If all you know of Japan's countryside is what you see outside your bullet-train windows on runs between Osaka and Tokyo—a picturesque banality managed to within an inch of its life—Hokkaido will surprise you. This northernmost of Japan’s main islands is also the harshest, coldest, and least settled, accounting for 22 percent of the nation’s landmass yet only 4 percent of its population. There are a couple of marvelous cities and lots of picturesque (and slowly dying) towns. But its real draws are its vast primeval forests (which cover 70 percent of the island), its volcanic peaks (some ring-of-fire active), its mild summers, its fecund Western-style farms, and above all else its winter, which lasts a good six months and brings lovely snows (191 inches a year).
Hokkaido in winter is truly sorcerous. Nothing in the guidebooks, photographs, or GoPro videos can prepare you for the astonishing beauty of this stark land. It’s no coincidence that many of Japan’s finest artists—Akira Kurosawa, Haruki Murakami, Takuboku Ishikawa—have set much excellent work in its wintry precincts. Hokkaido is the environmental equivalent of the epic; here is a harmony of natural forms that is more or less the equivalent of the earth dropping the mic...forever.
Hokkaido is the homeland of the Ainu, the island’s persecuted indigenous inhabitants, who have stubbornly preserved their culture despite the best efforts of centuries of Japanese occupiers. It is Japan’s great wild frontier. It is the North Beyond the Wall; it is Deep Earth.
The island has always been popular with Japanese honeymooners and winter sporters, but lately a whole lot of other folks are starting to take serious notice of this wonderland in the north. Tourism is way up, especially from other Asian countries. Developers have taken note, expanding hotels and venues, and there are even rumors that Chinese investors have been operating behind the scenes, snapping up water and mineral rights all over the island. But the real starting gun will pop this year, when the 33-mile-long Seikan tunnel connecting Hokkaido to the main island of Honshu will finally start accommodating Japan’s iconic Shinkansen, or bullet trains. It will take just over four hours to travel from Tokyo to Hakodate, Hokkaido’s southernmost city, making a weekend trip from Tokyo not only possible but really, really tempting. Some say nothing’s really going to change—the island’s population will keep getting grayer and smaller and poorer. The hard-core boosters are convinced that the Shinkansen-led tourist boom will breathe new life into the north. My best friend in Tokyo just shakes his head at my question, tells me to ask the Ainu what they think.
In any event I figure this is the time to visit, when things are still in-between and unstable and weird. Before old Hokkaido ends and new Hokkaido begins, before this harsh, proud island is subsumed by whatever fate awaits it.
It's snowing in Sapporo when we land.
It’s always snowing in Sapporo, it seems. Owing to an almost constant wallop of Arctic weather from Siberia, Hokkaido’s capital is one of the most reliably snowy cities on the planet. Given all I’ve read and heard, I half expect our plane to land right in the middle of a storm-wracked, bear-besieged tundra.
New Chitose Airport, however, is anything but wilderness. As much as it’s possible for an airport to be popping, New Chitose is popping. It seems to have been modeled after the Apple design aesthetic: clean, futuristic, easy to use. The shops overflow with vacuum-sealed corn and whiskeys and Ainu trinkets and Nippon Ham Fighters jerseys and more chocolate confections than you can shake a stick at—Hokkaido is, after all, famous for its dairies. It is omiyage heaven and you could easily lose half a day and all your ducats shopping here, which is what the crowds of Chinese tourists seem intent on doing. My Chinese-American partner—I’ll call her Ms. Marvel—recognizes the accent instantly. “Beijing, all the way.”
As we drag our snow boots toward baggage claim alongside the third member of our troika, La Bachatera—Japanese by way of Fort Lee, New Jersey—I spot my first bear. I’d made bear-spotting a priority on this trip, since the bear, long revered by the Ainu, is central to the Hokkaido brand. This bear, alas, is only an advertisement, a supersize kaiju who is snapping the Sapporo TV tower with a single swipe of its massive paw.
