Hokkaido

Hokkaido, Japan: The northernmost of Japan's islands remains a mystery to many. Indeed, its history can be considered paradoxical, mirroring traditional settler nations rather than the centuries-long tussle of emperors and shogunates that defines Honshu, the main island of Japan. Therefore, while Hokkaido's modern history can be traced back to its incorporation into Japan in 1869, the island was home to and cultivated by the indigenous Ainu for hundreds of years prior.

Thus, here you will find unspoiled ancestral land rather than temples and shrines. Of course, 150-plus years of fast-tracked development have made especially the capital Sapporo a modern and cosmopolitan beacon rivaling its cousins, such as Tokyo, Osaka or Hiroshima. And yes, getting lost in the streets of the city's Susukino nightlife hub, awash with revelers under the buzzing neon nights, will remind you that this is still very much 21st century Japan.

However, once you begin your journey and venture beyond the capital, the change in scenery is rapid and dramatic. While the center of Japan's industry stretching from Tokyo over Nagoya and Kyoto to Osaka (also featuring the country's most famous tourism destinations and thus known as the "Golden Route") oftentimes features seemingly endless swaths of suburbia, Hokkaido's landscape quickly transforms into a vivid natural spectacle. The island's population density is 100 times less than that of Tokyo, a fact that will become all too clear if you spend any time at all traversing its vastness.

Hokkaido pic water

Though Hokkaido's charms have led to its popularity increasing both as a destination for seasonal bouts (think hiking, skiing or rafting) or as a more permanent recluse for disillusioned Japanese city dwellers, its oftentimes romanticized atmosphere of uninhibited wildness still exists to this day. The islands mysticism can preclude a true description of what it has to offer. In Japan, such a description is oftentimes boiled down to its four distinct seasons. This might be an unorthodox way of approaching things, but it is one that provides an apt summary.

The first season inextricably linked with Hokkaido is winter. Often associated with the pristine powder snow on the slopes of Niseko or the quaint (but slightly commercialized) charm of Sapporo's Snow Festival, Hokkaido's winter is long, comparatively cold and due its climate permeating a consistently heavy downfall, always results in the entire island being draped in snow. It is the latter quality that makes it not barren and destitute but rather a bright, opaline wonderland.

Hokkaido forest pic

The ubiquitous snow-capped mountains are best exemplified by the centrally located Daisetsuzan range. The Daisetsuzan mountain range is referred to as the "playground of the gods" in the Ainu language, and looking down at the undulations of the clouds resembling an ocean in the sky does make for a truly seraphic experience. If you head to Hokkaido's eastern tip, further mysteries await in the form of another national park with a dubious alternative calling by the island's natives: The area that includes the UNESCO Natural World Heritage site Shiretoko National Park is also known as the "end of the world." If you do dare to venture beyond it, however, you will be able to experience something appropriately otherworldly at the Sea of Okhotsk. In these parts, the ocean is known to freeze in winter, delivering a world of endless white due to the drift ice seemingly stretching into the horizon. This being Japan, there are of course numerous tours, excursions, cruises and walks offered to talk advantage of the spectacle.

Hokkaido flowers

From the playground of deities to the place where the earth protrudes, these examples are dramatic representations of what awaits an adventurous traveler in Hokkaido. They are however only the proverbial tip of the iceberg, with many more attractive offerings present throughout the island. Going back to the Japanese-style seasonal introduction, Hokkaido's warmer months are not to be underestimated as well. Indeed, when the cold of the winter abates the island is suddenly flooded with a rush of color. From the iconic whitish pink of the cherry blossoms (best enjoyed at wide-open spaces such as Moerenuma Park in Sapporo) to the rainbow-colored displays of horticulture at Hokkaido's many panoramic gardens and fields (don't miss Irodori Field at Tomita Farm), the vastness of the island's landscape provides a perfect canvas for a panoramic display of color. This canvas is utilized for maximum effect once autumn comes around and the lush greenery is dyed into every single imaginable shade of red. Now, while this scene can be enjoyed throughout Hokkaido, the perplexing reflections of the trees in the lake at Onuma Park or the contrast of the foliage with the striking azure of Shirogane Blue Pond provide views worth highlighting.

While this write-up could continue introducing spots in a ceaseless manner (and interminable volumes could be written on Hokkaido's gastronomy alone), the goal here was to shed some light on Japan's northern frontier. The island is indeed an entirely different side of Japan, a dichotomy between new and old dominated by a natural landscape that is difficult to be equaled. It is thus inherently worth visiting.

For more information about Hokkaido and its activities, please visit Good Day Hokkaido.

Hokkaido mountains