Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, is a vast expanse of natural wonders, vibrant cities, and unique cultural experiences. Separated from Honshu by the Tsugaru Strait, this island offers a distinctive climate and landscape compared to the rest of Japan. It is celebrated for its volcanic landscapes, extensive natural parks, hot springs, and diverse wildlife – notably the famous brown bears of Shiretoko.
Spanning an area of 83,456.58 square kilometers, Hokkaido provides a stark contrast to the dense urban landscapes of cities like Tokyo or Osaka. With its relatively smaller population, it offers vast open spaces, allowing visitors to feel a sense of tranquility and direct communion with nature.
Hokkaido’s history is rich, intertwining indigenous Ainu culture with that of Wajin (ethnic Japanese) settlers. This mingling of cultures is evident in various aspects of Hokkaido, from its folklore to its cuisine. Seafood, for instance, plays a pivotal role in Hokkaido’s culinary scene, with the cold waters around the island providing some of the freshest and most delectable catches in the country.
source: Our Travel Channel Samuel and Audrey Visiting Sapporo
Sapporo’s Snow Festival and its popularity
The Sapporo Snow Festival, or Yuki Matsuri, is arguably one of the most iconic events not just in Hokkaido, but in Japan as a whole. Held annually in Sapporo, the capital city of Hokkaido, this winter spectacle has its humble beginnings in 1950, when a handful of high school students built snow statues in Odori Park. Today, the festival has grown to an enormous scale, attracting more than two million visitors from all corners of the globe every February.
The main attraction of the Sapporo Snow Festival is the massive and intricately designed snow and ice sculptures. These sculptures are often illuminated at night, transforming the parks and streets of Sapporo into a winter wonderland of lights and shadows. Artists from all over the world compete to design and build these masterpieces, drawing inspiration from popular culture, historical events, and mythical tales.
source: Our Travel Channel Samuel and Audrey Eating In Sapporo
Beyond the sculptures, the festival offers a plethora of experiences. From snow slides and mazes for children to international snow sculpture contests, and from local food stalls serving piping hot Hokkaido delicacies to live entertainment, the Sapporo Snow Festival promises something for everyone. Its immense popularity has cemented Sapporo’s position as a must-visit destination during winter.
However, while the Sapporo Snow Festival often overshadows other attractions, Hokkaido’s vast expanse is brimming with undiscovered experiences waiting to be explored. For the discerning traveler, venturing beyond the snow-laden streets of Sapporo can lead to captivating encounters with the island’s hidden gems.
Lesser-Known Places of Interest
Nestled on the southwestern flank of Mount Yotei, often referred to as the “Mt. Fuji of Hokkaido,” Niseko is a gem in its own right. While popular among the international ski community, its wide range of attractions throughout the year make it a place worthy of deeper exploration.
Ski and Snowboarding Resorts
Niseko is globally recognized for its powder snow, which is often termed as “Japow” – a playful nod to the light and fluffy snow that blankets the region. There are four primary ski resorts interconnected on Mount Niseko-Annupuri, namely: Grand Hirafu, Hanazono, Niseko Village, and Annupuri.
Grand Hirafu is the largest and the most famous, with a bustling village atmosphere replete with hotels, onsens, and a vibrant nightlife. Hanazono, on the eastern side, boasts of wide-open terrain and a range of snow activities beyond skiing, including snowmobile adventures and snow rafting. Niseko Village provides a mix of groomed runs and off-piste adventures, while Annupuri is cherished for its quieter, more relaxed ambience.
The ski resorts not only cater to experts but also to beginners. Comprehensive lessons in various languages make it a favorite destination for families and individuals eager to learn the sport.
Off-season attractions: Hiking and Onsen
While winter in Niseko is nothing short of magical, the warmer months reveal a different kind of beauty, with lush greenery replacing the pristine white landscapes.
Hiking: Mount Yotei, with its distinct cone shape, offers trekking trails that cater to both novice and experienced hikers. As you ascend, the panoramic views of the Hokkaido countryside, with a patchwork of farms and forests, are simply breathtaking. The crater at the summit, often filled with snow even in summer, adds a unique touch to the hiking experience.
Onsen: Niseko is also famous for its onsens, or natural hot springs. After a day of skiing or hiking, there’s nothing quite like soaking in an onsen, surrounded by nature. These geothermal baths are rich in minerals and are believed to have healing properties. Whether it’s a luxurious onsen resort or a more traditional public bathhouse, the experience is quintessentially Japanese and is a must-try when in Niseko.
Local Dining Experiences
Niseko’s culinary scene is a delightful fusion of traditional Hokkaido flavors and international influences, thanks to its diverse visitor base.
Start with a bowl of Ramen from a local eatery, where the broth is enriched with Hokkaido’s famed dairy, giving it a creaminess that is both unique and comforting. Seafood lovers should not miss the Uni Don (Sea Urchin Rice Bowl) or Ika Somen (Squid Noodles), dishes that showcase the freshness of the island’s marine offerings.
