visits, and it amusingly feels cozier as everyone dons their favorite jacket and boots while warming up with fantastic food, gazing at the romantic scenery, and participating in the many events. Make it your bucket-list destination, and I’ll see you in my adopted home!
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