Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands, and its final frontier. It has a quarter of the country’s landmass, but only one twentieth of its population. Large sections of the island are national parks where foxes, deer and brown bears outnumber people. Visitors come during winter to ski, and during summer to camp, hike and soak in hot spring pools. Hokkaido provides an escape from modern Japan to an almost primordial time. Amidst volcanoes, geysers and ice flows visitors can experience the ancient, wild side of Japan.
Skiing and Snowboarding
Hokkaido’s winter weather is strongly influenced by the cold winds blowing in from Siberia. In Sapporo, the temperature regularly drops to -5°C, and further east, away from the ameliorating affects of the ocean, it gets as low as -30°C. The winters bring a lot of snow, and the big dumps of fluffy powder make the island’s ski resorts the best in Japan. Sapporo hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics, but until recently, Hokkaido’s excellent skiing and boarding was not well known outside of Japan.
There are large ski areas in the Furano, Rusutsu and Niseko. Although the resorts are not as big as many European ski hills, Hokkaido has a lot to offer both beginners and those who prefer the steep and deep.
Niseko Hirafu has 57 runs, 28 lifts and, with floodlit slopes, skiing and boarding continues long after the sun has gone down. The après-ski activities are subdued, but many of the hotels have their own onsen (hot spring pools) where you can sit and soak away the day’s aches and pains.
Abashiri Ice Flows
As a rule of thumb, ships that plow through icebergs are not going to last long. The high pitched squeal of the hull scraping the ice is usually followed by a loud crack as metal gives way. The Aurora, however, is not an ordinary boat. Throughout the winter, the icebreaker takes a tour from the port of Abashiri out into the ice flows covering the Sea of Okhotsk. While the Aurora crunches along, the passengers look out for seals, feed the gulls, and try not to think about the Titanic.
Legend says that Japanese cranes live for a thousand years and that the mere sight of them will bring longevity and prosperity. In fact, a pair of cranes used to be on the back of every 1000 Yen banknote. At the start of the 20th Century the birds themselves were on the verge of extinction. The situation has slowly improved due to protection of Hokkaido’s wetlands and local people providing food in winter. Today, more than 600 birds live in the Kushiro area.
These elegant black and white birds have a red patch on the tops of their heads and are highly photogenic. For most of the year, the cranes live amongst the tall reeds of the marshes and are difficult to observe. In winter, however, the birds move out onto the snow covered fields to search for food and to find a mate. Out in the open, pairs of birds begin to dance. Balancing on their spindly legs, the cranes raise their heads skywards and throw back their wings. The birds circle each other, their breath forming tiny clouds in the cold air. The dance continues with a series of bows, leaps, kicks and pecks.
This timeless ritual may be performed for fun, to assess social status, or even to enhance the pair-bond between mates. Many cranes remain paired for life, and the birds are regarded as symbols of marital happiness as well as longevity. On bridal kimonos it is not uncommon to see a pair of red-crested cranes captured mid-dance.
Sapporo Snow Festival – Yuki Matsuri
There is a 30ft tall T-Rex looming over a young Japanese family. It bares its teeth and beads of saliva hang from its lips. The T-Rex is not looking down, but out across the park toward Thomas the Tank Engine, and Pikachu. All three stand motionless, as they have done for the last week. But Pikachu’s creators are far more worried by the effects of the sun than any dinosaur. A brief warm spell could transform their work of art into an indistinguishable puddle.
Every year in early February, teams from around the world descend upon Odori Park in Sapporo with shovels, chainsaws and ice picks. Gigantic blocks of snow and ice are transformed into sculptures that range from delicate flowers to whales and entire buildings.
Toddlers career down near-frictionless ice slides while parents stand close by, videotaping the rite of passage for posterity. The weather is usually bitterly cold, but there is a steady supply of coffee and hot chocolate. If that doesn’t work, then the festival has 2 million spectators visitors can huddle between.
Dog Sled Competition
For the pampered pooches of Tokyo the toughest part of the day is deciding whether to wear the Gucci or Louis Vuitton collar. At dog sled competitions in Hokkaido there isn’t a Chihuahua, Toy Poodle or Bichon Frise in sight. The competing Huskies are big, strong, disciplined, and yearning to tear across the snow-covered hillside. Riding a dog sled is probably the closest man can get to actually running with the wolves.
The Japan Cup Dog Sled Competition is held in Wakkanai on the northern tip of the island. It takes place on the last weekend in February and entrants from throughout Japan come to compete. In some of the world’s harshest conditions the competition tests the teamwork between man and man’s best friend.
Spring and Summer Attractions
Volcanoes and Hot Springs
In March 2000, Mt. Usu was classified as a dormant volcano. Then it woke up. On the last day of the month, the volcano gave a deep earth-shaking growl and spat a cloud of black ash into the sky. The eruption continued for several days and was a clear reminder that Hokkaido is still geologically active.
Around Lake Toya there are several spa hotels where guests can bathe in the hot spring pools. Although the hotels were temporarily evacuated during the eruption they remain a popular destination for tourists seeking relief in the therapeutic waters.
Noboribetsu Spa is located on the southern coast of Hokkaido. As well as the spa hotels the area is popular with visitors who wish to enter Hell. Hell Valley is in fact the largest outpouring of hot mineral water in Asia. Visitors are given tea spoons so they can try a little of the steaming water. The slightly murky concoction tastes of vinegar with a bad egg aftertaste. It explains why people come here to bathe in the water rather than drink it. The pools in the valley itself are generally far too hot for people to relax in. The coolest ones leave you feeling cooked, while the hottest ones have been fenced off to protect people from the boiling water. The hotels, however, have a selection of pools that are fed by water from Hell. Unlike the natural pools they have a less painful range of temperatures and the sulfurous bad egg smell is not quite so noticeable.