For a fusion experience, many restaurants in Niseko offer Western dishes with a Japanese twist, like pizzas topped with local seafood or pasta dishes incorporating regional vegetables and seasonings.
Dessert is another unmissable experience, with dairy farms in the region producing some of the creamiest milk. This has given rise to a plethora of sweet treats, from ice creams and cheesecakes to tarts and puddings. A visit to a local dairy farm, where one can sample and learn about the production process, completes the culinary journey in Niseko.
While Niseko is undoubtedly a paradise for winter sports enthusiasts, it’s so much more than just its slopes. It’s a destination that beckons year-round, offering a tapestry of experiences that are deeply rooted in nature, culture, and gastronomy.
A mere half-hour train ride from Sapporo, Otaru is a charming port city that often feels like a journey back in time. With its cobbled streets, Western-style buildings, and serene canals, Otaru offers a blend of history, art, and scenic beauty that is distinctively different from other parts of Hokkaido.
At the heart of Otaru’s historical district lies the Otaru Canal, a scenic waterway that once played a pivotal role in the city’s herring trade. Today, the canal stands as a testament to Otaru’s rich mercantile history, with its beautifully preserved warehouses and gas lamps lining its banks.
During the day, the canal’s calm waters reflect the blue skies and brick warehouses, making it a favorite spot for photographers. As evening descends, the gas lamps are lit, casting a warm, golden glow on the water and creating a romantic ambiance. Strolling along the canal, especially during twilight, is akin to stepping back into the early 20th century, a time when boats and barges were a common sight, unloading goods from distant shores.
Seasonally, the canal also becomes a spectacle. In winter, snow blankets the surroundings, turning the area into a picturesque winter wonderland. During the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival, the canal is adorned with lanterns and snow sculptures, further enhancing its ethereal beauty.
source: We Visited Otaru and Here Is Our Video Guide On Samuel and Audrey YouTube Channel
Otaru’s legacy as a bustling trade port is evident in its array of Western-inspired architectures. The city is dotted with stone-built warehouses, churches, and former bank buildings that highlight the influence of Western architecture during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
One notable building is the Otaru City Museum (Bank of Japan Otaru Museum), housed in the former Bank of Japan Otaru branch. Its neoclassical design stands out, with thick stone walls and heavy wooden doors. Inside, visitors can delve into the economic history of Otaru and the role the bank played in its prosperity.
Another must-visit is the Otaru Orgel Doh, or the Otaru Music Box Museum, housed in a beautiful red-brick building. While more on this in the next section, its architecture alone is a reason for a visit.
Otaru Music Box Museum and Glass Workshops
Otaru Music Box Museum (Otaru Orgel Doh): One of Otaru’s most iconic attractions, the Music Box Museum isn’t just a museum but a world of melodious wonders. The building itself is a historical gem, with its red-brick façade and wooden interiors. Inside, countless music boxes, from small hand-cranked versions to large floor-standing models, are on display. Each music box, whether playing familiar tunes or original compositions, tells a story of craftsmanship and artistry. Visitors can even create their own custom music boxes, selecting from a range of melodies and designs.
Glass Workshops: Otaru is renowned for its glassware, a craft that began in the late 19th century with the production of glass buoys for fishing nets. Today, the city is home to numerous glass workshops where artisans create intricate pieces ranging from ornaments and vases to glassware and jewelry. The Otaru Glass Street is lined with shops showcasing these delicate creations. Many workshops, like the Kitaichi Glass company, offer hands-on experiences where visitors can try their hand at glassblowing or crafting their own bead jewelry.
Lake Toya, or Tōya-ko, located within the Shikotsu-Toya National Park, is a caldera lake formed from volcanic activity around 110,000 years ago. It is one of Hokkaido’s most scenic destinations and offers visitors an array of natural, recreational, and relaxation opportunities.
Picturesque Views and Natural Beauty
Lake Toya is known for its almost circular shape and clear blue waters. The lake is surrounded by majestic mountains, including Mount Usu, which stands as a testament to the region’s volcanic origins. Within the lake itself, there are four islands called Nakajima, which can be visited by boat. The largest of these islands, Oshima, houses a small museum dedicated to the Ainu, Hokkaido’s indigenous people, offering insights into their history and culture.
One of the unique features of Lake Toya is that it never freezes, even during the harsh Hokkaido winters, thanks to its geothermal activity. This ensures that the lake remains a picturesque spot year-round, with cherry blossoms and verdant greens in spring, clear azure views in summer, a tapestry of oranges and reds in autumn, and snow-draped landscapes in winter.
The lake also serves as a venue for the Lake Toya Long-Run Fireworks, a stunning display that takes place every night from late April to October. This regular event offers a magical experience as fireworks light up the night sky and reflect upon the tranquil waters of the lake.
Mount Usu, or Usuzan, is an active stratovolcano that has erupted four times in the past 100 years. However, rather than shying away, this geological activity has become one of the lake’s main attractions.
