the northernmost of Japan's four major islands, is considered Japan's last frontier.
Originally inhabited by an indigenous group of people called the Ainu, it didn't
become colonized by the Japanese until after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Hokkaido
is marked by vast virgin forests, mountain ranges, gorges, sparkling caldera lakes,
wild flowers, and wide, open pastures. It's home to a variety of wildlife, from
Hokkaido brown bears to red-crested cranes.
Although Hokkaido is Japan's second-largest island and accounts for one-fifth of Japan's total land space, it's home to only some 5.7 million people, about 5% of Japan's total population. The island's mild summer climate attracts visitors in search of unspoiled natural beauty, much of it preserved in national parks. And while winters can be severe, cold weather doesn't deter those interested in skiing Hokkaido's many snowy peaks or seeing Sapporo's famous Snow Festival.
Sapporo and Vicinity
Sapporo, with a population of 1.9 million, is the capital of Hokkaido and serves as the island's cultural, economic and political center. One of Japan's newest cities, it was established in the 1870s as part of Hokkaido's colonization and is laid out in checkerboard fashion that makes navigation a snap, even for overseas visitors.
Tanukikoji and Susukino are Sapporo's main shopping and nightlife districts. Tanukikoji is a covered shopping arcade with 300 chic boutiques, stores and restaurants on both sides of the kilometer-long passage. Susukino is Sapporo's main nightlife district with many restaurants and bars.
Odori Koen Promenade is the heart of Sapporo, a 105-meter-wide (344 feet) parkway stretching 1.5 km (almost a mile) from east to west and decorated with flowers, fountains and trees. In winter it hosts the world-renowned Snow Festival, held here annually in February and featuring more than 300 fantastically carved ice and snow sculptures, while in summer it's the venue of the Sapporo Summer Festival with beer gardens and live music. Underneath the promenade is one of Japan's largest underground shopping arcades, with 150-some restaurants and shops.
Clock Tower Building, just one block from Odori Koen Promenade, is Sapporo's most recognized landmark. The Western-style wooden building was constructed in 1878 as a drill house for the Sapporo Agricultural College (now called Hokkaido University) and houses a museum of local history. The clock, made in Boston and installed in 1881, still draws crowds for its hourly chimes.
The Botanical Gardens of Hokkaido University contain some virgin forest and approximately 4,000 species of local and imported plants, including medicinal and edible plants once used by the native Ainu population. The gardens contain Japan's oldest natural science museum, as well as a small Ainu museum with displays of traditional clothing, farming implements, harpoons and other utensils. The gardens and its museums are open from late April to the end of October.
Sapporo Beer Museum chronicles the history of one of Japan's most famous breweries, with guided tours that include free samples. There's also a popular beer garden and restaurant here.
Nopporo Forest Park, located outside Sapporo, is the home of the excellent Historical Museum of Hokkaido with displays of the island's development, as well as of the Historical Village of Hokkaido, an open-air museum with more than 60 Japanese- and Western-style buildings dating mostly from the turn-of-the-19th century, including homes, a post office, police box and small businesses ranging from a barbershop to a sleigh factory.
Mt. Moiwa attracts picnickers on sunny summer days, while in winter it offers good skiing with excellent facilities.
Jozankei Spa, not far from Sapporo, is a popular hot-spring resort featuring magnificent scenery of gorges and ravines.
Chitose, location of New Chitose Airport and serving as the gateway to Hokkaido, is also known as the city of salmon and beer, due to the Chitose Salmon Aquarium and the Hokkaido Brewery featuring Sapporo Beer.
Shikotsu-Toya National Park
Shikotsu-Toya National Park is the closest national park to Sapporo, giving it quick and easy access via railway and bus. Known for its volcanoes, caldera lakes and hot springs, it can be divided into three sections: Lake Toya with its lakeside hot-spring resort, Lake Shikotsu and Noboribetsu Spa.
Lake Shikotsu is a beautiful caldera lake tucked between soaring cliffs. Its deep-blue waters never freeze and can be traversed on sightseeing boats from April to October.
Ainu Village at Shiraoi is a re-created Ainu village on the shores of Lake Poroto, with homes and other buildings constructed in the original native style. Demonstrations of Ainu weaving techniques, woodworking, dance and other activities give visitors the chance to learn more about Hokkaido's indigenous Ainu, as does the museum with its displays relating to Ainu history, culture and traditions.
Noboribetsu Spa ranks as one of the most popular—if not the most popular—spa towns in Hokkaido. Nestled in a virgin forest and marked at one end by Jigokudani, a huge volcanic crater with columns of rising steam and boiling water, it boasts many Japanese-style inns of all price ranges. Nearby are Edo Wonderland Noboribetsu, a theme park based on the Edo Period with Ninja demonstrations and other amusements, and Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe, a combination Danish theme park and aquarium.
Lake Toya is the glittering jewel of the national park, a caldera lake surrounded on all sides by wooded hills and with several islets at its center. Sightseeing boats are the most popular way to explore the lake. Hugging its shores is thriving Toyako Spa, one of the largest spa resorts in Hokkaido. Its many inns and hotels boast picturesque views of the lake, with graceful Mt. Yotei in the background.