Our plan was to stay in Sapporo for one night and then plunge ahead to Mount Yotei, the spiritual heart of Hokkaido. One thing you have to take into account when visiting the north in winter, though: the weather runs the show. Takashi, the concierge at the Cross Hotel, informs us that the roads leading up to Mount Yotei are closed because of snow. Maybe it will clear up tomorrow. Maybe not.
On Takashi’s advice, we do the standards: visit the Sapporo Clock Tower, one of the few surviving structures from the Sapporo Agricultural College that Western advisors helped to establish in the 1870s; wade through some thick-ass snow to take a gondola ride up to the 1972 Winter Olympics ski-jump station for the view of Sapporo and the Ishikari Plains; tour the old Sapporo Brewery and bug out at all the vintage adverts; gambol around the Miyanomori International Museum of Art and the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art; and round things out by eating Hokkaido soup curry at Treasure and Genghis Khan barbecue at Itadakimasu (both are Sapporo specialties, and both are excellent). Throughout our stroll, I’m eating almost constantly, from corner-stall gyoza to cart-sold baked yams. As in most Japanese cities, you are never more than 20 paces from some cold libation or hot slice of deliciousness, which makes impulse noshing almost impossible to resist.
Once night falls, we go where the action’s at: the Susukino entertainment district, which is like the less jaded, more caffeinated younger sibling to Kabukicho in Tokyo. In this vibrant crosshatch of bars, restaurants, and neon, drinks are poured by the millions nightly. On nearly every corner mill schools of hosts in Poison hairdos trying to lure girls into clubs, while behind them circle touts in swim parkas, offering—I kid you not—binders full of women. This is where Hokkaido’s children get down—and where tourists come for thrills.
Dawn finds our little trio at the Curb Market, maneuvering around scabs of old snow. This is Sapporo’s two-block answer to Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, bursting with king crab and entire shoals of dried herring and a wide assortment of local produce. A tourist trap, we’ve been warned by the locals—but trap or not, I’m not skipping a sushi breakfast in the city with reportedly the freshest seafood in all Japan. While we’re buying boxes of individually wrapped cobs of Hokkaido corn for omiyage, La Bachatera sweet-talks the proprietor, a tall, confident bruiser, into recommending a sushi restaurant that is less tourist-trappy.
“Marusan Tei is great,” he says, puffing up. “I eat there myself. Not too expensive.”
We end up at a long table with a lone Japanese tourist, in her twenties. Her camera is massive. As for the seafood donburi, it’s super-oishii, especially the uni. Our dining partner also approves, leaving not a single grain of rice behind.
Back at the hotel Ms. Marvel and La Bachatera huddle with Takashi, whom they’ve taken a serious shine to. This tall, handsome, efficient, genuinely kind young man is Hokkaido’s best advertisement for itself. Our plan had been to head to Otaru and then Niseko, then visit the Ainu Museum in Shiraoi—following a counterclockwise circle around Mount Yotei. But Takashi, who has all the latest weather news, suggests going in the opposite direction to allow a little more time for the roads to Niseko to be cleared.
The snow is falling lightly as we pack our bags into the taxi. Takashi stands outside the entire time in the cold without a coat, flakes accumulating in his hair. As we pull away he bows deeply. I must be getting sentimental, because his dedication touches me.
In the car, I put my head down. When I wake up I find the world has changed. We’ve entered yukiguni—Snow Country—for real.
Hokkaido’s wintriness is overwhelming in its scale and dizzying in its mille-feuille complexity. I stare, speechless, at the rolling drifts of Siberian snow, at the towering alps in the distance, and at the endless primeval spruce forest that covers them. Lake Shikotsu is before us, a caldera lake blue as an eye, surrounded by three volcanoes and enveloped by a haze of frozen, archaic trees. This land is a true song of fire and ice. In the days before the Japanese arrived, when it was only Ainu, it was also wolf country, howls rising over the mountains. We’re in Deep Hokkaido now, as deep as you can get when you’re in a heated, immaculately appointed cab.
