HOKKAIDO is the northernmost and second largest of Japan's major islands. The closest thing Japan has to a last frontier, it is home to about 5.7 million people and contains rugged mountains, 15 active volcanos, and vast tracts of wilderness in additions to huge swaths of agriculture with some of Japan’s largest farms. During the six-month winters much of the island is covered in snow and ice flows from the seas off eastern Russia ram the northern shore.


Hokkaido attractions are mostly natural rather than cultural. Most visitors to Hokkaido come to sample the island's lovely national parks or engage in outdoor activities such as skiing, hiking or relaxing in a hot spring.

Virgin forests cover parts of the interior; and wildlife such as red-crested white cranes, Stellar sea eagles, white foxes, swans, brown bears and flying squirrels. Most of the flat land is used as pastures for grazing animals such as cows or horses or as fields for agriculture. Hokkaido is now Japan's breadbasket, producing much of the country’s wheat, potatoes, corn, rice and dairy products.

Even though Hokkaido encompasses 20 percent of Japan's land area it only contains five percent of the people. Most of the island's residents are descents or people who have arrived from other parts of Japan in the last one or two generations. The Ainu---an indigenous people that look as much Caucasian as they do Japanese and once dominated Hokkaido and northern Japan, still live on Hokkaido but their numbers have dwindled to a few thousand.

Hokkaido was the last major island of Japan to be developed. Until fairly recently, it was ignored by the Japanese and left to the Ainu. When it finally was developed it initially served the same purpose for Japan as Australia did for England: it was a place where convicts, misfits and illegitimate offspring were sent to be out of sight out of mind. Today the population of Hokkaido is among the fastest shrinking on Japan as its people get older and its fishing villages die out and less people want to be farmers.

Hokkaido means “Northern Ainu Land.” It replaced the name Ezochi and was coined in the 1850s by Japanese explorer Takehiro Matsuura, who traveled widely across the island from 1845 to 1858, often walking 60 kilometers a day. He promoted the name as way of showing more respect towards the Ainu.


Visiting Hokkaido

During the summer, especially in August, Hokkaido is packed with hikers and campers. In September and October many people come to check out in the autumn leaves. In the winter, many skiers come to check out Hokkaido's legendary powder.

There are number of flights to Hokkaido from Tokyo, Osaka and other cities in Japan. Tickets are cheaper than they used to be as new no frills airlines Skymark and Air Do have begun flying there. Cheap flights and package deals are advertised in the English-speaking newspapers. Trains---including the 16-hour sleeper service from Tokyo and the 21-hour sleeper service from Osaka---pass the through the 31-mile-long Seikan Tunnel from Honshu to Hokkaido. Ferries to Hokkaido can be taken from Tokyo, Niigata, Nagoya, Sendai, and Maizura as well as across from the Tsuruga Strait from Aomori

As for getting around Hokkaido, there are a couple of good train lines but traveling this way can be expensive. The bus network services many more destinations than the train. If you can afford it is worthwhile to rent a car. Many people also explore the region by bicycling or hitching.

Websites: Hokkaido Tourism Organization Visit-Hokkaido ; Wiki Travel Wikitravel ; WikipediaWikipedia

Seikan Rail Tunnel
Seikan Rail Tunnel (between Tappi Saki Honshu and Fukushima Hokkaido) is the world's longest railway tunnel (33½ miles under the ocean). Opened in March 1988, it was bored 787 feet below sea level (lowest in the world) and 328 feet beneath the sea bed. The Chunnel between Britain and France has a longer undersea section but the overall length of the tunnel is less.

Tours of the tunnel are offered at the Yoshioka-katei station, located 145-meters below sea level, and Tappi-katei station. The tour includes walks through the maze of service tunnels and passages, and a look at some of the tunnel's machinery. To take the tour you need to take the rapid train (kaisoku ) The rapid express doesn't stop at the stations that offers the tour.

Websites: WikipediaWikipedia ; Seikan Tunnel Aomori Government Map:Japan Lifestyle Japan Lifestyle Japan Lifestyle ; Japan Visitor Japan Visitor


Hakodate (southern Hokkaido, across the Tsugaru Strait from Honshu) is a thriving fishing port with 310,000 people and a gateway for ferries between Hokkaido from Honshu. Located on the Matsumae and Kameda Peninsulas, it was one of the first three Japanese ports opened to foreign trade after Japan opened to the outside world in 1859 and traditionally has had a strong a Western influence.