Mt. Showa Shinzan is an active volcano rising south of Toyako Spa. Geologically speaking, it's a newborn, arising only six decades ago when a series of violent earthquakes shook the area and let loose streams of lava which turned a flat farm field into a fledgling volcano over a course of two years. It still spouts billowing clouds of steam, with an observation area providing a closeup view and a museum documenting the volcano's birth.
Hakodate and Vicinity
the southern gateway to Hokkaido if arriving by train, was one of Japan's first
ports opened to international trade following the isolationist Edo Period. It
still boasts an attractive brick warehouse district, now renovated into shops
and restaurants, and the historic Motomachi district with its turn-of-the-19th-century
Western-style clapboard buildings. Two things all visitors should do is visit
the Asa-ichi, a bustling morning market held every day except Sunday May to September
and famous for hairy crabs, and ride the cable car to the peak of Mt. Hakodate,
known all over Japan for its night views over the city and considered one of the
Onuma Quasi-National Park is one of the most scenic lake resorts in southern Hokkaido and attracts vacationers year-round with activities like boating, hiking, camping, skiing, skating and fishing.
Niseko, 2 hrs. 30 min. by express train from Sapporo, is a high plateau formed by the Niseko Mountain Range and offers panoramic views via sightseeing buses that go as high as 800 m (2,640 feet) above sea level. Winter draws skiers, while summer brings hikers, all of whom find relaxation in spa resorts like Niseko, Kombu and Yumoto.
Otaru, 35 min. by express train from Sapporo, is a lively port town on Hokkaido's west coast and is known as a city of canals and glassblowers. Old-fashioned buildings lining the canals now house shops selling glass, museums and fashionable restaurants popular for their seafood.
Daisetsuzan National Park
Daisetsuzan National Park, the largest of Japan's national parks, owes its popularity to striking scenery, from soaring mountains covered with virgin forests of fir and beech and a profusion of wild flowers, to gorges and ravines carved by the rushing waters of the great Ishikari River. Charming mountain spas like Sounkyo, Shirogane, Yukomambetsu and Shikaribetsu make good bases for exploring this natural wonderland.
Asahiyama Zoo, 35min. by bus from the Asahikawa airport, or 40 min. from JR Asahikawa Sta. is the one of the most popular zoo in Japan.
Here, visitors enjoy watching animals very close at hand.
Sounkyo Gorge is the most spectacular of the many gorges in the Daisetsu Mountains, flanked on both sides by cliffs rising 200 m. (660 feet) high and extending 24 km (14 miles). Waterfalls cascade down cliffs, joining a river that rushes through the gorge. Sounkyo Spa is the sightseeing base for the gorge (rental bikes are available) and the Daisetsu Mountains.
Furano, 2 hrs. 15 min. by express train from Sapporo via Takikawa, or 1 hr. 20 min. from Asahikawa Station, is located in the middle of the Furano Basin, where a fertile soil nourishes vegetables cultivated in wide-open fields typical of Hokkaido. Mid-July is the most popular time for a visit, when blooming lavender paints the region in hues of purple. Furano, noted for its Furano Wine, is also good for exploring parts of the Daisetsuzan National Park such as Biei, famous for its scenic views, and Shirogane Spa, 35 min. by bus from Biei Station. Both Furano and Biei stations are on JR's Furano Line, which links Asahikawa and Furano.
Akan National Park
Akan National Park encompasses grand volcanic scenery that gives it the worldwide reputation it deserves. Almost the entire park is comprised of composite volcanoes and vast stretches of virgin forest. The park boasts three major lakes: Akan, famous for its spherical marimo algae and for fishing—including ice fishing in winter—and ice skating; Mashu, one of Japan's most pristine lakes; and Kussharo, with hot springs right on the beach.
Abashiri and Shiretoko
Abashiri Quasi-National Park extends along the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk and includes both small and large lakes. Abashiri is the largest city on the coast and thrives as a fishing and an agricultural center. A highlight of the park includes wild flowers blooming amidst seashore sand dunes and in swamps. In winter, the Sea of Okhotsk freezes into a plain of ice floes as far as the eye can see, making it one of Hokkaido's favorite haunts for photographers and for those wishing to view the spectacle aboard tour boats from mid-January to the end of March.
Shiretoko National Park covers the scenic Shiretoko Peninsula. The area was listed World Heritage site for the irreplaceable value of the peninsula's ecosystem and biodiversity. Its charms include a rich variety of alpine plants and birds, small mountain lakes nestled in the forests, a picturesque hiking trail snaking the shores of Shiretoko Five Lakes, rustic open-air hot-spring baths, and sea-eroded cliffs soaring hundreds of meters high, laced with splendid, cascading waterfalls.
Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park
Wakkanai, Japan's northernmost tourist destination, is the gateway to this national park, which includes the Sarobetsu Natural Flower Gardens and Rishiri and Rebun Islands. Sarobetsu Flower Gardens (Sarobetsu Gensei Kaen), which lies in the center of the vast Sarobetsu Plain, is a riot of blooming alpine and marsh plants in June and July, transforming the entire area into a carpet of flowering mosaics. Rishiri Island is a round volcanic island with the graceful contours of Mt. Rishiri at its core, while Rebun Island, which at 10 km (6.2 miles) north of Rishiri is the northernmost island of Japan, is called the "island of flowers" due to more than 300 species of alpine plants, some of them found only here.