Just as I’m about to speak, a red fox steps out onto the road, an exclamation of color against the drifts. It gives us a single indifferent glance before gliding back into the trees. Like Shimamura in Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Snow Country, I feel my chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it.
The abiding irony of Hokkaido is that the very natural qualities that make it so irresistible to outsiders are what have historically protected the island from them in the first place. For thousands of years this remote, inhospitable land was Ainu and Ainu only. An indigenous people with lighter skin and hairier bodies than the Japanese, the Ainu created an animist civilization that embodied the Japanese ideal of living close to nature, of managing to be, as Bashō wrote, “friends with the four seasons”—which you’d think might have given them a pass when they finally came into contact with the expanding Japanese in the 1300s.
Alas, it did not. As the Japanese pushed northward into Hokkaido, their incursions brought trade, alcoholism, and warfare, and slowly pushed the Ainu out of the southern parts of the island. But the Japanese colonization of Hokkaido only really took off in the 1870s, when Meiji officials began to fear that Russia might seize the island. So the Meiji government countered a possible invasion with a real one. Thousands of settlers, many of them disenfranchised samurai, were funneled north, enticed by tax amnesties and land grants. Whole pioneer settlements were wiped out by weather, disease, and crop failure—yet the government, which needed all the natural resources it could lay its hands on to fuel its modernization, did not relent. Eventually, Hokkaido was conquered.
For the Ainu, it was the End—about as close to apocalypse as you can experience and still be around to talk about it. On top of grabbing all the land, the Japanese pursued a policy of enforced assimilation, depriving the Ainu of their names, their language, their culture, even their tattoos. The Ainu were prohibited from fishing salmon—which would be like prohibiting the Japanese from farming rice. Many were forced to toil in slavelike conditions in mines and in—wait for it—the conqueror’s fisheries. (If you want to know where the Japanese imperial programs for Korea, Taiwan, and China began, look no further than Hokkaido.) To make matters all the more horrible, the Japanese government refused even to recognize the Ainu as indigenous people until Ainu activism helped overturn that madness—in 2008. Discrimination against them remains rampant.
And yet, despite everything, the Ainu are still in Hokkaido, making their world. In the past few decades there has been a marked resurgence of pride in Ainu tradition. Young activists have taken up where their elders left off, and the Ainu language, long on the brink of extinction, is experiencing a minor revival. Artists such as Oki Kanno and Mina Sakai of the music group Imeruat are testaments to the survivance of Ainu culture.
The Ainu are Hokkaido, and everywhere you look on the island you will find traces of them. But if you’re a traveler and you want to see Ainu up close, chances are you’ll end up doing what we do. You’ll loop down to the coastal town of Shiraoi, and there on the shore of Lake Poroto you’ll find the Porotokotan Ainu Culture Village. With replicas of traditional thatched houses (chise), a not uninteresting museum, and, best of all, honest-to-goodness Ainu, Porotokotan is indigenous cultural tourism at its most textbook.
The only other visitors are a Chinese couple. Despite our paltry numbers, the Ainu staff puts on a performance in one of the chise under a dark canopy of drying salmon. The MC cracks a joke about how he only wears his traditional clothes nine to five. He is joined on the tatami stage by six Ainu women dressed in elaborately embroidered robes. For the next half-hour, they deliver a performance that includes song, dance, informative lectures, and a demonstration of the mukkuri, a mouth harp.
Afterward, we wander around the grounds for a bit. Take pictures in front of the 50-foot-tall statue of a bearded Ainu chieftain. Tour the museum and get depressed at the Ainu’s horrible history.
It’s only when we’re about to leave that we spot the cages. In the first are two healthy white Hokkaido dogs, who jump up excitedly when they see us. And behind them, in another cage, heaped on the ground, almost unrecognizable, is a bear.
