Circle Hokkaido for the Ultimate Japan Road Trip
Mountains, volcanic lakes, and miso ramen take the spotlight on Japan’s most rugged island.
Of the four main islands comprising Japan, Hokkaido holds the country’s most rugged terrain. Here you’ll find corrugated landscapes punctuated by pristine hot springs and volcanic lakes. Triangular peaks are flanked by world-class ski resorts. Brown bears, red foxes, and flying squirrels saunter through millions of miles of unspoiled wilderness. The only thing missing are the people; the region boasts the lowest population density in all of Japan—just 160 people per square mile.
That figure would be sparser still if it weren’t for the bustling metropolis of Sapporo, a cultural hub of sizable magnitude with robust nightlife and perhaps the best ramen on planet Earth. That’s all nice, but it’s even nicer if you have a car, because you can absorb the full range of these exhilarating experiences within easy driving distance of the airport.
And since everyone loves a good circle story, we’ve assembled a 250-mile loop affording you a taste of all this awesomeness, including—but hardly limited to—the ramen. Follow the blueprint below to head out on the most memorable of Hokkaido island adventures. Just please remember to stay on the left side of the road when you do.
When to go
Thanks to its northerly latitude—essentially parallel to the Pacific Northwest—Hokkaido never gets too warm. In the hottest month of August temperatures top off at around 72 degrees Fahrenheit, which happens to be quite pleasant hiking weather. But the summertime is also when you’re most likely to bump into other tourists, including both international travelers and domestic vacationers on holiday from Honshu. June and September are the shoulder months worth seeking out. That is, unless you’re a powder hound in search of that legendary Japanese snow. Ski season here stretches from late November to early May. This time of year can also complicate driving plans, though, as road conditions up in the mountains can rapidly devolve into treacherous.
How to rent a vehicle
Before you even think about procuring your car, you’ll need to obtain an International Drivers Permit for Japan. It is illegal to drive in the country with just your US license. The good news is, so long as you have a valid US license, it’s super easy to lock down your IDP. Simply fill out this form at least two weeks before your flight out, attach a passport-sized photo of yourself, pay $20, and you’ll receive paperwork allowing you to drive in Japan for a full year.
Now that you’ve got the administrative part out of the way, reserving your rental will be a breeze. New Chitose Airport, the main hub servicing Sapporo, has dozens of options from well-known providers including Sixt, Budget, and EuropCar. The agencies are located on the first floor of the Domestic Terminal. Rates dip down to as little as $35 per night for a weeklong compact rental and qeeq.com is a good site for securing deals like these.
Slurp a bowl of Hokkaido ramen in Sapporo
Okay, so you’ve got your Japanese driver's permit, you’ve got your keys, and you’re most certainly on the left hand-side of the road. Now let’s start plugging in some directions into the GPS. You’re probably hungry after the flight, so head for the heart of the city to indulge in the local delicacy: miso ramen.
From New Chitose Airport to Sapporo can take up to one hour in heavy traffic conditions, and should cost about $10 in tolls. Once you arrive you’ll find an entire street dedicated to the famed noodle soup. “Ramen Alley” is home to no less than 17 different restaurants specializing in it, and these often serve it up in traditional Hokkaido style—with corn and butter. You can’t go wrong with any of the restaurants here—but if you’re showing up late at night after the bars, head to Baisensha, which stays open until the early morning and renders a sensational miso-based offering.
Parking is nonexistent on this small street, which is known locally as Ganso Ramen Yokocho. But it’s an easy 2 minute walk from the Susukino subway station. If you stay overnight at the nearby Sapporo Park Hotel, you can ditch the car and stroll up the street 10 blocks up, or follow the Toyohira River for a more scenic detour. Rooms start at $43 a night at the three-star property, though parking costs extra.
Explore the coast from Sapporo to Yoichi
Day two of your journey is going to be dedicated to coastal sightseeing. And whisky. Begin by heading northwest on E5A for 40 kilometers until you reach Otaru. This charming seaside village was home to a fish processing plant in the early 20th Century. Today, many of these former warehouses have been converted into art galleries, museums and even glassblowing studios.
Walk along the century-old Otaru Canal to soak in the scenery, or drive up to the tip of the peninsula to explore the local aquarium. If you’re looking to get a little more adventurous you can rent a kayak from neighboring Shioya Beach to explore the turquoise blue sea caves which puncture the coastal terrain. Or check out the haunting remains of a shuttered cliffside amusement park and resort in Otamoi.
From here it’s just a 30-minute drive to the center of Yoichi, home to an eponymous distillery—one of the original producers of Japanese whisky. The facility was built in 1934 by legendary craftsman Masataka Taketsuru, and it continues to operate in the same way he conceived all those years ago. Hour-long tours are free, but must be reserved ahead of time through the company’s website.
