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Escape from Tokyo: North or South? A closer look at Hokkaido and Okinawa

Tokyo winters are very mild. The daytime temperature hovers around 10 C and snow rarely disrupts the capital. It’s just business as usual. Which is why Tokyoites look to get away when they have a chance. And many of them head in different directions: some head north, some (especially golfers) go south.

The Japanese archipelago is always described as stretching for 3,000 km from north to south, but that’s not strictly true. It stretches from the southwest to the northeast, from just above the 24th parallel (Ishigaki Island in Okinawa Prefecture) to the 45th (the tip of Hokkaido). Ishigaki’s latitude puts it south of Miami, Riyadh and Taipei. Surprisingly, Hokkaido, Japan’s snow country, is no further north than Milan or Ottawa.

But to the residents of Tokyo, Okinawa and Hokkaido represent an escape from the bland winters of Tokyo, escape from the Kanto Plain to the mountains of the north or the sunshine of the south. So, what do they have to offer?

Well, the first and most obvious answer is accessibility. Naha, the capital of Okinawa is just two and a half hours from Tokyo, while Hokkaido’s biggest city, Sapporo, is even closer at an hour and a quarter. Both are accessible from Haneda Airport, which is just a short bus or train ride from downtown Tokyo. Flights are also available from Narita Airport, which is more convenient for those flying in from other countries.

With the rise in the number of flights by low-cost carriers (LCCs), the cost of visiting the two regions has plummeted. A round-trip ticket from Haneda to Naha or Hokkaido can cost as little as $160. However, that’s for travelers making their own way. They will have to add on local transportation and accommodation, which will increase the costs somewhat. Most Japanese travelers will opt for a package tour to a resort destination, which will usually include all transportation, accommodation and possibly recreation and side trips.

But which way to go? North or south? It’s a straightforward choice: snow or sunshine, cold or hot. 

Hot South

If you’re a golfer or if you’re just looking for some decent, warm weather, Okinawa is a no-brainer.

If Okinawa feels like being in another country, maybe it’s because it was. The Ryukyu Kingdom was incorporated into Japan in 1879. Previously, it had paid tribute to China, and Chinese influences can still be seen today, most notably in the prefecture’s architecture. In truth, Okinawa has been used as a political football for hundreds of years. After the tussle between China and Japan, it was occupied by the Americans after the horrors of World War II in which a third of the population died. It wasn’t returned to Japanese control until 1972 and the massive presence of U.S. armed forces still on the island remains a divisive issue. But it’s not likely to spoil your holiday. OK, it’s a bit unusual when a trio of F-15s delays your flight out of Naha Airport, but Okinawa is a resort destination, not a military dictatorship.

It’s all about the sun and the sea. Even though the beaches are only officially open from about late March/ April to October, the water temperature remains relatively high, so if the weather’s good, you can always find a place to dip your toes. But you have to beware of typhoons, currents and jellyfish. The sea temperature in Naha ranges from a low of around 22 C in February to a high of 29 C in July and August. As a comparison, Kamakura to the west of Tokyo ranges from 14.6 C to 26 C.

Golf in Okinawa

Golf in Okinawa is nothing new, but the emergence of Japan’s Ai Miyazato as a golfing superstar in 2004 brought the two together in dramatic fashion. She won 11 tournaments in her first two years on the JLPGA Tour and went on to considerable international success. 

Okinawa gets good early publicity every year as the Ladies Tour invariably kicks off there. The Daikin Orchid Ladies Tournament is held in March, while the JGTO men’s tour doesn’t arrive until November with the Heiwa PGM Championship.

But Okinawa is about pleasure and if you’re a golfer, you’re not likely to be disappointed – unless you’re on your own. While resort courses in the West will always be happy to pair you up with other golfers, it doesn’t always happen in Japan. Course that allow single golfers are very rare indeed. So check before you go. You don’t want to carry your clubs halfway around the world – or even halfway across Japan – only to be told you can’t play.

Assuming you get the green light, you’re not likely to be disappointed. There’s a lot of sea out there and some of the best golf courses are right next to it, or at least overlook it. On some courses, the sea is part of the course. Try the 16th hole at Emerald Coast Golf Links on Miyakojima with its tee shot across the bay or the clifftop holes at Ocean Links also on Miyakojima. There are enticing and spectacular oceanside course throughout the prefecture, but sun, sea and golf don’t come cheap, with weekend rounds costing up to 30,000 yen. The Kanucha Resort even offers a three-hole outing for those on a budget or with limited time (but you still need a minimum of two players).

Most of Okinawa’s best beaches are decorated with hotels (or U.S. military bases) and are privately owned, so the owners will control who can access them and what you can do there. But in swimming season, they will also have lifeguards and plenty of activities from water-skiing to jet packs, parasailing, jet skis, diving, snorkelling, etc.

Beyond the beach, there’s still plenty to do from trekking to kayaking in a mangrove swamp to whale-watching to spas to shopping and, of course, eating.