My first real bear sighting, and it’s not some magnificent ur-ursine but a shrunken, listless prisoner in a cage. Talk about careful what you wish for. The Ainu used to sacrifice bears, so perhaps this is better than being fattened up and then shot with arrows. But I’m not so sure.
“What do you think will happen if we unlock the cage?” I ask.
La Bachatera rubs her nose. “I suspect it will probably come out and eat us.”
So instead of being eaten, we decide to cruise back through Shiraoi. The town looks deader than dead; the young people, our driver explains, are all in Sapporo. We stop at a yakiniku restaurant, Ushi no Sato, to try the famous Shiraoi beef Takashi told us about. Doesn’t un-depress me, but the barbecue lives up to its reputation.
Night had fallen by the time we reach Niseko. We drive slowly, because this is even deeper yukiguni than what we encountered earlier. Nine feet of snow has fallen in only three days, and for whole stretches of the ride we slalom between sheer walls of machine-carved snow. Finally at the edge of town we pull into a convenience store to orient ourselves, and the first sight that greets me is two scruffy, white ski bros in snow pants guzzling beers in the parking lot.
Spend enough time in Japan and the sudden appearance of white people doing white things can be disconcerting. I notice other tall white dudes loping out of the convenience store with cases of beer.
“We’re not in Hokkaido anymore, are we?” I ask. Ms. Marvel, who seems as shocked as I am, says, “I guess not.”
We pile in again but a few blocks later the driver stops abruptly. I think maybe something is wrong but he points out his window. In the distance looms Mount Yotei, famed for its symmetrical cone and at that moment about the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen.
If Snow Country has a crown jewel, Niseko is probably it. Here among the volcanic heights of Mount Yotei and the Annupuri range is the island’s premier ski region, often called the St. Moritz of the Orient for its long season, consistent snows, and a champagne powder of almost supernatural perfection. The Australians and Kiwis were the first to turn Niseko into a thing when the Japanese economy tanked in the 1990s—fantastic snow at reasonable prices without having to go halfway around the world—but now Niseko has fans all over the snow-loving globe. The rest of rural Hokkaido might be flatlining, but Niseko is booming. All this international love has transformed this sleepy Hokkaido town into a bustling expat zone with the highest concentration of round eyes on the island. And we’re not just talking tourists; there’s also a growing gaijin community that’s settled in Niseko year-round—settlers of a different sort.
After a couple of wrong turns on those drift-bound streets—two stories high in places—we manage to reach our hotel, the spectacular Kimamaya by Odin, which with its elm floors and dark granite is the Niseko boom’s handsomest child. At check-in we’re joined by a good-looking Asian couple. After listening to them for a few seconds, Ms. Marvel whispers, “Singapore.”
After dropping off our bags, we head out into the frigid night, picking our way around the vast masses of recently fallen snow, past all sorts of new construction, some of it interesting, a lot of it boxy, past the food trucks and the busy ski-rental shops, until finally we stand before the illuminated glory of the mountain. The snow crowd is only now returning from a day of runs, and as we walk around there are moments when it feels like someone has turned the whole town over to a frat. There are even signs in English that advise visitors not to vomit in public.
Dinner is at Bang Bang, one of the town’s best-loved izakayas, our party squeezed between two hearty Australian ski families. The kushiyaki is nicely done, especially the hokke, though I doubt I hear more than two sentences of Japanese throughout our meal. Ezo Seafoods, touted as the best in town, is just down the street—down the snow, really—so we trudge over for a couple of excellently creamy fresh-shucked oysters. Now that the savory is taken care of, Ms. Marvel demands dessert, so it’s over to the Niseko Supply Co. for coffee and galettes. On a recommendation from the Kimamaya staff, we finish the night at Bar Gyu+, a nightspot accessed through a fridge door that, owing to the drifting snow, looks like it’s been set right into a snowbank. We sip single-malt Yoichi and crisp yuzu mojitos. When we pay our bill, La Bachatera very politely points out to our Australian server that the menu has the word Japanese spelled wrong.