Ainu – Hokkaido’s Indigenous People
The Ainu were the only inhabitants of Hokkaido, until the national government encouraged immigration from the Japanese mainland. Forestry by the new arrivals reduced the areas where the Ainu could hunt and brought diseases to which they had little resistance. Now, the Ainu are a minority group, but through festivals, parks and museums, they make sure their history is not forgotten.
The Ainu are physically different from mainland Japanese; they are shorter, more muscular and have more body hair. They have their own music and dances, which are often influenced by the animals and environment around them. Songs celebrate fishing or the hunt for bears, while other rituals such as the crane dance mimic the movement of the birds.
Near Shiraoi on Hokkaido’s southern coast is Poroto-Kotan Ainu Museum. Shiraoi was once one of the largest Ainu villages. Porto-Kotan remains a museum-cum-miniature theme park that hopes to educate both foreigners and Japanese about the traditions and culture of the Ainu people. It is an interesting look at a dying culture, but the caged bears may leave some visitors wondering if animal husbandry has fallen at the wayside of commercialization.
Six national parks, five quasi-national parks and twelve prefectural parks provide many opportunities for hikers. Fir, pine, beech, oak and larch cover the valleys and lower hills while the highest peaks remain capped with snow throughout the year.
Mt. Yotei is known to locals as Ezo Fuji or Hokkaido Fuji due to its conical shape. The mountain is close to Niseko and Lake Toya and during summer many visitors undergo the four or five hour hike from the parking lot up to the crater rim at 1,893 metres.
The crater of Mt. Tarumae near Lake Shikotsu is fenced off. The 1038m mountain is still an active volcano and although not presently erupting, fumes emanate from fumaroles inside the crater. It is possible to drive to just a few kilometers from the volcano’s summit and then hike for 40 minutes to the crater rim. You could also spend the whole day on the climb by starting out from the campsite at Lake Shikotsuko.
Daisetsuzan National Park is the largest National Park in Japan at 890 square miles. Mt. Asahidake is the park’s high point and at 2,290 metres is also northern Japan’s highest mountain. A cable car runs from Asahidake Spa at 1000m up to 1600m. It is then a moderate hike for two hours over broken rock and then snow to reach the summit. From the top you can hike around the edge of the Ohachidaira Cauldron before returning via Sugatami Pond to the cable car. Another option from the summit is to press onward to Mt. Hokkaidake (2,149m) then Mt. Kurodake (1,984m). Not far from the summit of Kurodake, a chairlift and then cable car can take you all the way down to Sounkyo Spa on the otherside of the national park.
The Yosakoi Soran Festival is held in Sapporo every year in mid-August. It is a celebration of dance that combines the traditions of the Yosakoi Festival of Kochi Prefecture and the Soran folk music of Hokkaido. The dancers are grouped in teams which can be made up of hundreds of people. Each team has its own costume and unique ensemble dance number. Some of the dances are held on giant stages while others spread out across Odori Park.
Unlike winter, when Furano has a thick layer of snow, summer sees the grassy slopes covered with purple lavender, and red poppies. In July the area has a flower festival where everything from Kitty-chan dolls to the ice cream is colored purple and scented with lavender.
When to go
Most of the ski resorts are open in early December and don’t close until the end of April. Sapporo snow festival is usually in the first week of February. The dog sled competition is held during the last week of February. The red-crested cranes are out in the open during January and February.
Unlike the rest of Japan, Hokkaido does not have a rainy season. The summers are also much drier and cooler than in mainland Japan where the high humidity can become oppressive. June, July and August are the perfect time to camp, kayak and hike in Hokkaido. Sapporo’s Yosakoi Soran Festival is held in mid-August while Furano’s flowers are in full bloom during July.
International and domestic flights land at Chitose Airport about 30 km southeast of Sapporo. Tokyo to Sapporo is one of the world’s busiest air routes. There are regular trains that connect the airport with the city centre in around 40 minutes.
Hokkaido, like the rest of Japan, has a comprehensive rail system. In winter when the roads are covered in a thick layer of snow and ice, trains are by far the fastest, most reliable and safest way to get around. Ski buses run from Sapporo and Otaru all the way to the resort’s ticket offices.
In summer, however, if you want to hike, camp or explore the more remote parts of the island a car is invaluable. There are several rent-a-car agencies, but you will need an international driver’s license. Except for central Sapporo, the roads tend not to be crowded. One thing to remember, however, is that Hokkaido is big, and with a 50kph speed limit on rural roads and 80kph limit on the expressways it may take a while to get to your destination.
Sapporo has its own subway system that connects the main railway station with other sightseeing areas like Odori Park, Suskino and the Botanical Gardens. The city also has a modern grid based street system making it the easiest of Japan’s cities to find your way around.
Where to stay
Sapporo is Japan’s fifth largest city and has a wide range of accommodation, from hostels through to 5-star hotels. Otaru is a small port town, 30 minutes west of Sapporo and serves as a good base for exploring the Niseko and Toya areas.
Camping on beaches and lakeshores is not a problem. There are also 350 official camp sites which have facilities ranging from a single faucet all the way up to hot showers, log cabins and convenience stores.