The Usuzan Ropeway offers visitors an exhilarating ride from the base to near the peak of Mount Usu. As the gondola ascends, one is treated to panoramic views of Lake Toya, the Nakajima Islands, and the neighboring Showa Shinzan—a volcanic lava dome that rose from a flat field after eruptions in 1943-1945.
Upon reaching the observation deck, visitors can embark on walking trails that lead to various viewing points. Some trails even pass close to the volcano’s craters, allowing a closer look at steam vents and other geothermal activities. Informational boards along the paths offer insights into the volcano’s history and the formations around.
Onsen Towns Around the Lake
Given its volcanic origins, it’s no surprise that Lake Toya is surrounded by numerous onsen (hot spring) towns. These thermal baths tap into the geothermally heated waters from the earth’s depths, offering a therapeutic and relaxing experience.
Toyako Onsen is the primary hot spring resort on the lake’s shores. The town is lined with various ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and hotels, each boasting its own unique onsen baths. Some of these baths offer views of the lake, allowing bathers to soak in the warm waters while gazing out at the serene expanse of Lake Toya.
The mineral-rich waters of these onsens are believed to have healing properties, alleviating ailments like muscle pain, joint aches, and skin conditions. Beyond the health benefits, the experience of slipping into a steaming outdoor bath, especially in colder months, with nature as your backdrop, is an experience unparalleled.
Furano and Biei
Nestled within central Hokkaido, Furano and Biei are two towns that conjure up images of undulating landscapes painted with hues of blossoms. Both towns have a character that’s intrinsically tied to the seasons, creating ever-changing vistas that enchant visitors throughout the year.
Lavender Fields and Flower Farms
Furano, often dubbed as Hokkaido’s “belly button” because of its central location, is synonymous with lavender fields. Come mid-summer, the town is awash in purple as lavender blooms stretch as far as the eye can see.
Farm Tomita is perhaps the most iconic of all the lavender farms in Furano. Established over a century ago, the farm showcases a stunning blend of lavender varieties alongside other seasonal flowers. The fragrance of blooming lavender fills the air, creating a soothing ambiance. Within the farm, there are several fields like the Traditional Lavender Field, which evokes a sense of nostalgia, and the Rainbow Field that has seven types of flowers arranged in rows, creating a captivating spectrum of colors.
Biei complements Furano’s lavender landscapes with its patchwork of flower farms. The town’s gently rolling hills are adorned with crops and flowers, each plot bearing a different shade, thus giving it the name “Patchwork Road.”
Shikisai no Oka
Situated in Biei, Shikisai no Oka is a vast expanse of about 15 hectares, showcasing a brilliant tapestry of flowers. From spring to autumn, this panoramic flower garden blooms in succession, ensuring that there’s always a riot of colors regardless of when you visit. Tulips, lupines, lavender, sunflowers, and dahlias are just a few of the varieties that grace this garden.
A walk through Shikisai no Oka is a sensory treat. However, for those looking for a more leisurely experience, there are tractor-pulled cart tours and even alpaca rides, making it a delightful destination for both adults and children. The elevated view from the observatory allows visitors to truly appreciate the magnificent scale and beauty of this floral paradise.
Local Wine and Cheese Tasting
The fertile lands of Furano and Biei aren’t just ideal for flowers; they’re also perfect for vineyards and dairies. The cool climate, paired with the rich soil, makes the region a hotspot for wine and cheese production.
Furano Winery, overlooking the Tokachi mountain range, offers a delightful range of wines. Their specialty is the unique lavender wine, a nod to Furano’s iconic flower. The winery is open for tours, allowing visitors to delve into the wine-making process, from fermentation to aging. The highlight, of course, is the tasting session where one can sample a range of wines, including varieties made from locally grown grapes.
Complementing the wine experience is the region’s rich dairy tradition. Cheese factories like the Furano Cheese Factory provide insight into the art of cheese-making. Visitors can witness the process, participate in workshops, and, most importantly, taste fresh cheeses, butter, and ice cream. The Camembert cheese, with its creamy texture and rich flavor, is a must-try.
Located in southwestern Hokkaido, Noboribetsu Onsen is often hailed as Hokkaido’s most famous hot spring resort. Renowned for its diverse mineral-rich waters and otherworldly landscapes, this hot spring town promises a holistic healing experience intertwined with a deep sense of history and culture.
Jigokudani (Hell Valley)
The dramatic and aptly named Jigokudani, or “Hell Valley”, is the very source of Noboribetsu’s hot spring waters. Spanning a vast area, this geothermal wonderland, with its bubbling pools, steaming vents, and sulphurous streams, evokes a landscape that one might imagine as infernal.
Formed from the crater of a volcanic eruption over 10,000 years ago, the valley presents a stark contrast to Hokkaido’s otherwise lush landscapes. Wooden pathways guide visitors through this barren terrain, allowing close encounters with the various geothermal features. The constant plumes of steam, combined with the distinct scent of sulfur, create an ambiance that’s both eerie and awe-inspiring.
