Hokkaido Tours – An introduction

, by Richard

Japan is a top travel destination around the world, and its “North Island” of Hokkaido has acquired a top spot on many travellers' wish lists. Even if you don’t speak Japanese, taking a tour in Hokkaido is easy. Adventure Hokkaido guide Richard introduces the different types of Hokkaido tours available and how to find the right fit for your trip.

At the first view point with Asahidake on the backdrop (behind the clouds)

Why take a tour in Hokkaido?

First of all, why would you join a tour when travelling in Hokkaido? Due to both its size and frontier feel, you’ll find many benefits to taking a tour in Hokkaido including:

  • Help with the language barrier – Japanese can feel very daunting, especially if you are not used to the kanji writing system.

  • Avoiding transportation challenges – Japan’s transport is famously prompt and clean and Hokkaido is no different. However, services are limited outside of the main towns and many trailheads are not accessible by public transport.

  • Seeing Hokkaido from a local’s perspective – Connecting with the locals as your travel leads to a much richer experience and lets you see things often overlooked.

  • Travel with like-minded people – Joining a tour lets you share the new experiences with others, especially good for solo-travellers.

What kind of tours are available in Hokkaido?

Despite being a relatively new travel destination, there are itineraries and activities to suit everyone. Tours in Hokkaido range in length from one-day tours to week-long trips, making it easy to fit something into your travel schedule. Below I will provide an outline of the main types of tours on offer in Hokkaido. Click here to see our Hokkaido Hiking, Cycling & Nature tours now.

Hokkaido Day Tours

On day tours you will travel on a fixed itinerary with a local guide. Your guide will take you to visit local attractions or perhaps to do activities such as hiking or cycling. Tours will usually include a pick-up and drop-off service so you can start and finish at your accommodation. They will also include all the equipment you need, as well as any entry fees, cable-car tickets and transportation costs. Lunch will usually be provided, often at your guide’s favourite cafe or as a packed lunch if you are heading into the outdoors.

The locals take great pride in sharing their home area with visitors, especially in more rural areas. A day cycling through rice fields in a farming village lets you slip away from the tourist trail and catch a glimpse of Hokkaido life.

Day tours are great for people with limited time and those that are not travelling with any outdoor equipment. Being picked up and dropped off at your hotel is also convenient for those without their own vehicle.

Hokkaido Overnight Tours

Combining daytime activities or visits to attractions with staying overnight at places such as a remote mountain onsen (hot spring) hotel or a rural guesthouse, overnight tours can range from 2 days to 2 weeks. Transportation and accommodation costs are included as well as meals at your accommodation, be sure to check about lunches. Tours will start and finish in regional transport hubs with good public transport links. On the tour, you will usually travel by van allowing you to get off the beaten path.

Overnight tour packages are perfect for those who want to see more, whilst leaving deciphering the logistics of hotel bookings and transportation to the experts. If you have a fixed amount of time off to travel, a multi-day itinerary ensures you make the most of your trip.

A trip to Japan’s far north will take you far away from any cities and you will travel through traditional fishing villages and wetlands teeming with birdlife, staying at hidden hot-spring hotels and finishing off taking in 360° ocean views from 1,721m above sea level. For the more adventurous, a night in a mountain hut takes you deeper into Hokkaido’s mountains. Watch the sunset over nearby peaks and swap tales with fellow hikers under the milky way, known as “Heaven’s River” or ama-no-gawa in Japanese.

Guide Yasu showing the marker bitten by brown bears on a hiking tour in Hokkaido
Adventure Hokkaido guide with a group of guests

Hokkaido Hiking Tours

On one-day and overnight hiking tours, you will head out into the wilderness often to climb one of Hokkaido’s many mountains. The route for the hike will be predetermined, but there will usually be a plan B in case of bad weather. The guide will often pick you and your fellow hikers up from your accommodation and drop you back at the end of the day. You will usually need to bring your own hiking equipment but a good tour will provide a clear packing list.

A day hiking tour is good for people wanting to dip their toes into Hokkaido’s outdoors, or perhaps tag an outdoor adventure onto the end of a business trip, and there are tours to suit all fitness levels. Hokkaido’s mountains are remote, wild and the weather can change quickly and a guide will look after your safety on the hike.

For keen hikers, a multi-day hiking tour will fill your days with some of Hokkaido’s best walks. You will usually stay overnight in hotels or ryokan inns, travelling daily to the trailheads, which reduces the amount of gear you need to carry on the trail. While itineraries strive to balance the physical demands of hiking, for example by including rest-day excursions, multi-day hiking tours are best for those comfortable hiking 7+ hours a day. For experienced hikers, they let you see the best of Hokkaido’s thousands of kilometres of trails.

