If the southern islands of Okinawa represent Japan’s tropical paradise, Hokkaido is its rugged wilderness. There are a multitude of reasons to visit Japan’s northernmost island: its exhilarating array of outdoor activities, its distinctive history and its phenomenal food being a very fine few…
One thing you may quickly notice about the urban side of Hokkaido is the unshakable sense of newness. That’s because, compared to Japan’s other main islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, the expansion into Hokkaido happened far later – well into the 19th century. This explains why cities like Sapporo (covered separately in Explore Japan! Sapporo) are efficiently laid out in a modern, grid like system.
But the nuances don’t end there. Up here in Hokkaido you’re more likely to find prairies over rice paddies, roaming brown bears over tanuki and endless forests teeming with wildlife over the heavy industrialisation of Honshu. The seasons work differently here too; winter brings Siberian winds that dump down tonnes of snow each year, whilst the summer months are pleasantly warm as compared to the stifling humidity felt further south in Japan.
This is the place to break from the intensity of life in the heaving metropolis, strap on a good pair of hiking boots and reconnect with nature. Here are our Hokkaido highlights:
To many, Hokkaido means one thing: winter sports. And if it’s winter sports you’re looking for, you can’t do much better than Niseko. This expansive resort comprises of four different interconnected areas and offers some of the best powder skiing on earth. Don’t be surprised if you hear an antipodean accent when chilling on the chair lift – Niseko is one of the most popular areas for Aussie ski and snowboard enthusiasts. But this is still very much Japan, so expect restaurants serving ramen and katsu curry on the pistes, J-pop blasting out of the ski lifts and apres ski in the form of a relaxing bathe in an onsen hot spring. Ski holidays don’t get much better than this.
The chocolate-box pretty town of Otaru is a popular domestic tourist destination thanks to its good transport links with Sapporo. Offering an altogether calmer activity than hurtling down the slopes of Niseko, strolling alongside the canal reflecting the glowing beacons of the gas lamps is a hypnotically tranquil and memorable experience. If that’s not enough, Otaru has some of the freshest, best quality sushi and sashimi in the whole of Hokkaido and even Japan. You’ll have to pay generously for the privilege but we assure you it’s worth it.
This spectacular little town is appealing at any time of year but particularly in autumn, when a wave of fiery colour washes over the valley. Whilst this offers some beautiful hiking opportunities, the primary draw here bubbles up from beneath the earth. As a hot spring town, Jozankei boasts an ample supply of ryokan offering a therapeutic and relaxing onsen bathing opportunity. To brush up on your onsen etiquette, check out our blog post.
Often overlooked historically, the Ainu are a group of peoples indigenous to Hokkaido and maintain their own distinct culture, language and ethnicity. Whilst the mass movement of Japanese to the island meant many Ainu were incorporated into new urban communities, it is still possible to connect with the unique and fascinating Ainu culture in places throughout Hokkaido. A particularly good way to do this is to pay a visit to one of the important Ainu festivals, such as The Yukar, a series of epic poetry performances and plays held throughout the summer months.
The winters in Hokkaido are notoriously cold and dark, which makes the warmth of summer extra special for the island’s residents. In fact, as the weather becomes pleasantly warm but not stiflingly humid as it is further south, Hokkaido becomes a popular domestic tourist destination in the summer months. The enormous Lake Toya is a great place to come and experience the warmer months Hokkaido style, with lakeside camping, swimming, fishing and hiking abound. Just watch out for the bears. (Seriously).
Kushiro Fog Festival
Whilst it might not have the same innate aesthetic appeal as freshly fallen snow or the life giving power of golden sunshine, we think its about time fog got its own special recognition. Luckily, the people of the little town of Kushiro agree and celebrate their annual abundance of the stuff every summer, with an outrageous laser show set to music. If you’re a fog fan, this should be right at the top of the list.
Hokkaido Food & Drink
As food obsessed as we are here at Japan Centre, we couldn’t leave off the abundance of exquisite cuisine on offer up here. By and large, seafood is a safe bet here – Hokkaido is renowned throughout Japan for offering some of the freshest seafood dishes in the country. If you have the opportunity to order snow crab, take it!
As you might expect for a land with such extreme winters, ramen and soup dishes are a popular way of keeping warm, and miso ramen is one of the regional specialties. Hokkaido also has a massive dairy industry is famous throughout Japan for producing rich milk and butter. And of course with one of the top breweries situated in the prefectual capital, you’re never far away from a refreshing Sapporo draft beer to wash down another phenomenal dish.
As Japan’s largest prefecture, Hokkaido truly represents adventure. And with picture perfect towns, quirky festivals, an abundance of outdoor activities, striking seasonal variations, steaming hot springs soaring up throughout the land and some of the country’s very best cuisine to keep you going strong, Hokkaido should be top of the list for the adventurous spirit.