Hakodate played a significant role in the development of Russian-Japanese relations. The port was one of the first opened by Japanese authorities for Russian ships after the signing of the Shimoda Treaty in 1855. The first consulate of the Russian empire in Japan began to work in the city. There is a branch of Far Eastern State University and a Russkiy Mir Center at the university branch in Hakodate. Among the city's main sights are the Resurrection Church, one of the oldest Orthodox churches in Japan, and the Russian cemetery.

Hakodate has a lively Asa-ichi morning fish markets. From their stalls, vendors sell cod roe, salmon roe, trout roe, sea urchins, whale bacon and a variety of fish. The market is particularly inviting during the winter crab season. About one kilometer away is the Hakodate City Marine products regional Wholesalers market, a scaled down version of the Tsukiji market in Tokyo. It is most active in the wee hours of the morning. On a good days 200 tons of fish pass through the 150-meter-long building. These god days however are few and far between. Both the morning market and wholesale market have a much less business than they used to have.

Also worth a checking out are Gory-kaku Fort and the Motomachi district with Meiji era, Western-style building). Mt. Hakodate is said to contain one of the most spectacular night views in the world. The top of the mountain can be reached by ropeway (cable car) or by foot. Yachigashira Onsen is a huge

mountains in Hakodate area
Websites: Hakodate-Kankou Southern Hokkaido Tourist Guide Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Hotel Websites: Hakodate-Kankou Southern Hokkaido Tourist Guide Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Hakodate is accessible by air and by bus and by train from Honshu via the Seikan Tunnel. The limited express from Tokyo takes 12 hours. It takes about 8 hours total if you take the shinkansen as far north as it goes into Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture and then switch to limited express. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Onuma National Park (30 minutes from Hakodate by car) is the home Mt. Komagedate, an active volcano that created several lava-dammed lakes including Lake Onuma and Lake Konuma. Mt. Komagedate erupted six times between 1996 and 2000. There is accommodation and food in the town of Onuma. Numanodaira Wetlands are a mix of lakes, bogs and beech forests. Websites: Japan Guide Japan Guide ; Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO


Odori Park
SAPPORO is the capital of Hokkaido and the island's cultural, economic and political center. Home to 1.75 million people, it is famous for its winter festival ice sculptures and has a pleasant, friendly atmosphere. Sapporo was selected in a 2006 poll as Japan’s most attractive city. It was the site of the 1972 Winter Olympics and bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics but didn’t make the second round. Closer to Vladivostok than Tokyo, Sapporo still retains a bit of frontier spirit.

Information and Orientation: Sapporo has several tourist offices: in the International Information Center (☎ 011-213-5062) in the JR Sapporo Station and at the Sapporo International Communications Plaza (☎ 011-211-3678) in the MN building opposite the clocktowers. There are also tourist offices at the airport and the Odori subway station. At these places you can get information for all of Hokkaido as well as Sapporo.

Sapporo is laid out in a grid and is one of few Japanese cities where it is easy to get around and find where you are going. Many places even have street addresses. Sapporo has a subway system as well as a 8.5-kilometer street car system that carries 24,000 passengers a day.

Websites:Sapporo Tourist Association Sapporo Tourist Association City of Sapporo City Of Sapporo Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO City of Sapporo City of Sapporo Subway Map: Urban Rail

Hotel Websites: Sapporo Tourist Association Sapporo Tourist Association City of Sapporo City Of Sapporo Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Sapporo is accessible by air and by bus and by train from Honshu via the Seikan Tunnel. The limited express from Tokyo takes 14 hours. It takes about 10 hours total if you take the shinkansen as far north as it goes into Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture and then switch to limited express. Lonely Planet. There are relatively cheap flights on Skymark and Air Do. Lonely Planet

festival ice statues
Entertainment and Shopping: Try to get a hold of Traveler's Sapporo, Monthly Hokkaido and What's On in Sapporo. The Tanukikoji and Susukino entertainment and shopping areas, boast 300 boutiques, stores and cinemas and some 350 restaurants, bars and nightspots.

The Odori-Koen Promenade, the centerpiece of the city, is a mile-long promenade decorated most of the year with flowers. Underneath it is an underground shopping mall with 150 restaurants, souvenir shops, bars and coffee shops. Ramen Row is the best place to sample Sapporo's famous noodles. Sapporo has the forth largest fish market in Japan but visitors are generally not welcome. There are some sushi and seafood restaurants around it.

