Hokkaido is often considered by the Japanese to be the country’s last frontier. Unlike Japan’s other islands, it is a place of expansive vistas and untouched wilderness. While it’s the second largest of Japan’s islands, less than 5 percent of the population lives there, including most of the country’s remaining indigenous inhabitants, the Ainu. For foreign and Japanese travelers alike, Hokkaido offers an enticing range of riches that manifest a rarely seen side of Japan. Here are ten top things to do and see on the island.
Hot Spring Heaven
Photograph by Iain Masterton, Alamy
Hokkaido offers a seductive spectrum of onsen, or hot spring baths, with both lavish facilities in luxurious modern resorts and simple hot spring pools deep in the mountains. Every onsen-phile has their favorite, but two in particular appeal to me. If you like the idea of lounging in hot spring splendor looking directly onto a gorgeous lake, grab your tiny towel—remember, that’s all you’re allowed to bring into the bath!—and head for Marukoma Onsen Ryokan, located right on Lake Shikotsu in western Hokkaido. If views of greenery are more enticing, Yawaraginosato Hoheikyo Onsen, about an hour from Sapporo, is set among hills that are green in spring, summer, and fall and white with snow in winter. You’ll find three rotenburo—outdoor hot spring baths—all with exceptional views, and renowned for the mineral-rich spring water that flows in from the surrounding mountains.
By Don George, @don_george
Photograph by Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters
Renowned worldwide, Sapporo’s Yuki Matsuri, or Snow Festival, transforms the prefectural capital for a week every February. The focus of the festival is on hundreds of fantastical snow sculptures, many depicting monuments, temples, cartoon characters, and sports and entertainment celebrities, which are displayed in three venues. The festival began as a schoolchildren’s activity in 1950, but it captured the world’s imagination in 1972, when the Sapporo Winter Olympics shone an international spotlight on the snow spectacle. As the festival has grown, other forms of entertainment have been added, including concerts, food stalls, art exhibitions, and areas for ice-skating, ice-sliding, snow-tubing, and snowmobiling. More than two million visitors attend the festival every year, so you’ll need to make lodging reservations well in advance. Alternatively, you may want to visit Sapporo a few weeks before the festival, when you can see the sculptures as they are being created, and enjoy the city’s many other attractions—including its Historical Village and Beer Museum—without sharing the streets with a million new friends.
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Seafood occupies pride of place on the Hokkaido menu, and virtually wherever you go on the island you’ll be able to taste the spectacular seafood that comes from the island’s cold, plankton-rich waters. Palate-pleasing specialties include crab, squid, scallops, and salmon. For an unforgettable dining experience, visit the historic, canal-graced port of Otaru and choose an eatery on Sushiya-dori, literally “Sushi Shop Street.” Take a seat and order a kaisen donburi—a fresh seafood rice bowl. You can specify the seafood of your choice, but if you’re like me, you’ll order sake, ikura, and uni. Soon a generous bowl will appear, heaped with fresh-from-the-sea salmon sashimi, salmon roe, and sea urchin, all arranged atop a mound of rice. After you dive in, you’ll swear you’ve dined and gone to heaven.
Bright Lights, Big City
Photograph by SeanPavonePhoto
Located near the southern tip of Hokkaido, Hakodate is a compact and atmospheric port with a cosmopolitan air. Hakodate’s Western-style wooden buildings and brick churches were built by the small international community that settled here after the Kanagawa Treaty of 1854, which made the city one of the first Japanese ports to open to international trade. History buffs flock to Goryokaku, the first Western-style fortress in Japan. Goryokaku was built in 1864 in the shape of a five-pointed star, designed to snare attackers in a web of crossfire. The fort itself has fallen victim to time, but thanks to its moat and meticulously landscaped grounds it remains a popular attraction, particularly in spring when more than a thousand cherry trees bloom into a pink cloud. The nighttime view of the city from Mount Hakodate—considered by many Japanese to be the city’s number one highlight—is a shimmering constellation of lights framed by black-water bays on two sides.
See and Ski
Photograph by Gabe Rogel, Aurora Photos
Furano is a small town—population: 24,000—with a big reputation. In winter, it’s known as one of Japan’s top downhill and cross-country skiing destinations, famed for its exceptionally powdery snow. In summer, Furano is known for its rolling fields of fabulously colored flowers, which draw visitors from throughout Japan. July is the most popular month here, when the fields transform into a redolent sea of purple lavender. The must-see stop is Farm Tomita, which offers tractor-drawn rides through its acres of lavender and sells lavender-infused products in its gift shop and café, including lavender ice cream and pudding. As the seasons change, other bright blossoms ribbon the fields in orange, red, yellow, green, and white, creating a stunningly photogenic sight.