Hokkaido Winter Hiking Tours

In winter, snowshoe tours allow you to walk through the snowy landscape, using a device resembling a tennis racket to avoid sinking deep into the soft snow. As well as transportation and cable-car tickets, the snowshoes and other equipment will be provided. Get a sense of nature’s raw power on a short walk from the top of the ropeway at Mt. Asahidake, walking through wind-sculpted snowdrifts to a roaring volcanic steam vent emerging from the deep snowpack.

Hikers and steaming geysers of Mt Asahidake in winter
Volcanic steam vents at Mt. Asahidake

Hokkaido Cycling Tours

Cycling tours can also be both one-day rides or multiple day trips riding between your nightly accommodation. After meeting your guide and fellow travellers, you will get kitted out with your bike, helmet and other safety gear. Your guide will also carry a repair kit for mechanical issues and a bilingual guide is also handy if you don’t know your panku (flat tire) from your panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)! On multi-day tours, a support car will follow you carrying your luggage and additional spare parts.

Once underway you will follow a set route with stops planned along the way. One-day cycling tours are perfect for those who want to explore at a leisurely pace, riding 50 km at the most. On multi-day cycling tours, you will usually cover 60km-70km per day. As with multi-day hiking tours they are better suited for people who are used to cycling regularly and are looking to see rural Hokkaido under their own steam.

The roads in Hokkaido are quiet outside of the cities, you will sometimes see more Red Foxes (Kitakitsune) than cars. On a 354km circumnavigation of the Daisetsuzan Mountain range you can see a good chunk of Japan’s largest national park, yet never be more than a few hours from a natural hot-spring (Onsen) to soothe your muscles in at the end of a day in the saddle.

Cycling in Hokkaido with mountain views
Enjoy cycling against majestic backdrops like the Daisetsuzan mountain range

Hokkaido Nature Tours

While a nature tour sometimes includes activities such as hiking, the primary focus is to see the wild flora and fauna. As such, guides on nature tours will often be locals with knowledge of the plants and animals native to the area. As with hiking tours, nature tours can be both single day excursions or multi-day trips. Single-day tours will take you from your accommodation to a nearby nature area, such as a national park. On multi-day tours, you will follow an itinerary across the island designed to let you experience a variety of different environments. Hokkaido has 6 national parks covering a combined area twice the size of Tokyo and is the largest population of brown bears in Asia outside of Russia.

Nature tours are perfect for people who want to see wild animals in their habitat and learn about the natural environment. Many guides are also involved in conservation work and can explain the impact climate change is having on Hokkaido’s environment and what efforts are being made to conserve it. Guides are also prepared in case you encounter the wildlife a little bit too close for comfort. 

Nature tours are also popular with wildlife photographers and on a multi-day tour, you will be able to capture images of many different animals and plants in various settings. As well as bears, on a week travelling around eastern Hokkaido you can also see native birds at wetland marshes and hardy alpine flowers in bloom on an active volcano.

Ezo Naki Usagi, the Pika, Hokkaido alpine rabbit
Rare wildlife, like the Northern Pika, is well worth journeying to Hokkaido to see. Photo © Hideki Konuma

Hokkaido Cultural Tours

Cultural tours include visits to museums, sake breweries and cultural sights such as shrines. They often include experiences such as participating in traditional songs, making local handicrafts or eating a traditional meal. Many tours are run in-house by the facilities while on other day tours your guide transports you to the sights and interprets for you. In a country like Japan, where the culture is so unique, many tours will include cultural excursions as part of the itinerary, for example visiting a museum on the warm-up day of a week-long hiking tour.

Cultural tours are popular with visitors who enjoy learning about the local culture as they travel. A bilingual guide who is native to the country you are visiting allows you to ask questions and learn beyond the pamphlets.

Japanese culture is relatively young in Hokkaido in comparison with the rest of Japan. Many cultural tours here explore the indigenous Ainu people (pronounced Aynu), who were the primary inhabitants of Hokkaido for centuries before expanding settlers forced them to assimilate with Japanese culture, marginalising their traditional way of life. On a visit to an Ainu museum in Asahikawa, you can learn how the Ainu, like many indigenous cultures, were deeply intertwined with nature.

Guided tour through the Kawamura Kaneto Ainu Museum
Visiting the Ainu museum in Asahikawa

Hokkaido Small-Group Tours

It is not uncommon to see Japanese guides armed with microphones leading groups of over 20 people around some of the trails here. However, travelling in a small group makes for a much more intimate experience. With smaller numbers, you can also visit the quaint local cafes and museums that would never fit more than 10 people.

Some tour operators in Hokkaido also consider the impact large groups can have on both the natural environment and other trail users. Be sure to check the maximum group size when you are researching your trip.

Hokkaido Bus Tours

Bus tours are the bread and butter of domestic tourism in Japan and are offered by many regional tourist boards. Being whisked from one place to the next is good for ticking off the sights on a tight schedule, but you may find yourself forming a deeper connection with the bus interior than the local communities you visit.

