Living up to its nickname, ‘adventure island’, Hokkaido offers a host of thrills, no matter when you visit. In winter, its mountain resorts — all crisp, white powder and snow-topped peaks — have serious slope appeal, while its green season is just as alluring. During the latter, snowscapes give way to shinryoku (new leaves), and verdant greenery transforms six national parks into wonderlands of ripe-for-exploration hiking routes and cascading rivers. Add in landscape artwork and immersive cultural experiences and discovering Japan’s most northerly main island has never been more appealing.
Hokkaido is likely to be even more accessible with the return of Finnair’s direct, nine-hour flights (slated to resume in July 2022) from Helsinki to international New Chitose Airport, the hub of Hokkaido, located on the outskirts of Sapporo. Here are 10 Hokkaido highlights you shouldn’t miss.
1. Onsen soaks in Jozankei
A must-visit for skiers, on the outskirts of Sapporo, is the Sapporo Kokusai resort. Well-known for its epic powder dumps, it receives some of Hokkaido’s highest levels of snowfall. After taking on its seven rip-roaring courses, make for nearby Jozankei Onsen for a hot springs experience that’s a great introduction to Japan’s bathing culture. Taking an al fresco dip in the bubbling natural, mineral-enriched warm waters will leave your muscles relaxed and primed for more skiing.
2. A culinary odyssey, Sapporo-style
Also known as Japan’s ‘bread basket’, Hokkaido’s extensive countryside, fertile volcanic soil and ocean surroundings mean fishing and farming are an integral part of life here. Top-notch fruit and vegetables, fresh seafood — including salmon, horsehair crabs and oysters — and dairy products are picked, caught and cultivated every day. Culinary epicentre Sapporo is the place to sample local specialities, such as sashimi at the Nijo fish market, bowls of umami-rich miso ramen, sizzling grilled mutton and vegetable jingisukan, or tasty frozen shime parfait ice-cream (typically eaten by local people as a means to mark the end of the day).
3. Contemporary art in Sapporo
An appreciation of nature, art and how they intertwine runs deep in Japan, and in Sapporo this sentiment comes to life through dynamic outdoor sculpture parks and showstopping large-scale works. In Moerenuma Park, designed by Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi, geometric green spaces rub up against a large 48-metre sea fountain and Louvre-inspired glass pyramid. Meanwhile, at Sapporo Art Park, 74 contemporary sculptures are sprinkled throughout a lush forest. In Makomanai Takino cemetery, Hill of the Buddha, a 44ft-high stone Buddha statue encircled by a lavender-covered hill — all masterminded by architect Tadao Ando — is an all-seasons visual wonder, as compelling when covered in spring blooms as when snow-topped in winter.
4. Sapporo’s legendary slopes
Urban sprawl rubs up against some of Hokkaido’s best ski spots in its capital city, Sapporo. Cold air currents, which blow in across the Sea of Japan from Siberia between December and March, carpet the likes of Sapporo Teine with the soft powder Hokkaido’s famed for. The resort was the star location of the 1972 Winter Olympic Games, and offers city panoramas from Mount Teineyama. Spend a morning on the slopes — the Olympia zone is for beginners; the Highland’s steep off-piste runs for advanced riders — and when you’re done, head back to the city centre. In just 40 minutes you can be sipping a pint of Sapporo’s eponymous beer, first brewed here in 1876, in a bar in Susukino.
5. Night skiing and nightlife in Niseko
With a generous 50ft of average snowfall every year, Niseko Annupuri’s famed deep powder has enabled it to become an International Ski Area, comprised of four interlinked resorts. Venture into its untouched, challenging backcountry with a guide, zip through gladed birch forest, or take to Niseko’s floodlit slopes — Japan’s largest night-skiing area — after dark and ski straight into Hirafu village, a lively après-ski spot, for hot saké and a fuel-up supper at an izakaya. The soup curry at Tsubara Tsubara is legendary.
6. Hiking in Maruyama Park
As well as having a vibrant downtown area, Sapporo’s parks, woodland expanses and mountain trails make it a hiker’s dream. Just west of the city centre, stroll through Maruyama Park to wonder at the emerald-hued primeval forest at the foot of Mount Maruyama, thick with oaks, elms and sugi pine, and then pay a visit to Hokkaido-jingu, an important Shinto shrine, where some 150 cherry trees bloom every spring.
7. A CAT ski trip in Iwanai
While snow is plentiful across Hokkaido, Iwanai, a western coastal resort that’s a 45-minute drive from popular Niseko, is a particularly strong choice for virgin powder. Join expert guides at Iwanai Resort for a day of breathtaking backcountry skiing or snowboarding. Custom-made futuristic snowcats, with glass-walled cabins that maximise mountain views, transport riders above lift levels, closer to the summit of 3,560ft Mount Iwanai. Conditions allowing, riders can tackle between eight and 10 runs, eaiwach serving up about 1,000-2,000ft vertical, through terrain that includes birch trees and steep glades. Come afternoon, skiers can expect jaw-dropping sunsets over the Sea of Japan as they glide.
8. Sea kayaking around Hokkaido’s secret islands
About 12 miles off the shore of Hokkaido’s northern tip and the coastal seaside marshes of the Sarobetsu wilderness, sit the islands of Rishiri and Rebun. Come spring, get to know this area, collectively the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park, by taking to the turquoise waters of the Sea of Japan by sea kayak. Circle conical-shaped Rishiri — a dormant stratovolcano that appears to float on the ocean’s surface — and, as you glide, fish with a lure for yellowtail and take in views of Rebun’s dramatic eroded cliffs.
9. Drift-ice walks in Shiretoko National Park
Shiretoko National Park, which juts into the Sea of Okhotsk on a rugged volcanic peninsula in eastern Hokkaido — called the ‘End of the Earth’ by the island’s Indigenous Ainu people — comes into its own during winter. As temperatures plummet, the ancient forests in this mountainous UNESCO World Heritage Site sparkle with snow, while waterfalls freeze mid-flow, white-tailed eagles soar overhead, and seasonal drift-ice travels here from the Amur River in Russia, resembling giant stepping stones. Wandering across this creaking icescape on a guided drift-ice walk, searching for clione creatures, known as ‘angels of the drift ice’ (a type of translucent sea slug with ‘wings’), is otherworldly.
10. Canoe safari in Kushiro-shitsugen National Park
Hokkaido is famous for its mountain peaks, but it’s also home to Japan’s largest marsh, Kushiro-shitsugen. Around 100sq miles of pure wilderness was created here thousands of years ago when seawater penetrated these peaty wetlands, peppered with tranquil lakes. Hop in a Canadian-style canoe and pootle along the gentle Kushiro River, which meanders through the reeded wetland, spotting Yezo sika deer and red-crowned cranes as you go. Targeted conservation efforts in the area have boosted the population of this elegant bird, once thought to be locally extinct, to about 1,700 today.
To find out more about Hokkaido, visit Hokkaido LOVE! or visitsapporo.jp
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