Into the Wild
Photograph by Jochen Schlenker, Corbis
More than two million acres on Hokkaido—10 percent of the island’s total land mass—is dedicated to national parkland. You can enjoy mountains, lakes, volcanoes, waterfalls, and forests throughout the island, with excellent hiking, skiing, canoeing, and fishing. But if you really want to get off the beaten path, head for Shiretoko National Park. Shiretoko is a peninsula located at the northeastern tip of Hokkaido; its name in Ainu means "the end of the world.” UNESCO has called it “one of the richest integrated ecosystems in the world,” and in 2005, designated it as a World Heritage site. The 95,000-acre national park is open year-round, but the prime hiking season is June through September. Waterfalls and hot springs abound here, as does a rich variety of wildlife, including brown bears, sika deer, foxes, and Steller’s sea-eagles. The most epic hikes lead across the volcanic backbone of the peninsula, but gentler routes are also rewarding, and even a few hours in this pristine wilderness will send your soul soaring.
Singing the Brews
Photograph by Tomohiro Ohsumi, Bloomberg/Getty Images
Now the most popular alcoholic beverage in Japan, beer was introduced to Japan from Germany in the late 1860s at the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, when Japanese culture was flung open to Western products and perspectives. Sapporo Beer, the oldest beer brand in Japan, was first brewed in Sapporo in 1876 by a German-trained Japanese brewer named Seibei Nakagawa. Today a shopping complex called the Sapporo Factory occupies the site of the original brewery, but just a few minutes away, the Sapporo Beer Museum, run by the Sapporo Brewing Company, offers a free guided tour that covers the history and brewing of beer in Hokkaido; as a bonus, after the tour, you can taste all the beer you want for 30 minutes for a nominal fee. And if 30 minutes isn’t enough, you can adjourn to the adjoining beer garden, where frosty pints will be poured for as long as you please. Kanpai!
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Much of Hokkaido’s mountainous terrain is bear country, and the island’s brown bears, called higuma, are larger than the Asiatic black bears of southern Japan and just as aggressive. If you’re hiking, be sure to carry bear bells or bear spray. Keep your food outside of your tent if you’re camping; hang it from trees or store it in a bear-proof box. Higuma have likely inhabited the island at least as long as humans, and they play an important role in the world of the Ainu both as food and as nature spirits to be worshipped. To appreciate these awe-inspiring creatures up close, the best option is the Sahoro Resort’s Bear Mountain, in the central Hokkaido town of Shintoku, which offers two bear-viewing options: You can watch the enclosed, 40-acre reserve’s resident bears from a walkway, or ride in a heavily fortified bus on a one-hour tour. As the higuma can grow to be 900 pounds, this is definitely the recommended way to encounter these Hokkaido treasures.
Photograph by De Agostini, W. Buss/Getty Images
Distinct in appearance, language, and custom, the Ainu are thought by most scholars to have originally settled in northern Honshu, Sakhalin Island, and the Kuril Islands as well as Hokkaido. Today the remaining 24,000 Ainu are largely concentrated in Hokkaido, where the culture has experienced something of a resurgence in recent years. Three exemplary places to learn about Ainu culture and traditions are the villages of Poroto Kotan, Nibutani, and Ainu Kotan. Located in Shiraoi, on the south coast of western Hokkaido, Poroto Kotan features a number of traditional thatched-roof Ainu buildings, which house demonstrations of Ainu crafts and cultural performances. In Nibutani, in the south-central part of the island, the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum displays more than 10,000 items—such as clothing, utensils, and hunting equipment—that illuminate everyday Ainu life. On the shores of Lake Akan, in eastern Hokkaido, Ainu Kotan is a village where some 200 Ainu live. Here visitors can admire traditional creations, including musical instruments such as the mukkuri (a kind of mouth harp) and the zither-like tonkori, and experience the Ainu’s haunting songs and dances celebrating nature.
The Past Recaptured
Photograph by Paul Dymond, Alamy
The Historic Village of Hokkaido, about a 15-minute bus ride from downtown Sapporo, showcases 60 buildings (and a few replicas) that date from the mid 19th to early 20th centuries, when large-scale immigration and development transformed the island. The site is designed to illustrate everyday life in four communities: a town, fishing village, farm village, and mountain village. Strolling the town streets—peering into a newspaper office and post office, checking out the blacksmith shop, barbershop, and inn—gives a good sense of what life must have been like for Hokkaido’s hardy pioneers. The farming, fishing, and mountain villages are equally fascinating. There is the dairy barn that was scrupulously built to 19th century American standards, the stark woodcutter’s hut, and the herring fisher’s home, where clothing and futons are neatly folded, as if awaiting their owners’ return.
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