We know big bus tours are a good option for some people but we think you experience so much more in a small group, so we don’t operate any bus tours.

Hokkaido Self Guided Tours

Sitting at the opposite end of the spectrum to a regimented bus tour, self-guided tours are a great choice if you want the freedom to go at your own pace whilst still having an itinerary to make sure you don’t miss anything.

While the content of the tour varies between operators, they will usually plan an itinerary, arrange your accommodation and decipher the transport system for you. Hiking and cycling tour providers will often provide GPX tracks for hiking trails and locals will give you restaurant suggestions. For an added peace of mind look for a tour provider that has bilingual staff that you can call if you run into difficulty.

Hiker on coastal walkway of Rebun Island
A self guided tour means more freedom for you to explore

How to decide between a Guided or Self-Guided tour

Guided and Self-Guided tours both have their own merits, the best choice largely depends on you and what you want from your trip. Some of the pros and cons of each option to weigh up include:

  • Being your own guide in a foreign country can be incredibly satisfying, but it can also be stressful and daunting.

  • While you will have a rough itinerary, self-guided gives you the flexibility to head out early to watch the sunrise or sleep in after one too many sake (Japanese rice wine) the night before.

  • Having a guide explain the less-known details or share their local perspective often leads to a richer experience. However, some people enjoy the freedom to discover a place on their terms.

  • A guide will take care of the daily logistics of travelling, letting you concentrate on taking it all in.

Above all, for non-Japanese speakers, the language barrier is likely the biggest factor. Japanese people are incredibly warm and hospitable and will make every effort to accommodate you even if you don’t speak a shared language.  But be aware that many of the best restaurants don’t have English menus, signage on some hiking trails is only in Japanese, as are some of the male/female hot-spring signs. Travelling with a bilingual guide removes a lot of unease and uncertainty from your trip, such as which trail goes to Asahidake Onsen or Aizankei Onsen. It also opens up interactions with other locals that you would not be able to have without Japanese skills.

Hokkaido Local Tours

Many of the English language tours in Hokkaido are run by either international companies or outfits based on mainland Japan who operate Japan-wide. However, some local Hokkaido guides have set up their own tour companies, often after returning from living overseas. Locally run tour operators that specialise in Hokkaido will usually have more unique itineraries covering places off the beaten track.

As well as taking you to the less well-known spots, a true local guide will be able to paint a much more vivid picture as you travel. This could include detailing how the landscape changes from season to season or explaining how the farmers harvest their land.

Local tour operators are also more likely to support other community initiatives and conservation efforts, meaning the custom you bring will have a positive impact on the whole community.

How to find the right Hokkaido tour?

It may be overwhelming trying to settle on just one tour from all the options available. I can appreciate wanting to find the perfect trip whether you’re planning a short getaway or a once in a lifetime trip to Japan. These are a few questions you can ask yourself to narrow down your choice of tour:

Do I want to travel with a guide?
The itineraries of Guided and Self-guided tours are very different. I’d recommend considering the factors I outlined above, especially how comfortable you are with your Japanese ability or lack thereof, and decide first if you want to travel with a guide or on your own terms.

Do I have any specific interests?
Next up, consider what you want to see. For example, you may have always wanted to climb a volcano. While you are researching tours make a note of anything that makes you think “Wow, I’d love to see that”.

What activities do I want to do?
Hokkaido has some fantastic routes for avid hikers or cyclists to explore and there are quiet roads, maintained nature trails and gentle rivers that also suit first-timers. Also, ask yourself how much physical activity you want on your trip, do you want to stretch your legs hiking 10km a day, or perhaps you would prefer a few walks as part of a nature trip.

How long can I travel for?
You can find tours of all lengths, from week-long journey’s to Eastern Hokkaido to a short day adventure climbing Hokkaido’s highest peak. Consider how long you will be in Hokkaido for and if your time is limited I recommend focusing on a specific place or activity. Trying to cram too much into a trip makes it harder to enjoy each experience.

After weighing up these considerations and finding some tours you are interested in, you will probably have many more questions of your own. Get in touch with the tour companies and ask, after all a good guide should be approachable and easy to communicate with.

We hope you found this introduction to Hokkaido tours interesting and helpful for your trip. We’re Adventure Hokkaido, a group of passionate local outdoor guides who would love to share the great outdoors, history, culture and food of our home with international visitors. Adventure travel in Hokkaido is quite new, but your options are as diverse as the landscape here. One day hiking trips, week-long cycle tours, seeing nature up close and personal or learning about the indigenous culture, you will be able to find a tour to suit you. Explore with a local guide and immerse yourself in this unique environment and culture.

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See our Hokkaido hiking, cycling & nature tours