The first place you’d normally think about checking out when visiting Japan is its capital, Tokyo. However, Japan has so much more to offer than its busy capital. Around the northern tip, right before the boundary of Russia, sits a beautiful island called Hokkaido. This island has its own capital, which is Sapporo, which also happens to be the biggest city on that island. While most of Hokkaido sits on one giant island, the area is also designated to include other smaller islands, such as Kunashari Island, Rebun Island, and Okushiri Island. If you want to see stunning vistas, eat great food, and have a truly dynamic experience full of variety, Hokkaido is the place to be!
Hokkaido Island, Geographically Speaking
Already packing your bags for a visit? Hope you don’t mind earthquakes! This island isn’t spared from the multitude of quakes that Japan experiences. It also has six active volcanoes, namely Mt. Tarumae, Mt. Meakan, Mt. Tokachi, and Mt. Usu, which is right beside another active volcano, Showa-Shinzan. This island also boasts having coasts located in three different seas, namely the Sea of Othotsk, the Pacific Ocean, and the Sea of Japan. Because of the rich variety of landscapes on this island, it also serves as home to a wide range of National Parks, Lakes, Wildlife (Brown Bears!) and Wetlands. Much of the terrain here is likened to look like parts of Northern Europe, especially in terms of foliage and trees!
The History of Hokkaido Island
This ancient island has a rich history of indigenous dwellers, leading all the way up to the Orok, Ainu, and Nivk people. These indigenous peoples were of both Russian and Japanese origin. As time went on, the island became known as Ezochi, and the people who inhabited it were known as Ezo. The Ezo would trade their raw materials with the rest of Japan, mainly rice, iron, and fish. There were a few disputes (which turned into full-blown battles) between the Japanese and the Ainu people who inhabited the island, which the Japanese ended up winning. They would soon end up having to defend themselves from Russians later on, so they made that island somewhat a military zone. Ezochi joined the prefectural government of Japan, and soon after became known as Hokkaido after 1869, during the Meiji Period. This was a strategic move done mainly to prevent Russia from spreading their territorial reach to claim the island.
How Hokkaido Island is Governed
Ever since being renamed to Hokkaido, the island came to follow the government ordinance of Japan, and is a prefecture as a territory/circuit – as opposed to the Metropolis, which Tokyo is labeled as. Sapporo, a city within Hokkaido, is known as a designated city. To be a designated city, that city must first have at least 500,000 inhabitants. The minor functions of that city get to be decided by their duly elected leaders, however, larger-scale decisions are controlled by the prefecture that city is in. Each prefecture also has its own governor, so the needs of each area are met properly and carefully.
Will I Enjoy Hokkaido Weather?
Of course you will! Hokkaido keeps cool most parts of the year, though it can get icy during the winter months – particularly on the northern tip of the island. You’ll want to watch out for the coldest months of the year for them, which begin November and end April. During these months, temps can range between -10 deg. Celsius to 10 deg. Celsius. Fret not! The temperature can get humid since the island still falls under the climate classification of “dfa”, (hot and humid) as well as “dfb” (halfway temperate). That means by mid-August, you will see those degrees soaring up to the heated 30’s! Remember to prepare for the weather here depending on when you go. So if your trip is happening during the colder months, prepare your layers, a warm hat, and a nice, thick, coat. If your plane ticket reads your arrival and departure around May to October, then a shirt and a nice light jacket should do the trick!
Accommodation In Hokkaido Japan
Hokkaido is full of hotels that have great service, and won’t let you down. Because it’s such a large island, you may not be staying in one place the entire duration of your trip, so it’s best to know which hotels are the best per area you’re visiting. In Sapporo, there’s the Mercure Hotel (if your budget is mid-range) and the JR Tower Hotel Nikko (for those who can afford the pricier room models). Both are top-rated places to get your rest and relaxation in Hokkaido’s capital! If you find yourself in Asahikawa, the JR Inn is just as highly rated as it is in Sapporo. In Hakodate, we recommend La Vista Hakodate Bay. In Rusutsu-mura for a couple of winter activities? Rusutsu Resort and Hotel Convention is a comfortable and aesthetically wintery option!
If you’re tired of these big hotels, there’s always the option to try out a Ryokan, which is Japanese for a traditional inn. There are many Ryokan around Hokkaido, but you may want one where the service crew understand your language! The trick to that is preparation; doing research, and scoring a reservation way before your trip takes place. Almost all of these hotels let you make reservations online using third party sites! Staying in a Ryokan is different from staying in an ordinary hotel. They have features and services that are exclusive only to Japan. For example, you’ll probably get to try having a bath at the Ryokan’s special Onsen. Convinced already? One great Ryokan is Kuramure, which is found in Otaru. It offers great cuisine, a lovely hot springs bath, and a traditional Japanese room that you may rest in and experience. In Noboribetsu, there’s a Ryokan called Takinoya which (for a minty price) offers a luxurious twist to Japanese style Inns. It’s got a modern touch to it, and the rooms are spacious, clean, and large. Their service is also excellent. Best part of all? They can understand and speak English. This Ryokan is so worth every penny saved!
Hokkaido Food Specialties: Bread, Seafood, and Others!
The accommodation in Hokkaido is one thing, but the food is another thing! If you’re looking to lose a couple of pounds to get that beach body, Hokkaido will make you lose that challenge with its wide selection of delectable fresh seafood, ramen, milk tea, and sushi. Because it’s also such a big agricultural sector of Japan, it also has a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables to offer. In fact, there’s a special variety of pumpkin called Red Kuri Squash, a variety of which you can acquire on this island named “Hokkaido” or “Red Hokkaido”. This sector of Japan has delicious recipes that you absolutely must check out. One of them is “Jingisukan” or Genghis Khan. You’ll love this if you’re a fan of rich, meaty flavors, as it’s Lamb and Mutton, cooked on top of a cast-iron dome. They say that the dish is named after Genghis Khan, because soldiers during his era used to cook their food on top of their helmets, just like this dish! Wash all that down with a nice local beer (Sapporo’s got you covered there) and you’ve got one great experience of a meal under your belt – literally. The recommendation of trying out all the different beers Hokkaido has to offer should go without saying already! They’ve got them in all forms and sizes, and their lighter beers will appeal to those who aren’t big beer drinkers too.