Especially in winter, when snow blankets the surroundings, the juxtaposition of the steaming valley against the icy backdrop makes for a surreal spectacle. For those interested in a therapeutic experience, the valley also houses the Oyunuma Pond, a naturally hot river where visitors can enjoy a footbath amidst the volcanic landscapes.
source: Our YouTube Travel Channel Samuel and Audrey Visiting Noboribetsu
Various Onsen Types: Sulfur, Salt, and Radium
What makes Noboribetsu Onsen exceptional is the diversity of its mineral waters. The hot spring waters here are categorized into several types, each carrying distinct therapeutic properties.
- Sulfur Springs (Iousen): Characterized by its milky appearance and the distinct smell of sulfur, this water is believed to alleviate skin conditions and chronic bronchitis. It has a slightly acidic pH, making it gentle on the skin, promoting smoothness and clarity.
- Salt Springs (Shiosen): These waters have a high saline content, lending them a unique warmth. As the salt aids in heat retention, these baths are excellent for improving circulation, warming the body, and relieving muscle aches.
- Radium Springs (Radiumsen): A rarity among onsens, these springs contain traces of radium. Though the content is minimal, it’s believed that bathing in these waters can help with pain relief and overall rejuvenation.
A visit to Noboribetsu offers the unique opportunity to experience these varied baths and benefit from their combined therapeutic effects.
Traditional Ryokan Experiences
To truly immerse oneself in the Noboribetsu Onsen experience, a stay at one of the town’s traditional ryokans is a must. These Japanese inns, with their tatami-matted rooms, sliding doors, and meticulous hospitality, offer a glimpse into Japan’s age-old traditions.
Most ryokans in Noboribetsu have their own private onsen baths, allowing guests to indulge in the hot spring experience in a more intimate setting. The baths, often made of cypress or stone, overlook serene gardens or the natural landscapes, ensuring a tranquil experience.
The ryokan experience isn’t just limited to the baths. Guests are treated to kaiseki dinners, multi-course meals that showcase local ingredients prepared with utmost precision and artistry. From fresh seafood to seasonal vegetables, each dish is both a visual and culinary delight. Wearing a yukata (a casual summer kimono) and savoring these delicacies in the comfort of one’s room, with attentive service, is the epitome of Japanese luxury.
Shiretoko National Park
Nestled at the northeastern tip of Hokkaido, Shiretoko National Park stands as a pristine testament to nature’s untouched beauty. With its name derived from the Ainu word “Sir etok”, meaning “the end of the world”, Shiretoko offers an experience of raw wilderness that’s increasingly rare in today’s world.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
In 2005, Shiretoko National Park was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a recognition of its significant global value both in terms of biodiversity and its representation of the harmonious coexistence between humans and nature.
The peninsula is characterized by a range of steep mountain peaks that stretch out into the Sea of Okhotsk. The topography, combined with the park’s remote location, has ensured that a large part of the region remains inaccessible, especially by road, preserving its untouched beauty.
The Shiretoko ecosystem is unique. As the Sea of Okhotsk meets the land, the cold sea currents interact with the freshwater from melting snow and rivers, creating an environment that nurtures a rich biodiversity both on land and in the surrounding waters. The park is a vital breeding and feeding ground for various marine species and is home to numerous terrestrial plants and animals that are adapted to its cold climate.
Wildlife Spotting: Brown Bears and Sea Eagles
One of the most exhilarating aspects of a visit to Shiretoko is the chance to spot its rich wildlife. The park is famously known as the home of the largest population of brown bears in Japan. These majestic creatures are often seen foraging along the coastlines, especially during salmon spawning season. While they are a sight to behold, it’s essential to maintain a safe distance and ideally view them under the guidance of local experts or through organized wildlife tours.
The skies of Shiretoko are often graced by the presence of the majestic Steller’s sea eagles. With their stark white tails and imposing wingspans, these raptors are a sight to behold as they soar above the icy waters in search of fish. Other avian species like the white-tailed sea eagle and Blakiston’s fish owl, the world’s largest owl species, also call the park their home.
Drift Ice Experiences in Winter
The Shiretoko Peninsula offers a unique natural phenomenon during the winter months: the Drift Ice Experience. As temperatures plummet, the Sea of Okhotsk witnesses the southernmost drift ice occurrence in the Northern Hemisphere. Huge sheets of ice float southwards from Russia, turning the sea into a mesmerizing icy expanse.
These drift ice formations play a crucial role in the park’s ecosystem. They bring with them nutrient-rich cold currents that support the marine life of the region. For visitors, the drift ice presents both a visual spectacle and a tactile experience. Various cruises allow visitors to navigate through the icy waters, listening to the haunting sound of ice sheets colliding. Adventurous souls can even opt for drift ice walking experiences, where they don special dry suits and wade into the chilly waters amidst the floating ice.
