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3-Day Model Trip Outline of the region

Hokkaido

3-Day Model Trip Outline of the region / Hokkaido / Hokkaido-Four Seasons of Exciting Enchantment

Hokkaido is "the other Japan." This northernmost of the archipelago's four main islands was a vast, nearly pristine wilderness until about 150 years ago. Even today there is a frontier feel to its more remote regions. City and countryside alike breathe a new air. Ancient tradition, like summer humidity, is less oppressive here. You travel elsewhere in Japan to relive the past. You come to Hokkaido to escape it.

A World Apart

And escape it you do. You feel it immediately on arrival in Sapporo, Hokkaido's largest city and the fifth largest in Japan. The first surprise to those familiar with the narrow winding lanes of other Japanese metropolises is the wide, straight, grid-patterned streets. Unlike cities with more ancient roots, Sapporo, built up in the late 1870s under American guidance, gives convenience its due. Even first-time visitors are unlikely to get hopelessly lost.
Find your way, then, to Odori Park, the grassy, flower-decked, fountain-adorned promenade that divides the city into its northern and southern halves. Located a few blocks south of Sapporo Station, it is one of many splendid parks and gardens scattered throughout the city. Two others of note are nearby Nakajima Park and, at the south edge of town, the sprawling Makomanai Park. They may not rank with some of the more celebrated of Japan's gardens, but on the other hand you don't have to pay to get in, there are no fences or keep-off-the-grass signs.

Or why not rent a bicycle and follow the Toyohira River as it weaves its lazy meandering path through the city and into the neighboring countryside? The cycling course skirting the river on each bank is a delightful escape from urban strain. Summers in Hokkaido are markedly cooler and less humid than they are down south; you can ride for hours without fatigue.
Sapporo nightlife is concentrated in Susukino, a little downtown enclave crammed to bursting with thousands of bars and restaurants employing no fewer than 25,000 people.

Yesteryear Preserved

Time to leave Sapporo. Before you get too far away, don't forget to drop in on Otaru, close enough to the bigger city to risk getting lost in its shadow.
Close, yes, but worlds apart in terms of atmosphere. Otaru is one of Hokkaido's few "historical" cities. But "history" here suggests something quite different from its sense in more traditional Japanese centers. Hundred-year-old bank buildings and stone warehouses, architecturally unique, are to Otaru what thousand-year-old shrines and temples are to Kyoto. Early in the century it was Otaru, not Sapporo, that stood at the forefront of Hokkaido's nascent economy, its port the hub of Japan's grain trade with Europe and Russia. By the mid-1930s, the boom was over. Commercial enterprise shifted to Sapporo. Today Otaru is a tourist town, living on memories symbolized by the tranquil canal that once bustled with cargo-laden barges and the warehouses, most converted into pubs and restaurants.
Otaru's history is both more modern and more ancient than Japanese history as a whole, for the city stands atop what thousands of years before was a thriving Jomon settlement. You'll see traces of it at the Otaru Museum opposite the canal. Better yet, make a side-trip to Oshoro in Otaru's western suburbs, there take in the mysterious Oshoro Stone Circle.
Astronomical observation post? Place of worship? Graveyard? Nobody knows. All you see is a raggedly circular arrangement of rocks, measuring 33 meters from north to south, 22 meters from east to west. It is the first, and so far the largest, artifact of its kind to be unearthed anywhere in Japan.

Historical Hakodate

The trip south to Hakodate calls for two leisurely stops. The first is the Ainu "village" at Shiraoi. For thousands of years before the mid-19th century influx of "mainland" Japanese settlers, the Ainu inhabited Hokkaido more or less undisturbed, hunting bear, fishing salmon, and worshipping the gods they saw in all living things. The bear was god of the mountain, the salmon god of the river, and so on. Their numbers now sadly reduced and their language all but extinct, surviving Ainu preserve what they can of their distinctive culture at aboriginal villages like Shiraoi.
The second stop is Noboribetsu, Hokkaido's largest hot spring and, in fact, the largest outpouring of hot mineral water in all Asia.
Hakodate has its own historical tale to tell: it was one of the first ports, along with Yokohama and Nagasaki, to be forcefully opened to foreign commerce. That was in 1859. The city has sported a cosmopolitan air ever since, most clearly visible today in the Old British Consulate, the Chinese Memorial Hall, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Trappistine Convent famous for its candy and butter.
Mt. Hakodate is only 335 meters high, and yet the summit, a World War II observation post, today affords a superb nighttime panorama of the city lights.
Don't leave without taking in the famous Hakodate Morning Market, open from 5:00 a.m. to noon every day except Sunday, a seeming chaos of fish, produce, dry goods, fast food, noise, and, so they say, some of the best prices anywhere in Japan.

Rugged Splendor

Eighty minutes by train northeast from Sapporo is Hokkaido's second largest city, Asahikawa. Now we are in the mountainous center of the island. Asahikawa is of interest to the traveler primarily as a staging point for expeditions to nearby Daisetsu-zan National Park, Japan's largest national park and "the roof of Hokkaido," its highest elevation 2,290 meters. The skiing season here continues on into June.
Towering above the landscape is Mt. Asahidake, a conical volcano which makes for a fine day's climb. The base is abloom with tiny mountain wildflowers. As you ascend, the conventional beauty gives way to a more forbidding kind: bubbling sulfur pools and naked rock. The faint rotten-egg smell of sulfur follows you up the peak, which, as often as not, is swathed in fog.
The southerly descent from Mt. Daisetsu-zan culminates in the broad Tokachi Plain, the heart of Hokkaido's dairy industry. It would be hard to imagine a more "un-Japanese" landscape. Herds of cows, a rare sight elsewhere in the archipelago, graze on vast farms up to 65 hectares in area. Compare that to the typical 0.8-hectare Honshu (the main island of Japan) farm.
Due east of Tokachi is the fishing port of Kushiro. The Kushiro Marshlands National Park extends northwards through flatlands along the Kushiro River, a haven for migrating birds and the winter habitat of Japanese red-crested cranes, designated Natural Monuments.They look the part, with their long legs, pointed bills, and black-and-white bodies crowned with a shock of scarlet head plumage. Forty years ago they were on the brink of extinction. Watch for them as you stroll the wooden walkways that twist and turn for kilometers through the reeds.

Earth's End

An hour's drive north of Kushiro brings you to Akan National Park and its three lakes, Akan, Kusharo and Mashu. Between Lake Kusharo and Lake Mashu smokes Mt. Io. Yes, it's a volcano, and yes, it's active. The whole park, in fact, is a cauldron of volcanic activity, past and present. Lake Akan was formed by an eruption of the now dormant Mount O-Akan eons ago. And in the center of Lake Mashu you'll notice the tip of the mostly submerged volcano called Kamuishu.
Lake Mashu is simultaneously one of the clearest and one of the most obscure lakes in the world. On a sunny day you can see to a depth of almost 40 meters. But mountain mists hang heavy here, and unless you're very lucky you'll find yourself looking down from the vantage point into swirls of fog.
From Lake Akan, head northeast to Shiretoko Peninsula. Shiretoko in the Ainu language means "earth's end" and that's exactly what it feels like. No roads lead to the interior of the peninsula. Trekkers making their way inland from the coastal roads should be aware that there are bears in those woods.