The exquisite and under-the-radar Japanese island offers incredible food, serene hiking trails, and first-rate skiing.
Kyoto has temples, Okinawa has beaches, Ishikawa has samurai, Hakone has Mount Fuji, and Tokyo has everything. But it’s Hokkaido, Japan’s most northern island, where you’ll find serene, soaring vistas unparalleled anywhere else in this beautiful nation. To picture the landscape, think Sweden or Norway: huge amounts of fertile land, ancient forests, a cold climate, ocean views, few people. Hokkaido is also the center of Japanese agriculture and aquaculture, and its food is delicious and fresh.
With the dollar-to-yen exchange better than ever, now is a great time to visit. Flights on ANA, if purchased outside of Japan, are about $99 round trip from Tokyo. Plus, each season in Hokkaido is as lovely as the next. Summer is breezy and gorgeous. Autumn has blazing colors. Winter has the best powder skiing in Asia. And spring? Cherry blossom time.
If you go: keep in mind that though public transportation is available, it is not as extensive as in the rest of Japan. A better bet is to rent a car and be prepared to drive on the left side of the road. The good news is that roads are not crowded on Hokkaido, the drivers are polite, and speed limits on the highway generally do not exceed 50 MPH. (Hint: get a rental with an English-speaking GPS!)
Need more convincing? Here are ten more reasons to visit Hokkaido:
With six national parks on the island, you’re in for a treat as you walk long, untrammeled trails. Mount Yotei, which resembles Mount Fuji (and is known popularly as “Ezo-Fuji,” after the indigenous people’s name for Hokkaido, “Ezo”), offers several paths to the top. If you have ten hours, do it. For a less ambitious trek, you can enjoy long walks on relatively flat terrain through enormous forests of birch trees—their white bark contrasts beautifully with the tall bamboo grasses.
Close to the capital city of Sapporo is the exquisite Shikotsu-Toya National Park, which offers accommodations ranging from luxe to camping. Here you’ll find Lake Toya, Mount Yotei, and Noboribetsu, the latter of which is home to “Hell Valley,” a bare and sulfurous gorge teeming with active volcanic vents, geysers, and streams and ponds that are almost boiling hot. More seasoned hikers can travel to the eastern part of Hokkaido to visit the remote and spectacular Shiretoko and Daisetsuzen National Parks. Bring binoculars: the forests of Hokkaido are home to numerous species of birds. Brown bears and foxes populate the area as well—the bears can be aggressive, and hikers are advised to steer clear.
Hokkaido is home to Japan’s finest cattle, dairy, fruit, and vegetable farms, and the producers of its best wines and cheeses. Visitors can stop by a farm to pick fruit or to choose from what’s on display at beautifully arranged farmstands, like the magnificent cherries sold on small, family farms in Niki—a long stretch of flatlands in western Hokkaido—during the month of July. The dark-red fruit is arranged in rows, the prices varying depending on level of perfection. You won’t taste a better cherry: tight skin, tart on the tongue, and a sweet, juicy finish.
Fish and Seafood
With the cold, clean waters of the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean swirling ferociously around it, Hokkaido is blessed with some of the best fish and seafood on earth. Hokkaido’s sea urchin, crab, squid, salmon, and scallops are served at high-end restaurants in southern cities, but eating them fresh on the island is an experience you won’t forget. Salmon roe (ikura) is a Hokkaido speciality, and you’ll find it served in dollops atop grains of rice, with dry seaweed to scoop everything up. Lovers of crab (kani), also a local treat, might want to take note of the hairy crab festival held here every June.
With its long, brutal, snowy winters, this area is Japan’s ramen epicenter. Unlike in the south, where ramen is student fare, in Hokkaido the noodle soup is revered as a delicious antidote to the months of freezing temperatures and afternoon darkness. It’s Hokkaido soul food. The island is also the source of Japan’s kombu (dried kelp), an ingredient essential to making ramen broth, so the depth of flavor found in local iterations of the dish is unique. Every village, town, and city on Hokkaido has a number of ramen joints. Sit at a counter, order a cold beer, and choose between salty, spicy, soy, or miso broths with tempura shrimp, vegetables, or braised pork. For about $8, you’ll leave replenished.