In summary, Shiretoko National Park is a realm where the rhythms of nature dictate life. From its UNESCO recognized landscapes to the charismatic brown bears and the ethereal beauty of drift ice, Shiretoko beckons those who seek an authentic communion with the wild. It’s a place where the delicate balance of nature is evident, and the reverence it commands is both humbling and awe-inspiring.
Positioned at the southern tip of Hokkaido, Hakodate, one of the first ports opened to international trade in Japan, effortlessly marries its historical significance with natural beauty. As a gateway between Honshu and Hokkaido, the city carries an aura of both the old and the new, making it an enticing destination for history enthusiasts, gourmands, and nature lovers alike.
Night View from Mount Hakodate
The panoramic vista from Mount Hakodate is often listed among the world’s top three nighttime cityscapes, alongside Hong Kong and Monaco. As evening descends, the city below begins to light up, painting a luminous tapestry of shimmering gold against the backdrop of the inky black sea and sky.
To reach the summit, one can take the Hakodate Ropeway, an aerial tramway that promises scenic views even during the ascent. As you rise above the city, the landscape slowly unravels, showcasing the unique geographical layout of Hakodate, which lies on a narrow strip of land between two bays.
Upon reaching the mountaintop, viewing platforms provide unobstructed views of the city grid and the Tsugaru Strait, especially enchanting during the twilight hours when the sky and city lights create a mesmerizing contrast. Whether you’re a photographer chasing the perfect shot or a traveler soaking in the serenity, the Mount Hakodate night view is an experience that lingers in memory.
source: Our YouTube Travel Channel Samuel and Audrey Visiting Hakodate
Historical Goryokaku Fort
A star-shaped fortress tucked amidst the urban landscape, Goryokaku Fort stands as a testament to Hakodate’s rich history. Built in the latter half of the 19th century, it’s the first Western-style fortress in Japan, originally designed to guard against potential invasions.
While its military significance is undoubted, what draws visitors today is the serene beauty of Goryokaku Park, which envelops the fort. During spring, over a thousand cherry trees burst into bloom, their pale pink blossoms contrasting with the fort’s geometric design, creating a breathtaking spectacle. The Goryokaku Tower nearby offers an aerial view of the fort, allowing visitors to fully appreciate its star-shaped design.
Inside the fort, the Hakodate Magistrate’s Office has been faithfully reconstructed, providing insights into the historical events that took place here, including the last battle of the Boshin War.
Fresh Seafood Market Experience
Hakodate’s proximity to fertile fishing grounds means seafood, fresh and of unparalleled quality, is integral to the city’s culinary DNA. The Morning Market, or Hakodate Asaichi, is where this bounty is most vividly displayed.
Spanning several blocks near the Hakodate station, the market brims with stalls showcasing the freshest catches of the day. From crabs, sea urchins, and scallops to the renowned squid which, when prepared as sashimi, is so fresh it’s still translucent and moving, there’s a plethora of oceanic delights to explore.
But it’s not just about visual exploration. Many stalls offer on-the-spot preparation, meaning visitors can indulge in seafood bowls (kaisendon) customized to their preference. Selecting from an array of fresh ingredients and watching it transform into a delicious meal is part culinary adventure and part theater. For sushi aficionados, the sushi restaurants surrounding the market promise some of the freshest delights, each bite reflecting the very essence of the ocean.
Unique Cultural Experiences
Among the multifaceted cultural layers of Japan, the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido, have a story that’s deeply entwined with the land, nature, and the spiritual world. With a rich history that predates many recognized ancient Japanese civilizations, the Ainu culture is a testament to the diverse tapestry of the nation’s heritage.
Origins and History
The Ainu people are believed to have inhabited parts of northern Japan, including Hokkaido, the Kuril Islands, and parts of Sakhalin for over 20,000 years. Their history in the archipelago is ancient, with some theories suggesting that they might have been the Jomon Jidai’s primary settlers, Japan’s pre-agricultural era.
Unlike many cultures, the Ainu’s beliefs, lifestyle, and societal structures have been intricately connected to the natural world around them. Their spirituality doesn’t distinguish significantly between the living and the natural world, leading to a profound respect for the animals, trees, and even natural phenomena, which are often regarded as gods or divine spirits called kamuy.
However, the Ainu’s relationship with the Wajin (ethnic Japanese) has been tumultuous. With the expansion of Japanese territories and influence, Ainu lands were encroached upon, leading to cultural assimilation, land disputes, and at times, suppression of Ainu customs and language. Only recently, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, has there been a renaissance and acknowledgment of Ainu rights and their unique cultural identity.
Ainu Village and Museum Visits
To truly understand the depth of Ainu culture, a visit to an Ainu village or museum is paramount. One of the most renowned sites is the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum located in Biratori, Hokkaido. This museum houses a vast collection of Ainu artifacts, from intricately carved woodwork to hand-woven attus (clothing made from the inner bark of the Ohyo tree).