The Sapporo Beer Garden and Museum is housed in Japan's oldest brewery building (founded in 1876). Eighty-minutes tours are free and given throughout the year. The beer hall has all-you-can-eat-and-drink deals that start at around ¥3,500.

Sights in Sapporo

Sapporo Dome
Sapporo doesn't have much in the way of sights. It main attractions are its atmosphere, nightlife and restaurants. The Clock Tower adjacent to City Hall is the symbol of the city. Built in 1878, it houses a museum of local history. Good views of the city are offered from 90-meter-high viewing platform on the Sapporo TV Tower for ¥700. Similar views can be had for free on the 19th floor of the nearby City Office building.

The Sapporo Dome is spectacular stadium that hosted several World Cup matches in 2002, including the much anticipated one between England and Argentina. Designed to look like giant computer mouse, it has a shiny, silvery exterior and embraces a 229-x-218-meter silver dome (the largest roof in Japan) with an artificial surface for baseball, and an outdoor field with a 8,300-ton, natural turf “floating soccer stage” that can be placed inside the dome. The process of switch the dome from baseball to soccer takes about five hours as the grass field is “floated” inside the dome on a hovering cushion of air.

Hokkaido University was founded in 1872 and modeled after a university in Massachusetts. It runs a Botanical Gardens covering 14 hectares and containing 5,000 species of local and imported plants. On the garden ground is the Ainu Museum. Also run by the university, it houses over 20,000 items, including traditional costumes, canoes, harpoons and utensils used by the Ainu and Gilyak.

Clock Tower
Other museums in Sapporo include the Museum of Modern Art, the Migishi Kotaro Museum of Modern Art and the Sapporo Salmon Museum. Also worth checking out are the facilities from the 1972 Olympics and 1,700-foot-high Mt. Moiwa, a popular picnic and skiing area. Outside of town, Jozankei Spa is a poplar hot spring resort set among spectacular forests, gorges and ravines.

Moerenuma Park (accessible by No. 69 or79 bus from Kanjo Dori Higashi Station, 30 minutes north of Sapporo) is a park designed by the sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The centerpiece is 6-meter-high, manmade, grass-covered hill called Mt Moere . To reach it one must climb a long series of gradual white stone stairs. The park also features glass pyramids, mounds, cones and standing stones and a ziggurat called Play Mountain. Tetra Mound is a tripod made of tunnel-size stainless steel tubes and set on an earthen dome. Sea Fountain is a large fountain lit up at night. The whole park is designed to come together like a single sculpture.

Situated within a loop of an oxbow lake in an old landfill, the park covers 188.8 hectares, has a circumference of 4.4 kilometers and embraces hills made from 3.7 million tons of rubbish covered by dirt. The project evolved from proposals for works of art in New York’s Central Park that were rejected.

The park opened in July 2005 and follows a plan unveiled on Noguchi’s 84th birthday, a month after he died. . Noguchi liked to incorporate playful and childlike qualities in his works. No doubt he would be delighted to see children sledding on the hills in the winter and enjoying the futuristic playground in the summer.

Near Sapporo

Otaru canal
Otaru (northwest of Sapporo, 30 minutes by fast train from Sapporo) is a ferry port with 160,000 people and services to Honshu and Russia's Sakhalin Island (late April to early September only). The city’s attractions include some Japanese- and Western-style building and pleasant walks on Otaru Canal. Lots of Russians come to the town

Websites: JNTO JNTO Lonely Planet Lonely Planet Map: Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Otaru City PDF map Otaru City Hotel Websites: Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Otaru is accessible by fast train from Sapporo (30 minutes) and Local train from Sapporo (50 minutes). Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Asahikawa (about 80 miles kilometers of Sapporo) is an unappealing city with 360,000 residents. It attractions include a folkcraft museum and Ainu museum that sometimes host dance performances. The world's largest snow palace was built in Asahiawa, Hokkaido in February 1994. It was over 99 feet high and had a volume of 3,658,310 cubic feet.

