Once you escape the major cities, Japan can be an adventurer’s dream. In winter, the great northern island of Hokkaido is renowned for its world-class ski resorts—but for the rest of the year it’s Japan’s best-kept secret. Rugged, beautiful and far less populous than Japan’s three other major islands, Hokkaido sports everything from gorgeous blue caldera lakes to ancient forests and majestic mountains, many of which are still untouched by human industry.
If you’re after something outdoorsy and unforgettable that isn’t typical of the rest of Japan — while also being substantially cooler in the summer months — look no further than Hokkaido in the green season.
Culture and Tradition
The Ainu People
Hokkaido has a history distinct from the rest of Japan owing to its geographical separateness. The culture and traditions of Hokkaido’s indigenous people, the Ainu, are on display at various museums throughout the region such as Lake Akan Ainu Kotan and Shiraoi Porotokotan.
Ainu culture is reverent towards nature, with some of their main deities being the gods of fire, water, wind and thunder. Singing and dancing is an important element of the culture, usually led by women, and there are several Ainu festivals between May and October for travellers to enjoy the traditional food and celebrations.
If you’ve come to Hokkaido by train, a great first port of call is Mt Hakodate—situated on the peninsula at the southern end of Hokkaido and boasting one of the best night views in Japan. Take the Hakodateyama Ropeway from the Motomachi district up the 334-metre tall mountain, where day or night the panorama from the observation platform is spectacular.
Daisetsuzan National Park
Hokkaido contains Japan’s largest and least-tamed national park, the magnificent Daisetsuzan (‘Big Snow Mountain’). Its 2300 square kilometre expanse is replete with volcanic peaks, alpine meadows, deer and brown bears as well as other wild flora and fauna.
Two of the park’s volcanic peaks are active and linked by the 55km Great Traverse walking track, a hike both thrilling and relaxing that can usually be accomplished in 5-7 days. Though it’s close to inhospitable in winter, Daisetsuzan National Park blooms with fields of wildflowers in the other parts of the year, especially in June and July. A particularly special view of them can be found at Midori-dake. Simply put, this vast national park is a hiker’s paradise, with plenty of beauty and reward for everyone else too.
Not far from the centre of Hokkaido is the one-kilometre-high Unkai Terrace, where early risers can stand above a ‘sea of clouds’ stretching to the horizon after a cable-car journey from Tomamu. Grab a dawn coffee and witness one of the most extraordinary natural sights in all of Japan (or possibly even the world).
Biei-cho is a tiny village on the train line near Furano in central Hokkaido, and not far from Ashikawa Airport. It’s renowned for both its gloriously colourful wildflowers and its picturesque man-made Blue Pond, either of which would make it essential by themselves.
Travellers can hire buggies or quad bikes from some of the farms, or get a lift on tractor-pulled wagons to take in the landscape up close, or even to race around the fields and country lanes; Biei-cho is not just for flower enthusiasts but for anyone who gravitates to untrammeled natural beauty.
Less formidable than some of the wild national parks is the Kushiro Wetlands in the east of Hokkaido, where you can hire canoes and venture into the largest wetlands in Japan. Wildlife here can include eagles, the rare red-crowned cranes and deer, as well as some rarer species providing an unparalleled treat for travellers who are keen to see the extent of Hokkaido’s great outdoors.
The UNESCO World Heritage listed Shiretoko Peninsula in eastern Hokkaido juts out into the Sea of Okhotsk. The whole area is a designated national park and is considered one of the last unexplored regions of Japan. Visitors can take a boat out to view the island’s famous brown bears, or take a leisurely walk through the Shiretoko Five Lakes area.
Fish and shellfish thrive in the waters around Hokkaido, meaning that the whole island is a premier location for seafood. As well as salmon, crabs, prawns and scallops, Hokkaido local specialties include squid, sea urchin, oysters and smelt.
A simple but delicious meal, the Jingisukan or ‘Genghis Khan’ is a dish of barbecued mutton and vegetables with soy sauce which is usually cooked with a grill right on the table. It is often known as the soul-food of Hokkaido and it’s easy to see why.
As elsewhere in Japan, ramen is extremely popular in Hokkaido. Different areas of the island have different specialties, from Hakodate’s salt-based broths to Asahikawa’s soy broths. The Susukino area of Sapporo is home to Ramen Yokocho (Ramen Alley) and attracts enthusiasts from all around the country. The Sapporo speciality, miso ramen, is a must-try.
IHG have hotels in Chitose-shi, Sapporo and the east coast’s Kushiro, each providing international comfort as well as local flair. Depending on what direction your jaunt in Hokkaido takes, any of these would serve well as a temporary base from which to further explore the stunning landscape of the coast – and the interior.
There are several ways to get to Hokkaido from Tokyo.
BY AIR – New Chitose Airport is 1 hour and 35 minutes from Haneda Airport, with 52 flights every day.
BY TRAIN – It’s a 1 hour train ride from Shin-Aomori to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto, the gateway to southern Hokkaido via JR Hokkaido Shinkansen. From Tokyo, the trip is just over 4 hours. It’s another 3.5 hours from Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto to Sapporo by JR Limited Express train.
BY CAR – Hokkaido is a great place to drive during the green season as roads are wider and traffic lighter. Remember to buy an International Driving Permit before you leave your home country.
GETTING AROUND – There are 12 domestic airports in Hokkaido with many flights daily between them; more affordably, trains and buses also connect all of the island’s major cities. A Hokkaido Rail Pass is available via JR Hokkaido. Meanwhile the smaller islands around Hokkaido are mostly accessible by ferry.
HOKKAIDO RAIL PASS
Ride all JR Hokkaido trains (excluding the Hokkaido Shinkansen) within the valid period. Available in consecutive 3, 5 and 7 day passes, or a flexible 4 day pass. Prices start at 16,500 yen. Read more,
JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass
This pass is recommended for travellers wishing to explore the JR East area, which incorporates Tokyo, Tohoku and surrounds. It also includes the journey between Tokyo and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto on the Shinkansen as well as unlimited train travel within Hokkaido. Available as a flexible 6 day pass, for any 6 days during a 14 day travel period. Read more.
HOKKAIDO EXPRESSWAY PASS
The Hokkaido Expressway Pass provides rental car drivers unlimited use of expressways for a flat daily fee. Available from 2-14 day pass types.