“Strange,” she says. “I’ve been here all season and I didn’t notice.”
The next day is bright-blue skies from horizon to horizon. We dip into the Barn, Kimamaya’s restaurant, for an A-level breakfast—even the toast looks curated—and then after a brace of espressos at Green Farm Café we head for the lift up to the top of the Niseko Village Ski Area. Believe it or not, this island boy was once a solid skier, but after my recent spinal surgery, skiing is no longer on the agenda. On the lift we’re the only ones without skis or boards. I feel a tug of sadness, but what can you do?
I’ll tell you one thing: nothing explains Niseko’s popularity quite like being on the mountain in the midst of all that glorious snow. The divinely sculpted slopes swarm with skiers of all levels, from what appears to be every corner of the world. There are mainland Chinese in rental snowsuits falling over with great abandon; more Australian accents than I’ve heard since Melbourne; some French, too.
The girls wander around taking photos, but I spend most of my time on the slope communing silently with Mount Yotei, whose comeliness has earned it the moniker the Fuji of the North. After nearly being run over half a dozen times, I motion to the girls. Time to head back down to town.
We have lunch reservations at the highly recommended Prativo, which is a bit outside of the resort area, so we call a taxi—and that’s when we meet Ohtaka-san. Affable, knowledgeable, cool under pressure, with the reflexes of an online gamer, Ohtaka is exactly the driver you want in Snow Country. He doesn’t even seem to mind my questions. His gaijin tolerance is real high.
Fifteen years ago foreigners were a real novelty here, he explains, but not anymore. When I ask him what he thinks about the influx of foreigners he goes silent for a long while and then says it’s been about 80 percent good and 20 percent not so good.
“Do the Japanese community and the foreigners interact much?”
He shakes his head. “Not in my experience.”
From what I see, Niseko is less a contact zone where cultures meet and more an exclusion zone where all the challenges that make travel in Japan so rewarding—the language barrier; the mystifying cultural differences; the constant burden of being an other in a society that prides itself on its homogeneity; the local people themselves in all their diversity—are blocked out.
It’s not just me, either. Even the resident gaijin joke about Niseko’s strange circumscription. As Joe, our English waiter at the Niseko Supply Co., explains to us, when the international crowd has to venture out from Niseko, they say they’re going to Japan.
No offense to anyone, but I didn’t come to Japan to hang out in a gaijin-safe area—I could do that back in Boston for free. And I’m afraid the memory of the Ainu isn’t helping—left me in no mood for invasions of any sort. Even though I’m as much an invader as anyone.
The lesson here might be that if you’re coming to Niseko, try not to first visit the Ainu.
In spring the Shinkansen will arrive in Hokkaido, and with it, the future. Perhaps, as some predict, nothing will really change, and towns like Shiraoi will continue to wither, their young people fleeing en masse to Sapporo, Tokyo, and beyond. Perhaps the future will be the Niseko Invasion writ large over the entire island. I suspect there are folks who would love to see something like that happen. Better Niseko than a corpse like Shiraoi, they would argue.
When I contemplate that possible future, I think of the Hokkaido wolf, now extinct, and I think of the Hokkaido bear in his cage, and I think of the Hokkaido fox I saw on the road, who looked at us like we were nothing.
I think of Takahashi with the flakes in his hair.
And, of course, I think of the Ainu.
What will the future bring Hokkaido? Wolf, bear, fox? I know what I want and I know what I fear, but of the future, to misquote Thomas Mann: I cannot know and you cannot tell me.
Let the future bring what it will; for the present I’ll stick with Sapporo, with its fresh-to-death swagger and its legendary ramens. And I’ll stick with the Hokkaido of Snow Country, not only because it is true and beautiful and precious but because maybe one day me and some version of that titanic bear I saw at the airport might meet. Hopefully she won’t try to eat me.