Websites:Asahikawa Tourism Asahikawa Tourism Map: Asahikawa City Asahikawa City Hotel Websites: Asahikawa Tourism Asahikawa Tourism Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Asahikawa is accessible by air, bus and train. It is 1/5 hours from Sapporo by limited express train. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Uryunuma-Shitsugen Moor (70 kilometers north of Sapporo) is the second largest elevated moor in Japan. Located at an elevation of 850 meters above sea level, the moor measures two kilometers east to west and one kilometer north to south. If other nearby marshes are included the whole area covers 100 hectares. More than 700 pools and ponds are scattered around the area and 150 varieties of flower bloom between mid-June and October and hikers can take in the scenery walking on a four-kilometer-long boardwalk that straddles the moor. This trail is reached by a four kilometer trial on a river. On this trail is an observation deck which offers beautiful views of the entire moor.

Niseko (about halfway between Hakodate and Sapporo) is one of Japan's highly-regarded ski resorts. Very popular with Australians until the value of the yen soared, it is home of “Mt Fuji of Hokkaido” and receives huge amounts of snow and has ideal weather conditions for producing powder. Located between Mt. Yotei-zan and Mt. Niseko Annupuri, it is also popular with hikers in the summer. There are many hot springs in the area. Whitewater rafting is done on local rivers.

Websites: Niselo United Niseko United ; Niseko Ski Tours Niseko Ski Tours Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Shikotsu-Toya National Park

Lake Shikotsu
Shikotsu-Toya National Park (southwest of Sapporo) is famous for its volcanos, caldera lakes and hot springs. Covering 983 square kilometers, it embraces Lake Shikotsu, Lake Toya and Norboribetsu Spa. It is popular with hikers, hot spring lovers and people who want close encounters with volcanos. Shikotsu-Toya National Park is easy to get to from Sapporo and Chitose airport. Websites : Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan ; Lonely Planet Lonely Planet Japan Guide Japan-Guide

Lake Shikotsu (Shikotsu-Toya National Park) is a beautiful caldera lake tucked between soaring cliffs and several volcanos. Japan's second deepest lake, it contains deep blue water that never freezes over. In Shikotsu Kohan you can rent mountain bikes and take boat trips. Hiking destinations include 1,320-meter-high Mt. Eniwa-dake and 1,038-meter-high Mt. Tarumae-zan, an active volcano. Website: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet International Lake Environment ; Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Lake Toya
Lake Toya (3 hours by bus from Sapporo in Shikotsu-Toya National Park) is a nearly circular caldera lake with four thickly wooded islets. It is possible to take a boat to Naka-jima Island in the middle of the lake. On the island you can see wild Ezo deer and the uninspiring Lake Toya Forest Museum.

The Windsor Hotel Toya resort & Spa in Toyakocho hosted the G-8 summit in 2008. Website: Lake Toya Guide Lake Toya Guide Map: Good Map frpm Toyako Visitor’s Center Toyako Visitor’s Center

Toyako Spa (on the shore of the Lake Toya) is Shikotsu-Toya National Park's largest resort. It attracts people interested in exploring the area's volcano. Sights in the town include the Volcano Science Museum, Nearby is Mt. Shiho-rei Bear Ranch, the home of nearly 200 bears.

Websites:Toyako Onsen Tourist Association Toyako Onsen Tourist Association Map: Good Map from Toyako Visitor’s Center Toyako Visitor’s Center Hotel Web Sites: Toyako Onsen Tourist Association Toyako Onsen Tourist Association Japan Hotels Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: is accessible by bus (3 hours) and by limited express train (1 hour 50 minutes from Sapporo. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Mt. Showa (south of Tokyako Spa) is an active volcano that rose from a vegetable field in 1943 and, after a series of eruptions over two years, became the 402-meter-high mountain you see today. The ground on the top of the volcano is still hot and fumes escape from a number of furmoles.

Mt. Usu

Usu March 2000 eruption
Mt. Usu (south of Tokyako Spa) is a 732-meter-high volcano that frequently erupts and has a cable car. An eruption in 1977 destroyed a cable car and rained rocks and 30 centimeters of ash on Toyako Onsens. An eruption in 1977 destroyed a cab car and rained rocks and 30 centimeters of ash on Toyako Onsens. It also was the source of the Mt. Showa eruption.

In March 2000, Mt. Usu, began erupting. Large amounts of superheated steam and gas were hurled as high as 3,200 meters into the air from craters on the lower slopes of the volcano. No one was hurt. More than 17,000 people were evacuated. Stones from eruptions fell on nearby towns.