Another immersive experience is offered by the Ainu Museum in Shiraoi, also known as Porotokotan, which means “large lakeside village” in the Ainu language. Here, visitors can explore reconstructed traditional Ainu homes, known as chise, set on the serene shores of Lake Poroto. Each hut showcases different aspects of daily Ainu life, from fishing and hunting tools to cooking methods and spiritual rituals.
Traditional Crafts and Performances
Ainu culture is rich in artistry, with crafts that bear symbolic meanings and are deeply rooted in their beliefs.
- Wood Carving: The Ainu are masterful wood carvers, crafting detailed figures often representing gods (kamuy). The bear, owl, and orca are frequent subjects, each meticulously carved, often with swirling patterns, symbolizing various spiritual beliefs.
- Textiles: Ainu textile art, especially the attus robes with their intricate embroidered patterns, is a reflection of both utility and spirituality. The patterns, often inspired by nature, serve as protective charms and denote the wearer’s status.
- Performances: Traditional Ainu dance and music, imbued with spiritual significance, are essential aspects of their culture. The Iomante, a bear sending-off ceremony, showcases a blend of song, dance, and rituals that provide a deep insight into their reverence for nature. Instruments like the mukkuri (a bamboo mouth harp) and tonkori (a plucked string instrument) produce haunting melodies, accompanying many of these performances.
The Ainu culture is a vibrant and vital part of Japan’s heritage. Despite centuries of challenges, the traditions, beliefs, and artistry of the Ainu remain alive, offering invaluable insights into the deep connection between humanity and nature. As modern Japan continues to rediscover and embrace this unique culture, visitors too have the privilege of witnessing a world where every craft, song, and ritual is a testament to a timeless bond with the natural world.
Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, is often affectionately termed the nation’s “food basket.” Its expansive landscapes, cold waters, and distinct seasons bestow upon it a wealth of culinary treasures. The island’s cuisine, deeply rooted in its natural bounty, is a delightful exploration of flavors, textures, and culinary innovation.
source: Our Travel Channel Samuel and Audrey on YouTube Eating In Hakodate
Seafood: Uni (sea urchin), ikura (salmon roe), and crab
Hokkaido’s cold, nutrient-rich waters are a haven for marine life, making its seafood some of the best in the world.
- Uni (Sea Urchin): Often referred to as the ‘golden treasure of the sea’, Hokkaido’s uni is renowned for its rich, creamy texture and sweet, briny flavor. Whether served fresh as sashimi, layered atop sushi, or incorporated into pasta and other dishes, uni is a true representation of the ocean’s depth of flavors. Regions like Rishiri and Rebun are particularly famed for their high-quality sea urchin.
- Ikura (Salmon Roe): These tiny, jewel-like spheres are a burst of oceanic flavor. Each bead is translucent, with a firm texture that pops delightfully on the palate. Ikura is often served atop a bowl of steamed rice, in sushi, or as an accent in various dishes. The bright orange roe not only adds flavor but also presents a visual spectacle in culinary presentations.
- Crab: Hokkaido is a crab lover’s paradise. The cold waters produce varieties such as the king crab (taraba-gani), snow crab (zuwaigani), and horsehair crab (kegani), each boasting tender, sweet flesh. Whether enjoyed steamed, grilled, or in hot pots (nabe), Hokkaido’s crab is a testament to the region’s unparalleled seafood quality.
source: Our Travel Channel Samuel and Audrey visiting Otaru
Dairy Products: Ice cream, butter, and cheese
With vast pastures and a cooler climate, Hokkaido is Japan’s primary dairy-producing region. The freshness and quality of its dairy products stand in a league of their own.
- Ice Cream: Hokkaido’s ice cream, with its velvety texture and pure flavors, is a must-try. The richness is attributed to the high-quality milk produced in the region. Popular flavors include lavender (a nod to Furano’s famed fields), melon, and the classic vanilla, each scoop echoing the freshness of Hokkaido’s pastures.
- Butter: Hokkaido butter is treasured for its creamy consistency and rich flavor. It’s a staple in Japanese kitchens, enhancing both sweet and savory dishes. Given the island’s emphasis on quality, this butter carries a depth of flavor, reflecting the health and diet of the cows.
- Cheese: Over the years, Hokkaido has embraced cheese production, creating varieties that, while inspired by European techniques, carry a unique Japanese touch. From creamy camemberts to rich goudas, the cheeses of Hokkaido are a delightful exploration of textures and flavors.
Sweets: Shiroi Koibito and Yubari Melon
Hokkaido’s dessert scene is as diverse as it is delicious, showcasing local ingredients and culinary innovation.
- Shiroi Koibito: A beloved souvenir and treat, Shiroi Koibito translates to ‘White Lover.’ It’s a delicate cookie sandwich with a white chocolate filling, its taste evoking the purity and freshness of Hokkaido. The cookie’s buttery taste, combined with the smooth chocolate, makes it an enduring favorite.
