1) What Alaska is to the United States, Hokkaido is to Japan…
When you think of Japan do you think of electronics, manga and Blade Runner-style cities? While all those aspects of the country are undoubtedly true, head to the far north of the country and you’ll find something much rawer and untamed on the island of Hokkaido. Representing 22 percent of the Japan’s total area but with only five percent of country’s population, Hokkaido is largely a wilderness of forests, mountains, rivers and lakes all just waiting to be explored…
2) Bears. Lots of bears
Brown bears, known as higuma in Japanese, range across more than half of Hokkaido. Some areas, such as the rugged World Heritage Shiretoko National Park at the northeast of the island, are particularly heaving with the massive animals, which can weigh up to 400kg. This means if you go to Hokkaido in the summer months you stand a good chance of seeing one of these huge beasts.
3) The food
As well as being famed for its fresh seafood, Hokkaido is also known for its love of ‘Mongolian style’ Jingisukan (Genghis Khan) barbequed lamb – a food experience not to be missed. Japanese troops apparently gave the cooking style its name when they saw Mongolian soldiers cooking lamb – which is rarely eaten in the rest of Japan – on their upturned conical metal helmets. Head into one of Hokkaido’s numerous Jingisukan style restaurants and red hot coals will be placed on a ceramic bowl in front of you. A heavy conical skillet – said to still resemble a Mongolian’s helmet – is placed over the coals then chopsticks used to cook strips of lamb, onion, cabbage and bean shoots on the hot surface, dunking each cooked item in a cooling sauce before chowing down Genghis Khan style.
4) The beer
In the rest of Japan the national drink might be sake, but in Hokkaido the beverage of choice is beer, in part because of the locals’ pride in their famous Sapporo Brewery. And while the Sapporo Brewery makes famous export beers like Sapporo Premium and Yebisu, for decades they have been keeping one of their best brews a secret. Sapporo ‘Classic’ is only available in Hokkaido: nowhere else in Japan or around the world. After trying a Classic you’ll realise why they have been keeping it to themselves…
5) Indigenous culture: the Ainu
The Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido, thought to have lived in the region since the seventh century. With their culture suppressed until recent decades – it was only in 2008 that Japan formally recognised the Ainu as an indigenous group – in recent years there was been a resurgence in their traditional culture as well as greater protection for their unique traditions, which can be experienced in parts of Hokkaido such as Poroto Kotan, Akan Kohan and Nitbutani. Few will forget Ainu music, spiritual songs rooted in animist beliefs, including the haunting, hypnotic music of the Mukkuri, a kind of jaw harp.
6) Spectacular hiking
Hiking is popular all over Japan, but Hokkaido offers the country’s most unspoilt, spectacular scenery, with hikes for all levels, from an hour-long stroll to a week long trek. One of the most jaw-dropping hikes is the 10-hour (return) hike up Mount Rishiri located on the remote Rishiri Island off the northwest coast. The 1721m peak, known as little Fuji for its conical shape and snow patterned flanks, offers incredible 360 degree views over the entire island, an area protected by a national park. Other popular hikes include Hokkaido’s highest peak, the 2291m Asahi-dake.
7) Sublime skiing
Not only does Hokkaido have the best snow in Japan, but some of the least crowded resorts. The island’s location brings cold air from Siberia and this means plentiful winter snow – and not just any old snow – we’re talking dry powder, and heaps of it, with some resorts recording up to 18 metres in a single season. While Niseko is Hokkaido’s most famous ski area, other areas worth checking out include Rusutsu, Furano, and Tomamu.
Hokkaido isn’t all forests, mountains, snow and bears. The island’s vibrant capital Sapporo has a population of nearly two million, and they like to party. Head to Sapporo’s Susukino area and enter a dense warren of gaudy neon packed with restaurants, quirky bars, pumping nightclubs, karaoke joints and seedy massage parlours. The biggest entertainment district north of Tokyo, Susukino has something for everyone…
9) Youth hostels
As well as being economical places to sleep, many of Hokkaido’s hostels offer something more: fantastic traditional food. Most hostels provide a sensation dinner for around AUD $12, a multi-course odyssey of local seasonal food prepared with traditional techniques, often 6 or 7 separate dishes: a soup, salads, fish, pickled vegetables and a dessert – as well as several unidentifiable, but delicious, things. The hostels at Asahi-dake Onsen and Kussharo-ko are renowned for their great food.
10) Travelling by train
There is nothing better than kicking back on a comfortable train, munching away from a bento box while watching the spectacular scenery unfold outside your window. And while travelling by train is a pleasure all over Japan, Hokkaido ups the ante through the sheer grandeur of its landscape, with the island’s train network extending to even out of the way locations. Even better, visitors can snaffle up the good value Hokkadio Rail Pass, which offers unlimited train travel within a three, five or seven days.