You’re surrounded by fish yet Okinawa’s most well-known food is the slightly bitter vegetable goya, from which you can make goya chanpuru (goya, egg and meat stir-fried). Even more curious, particularly to fans of Monty Python, is the popularity of Spam. And yes, you can eat fish there, but the American influence means there’s also plenty of meat on the menu and steak restaurants such as Sam’s Sailor Inn in Naha are popular with both tourists and locals alike. 

You’ll find Sam’s Sailor Inn on Kokusai Dori (“International Street) in downtown Naha. It’s a busy street due to the proliferation of shops, restaurants and bars, but Naha will just be a stopping off point before you head to a resort destination. If you’re into culture, there’s plenty to explore in Okinawa, from Shuri Castle to the Ryukyu Village to the Okinawa Karate Kaikan, which capitalizes on karate’s Okinawan origins.

Cold North

While Tokyo is cool in the winter, it rarely gets very cold. Unlike Hokkaido. The average high temperature in Sapporo in January is minus 1 C. Head inland and the temperature drops even further with night-time temperatures plummeting to minus 20, minus 30 and beyond. Not surprisingly, Hokkaido is blanketed in snow for months on end. 

But snow is Hokkaido’s salvation. It defines the region in the winter and Sapporo is known around the world for its Snow Festival in February when its central Odori Park and other areas are decorated with massive snow sculptures. So much snow is needed that it requires Japan’s Self-Defence Forces to bring it in and build it up. The resulting sculptures are spectacular and draw in hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.

Sapporo is also very proud of its Olympic heritage, having hosted the Winter Games in 1972 and the Okurayama ski jump venue is a popular tourist destination. If you’ve never stood at the top of a ski jump, visiting Okurayama is a must. A ski lift takes you to the top of the jump and you can look down at the breathtaking slope the ski jumpers race down before launching themselves into space. Tourists – maybe ski jumpers, too – can take in the spectacular vista of Sapporo and its surroundings from the top of the jump. It’s truly unique.  

Down at the bottom – you can go up to the top and back on a chair lift – is the Sapporo Olympic Museum with memorabilia from the 1972 Winter Olympics and other Olympic Games as well as opportunities to try ski-jumping, cross-country skiing and bobsledding. It’s not the real thing, but it gives you a rough idea of what these sports are like.

Sapporo is hoping to repeat its success of 1972 and is bidding for the 2026 Winter Games. Before that, however, two other massive events will come to Sapporo: the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Summer Olympics. The Sapporo Dome will host Australia-Fiji and England-Tonga at next year’s Rugby World Cup as well as soccer games of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. 

The Sapporo Dome was famous as a venue during the 2002 FIFA World Cup and is home to soccer team Consadole Sapporo and professional baseball team the Nippon Ham Fighters. The automated transition process to convert the stadium from baseball to soccer, which includes moving the pitch from outdoors to inside, has to be seen to be believed (you can view it on YouTube). The Dome has a spectacular, elevated viewing platform and tours of the stadium take place on non-match days.

But Hokkaido, which accounts for 22 percent of Japan’s land area, is not just about Sapporo. In fact, Hokkaido is twice the size of the Netherlands or Switzerland. There’s a lot of countryside out there … and a lot of snow. If you don’t do winter sports, you might feel a little left out. 

In recent years, the Niseko resort area to the west of Sapporo has become hugely popular with overseas visitors seeking out its fantastic ski slopes and facilities. English is the lingua franca there and it attracts a lot of custom from Australia. But while it has garnered plenty of positive publicity, it’s not the only show in town. There are top quality ski resorts all over Hokkaido.

One of the newest is Club Med at Tomamu, a sprawling resort with plenty of slopes, a huge wave pool and some really comfortable accommodation. One of the attractions of Hokkaido is is accessibility. Get an early flight from Haneda and you can spend most of your afternoon skiing at Tomamu, which is just 100 minutes by car from New Chitose Airport. It’s closer than Niseko but like its “rival” to the west, it’s foreigner-friendly with loads of chatty, English-speaking staff – don’t be surprised if they join you for dinner – and food even the fussiest foreigner can be happy with. And, as with most of the ski venues in Hokkaido, the powder snow is fantastic.

Come summer time and it’s the best place in Japan to play golf. To the south, Japan suffers from intense heat and humidity and while that lowers the price on the main island of Honshu, it also verges on the unbearable. Hokkaido is a wonderful area to escape to with an average August temperature in Sapporo of just 26 C compared to 31 C in Tokyo. There’s also less humidity and less rain.

And if you think getting onto a ski slope in the winter is easy, you can almost fall onto a golf course from New Chitose Airport. There are around 20 golf course within a short taxi ride from the airport, including the stunning, Jack Nicklaus-designed Hokkaido Classic Golf Club (you might want to mortgage your house for that one). Niseko also manages to reinvent itself in the summer as a popular golf destination and there are even three courses right at the windswept tip of the island. 

The Warp up

So, do you head north or south? Snow or sea? Cold or hot? You’re right; it doesn’t really matter. The simple answer is that it’s easy to escape Tokyo for a few days if that’s what you need and if you want to stay in Japan, it’s only a short flight to a completely different environment. You’re not going to be disappointed whatever choice you make.

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