- Yubari Melon: This luxury fruit, a cantaloupe variety, is prized for its incredible sweetness, juiciness, and perfect texture. Grown in the Yubari region, these melons are often given as gifts and can fetch high prices. Whether enjoyed fresh, as a dessert topping, or in confectionery, the Yubari melon is a sweet testament to Hokkaido’s agricultural prowess.
Hokkaido’s cuisine is a mirror to its landscapes, seas, and seasons. Each dish, ingredient, and flavor tells a story of the island’s respect for nature and its tireless pursuit of culinary excellence. From the depths of its oceans to the expansiveness of its pastures, Hokkaido offers a culinary journey that nourishes both the body and soul.
The magic of Hokkaido doesn’t simply lie in its natural splendors or culinary feats; it’s also vividly present in its festivals. These events are more than just celebrations—they are vibrant tapestries of history, culture, and community spirit. They offer glimpses into both the ancestral traditions and the evolving dynamics of the region.
Yosakoi Soran Festival
The fusion of the energetic Yosakoi dance from Kochi Prefecture and the Hokkaido-native Soran Bushi, a fisherman’s work song, birthed the dynamic Yosakoi Soran Festival. Held in early June in Sapporo, it is one of Japan’s most energetic dance festivals.
- Dance & Music: Teams of dancers, adorned in colorful, elaborate costumes, take to the streets. The dance involves the use of naruko (clappers) which dancers rhythmically snap, creating a captivating auditory and visual spectacle. The accompanying music, rooted in the Soran Bushi, captures the essence of the Hokkaido seas, telling tales of fishermen, their struggles, and their celebrations.
- Participation & Teams: It’s not just professional dancers who participate. Locals, students, corporate groups, and international teams join in, making it a truly inclusive event. Each team brings its unique choreography and costume designs, adding to the festival’s diversity.
- City’s Transformation: For the duration of the festival, Sapporo transforms. Streets become stages, parks turn into gathering spots, and the usually calm city vibrates with music, dance, and cheer.
Hokkaido Shrine Festival
Also known as Sapporo Matsuri, this Shinto festival, typically held in mid-June, is one of the most significant religious events in the region, drawing residents and tourists alike.
- Mikoshi Procession: The festival’s highlight is the procession of mikoshi (portable shrines) carried by attendees, signifying the temporary transfer of the deities to these shrines. The procession is accompanied by traditional music and often involves participants dressed in traditional attire, adding a solemn and sacred touch to the event.
- Cultural Exhibitions: The shrine grounds and nearby areas host various cultural exhibitions, from traditional arts and crafts to performances. It’s a chance for attendees to immerse themselves in the region’s rich history and traditions.
- Food Stalls: No festival is complete without food, and the Hokkaido Shrine Festival doesn’t disappoint. Stalls offering local delicacies and traditional festival foods line the pathways, ensuring attendees can savor Hokkaido’s flavors alongside its culture.
Other Seasonal Festivals and Events
Hokkaido, with its distinct seasons, offers a myriad of events throughout the year:
- Winter: The Sapporo Snow Festival is undeniably the star, but there are also smaller events like the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival, where the town is adorned with snow lanterns, creating a dreamy winter wonderland.
- Spring: As cherry blossoms bloom, places like Matsumae Park become hubs of celebration. The Matsumae Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates the transient beauty of sakura, with cultural events, food stalls, and nighttime illuminations.
- Summer: Beyond the Yosakoi Soran, summer brings the Lake Toya Fireworks, a nightly display over the calm lake waters, and the Furano Lavender Festival, celebrating the bloom of the region’s iconic lavender fields.
- Autumn: The changing leaves bring events like the Jozankei Onsen Autumn Festival, which celebrates both the fall colors and the region’s famed hot springs. The combination of onsen baths and vibrant foliage offers a truly sensory delight.
Tips for Traveling in Hokkaido
Journeying through Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, is an experience unlike any other. As you prepare to embark on this adventure, a few travel tips will ensure you make the most of every moment.
Best Times to Visit
Hokkaido, with its distinctive seasons, offers unique experiences throughout the year:
- Winter (December to February): For snow enthusiasts, winter is the prime time. With powdery snow, ski resorts in areas like Niseko come alive. Events like the Sapporo Snow Festival draw crowds eager to see ice sculptures and partake in winter festivities.
- Spring (March to May): As the snow melts, Hokkaido blooms. Late April to early May sees cherry blossoms in places like Hakodate and Matsumae. This period is less crowded, offering a peaceful exploration experience.
- Summer (June to August): Mild temperatures and lush landscapes define Hokkaido summers. Festivals like the Yosakoi Soran take place, and the lavender fields in Furano are in full bloom.
- Autumn (September to November): A palette of reds, oranges, and yellows as the foliage changes. National parks, especially Daisetsuzan, are popular spots for autumn leaf viewing.
