For some odd reason, I keep ending up in bloody Hokkaido, Japan’s most northern island. It happens to have the lowest population density and one of the least visited by tourists (sans an influx of Chinese visitors, drawn here by Chinese Hollywood. To say the least, it’s creating some tension). Yet here I am once again. Two years ago it was my own hitchhiking adventure— a one-week loop around the island via the kindness of strangers. Last year it was researching for Rough Guides for the Hokkaido chapter of the 2017 edition. This year, homestays in the city of Tomakomai as part of a summer job I’m on with The Experiment in International Living. I’ve been broom-balling, matsuri-carrying, Tomachopping my way around the city.
“The untamed wilderness, the regional delicacies, and the ability to truly feel foreign in a country overrun by gaijin… simply winning…”
I could’ve have been more thrilled to learn I would be back on the island that consistently delivers a perfect summer. Hokkaido is pure magic in its presentation and this is no bias talking. I realize that outside of summer, it can be rather inhospitable. I also realize that getting around the 83,000 km2 land mass is a huge pain in the ass compared to Tokyo— thus the hitchhiking.
But the untamed wilderness, the regional delicacies, and the ability to truly feel foreign in a country overrun by gaijin… simply winning. Plus it’s easier than ever to visit thanks to low-cost carriers like Peach and Vanilla (yes, these are the actual airline names) and the Shinkansen which now connects the mainland with Hokkaido.
I have my own reasons for this utter infatuation with Hokkaido but I’m not alone in my principles. So here are 8 reasons why Hokkaido should be included on your itinerary… future rave reviews, guaranteed:
It has superb ice cream.
Happy cows equal happy milk or something, right? Well, Hokkaido in all its green spaciousness has the breathing room to raise said happy cows. And you can taste it in the dairy. Over and over again on hundreds of farms across Hokkaido specializing in exquisite ice cream. Basically, the kind of roadside attraction of your dreams. Think local flavors like Yubari melon (that’s their $100 version of a melon), lavender, and classic milk, all promptly available at each “tourist” site. Hell, in places like Otaru, you can even get your ice cream served in a melon half. In Sapporo, there’s a whole bar dedicated to combining booze with ice cream. You dream it, they’ve create it.
You can nerd out on history.
Most people know something of Japanese history when it comes to samurai and/or war. But few know of the indigenous Ainu culture of Hokkaido. Even the Japanese people know little about this group of people, who have been pushed out of their land and subjected to hundreds of years of discrimination. There’s museums scattered throughout Hokkaido, including in the capital of Sapporo. But two of the best places to learn about the Ainu are in Akan-ko and Shiraoi. Akan-ko tends to lure visitors with its marimo, green algae balls that grow in the lake and are only found here and Siberia. Shiraoi has a small open-air museum and does a fantastic job explaining Ainu culture through music and dance. Just steer away from the bear cages, once part of Ainu culture, and now a sad touristy showcase.
There’s bears. Awesome bears.
Though Japanese brown bears have occasionally stirred the honey pot in terms of news-worthy trouble, they are otherwise fascinating and delightful to see in person. The best place to see them in relative safety is in the northeast corner of Hokkaido in Shiretoko National Park. Here, you have the option of a bear cruise— watching the critters in their natural habitat (often with their cubs) from the distant comfort of a boat. Or you can take a stroll on the renowned wooden path of Shiretoko Goko. If you’re lucky, the bears will be passing through at a timely moment. Enough time for you to secure a secure lookout and play wannabe Nat Geo explorer. Avoid bear parks, such as the one in Noboribetsu, as they tend to exploit the bears for tourist amusement.
The hiking is sublime.
I haven’t had the time or balls (see above bear reference) to go on a multi-day transverse across Hokkaido’s volcanic peaks. However, the day hikes I have attempted have been both challenging and altogether stunning. Besides the bear-friendly options up in Shiretoko, most hikers head to tackle Daisetsuzan. Daisetsuzan is part of Hokkaido’s largest national park and includes Asahi-dake, Hokkaido’s highest peak. Many a hiker love to tic off the Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse, a 5-7 hike featuring alpine flowers, bamboo forest, and snow drifts. I only managed the first day of that hike given the blizzard that blew over Daisetsuzan, much to everyone’s surprise.
My personal favorite hiking area is as far north as you can get— on Rebun and Rishiri, islands butting up against disputed territory with Russia. The 8-hour hike on Rebun led to one of my best days ever in Japan, if only for the flowers. And the solitude. And the sea slapping me around every corner.
There’s abandoned theme parks to explore.
As Nara Dreamland— my abandoned love— has been recently demolished, it’s getting harder and harder to locate and explore Japan’s haikyo sites. However, Hokkaido, with its remote displacement, continues is my haikyo mecca. And that’s because a plethora of attractions were shut down when the economic bubble burst in the 80s, given the small population and lack of tourists. There was little reason to raze such sites if the land wasn’t being used otherwise. Thus, opportunity. My personal favorite is a beautifully intact Chinese amusement park that lies close to Noboribetsu. There’s also hospitals and love hotels and a park called Gluck Kingdom, lost among the weeds near Obihiro Airport.
You can literally tiptoe through the tulips.
“One of Hokkaido’s biggest draws in summertime are its expansive flower fields offering up the most brightly hued photo ops ever…”
Or lavender. Or rainbow, really. One of Hokkaido’s biggest draws in summertime are its expansive flower fields offering up the most brightly hued photo ops ever. The fields are often so large that adorable tractors or trolleys shuttle tourists from one end to another. Perhaps the best part about visiting the fields are the culinary options. Besides the aforementioned dairy products, select farms like Farm Tomita— despite its crowds— reach beyond ice cream and branch out to lavender-flavored drinks, smoothies, cream puffs, and cake. Read Local Girl Foreign Land’s account on her visit there.
Cheap crab rice bowls. Enough said.
Hakodate’s Asaichi morning market is as bad of a tourist draw as one can find in Hokkaido, probably given the city’s close proximity to the mainland. That being said, bargains are to be had. The city loves their crab. And we love it back. For about 1,000 yen ($10), treat yourself to a rice bowl topped with a generous portion of crab meat. That’s right, no need to spend days cracking open your own crab. They’ve got that covered.
You can watch ginormous fireworks displays up close.
“That’s the way Hokkaido fireworks displays are: phenomenally accessible and mind-blowing…”
I once subjected myself to the annual Sumida-gawa fireworks show in Tokyo. Besides the copious amount of booze on hand, it was rather disappointing. We were far. Tarps covered prime viewing spots. Just overall impersonal. A few weeks later I was in Obihiro, Hokkaido, home to odd horse races and delicious pork rice bowls. But even better was their summer Kachimai Hanabi Taikai festival. Without evening putting much effort into it, I ended up— in my opinion— dangerously closer to the action. And it was marvelous. And that’s the way Hokkaido fireworks displays are: phenomenally accessible and mind-blowing.