It doesn’t end there, though! We didn’t label it a glorious Hokkaido buffet for nothing. Next up on your list of must-haves is their crab, otherwise known as “Kani”. Kani is amazing in Hokkaido because of its size and freshness. Take on an entire Boiled King Crab Leg. Yes, the leg is enough to get you full! That’s how huge it is. For dessert, Hokkaido’s egg tarts are a sure hit. Also, check out their Yubari Melon! You won’t get this anywhere else, promise! While these melons come at a pretty steep price (Around $20+ per melon!), it’s one of the sweetest fruits your tongue will ever taste. Compliment that melon with some ice cream, and you’re in dessert heaven. Hokkaido’s soft serve ice cream are extra milky and tasty because Hokkaido is also known for producing dairy products. Even their bread is famous for being milky! So go ahead, add a dollop of milk flavored soft serve on top of your slice of Yubari melon, and you’ve got a truly authentic Hokkaido dessert trip!
Hokkaido Ramen - Santouka and Others
Because its importance and deliciousness dominate an entire category on its own, Hokkaido Ramen deserves its own dedicated space. While it may have been initially a Chinese soup dish (pretty funny right!? Everyone seems to think it’s completely a Japanese soup dish), the Japanese made it their own during the Meiji period. Although you can enjoy Ramen no matter where you are in Japan, Hokkaido specializes in it. A particular style that is native to this island is called Santouka ramen, from the city of Asahikawa. It’s made out of seafood and tonkotsu! So as you know, Ramen can come in a ton of different flavors based on the kind of broth and noodles you use. Sapporo is famous for its savory miso broths. You’ll find a particular Ramen recipe in this island is the Butter Corn Ramen. With a broth base of miso, a dollop of butter and a sprinkle of corn bits, how can you go wrong?! Visit Teshigaka Ramen at the Ramen Alley and have their Butter Corn Seafood Miso – it’s apparently impeccably delicious – worth every slurp! For a lighter version of ramen, you can try the ones that come with chicken instead of pork as the protein. The price for ramen isn’t so bad, it costs about as much as a big mac from McDonald’s; thereabouts of a thousand yen.
Hokkaido Milk Tea
A favorite among milk tea drinkers, this sweet treat is something you shouldn’t miss while traveling around Hokkaido. It’s surprisingly easy to whip this drink up, it’s simply made of good quality, creamy milk from Hokkaido, black tea leaves, and sugar (or honey). You can get a good caffeine kick out of the boiled tea leaves, as well as a sugar rush – perfect for boosting your energy while you’re at work or school. The great thing about Hokkaido milk tea isn’t so much the tea leaves – it’s about the quality of Hokkaido’s fresh dairy. Because their milk is so pure, fresh, and thick, you’ll notice it right away at the first sip of this drink. The sugar adds a caramelly finish to it, making it a favorite among crowds. In fact, it’s so good, Milk Tea shops around the world have a flavor in their menus labeled as “Hokkaido Milk Tea” – just for those who want that decadent, luscious milky dose they’ve been craving for!
If you happen to find yourself near a coast in Hokkaido, grab that opportunity to get a taste of some of the best and freshest sushi you may ever have in your life. It truly doesn’t get better than being as freshly caught as that – delivery time is cut much shorter than it would have been had you ordered sushi in the city. The kind of sushi that you should look out for especially while you’re in Hokkaido is uni (Sea Urchin) – best kinds are found at Ishikari Bay. Next up is Ika, or squid. You find the best squid in Squid City – or rather, Hakodate! Try the famous dancing squid. Let’s just say the squid literally dances!
Map It Out: Travelling To Hokkaido, Japan
There are three ways to get to Hokkaido; ferry, train, and plane. There are some direct flights to Sapporo depending on the airline you take (such as JAL), as well as where you’re coming from. If you want a scenic and long ride, a train is recommended. But which train is best to ride in Japan, especially if you’re a tourist and want to experience all things new?
Taking The Shinkansen
Ever since March 2016, the Shinkansen (high speed train) can take you from Tokyo Station to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto station in just a little over four hours! The fee is around 22,690 yen for that route. From Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto to Sapporo riding the same train costs an extra 8,830 yen, totaling to 31,520 yen all in all for a trip from Tokyo to Sapporo.
Airport: The Best Choice
If you’re insistent on still going for the long way around, a ferry can take you as well – Otaru and Tomakoma are connected to several cities in Japan (sadly, not Tokyo!) but the best most common way to take the ferry is to go from Aomori to Hakodate. Don’t want to stop anywhere? The most efficient and quickest way is still by plane. Book that ticket now!
Famous Hokkaido Ski and Snowboard Resorts
Lastly, Hokkaido is known for their ski resorts. It even held the winter Olympics once in the 70’s! Come during December until February and visit Hoshino Resorts Tomamu The Tower – skiing is a great way to spend your day in this area, as it’s located right at the foot of pristine white slopes. Next is Club Med Hokkaido, which holds the record as Traveler’s Choice of 2016! Its reviews are overflowing with 5-star ratings. It’s a great ski vacation escape for your entire family – but it comes at a steep price (A whopping 147,000 yen, thereabouts!) but it’s all worth it for the super slopes and amazing service you will get here for four awesome nights.