Transportation: Rail, Car, and Air
- Rail: The JR Hokkaido Railways is a convenient way to travel. The Hokkaido Shinkansen connects Hokkaido to the main island, while local lines connect major cities. Consider the Hokkaido Rail Pass for unlimited rides over consecutive days.
- Car: Renting a car provides flexibility, especially for more remote areas. Hokkaido’s roads are well-maintained, and driving offers scenic views. Remember that Japan drives on the left.
- Air: New Chitose Airport near Sapporo is the main gateway. Regional airports in Hakodate, Asahikawa, and Kushiro facilitate quicker transit to specific regions.
Accommodation Recommendations: from Budget to Luxury
- Budget: Guesthouses and hostels in major cities provide affordable options. Consider Minshuku, family-run bed-and-breakfast-style lodgings, for a more local experience.
- Mid-Range: Business hotels are prevalent in cities like Sapporo and Otaru. Ryokan, traditional Japanese inns, offer an immersive cultural experience, often with on-site onsens.
- Luxury: Hokkaido boasts high-end resorts, especially in ski regions like Niseko. For opulence and top-notch service, consider establishments like the Hilton Niseko Village or The Lake Suite Ko no Sumika by Lake Toya.
Respectful Travel: Preserving Nature and Respecting Locals
- Nature Preservation: Stick to marked paths, especially in national parks. Avoid picking plants or disturbing wildlife. Carry trash with you and dispose of it properly.
- Respecting Locals: Understand local customs. For example, in onsens, wash thoroughly before entering communal baths. When visiting sacred places, follow guidelines and dress appropriately.
- Sustainable Choices: Opt for eco-friendly accommodations and support local businesses, ensuring your visit benefits the community.
Language and Communication Tips
- Basic Phrases: While many in the tourism sector speak English, learning a few basic Japanese phrases can be helpful and appreciated. Phrases like “Arigatou gozaimasu” (Thank you) and “Sumimasen” (Excuse me) can go a long way.
- Translation Apps: Modern translation apps, both for text and speech, can be a lifesaver in more remote areas where English might not be commonly spoken.
- Gestures and Etiquette: Japanese culture values politeness. Simple gestures, like bowing as a sign of respect, can enhance communication beyond words.
Traveling through Hokkaido is not just about seeing sights—it’s about immersion in nature, culture, and community. Approaching the journey with respect, curiosity, and a bit of preparation ensures a fulfilling, memorable experience. Safe travels as you delve into the beauty and intricacies of this magnificent island!
Conclusion: The Best Of Hokkaido
Hokkaido, the northern jewel of Japan, stands as a testament to nature’s grandeur and the enduring spirit of human culture and tradition. Through its vast landscapes, from the snowy peaks of Niseko to the serene shores of Lake Toya, and from the wild frontiers of Shiretoko National Park to the vibrant streets of Hakodate, this region whispers tales of yesteryears and beckons the promise of new memories to be made.
Diverse Attractions of Hokkaido
Each corner of Hokkaido has its own narrative. The lavender fields of Furano and Biei paint the earth with shades of purple, telling tales of the summer’s embrace, while the drift ice of Shiretoko speaks of nature’s ever-changing canvas. The Ainu villages echo stories of ancient inhabitants, offering insights into traditions and lives intertwined with the land, sea, and seasons. And then there are the festivals—where each beat of the drum and swish of the dance costume breathes life into legends, myths, and the collective spirit of communities.
Beyond its natural and cultural treasures, Hokkaido tantalizes the palate with an array of culinary delights. From the freshest seafood plucked from its cold waters to the creamy richness of its dairy, every bite encapsulates the essence of the island. Each flavor, whether it’s the sweet succulence of Yubari melon or the umami burst of sea urchin, is a journey in itself, inviting travelers to savor Hokkaido in the most intimate way.
Venture Beyond Sapporo’s Snow Festival
While the brilliance of Sapporo’s Snow Festival—a winter spectacle of art, community, and celebration—often stands as the emblematic representation of Hokkaido for many, it’s essential to recognize that it’s just a singular note in the symphony that is Hokkaido. Venturing beyond this event unravels a tapestry of experiences that can’t be confined to a singular city or season.
So, to every traveler reading this: let not your journey in Hokkaido be defined by just one festival or city. Embrace the call of the winding roads that lead to hidden onsen towns, the trails that traverse through untouched forests, and the local eateries that promise a culinary adventure. Seek out the stories whispered by ancient Ainu crafts, the melodies played by Otaru’s music boxes, and the history etched into the architecture of the region’s towns and cities.
Hokkaido is a world where every season paints a new landscape, every town has a tale to tell, and every experience enriches the soul. While the allure of the Sapporo Snow Festival is undeniable, remember that the true essence of Hokkaido lies in the myriad moments, big and small, waiting to be discovered. Venture forth, for beyond the snow sculptures of Sapporo, a timeless and diverse Hokkaido beckons.