Anthony Pearce leaves Sapporo and takes in some of the highlights of Japan’s wild frontier, the sparsely populated but strikingly beautiful island of Hokkaido
Sat by the tranquil Lake Toya, which sits before volcanic Mount Usu, the neon-lit streets of Tokyo feel a long, long way away. With its dense alpine forests, volcanic landscapes, hot springs and heavy snowfall in winter, the sparsely populated and strikingly beautiful Hokkaido countryside remains Japan’s wild frontier. The most northerly of the country’s main islands, the prefecture makes up 20 per cent of its land area but only five per cent of its population. To put that in perspective: Tokyo’s population density is 6,158 people per square kilometre; Hokkaido’s is just 72. Yet Hokkaido is remarkably accessible: Tokyo Haneda is an hour’s flight away, while the famed Shinkansen – better known as the bullet train – links Tokyo to Hakodate, to the south of Sapporo, in about four hours.
Here you can take in the city lights from Mount Hakodate, explore the historic Old Public Hall of Hakodate Ward, the city’s charming red-brick Bay Area docks, which bears a strong resemblance to San Francisco, and its bustling morning market, which appears to serve every type of seafood in the ocean.
As we have written elsewhere, the food is a major part of Hokkaido’s appeal. The region is known for its produce – from dairy (milk, cheese and ice cream) to beef, whisky and beer. On my last visit, I was treated to a feast at each mealtime: salmon, trout, scallop, squid, sea urchin, crab and octopus make up sushi, sashimi (raw fish) and tempura dishes, while we also try Japanese curry, ramen, broths, hot pots and sticky rice. Each dish is simple – never overpowered with flavour, with soy sauce or wasabi as an accompaniment – and thus completely reliant on the quality of the ingredients. The fish here is among the freshest, and best, you will ever taste.
It takes 30 minutes by rapid train or 45 minutes by local train from Sapporo to Otaru, to the north-west of the city. The city is known for glassworks, sake distilleries, its museum that houses tens of thousands of music boxes, and café-lined canal.
Slightly further west is the Nikka distillery in Yoichi, where you can walk in the lush grounds and enjoy award-winning single malt whisky – the result of one man’s pilgrimage to Scotland in the early 1900s and a lifelong obsession with Islay malt. Whisky is a slow-moving world, but Nikka is now considered one of the world’s top producers.
Hokkaido is often called yukiguni or snow country, so it’s no surprise that it’s most famous for its ski resorts and winter activities, particularly in Niseko, which is composed of six ski areas, and sits to the west of Mount Yotei. However, the island has much more to offer than winter sports, particularly for the active traveller, as hikers, cyclists, kayakers and other adventure seekers will attest.
To the east of the island is the city of Kushiro, about four hours by express train from Sapporo, which is known for Kushiro Shitsugen, Japan’s largest marshland, home to rare, wild Japanese red-crown cranes (tancho) that can be seen in the winter months. In 2005, the ancient areas of Akan Town and Onbetsu Town merged into expanded city of Kushiro, improving accessibility to the Akan-Mashu National Park, which is home to many dormant volcanoes.
It takes five and a half hours by train to reach Wakkanai, the capital of Soya Subprefecture, and the northernmost city in Japan. It’s home to the country’s northernmost point, Cape Soya, from which the Russian island of Sakhalin can be seen.
With cherry blossoms in spring, lavender in summer and beautiful autumn foliage, the island boasts breathtaking scenery year-round, as well a fascinating history (that of its indigenous people, the Ainu), Sapporo Beer, Nikka whisky and perhaps the world’s finest seafood.
Sixty-five per cent of tourists who visit Japan explore its famed golden route – Tokyo, Hakone (for Mount Fuji) and Kyoto – but the government is keen to promote lesser-known regions and four-seasons tourism. Hokkaido is an easy sell; in parts it feels more Scandinavian than how many imagine Japan, has charm in abundance and is becoming more well known as a destination for adventure travel.