The island of Hokkaidō, nicknamed as 北の大地 (Kita no Daichi, “the great spaces of the north”) is the second largest in Japan, after Honshū, but has only 5.3 million inhabitants (both extension and population are similar to those of Ireland).
This huge region, made up of different peninsulas and capes that protrude towards the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean, with its peculiar silhouette undoubtedly makes its part to print the shape of the Japanese archipelago in our imagination. From a geographical point of view, in Hokkaidō we find not only the northernmost point of the country, (Cape Soya) but also the most Eastern one (Cape Noshappu) where everyday’s first sun rises.
As you can imagine, with these proportions, and a reduced population (which among other things is concentrated almost entirely in the capital, Sapporo, which counts nearly 2 million inhabitants), Hokkaidō boasts an extremely pristine nature: at this latitude, also the flora and the fauna are different from those we know in Japan, they’re probably closer to those of Russia and mainland Asia.
Rich in volcanoes and volcanic lakes, Hokkaidō is in abundance of water, green spaces and mountains. You can hike in several national parks, such as Shiretoko, to admire waterfalls that plunge into the sea and Japanese brown bears, trekking in the Daisetsuzan National Park, or take a boat ride to Lake Toya, and explore the island of Nakanoshima. .
Besides nature, in Hokkaidō you can also try some of the best cuisine that Japan can offer you: fresh sea products (in particular crab and sea urchin), delicious meat coming from the cattle raised in the vast pastures, tasty ramen, available in different varieties (those of Sapporo and Hakodate are only the best known), the soup karee and the Genghis khan (a nabe dish based on lamb meat).
Finally, the cities of Hokkaidō also have many surprises for us: from the cosmopolitan and lively Sapporo, to the nostalgic Hakodate, with its Orthodox churches that remind us that Russia is there, besides the sea, and the romantic Otaru, with the canals and the glass factories.
Hokkaidō has been colonized in relatively recent times, so if you are looking for something traditional which reminds you of the ancient Japan, you might not find it. However, if you want to explore the natural, pioneer and mysterious side of Japan, knowing that if you look beyond this islands and lands of Siberia, a trip to Hokkaidō is something for you!
When to go
Hokkaidō, due to its latitude, has shorter half seasons than the rest of Japan. Let’s analyze them briefly:
Spring in Hokkaidō is quick, almost brief shift between the long and snowy winter and the warm summer. Because of the latitude, you can admire the cherry blossoms in late May (we recommend Matsumae Castle, which is also the northernmost of Japan), or explore the vast, green, flower-covered national parks with the view on the snow left on the highest mountains.
The season to fully enjoy what this island! There are activities for everyone: rafting in the fresh rivers, camping around the forests and lakeside, fishing, star-gazing, culinary experiences on the farms (Hokkaidō also produces excellent cheese!), The colors of the lavender fields in Furano, and the endless spaces of Biei wheat fields.
Also this season is very short: from the beginning, mid-September, the vegetation begins to mutate colors, between maples and birches, especially in the Daisetsuzan national park, in the middle of the island.
Source: creative commons by t-konno
In this season the island becomes the kingdom of snow and ice. Skiing paradises await you in Niseko, Naebo, Teine and other areas just a short distance from Sapporo, and in February you can enjoy the unmissable Sapporo Snow Festival! Shortly before the advent of spring, at the beginning of March, the ice fragmentation of Lake Okhotsk begins slowly, and you can experience an ice-breaker tour from Abashiri, and observe, with a little luck, seals and other marine animals coming from the Arctic.