Mt. Usu, the south of Lake Toya, erupts every 30 to 50 years. In August 1977, Mt. Usu erupted and caught people by surprise. A panicky evacuation ensued when the eruptions began and three people were killed in August 1978 by a mudflow after they returned to their homes, thinking it was safe. The eruption continued until 1982 and formed the 667-meter-tall Usu Shinzan peak on the crater basin.

Mt. Usu is a stratovolcano that emerged between 15,000 and 20,000 years. The summit was torn off by an explosion about 7,000 to 8,000 years ago. A large mudflow in 1822 ripped through a town and killed 59 people. Pyroclastic flows occurred in 1769, 1822 and 1853. The 1822 eruption produced the 671-meter-high Ogarison peak. The 1853 eruption produced the 732-meter-high Ousu peak. In 1910, some 45 craters opened up and one person was killed in a mud slide. There were also huge explosion caused by magma interacting with ground water.

Even though craters opened up on a hill only 300 meters above the hot spring resort of Toyako Onsen during the Usu eruption no one was killed or hurt. This is because scientists were able to accurately predict the eruption and people were ordered to evacuate their homes for gymnasiums in nearby cities before the eruptions began.

Mt. Usu has a history of producing earthquakes before an imminent eruptions. So when a series of strong earthquakes rattled the mountain in 2000 an order was given for all people in the area to evacuate. Particularly urgency was given to moving people who lived along likely paths of mud slides and pyroclastic flows. Four days after the warning was given Mt. Usu erupted.

A total of 17,300 people were evacuated. About 13,039 of them long term. About a third of these people were allowed to return home after a couple of weeks. The others had to wait until the eruptions were largely over about a month later. Website: Toya Usu Geopark Toya Usu Geopark

Noboribetsu Onsen Area

Hell Valley
Noboribetsu Onsen (on the Pacific Ocean south of Shikotsu-Toya National Park) is Hokkaido's most popular spa. Surrounded by mountains, volcanoes and virgin forests, it features 11 different kinds of hot-spring water, each promising you treat a different ailment. Dai-ichi Takimoto-kan, one of the largest bath complexes in Japan, features mineral baths, waterfalls, walking pools, cold pools, jacuzis, steams room, a swimming pool with a water slide and an outdoor pool with a bar.

Within a few miles of Noboribetsu Onsen are the Valley of Hell, Noboribetsu Bear Park and Lake Kuttara, a small crater lake with very clear water. Noboribetsu Bear Park features dozens of brown bears in open air concrete pens. They rear up on their hind legs and beg for hand outs. Muzzled bears in the auditorium walk on their front paws and throw basketballs through a hoop.

Websites:Noboribetsu Tourism Noboribetsu Tourism Map: WalkingMap (PDF file) Noboribetsu Tourism Hotel Websites: Noboribetsu Tourism Noboribetsu Tourism Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Noboribetsu Onsen is accessible by bus and train from Sapporo and other cities in Hokkaido. The bus journey from Sapporo is 1 hour 45 minutes. The nearest train station is 15 minutes from Noboribetsu Onsen. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Valley of Hell
Valley of Hell (near Norboribetsu Spa) is Hokkaido's most intriguing sight. Inside this 1½-mile-wide volcanic crater are numerous little yellow and red domes. Spewing out of the fractured surfaces of these domes are bubbling mud and water and hissing sulfuric gasses. Unique to this area are sulfateras--- geysers of steam and gas that make a big noise when they erupt. Nearby is a lake of steam and boiling mud. Hiking trails wind throughout the area.

Shiraoi (east of Norboribetsu Spa) is small town that has become a tourist center for Ainu culture. Ainu Village (on the shore of Lake Poroto in Shiraoi) features houses constructed in traditional Ainu style. Traditional Ainu dances and demonstrations of traditional embroidery and weaving are demonstrated at the handicrafts house.

Ainu Museum (within Ainu Village) is one the best places to catch a glimpse of Ainu culture. It has an excellent displays of precious heirlooms and utensils and sells a catalogue put together by the Shiraoi Institute for the Preservation of Ainu Culture, Wakakusa 2-3-4, Shiraoi, Hokkaido.

Image Sources: 1) map Japan Guest Houses 2) Wikipedia 3) Hakodate Tourism 4) 9) 10) Ray Kinnane 5) 8) Sapporro City tourism 6) 7) Yamasa 11) Asakikawa City Tourism 12) Hokkaido Tourism 13 Lake Toya Onsen tourism 14) Univerity of Tokyo Volcano Research 15) Noboribetsu Tourism

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

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