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Last month, Social Media Coordinator Brock donned his thickest hat and gloves and set off to snowy Hokkaido for the first time. Whilst he was certainly glad of an extra thermal layer (sub-zero temperatures are the norm at this time of year), the unforgettable sights and experiences made the winter trip more than worthwhile.
Of the five main islands that make up Japan, Hokkaido is considered the ‘last frontier’, with Japanese settlers only heading over in earnest in the mid-19th century. For this reason, Hokkaido remains somewhat detached from the rest of Japan in many ways, lacking the classic cultural icons and historical architecture that has become so associated with this amazing country. On the flip side, the appeal of Hokkaido lies in the very fact that it is less populated with vast expanses of amazing landscapes and wild natural beauty.
If you’re looking to see a completely different side to Japan, here are four reasons why you should head to Hokkaido.
1. Natural Beauty
First and foremost, Hokkaido is all about the stunning rural landscapes. Just glance out the window to see a spectacular row of snowy mountains or vast blue lakes. Hokkaido has parkland, mountains, lakes, volcanoes, valleys, cliff-lined coasts and everything in between. In winter, this is all covered with a beautiful blanket of snow, giving the landscape an even more dramatic and wild edge.
Due to its unique situation in the Sea of Okhotsk, Hokkaido is the most southerly point where you can see drifting sea ice. Taking an icebreaker cruise into the midst of the action is a great way to take in this unique natural phenomena. If you are visiting in winter, I would also recommend Jigokudani (or Hell Valley) in Noboribetsu. Admittedly Hell Valley may not sound like the most appealing place to visit, but it is so named due to the hot steam vents and volcanic activity in the area making for an impressive rather than scary sight. In winter, the snow and added steam (due to the colder air) make the valley an impressive place to take a wander.
2. Wonderful Wildlife
With amazing natural landscapes comes amazing (natural) wildlife! Hokkaido is home to various creatures that are hard to find anywhere else. Foremost amongst them would have to be the majestic Red-Crowned Crane (or ‘tancho’ in Japanese), who can be found pecking at the plains of Tsurui throughout the winter and beyond. Already a part of Japanese mythology, they are famed for a unique mating dance but are an amazing sight whatever they are up to. If you head up towards Abashiri, you’ll also have a chance to see the endangered Steller’s Sea Eagle and White-Tailed Eagle seeking fish amongst the drift ice.
Moving away from bird life, Hokkaido is home to the elusive Brown Bear (we strongly recommend going on a cruise to see wild bear and not to any of the bear parks), the significantly less-elusive Sika Deer and occasionally spotted Eurasian Red Squirrel. Looking out to sea you might spot some Orca if you are very lucky. If you are a wildlife lover, there’s no doubt about it, it’s time to pack your bags!
While you could say the same for virtually everywhere in Japan, Hokkaido has some incredible tasty seafood. The bounty that comes from the seas around Hokkaido is particularly delicious and varied, and if you are going to try sashimi anywhere in the world, it should be here! During my time in Hokkaido, I embarked upon my very own culinary voyage of discovery; not only did raw fish become a tasty staple of my diet, I also tried octopus, sea urchin, cod roe and a lot more for the first time. I’m not saying that everything you taste will be to your liking but you might well be pleasantly surprised by what you end up loving. Hokkaido is also known for its dairy and cattle farming, and as you work your way around the country, the local beef is well worth trying.
4. Ainu Culture
It seems to be a surprisingly little known fact that there was an indigenous population on Hokkaido before the Japanese settled on the island. The Ainu (meaning ‘person’ or ‘human’ in their native tongue) had been there for centuries and had evolved a completely separate culture and way of life before being forced to assimilate into Japanese society and abandon their own traditions. Now however, there has a revived movement to create their own identity and keep their culture alive.
There are three hubs of activity within Hokkaido where Ainu culture can be experienced; in Akan near Kushiro, in Biratoricho and in Shiraoi. The latter of the three is called the Shiraoi Ainu Museum,. This is about to undergo a major extension project but is currently laid out as a small village of thatched houses representing different aspects of Ainu culture and lifestyle. The museum includes examples of traditional crafts and dance demonstrations. If you are looking for something truly unique to Hokkaido, then this is it!
If you’d like to find out more about the best time to visit Hokkaido and the best things to do when you get there, check out our brand new When to Travel tool. Alternatively, if Brock’s wintery tales have already got you reaching for your snow-shoes and binoculars, you may be interested in our Winter Highlights Small Group Tour.