Japan’s northern frontier and second largest island hosts just five percent of the country’s population, despite featuring 30,000 square miles of volcanic peaks, glassy lakes and icy coastline. It’s a world away from main island Honshu’s cram.
With its close proximity to Russia, there’s something distinctly Siberian about Hokkaido’s vast national park wilderness, creeping ice floes and earthquake-troubled rifts. Abashiri even features a Meiji era penal colony. However, in lakeside onsen hot springs, luxury traditional ryokans serving up multi-course seafood feasts and Tsurui’s iconic red-crowned cranes it’s a place that’s distinctly Japanese. Indeed, Hokkaido is where the country’s overworked urbanites come to relax. To some that means strolls along Biei’s Patchwork Road of multi-coloured fields and relaxing in Sapporo’s parks while to others it’s husky sledding out of Asahikawa, hiking Lake Toya’s volcano and skiing down world-class slopes, stopping off at hot springs along the way.
But, in a country that annexed itself from the rest of the world for 200 years, Hokkaido also bears some uniquely international influences. Hakodate features everything from Russian Orthodox churches and British cottage consulates to pentagonal Western style citadels and redbrick Chinese memorial halls. You can even take a cable car up a city centre mountain for spectacular views of it all. And, not to miss out, the island’s capital, Sapporo, has taken on a distinctly European outlook in its generous parks and café culture. Don’t miss Odori Park – a giant green cleave, dividing the city in two – and the Sapporo brewery, the oldest in Japan. However, be sure that you spend plenty of time out of the cities, perhaps witnessing the colossal ice floes off the northern coast.