Drive through the mountains from Yoichi to Niseko
Afterwards, it’s time for the hour-long journey into the mountains of Niseko. Although you’ll actually be driving down (southward) along Route 5, it’ll certainly feel like you’re ascending as you climb from coast to corrugated valleys and ridge lines. The area became a popular ski destination beginning in the 1960s, when lift service began running up Grand Hirafu. That original resort is today joined by Hanazono, Niseko Village and An’nupuri—each of which benefits from access to the region’s 50 feet of average annual snowfall.
Hotel options are robust here, but if you feel like rewarding yourself after a long day on the road, book an overnight stay at Higashiyama Niseko Village, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve property. The five-star lodging offers ski-in/ski-out positioning at the foot of its respective resort. Even if you’re not a skier (or it’s not the right season) it affords a whole host of amenities including an on-site onsen, a stately sushi counter with an omakase menu highlighting Hokkaido-sourced seafood, and a proper whisky bar. All of it sits under the shadow of the stunning Mount Yōtei, an active stratovolcano guarding the distant horizon.
Rooms start at $565 per night and include free shuttle service into the neighboring town of Hirafu. Since you’ve already parked the car for the night, allocate some time for a bar-crawl there. Bar Gyu is a cozy speakeasy like no other, accessed through an unmarked refrigerator door, hidden down a residential street. Only slightly more conspicuous within the Grand Hirafu is Toshiro’s Bar—a welcoming lounge that houses one of the largest collections of Japanese whisky you’ll find anywhere.
Get killer views from Lake Toya to Muroran
Day three of your road trip won’t involve too many miles (or kilometers, I should say), but you will pack in plenty of panorama. Begin with a 45-minute drive south to the shores of Lake Toya. The spectacularly circular body of water lies within a volcanic caldera and holds a verdant chunk of triangular earth in its center: Nakajima Island. You can best appreciate the lay of the land at the Shikotsu-Toya National Park Silo Observation Deck Lookout. The viewpoint here also affords a breathtaking glimpse of Mt. Usu, a 2,400-foot stratovolcano which last erupted in 2001. From here you can book helicopter flight-seeing rides over the lake, or take a boat ride on the lake to check out the Nakajima Lake Forest Museum. The site showcases the natural features of this UNESCO Global Geopark and is open from the end of April until late October.
Next, drive southwest along the edge of the lake, through Tsukiura Forest National Park. Eventually you’ll veer south and away from the water onto Route 703. And from here you can take a brief pitstop at the Usu Volcano Observatory.
Keep heading south and you’ll meet up with Route 37, which you should follow for approximately 30 minutes until you branch off to cross Hakucho Bridge. The towering suspension structure was completed in 1998 and is the largest of its kind in Eastern Japan. It offers impressive views of Uchiura Bay which opens up and out of the city of Muroran over the passenger side window of your vehicle.
Once within city limits, book your overnight at the Hotel Muroran Hills, a no frills destination where rooms start at around $100 per night. It’s conveniently located amidst the many shops, bars, and restaurants of this historic port town. And you can walk 15 minutes down to Itanki Beach, a popular location for spying whales and dolphins as they exit and enter the bay.
Take a hike in Shikotsu-Toya National Park
On your final day it’s time to explore some of Hokkaido’s remarkable geothermal anomalies. Head up highway E5 and break off for the scenic loop of 350. You’re now well within Shikotsu-Toya National Park—1,000 square kilometers of natural wonder, which can be best appreciated through its hundreds of miles worth of hiking trails. Of all these, the most popular might be the two-mile long Noboribetsu-Jigokudani Loop. It walks you through an area nicknamed “Hell Valley.” And you’ll soon understand why the name applies; it’s a dramatic crater featuring springs of boiling sulfur, volcanic steam plumes, and curiously-colored hot springs. But despite the devilish name, this walk is quite heavenly. It typically takes just under an hour to complete the circuit.
After the hike, drive back down Route 350 alongside Lake Kuttara before meeting back up with highway E5. Next you’ll splinter northeast with Route 276. During this last scenic stretch you can pull off the road to spy a pair of picturesque cascades: Maruyama Tomi Falls and the Shichijo Waterfall. Immediately thereafter, you’ll begin gaining glimpses of Lake Shikotsu. Skirt the pristine body of water along Route 453 and then stop at the Poropinai Observatory to soak in the sweeping panorama. From here you’ll only have to head east for 45 minutes on highway 16 to get you back to New Chitose Airport for the completion of your epic Hokkaido loop.
Once you’ve dropped off the rental car—but before you head through airport security—allow time to explore the third floor food court of the domestic terminal. The dining here is world-class and you owe yourself one last bowl of corn and butter-studded ramen before hightailing it out of Hokkaido.