Hokkaido Prefecture Overview
One thousand kilometres north of Tokyo in the chilly waters of the Okhotsk Sea lies Hokkaido, Japan’s most northerly island. Dominated by wild national parks, snow-set onsen, and kaleidoscopic flowerscapes which collide against a backdrop of craggy mountains and crystal clear caldera lakes, Hokkaido is Japanese untouched nature at its best.
Up in the most northern reaches of Japan, Hokkaido is a far cry from the densely populated cities of mainland Japan. While the country’s second largest island is by no means a secret destination these days, it is sizeable with a small population and even visitors end up spread out across the vast countryside. As a result, peace and quiet is guaranteed if you plan to get out exploring, especially in eastern Hokkaido, whether you’re getting lost in one of the six national parks including the largest of the prefecture, Daisetsuzan, and Shiretoko, the home of brown bears and deer, or taking a dip in a rural onsen.
The cities of Hokkaido move at a slightly faster pace with the prefecture’s capital, Sapporo, perfecting a fusion of trendy city and nature getaway; hipster whisky bars and suave hotels overlook the city skyline which sits before the snowy peaks. After a short city break, the surrounding mountains are in easy reaching distance from Sapporo welcoming keen hikers and skiers along to liven up the hills.
In almost reaching distance from Russia, Hokkaido is known for its cooler climate with winter temperatures reaching as low as -7C when every mountain top is coated with a frosting of thick snow. In celebration of the cold, Sapporo hosts an annual snow festival during the first week of February, the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri, in which ice structures the size of small buildings and carved into everything from familiar manga characters and political figures to well-known buildings take over the city. With temperatures averaging at around 20C in summer, in comparison to the high 20s throughout the rest of Japan, many locals head to the Hokkaido hills to enjoy outdoor activities in the relievingly fresh air.
Although the most northern island of the Japanese archipelago is now a fixed part of the map, it wasn’t until the beginning of the Meiji period in 1868 that Hokkaido officially became Japanese territory following a series of disputes between the aboriginal Ainu people and mainland Japan. The history of Ezochi, as Hokkaido was once known, and the Ainu people can be discovered in a spattering of museums and cultural centres across the prefecture, including the Akanko Ainu Kotan where traditional Ainu crafts and dance can be experienced alongside the Akan Mashu National Park and Akan Onsen.