Spellbound by a forest of cherry blossoms (Photo: Eugene Zhyvchik / Unsplash)

Hokkaido in Springtime

The last of the cherry blossoms

Spellbound by a forest of cherry blossoms (Photo: Eugene Zhyvchik / Unsplash)
By Bonson Lam    - 5 min read

May marks Hokkaido’s transformation, from the long dark days of Winter to the beginning of Spring. It may be the last place touched by the wave of cherry blossoms, moving from south to north, but the people here look forward to celebrating it even more than those in Nara or Tokyo. This is truely, the best time to travel to Hokkaido, Japan's northern island.

Also known as Sakura, Cherry blossoms are symbols of new life, a new beginning. It is the Sakura that keeps people going during the long dark winters, and with the sunrise being at 7 am and sunset at 4 pm in December, you may never see sunlight if you are inside an office all day. On average Sapporo receives 191 inches of snow a year, which is nearly 5 meters of snow that the locals need to shovel out of their doorways.

A long time ago, the aristocrats in Nara celebrated Spring by admiring plum blossoms, which bloom earlier than cherry blossoms. Today in Hokkaido, you can taste, see and feel the coming of spring, from the plum wine festival in April, followed by a picnic under the cherry blossoms, or dancing with lilacs at a festival, followed by a refreshing bicycle ride to the backdrop Shiba Sakura.

Lady in the fields of Tomita Farm
Lady in the fields of Tomita Farm (Photo: Mag Landrito / Unsplash)

Of course, springtime in Hokkaido is more than just flowers, with this 4-day itinerary from the rivers to the mountains, you can truly immerse in a season of new beginnings. On no other island in Japan can you see salmon and chipmunks face to face, making it a more nature-orientated holiday than Kyoto or Tokyo. Even the food is different here. While the folks in Honshu look forward to bamboo shoots in Springtime, in Hokkaido, May is the best time to enjoy vegetables like Asparagus, which like bamboo, is a perennial shoot.

Day 1 - Zen and the circle of life

Spring marks a new beginning, and in Hokkaido, there is no better way to remember this than a visit to a nursery for baby salmon. At the aptly named Salmon Hometown Aquarium, the whole family can learn about the brave journey of the baby salmon, making its way from Chitose to Vancouver Island. Only 1 percent survive to return to Chitose River and the joy that the Aquarium staff have in welcoming them back for their homecoming is like seeing an Astronaut who survived a trip to Mars and back. As part of their breeding program, I am given a 3-inch baby salmon in a glass container, and by releasing it on the Chitose River, I am sending it off on its journey around the Pacific.

Come face to face with salmon and other fish at the Salmon Hometown Aquarium
Come face to face with salmon and other fish at the Salmon Hometown Aquarium

At just a hop, skip and jump from Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport, the salmon release experience is only available in springtime, from March to May. School groups should book in advance, as the explanation is only partly in English.

Day 2 - The sweet delights of Umeshu

Japan Railways or JR takes 90 minutes to travel from Chitose on the Pacific Ocean to Otaru on the Sea of Japan, one of the first ports that were opened to international trade in the nineteenth century. From mid-April to mid-May, drink the sweet delights of the Japanese plum wine, at the Umeshu Festival. There are also some unique plum-inspired foods available at the event, including the likes of plum cheesecake, plum vinegar, and plum miso.

Day 3 - All things pink and purple

Sapporo is a city of outdoor activities, and whether you are Sapporo's Shinkawa River, viewing the Lilac Festival at Odori Park, or Kitahiroshima, you can cycle under avenues of cherry trees, which are in full blossom at the beginning of May. As this coincides with Golden Week, an option is to stay between the city and Chitose Airport, such as Emisia Hotel or Kitahiroshima Classe Hotel, and end your day there with a spa or a hot spring experience.

An outdoor bath is a great way to relax at Kitahiroshima Classe Hotel
An outdoor bath is a great way to relax at Kitahiroshima Classe Hotel

Day 4 - Chasing the Unkai

Like the cherry blossoms and other objects of beauty in Japan, the Unkai, or the sea of clouds can be elusive. Only a day earlier, the weather conditions had banished its appearance. Visitors may only have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this, and so we should appreciate every moment. It reminds me of the word “Sayonara”, which is more than just saying goodbye. The word Sayonara literally means “if this must be it, then so it must be.” It reflects the sentiment of longing, the pain of having to part ways. Whether it is the fleeting beauty of the passing cherry blossoms, or letting go of your children as they start their first day of school, life is full of moments of letting go, of accepting that what has passed cannot be recreated again, and yet giving thanks for the privilege of being part of someone's life. It is no wonder that the Japanese school year starts in April, and in taking these fleeting cherry blossoms, it is a way of letting nature teach us about the transient beauty of life.

Sunrise over the Unkai, a sea of clouds
Sunrise over the Unkai, a sea of clouds

In the days of old, people had to hike through the night or stay in the mountains to see the Unkai. Now we are only a gondola ride away from the summit. Stay overnight at Tomamu Resort, and at 4 am, take the first gondola to experience this mountain top majesty. The gondola operates from mid-May to mid-October.

Relax at the Green Kitchen Cafe the night before you encounter the Unkai
Relax at the Green Kitchen Cafe the night before you encounter the Unkai

Getting there

While trains are the best way to travel the short hops between Tomamu, Shin Sapporo, and Otaru, a hire car is recommended for further journeys to Shizunai to the southeast of the island or viewing the Shiba Sakura to the north, extending your vacation to a week.

With over 50 flights a day from Tokyo to Sapporo, it is no wonder this 90-minute flight is the world's busiest air route. Slower ways to reach Hokkaido include a car, train, or ferry.

More info

Find out more about Sapporo Station.

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Bonson Lam

Bonson Lam @bonson.lam

I knew my future was destined to be with Japan the moment I flew from Sydney to experience the atmospheric lane ways of Kyoto last century. From the skies above Sapporo to the old charm of Naha's alleyways, I have been enchanted by the beauty and variety on every island. I am humbled to have met many distinguished people in my role as Regional Partner, especially the national living treasures of Japan, such as the doll maker to the Imperial Family. From sushi cooking classes to Ninja training grounds I welcome your ideas on what you like from JapanTravel.com. Please visit us in Kyoto or Osaka and have some green tea or sake with us. 

Join the discussion

Sébastien Duval a month ago
Thanks Bonson! It's a great complement to your Hokkaido Spring speech in the podcast episode https://anchor.fm/japantravel/episodes/Sakura-Cherry-Blossoms-e1fvg5i 👍
Bonson Lam Author a month ago
That is great. Looking forward to more podcasts in the future, featuring Hokkaido.
Kim a month ago
I can understand the excitement that spring arriving in Hokkaido would bring!
Kim a month ago
Perfect way to describe it!
Sleiman Azizi a month ago
Geez Hokkaido is tempting...
Bonson Lam Author a month ago
Absolutely, and it gets even better hiking in the summer months and watching the soft sunlight in the evenings, before seeing the bears and salmon at play later on.
Elizabeth S a month ago
Your photo of Unkai must be a treasure of a lifetime. It's not like you can see that every day.

I checked the cherry blossom front and it looks like some Hokkaido destinations will be in full bloom at the end of April into early May this year. There's still time.
Bonson Lam Author a month ago
Yes it was, it could be the first and last time I see it. At the same time, I almost missed it. You see the day before, there was very little to see, so I went again. And I am glad I did, as you can see from the photo. And yes, there is still time to see the cherry blossoms in Hokkaido this year. I like the sense of hope in the words, "There's still time".