Japan's epic northern wilderness
It's a whole new world on the northern island of Hokkaido.
The northernmost and least developed of Japan’s main islands, Hokkaido is a vision of untamed, epic wilderness. It’s wild bears roaming in the deep green forests, hawks circling above crystal clear lakes and smoking craters, rugged shores and offshore islands within touching distance of Russia.
It’s also home to the Ainu, Japan’s indigenous population of hunter-gatherers who are fighting to maintain their way of life as globalization looms.
Heavy snowfall during the winter attracts skiers and snowboarders to the powder capital of Japan, Niseko, while mild summers see the mountains almost overrun with city-dwellers looking for relief from the muggy climate of the main island. There are National Parks galore; Shiretoko, a World Heritage site, and Daisetsuzan are the most popular.
Sapporo is the bustling capital city of Hokkaido. It’s actually Japan’s fifth largest city having grown from a population of seven people to approximately two million in just over one hundred years. The annual snow festival in February, which displays gravity-defying snow sculptures throughout the streets, and the famous Sapporo beer, have established the city as a tourist destination in its own right.
The harbor city of Hakodate, at the island’s southern tip, was one of the earliest cities in Japan to open to international trade and there’s some exceptional seafood to be had along its cosmopolitan streets. Smaller, but just as perfectly formed, Otaru is a canal-lined port city also famed for its food. Asahikawa, the second largest city in Hokkaido after Sapporo, is worth a visit for its exceptional zoo.
Hokkaido is world-famous for its seafood and fish, especially crab and sea-urchin, as well as being the main producer of the nation’s dairy. A Hokkaido dish will usually have some kind of dairy addition – ramen is served with a knob of butter – and outside of the island, you’ll notice that the most coveted dairy products are usually Hokkaido brand.
It wouldn’t be a Japanese natural landscape without the promise of hot springs. Head to Noboribetsu, Hokkaido’s most popular onsen retreat, for a spot of incredibly scenic R&R.