What Kind Of Shoes To Wear In Hokkaido (Winter)

If you’ve never lived in a cold area before where it snows, you may find yourself in the same boat we were in before we arrived in Hokkaido – that is having no idea what kind of footwear you should get!

We spent a full month living in Sapporo in December 2017, just as winter was starting.

Never having lived in a place where snowfall is normal, we had zero clues on what to really expect – especially in the way of shoes.

This post will give you an idea of what kind of footwear is suitable for getting around in the northern island of Japan in winter conditions, when there is snow and ice about!

Here are some photos of what to expect on the pathways and roadways in Hokkaido or anywhere where it snows, really.

This will give you some idea of the different types of snow/ice/slush scenarios you might come across.

Freshly plowed snow footpath. Easy to walk on and not at all slippery.
Powdery snow can get fairly thick pretty quickly if it snows heavily or regularly.
Fresh snow can hide the real condition of the footpath/snow/ice that may be underneath, so it’s best to be careful in these conditions.
When there’s not much snow, it can melt during the day into a wet slush. Since it’s usually pretty deep, it’s easy for your shoes to get wet, and when they get wet, they get cold.
When the slush starts to melt even more, it’s nearly impossible to walk around without your shoes getting wet.
Slush is especially common on road crossings.
Thin ice all over the footpath is extremely slippery and it’s very easy to fall over.
Ice can build up into thicker sheets as well and is extremely slippery.
These stairs and footpath in Nikko were very very slippery due to the thick ice covering nearly all surfaces.
A road crossing in Sapporo which looked okay but was actually quite slippery – it is actually a thick layer of slippery ice with just a thin dusting of snow over the top of it.
Close up of the snow-covered-ice from above – when the thin layer of snow happened to give way, the ice underneath was extremely slippery.

There are three main factors that will impact your choice of footwear if you are trying to decide what to bring on your holiday to a snowy area.

  • Cold (warmth factor)
  • Ice (slip factor)
  • Slushy/wet snow (waterproof factor)

Surprisingly, the easiest of all surfaces to walk on is fresh plain snow!

The Cold Factor: Keeping Your Feet Warm

The first thing you’ll want to be aware of is the cold. Temperatures in Hokkaido can easily be in the negatives on most days during winter, and your feet can easily feel the cold.

To combat this, wearing thick socks or even several pairs of socks is ideal, however, these need to be able to fit into your shoes comfortably – which often means you’ll need to have shoes which are a size or two larger than you would normally wear. (You want enough room to be able to wiggle your toes freely)

If you don’t have adequate room in your shoes, trying to double-sock to keep your feet warm can be counter-productive. If your shoes are too tight they can restrict the circulation in your feet, which prevents the blood flow that is necessary to keep them warm.

I saw many locals wearing UGG boot slippers or similar. These kind of soft shoes are ideal if the snow is not slushy and wet because they have plenty of room inside and are also quite warm (assuming they don’t get wet).

Footwear of the locals on the subway. It varies greatly. The woman at the back left is wearing some traditional winter zori with toe covers; I’d even seen some women wearing high heels and have no idea how their toes did not freeze off.

You can also invest in “Kairo”, disposable heat packs/pocket warmers that are basically iron filings that rust and give out warmth in the process. Kairo are¬†generally available in all supermarkets and convenience stores and keep generating heat for around 20 hours or so – so if you have enough room in your shoes, you can slip a packet around your toes to help keep them warm.

Ice & Slippery Surfaces

Ice is one of the worst for transferring cold into your feet. Standing on a slab of ice quickly seeps up through the soles of your shoes and saps away any  little warmth that your feet may have been able to generate. Thick, non-conductive soles are best to counteract this.

If you buy winter shoes locally in Hokkaido, you’ll notice that they all have a similar kind of tread/grip pattern on the soles – one that’s good for providing some grip and traction on icy/snowy surfaces.

The special kind of tread pattern that works wonders on ice/snow to provide some grip. I even saw this used on the pointy heel part of some high heels.

If you can get shoes with a tread pattern similar to this, it will be the most effective, but it’s not 100% necessary as you can also get disposable/strap-on options from nearly all convenience stores, 100 yen stores, and supermarkets in the winter season. You can get these for under 1,000 yen easily.

These rubber bands can be bought with or without metal studs, and they simply stretch over your existing shoes to provide extra grip on snow/ice surfaces.
Studded band for grip on icy surfaces.
These spikes turn any normal shoes into something that can grip on ice and snow.

I myself ended up purchasing some specialized snow boots from the local AEON department store, which cost around 3,000 yen. I also bought them 2 size larger so I could wear thick socks with them.

Along with the normal snow/ice tread, they also had a metal spike that I could deploy when I wanted to.
The metal spike on the heel was operated by a hinge and can be folded out or put away easily.

Waterproofing

Ideally you want your shoes to be somewhat waterproof as well; because if snow starts to melt in the heat of the day, it gets slushy and wet. It’s not uncommon to be tramping around in up to 5cm of wet, cold slush.

Of course, if your shoes happen to get wet, if it’s below 0 degrees Centigrade out, then it’s very easy for your feet to get cold. So you want to avoid wet shoes if you can.

Powder snow isn’t so much of a problem as long as it doesn’t melt. If you can just brush it away before it melts, your shoes won’t tend to get wet.

Converse canvas sneakers in the snow. These were not warm enough and I had to stop in to convenience stores every 5 minutes or so to bring feeling back into my feet.

You can buy things like waterproofing sprays at 100 yen stores, but they’re probably not the best for the environment.

Summary: Features of a Good Winter Shoe

In conclusion, you have two options when coming on a winter holiday to Hokkaido for footwear:

  1. Make do with your best pair of footwear
    In this case, I’d recommend bringing a pair that meets the following criteria:
    -Plenty of toe room, even when wearing multiple pairs of socks
    -Thick sole to insulate against rising cold
    -Waterproof or somewhat water resistant material
    You also should be prepared to purchase some portable ice spikes for your shoes so that you won’t slip and fall over.
  2. Buy some winter shoes locally
    This is a decent option if you’re staying for a longer trip or have no existing footwear that seems even remotely suitable. Buying locally means you’re getting shoes with all of the right technology and they will be suited for the environment.

 

2 Replies to “What Kind Of Shoes To Wear In Hokkaido (Winter)”

    1. They were pretty cheap quality to be honest, made in China and fell apart a few months later. Still, worth the comfort while I was in Hokkaido!

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