Japan’s whiskies are winning international competitions, and for good reason: they’re smooth, refined, and deeply flavorful. The country’s distilleries have been around for a century; today, vintage single malt whiskies are largely unavailable in retail stores, but they can usually be sampled in bars and restaurants. If you’d like to bring a bottle of hooch home with you, look for blended, or “new,” whiskies, which rival their more sought-after aged counterparts. The Nikka distillery, located in Yoichi, is a sprawling complex of warehouses, museums, a restaurant, and a souvenir shop where you can pick up small bottles of single malts as well as annual whiskies. It’s worth a visit.
Kombu, or kelp, is an essential ingredient in dashi, the Japanese broth used to make soups of all sorts, and the very best comes from the shores of Hokkaido. Harvested by hand and dried for weeks, months, or years, kombu can have such deep, distinctive, and complex flavors that some restaurants have a “kombu sommelier” who selects which type to use and for what purpose. (As with wine, location is important when it comes to kelp: the different regions of Hokkaido where kombu is harvested are akin to the regions of wine-growing and production in France.) Visit the Hokkaido Konbukan museum in Togeshita, a small town in western Hokkaido, for a kombu primer.
On the northern coast of western Hokkaido, Otaru is famous for its long canal lined with magnificent stone buildings that once housed herring merchants but are now home to cafes, restaurants, and shops. The entire town has an unusual look to it: more Russian than Japanese, more industrial than bucolic, but still deeply memorable. Drive east out of Otaru along the coastal road for a stunning view of the cliffs jutting into the raging waters of the Sea of Japan.
With an annual snowfall of forty-five feet (you read that right!) and cold air blowing in from Siberia that keeps the powder remarkably dry, the skiing in Hokkaido is spectacular. The coastal mountains offer numerous slopes, great digs, and trails that aren’t too crowded. To top off a day on the slopes, enjoy a steaming bowl of ramen and a long soak in one of the area resorts’ open-air hot tubs.
Japanese guesthouses that often feature communal baths, ryokans can come in many different styles. Some are housed in huge, high-story buildings with literally hundreds of rooms, an all-you-can-eat buffet, and dozens of noisy and excited families running amok in traditional robes (yukata) between scarfing down food and bathing elbow-to-elbow. (Sort of a Japanese version of Club Med, but with noodles.)
For those who prefer a more low-key experience, there’s another type of ryokan: small and extremely quiet inns that serve refined food (usually multi-course kaiseki meals) and offer little to do except take long, hot baths, nap, and meditate on life. It’s what one famous ryokan owner calls “a return to nothingness,” and it is a rare and specifically Japanese experience. Three of the best on Hokkaido are the Zaborin, which opened in June and provides a modern take on the tradition; Takinoya, an old-school ryokan with gorgeous arboreal views and milky-white outdoor baths that smell of sulphur; and Kuramure, a high-design concept.
When visiting a ryokan, bear in mind the following: English is limited at most ryokans, rooms are usually Japanese (you sleep on futons on the floor), the menus are omakase (chef’s choice), lunch isn’t served, and tattoos can be grounds for being banned from the baths.
Unlike traditional Kyoto or super-busy Tokyo, Hokkaido’s capital city, Sapporo, has a laid-back feel. Check out the amazing ski jump from the 1972 Winter Olympics, and the enormous Shinto shrine complex in Maruyama. The downtown parks are lovely, and the city’s restaurants are first-rate and diverse. Enjoy burgers and fries at Brooklyn Parlor, ramen at any number of places, or some of the best yakitori in Japan (plus an excellent selection of French wines) at Shiro. Many hotels have good rates; one of the best is Sapporo Grand Hotel, the city’s first western-style facility.