After another coffee at the Niseko Supply Co. I say to the girls, “Shall we?” La Bachatera asks for the bill before I finish speaking.
We call Ohtaka, and lucky for us he’s free for the day, so he scoops us up and that’s it for Niseko. We’ll end our trip where most people head first from Sapporo: in Otaru, with its famous glassware and its picturesque canal. A historic port, it survives on day-tripping tourists from Sapporo, but at night it turns into another corpse.
We’ll arrive at night.
But that’s still in the future. In the present we have a lot of road to cover. I still have hope for one last bear.
We head back into Snow Country. Ohtaka is telling us about his time in the Self-Defense Force and about his two sons, both, predictably, in Sapporo. La Bachatera is translating happily and Ms. Marvel is busy with the Otaru section of our guidebook. Mount Tengu. The Herring Mansion. The Music Box Museum. I can’t stop myself from turning around to catch one last glimpse of Mount Yotei, which the Ainu believed was the first place created on our world. To see it in that light, against that blue sky, just about takes your heart out.
And then it too disappears.
The Details: What to do in Hokkaido
Until the bullet train arrives, the island is most easily accessible by air via the New Chitose Airport. To get to Niseko, hop on a shuttle bus from the airport for a three-hour ride west.
Cross Hotel Sapporo: A short walk from the Sapporo Clock Tower, this high-rise property offers sweeping city views. Sapporo; crosshotel.com; Doubles from $133.
Kimamaya by Odin: A cozy nine-room inn with Western-style rooms and a spa equipped with soaking tubs. Niseko; kimamaya.com; Doubles from $252.
Bang Bang: A beloved izakaya known for its skewers of grilled mackerel and chicken hearts. 188-24 Yamada Kutchan, Abuta-gun, Niseko; 81-136-22- 4292; skewers from $2.
Bar Gyu+: Enter this oasis through a refrigerator door and grab a brew after a day on the slopes. Niseko; gyubar.com.
The Barn: At Kimamaya by Odin’s bistro (right), there’s an authentic French menu and a glass wall showcasing the snowy terrain. Niseko; nisekobarn.com; Entrées $14–$28.
Marusan Tei: The best place for seafood donburi near the Curb Market. 20-1-2 Nishi Kita 12 Jo, Sapporo; 81-11-215-5655; Entrées from $15–$28.
Green Farm Café: A relaxed spot for coffee, tea, and farm- to-table bites. 167-6 Yamada Kutchan, Abuta-gun, Niseko; 81-136-23-3354; Entrées $8–$13.
Itadakimasu: A centrally located restaurant that special- izes in Genghis Khan barbecue, a grilled lamb dish. 5-1-6 Minami 5 Jo Nishi, Sapporo; 81-11-552-4029; set menus from $10.
Lookout Café: Only reachable by gondola, this wood-heavy café at the top of Mount Niseko Annupuri has incredible views. Niseko; niseko-village.com; Snacks $4–$17.
Niseko Supply Co.: Sip champagne while nibbling on fresh crêpes and galettes at this renovated bakery. Niseko; thenisekosupplycompany.com; Galettes $10–$15.
Prativo: A restaurant and dairy farm with a great vegetarian buffet and ice cream. Niseko; milk-kobo.com; Lunch buffet $13.
Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art: The best place to see the art of the island, as well as a vast collection of international glass-works. dokyoi.pref.hokkaido.lg.jp.
Miyanomori International Museum of Art: This decade-old institution has a strong contemporary art collection, including several works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Sapporo; miyanomori-art.jp.
Sapporo Beer Museum & Biergarten: The country’s only beer museum, housed in a 125-year-old red-brick building that was once the Sapporo Sugar Company factory. 9-1-1, North 7 Jo, Higashi-ku, Sapporo; 81-11-484-1876.