Home to Japan's native Ainu people, Hokkaido continues to represent the untamed wilderness with many great national parks. Hokkaido is by far Japan's largest prefecture, consisting of Japan's entire northern island and its surrounding islets. For many visitors the scenery resembles northern Europe, with rice paddies and concrete warrens replacing rolling fields and faux-German cottages. However, the ubiquitous hotspring resorts in much of the island serve as a reminder that you are still in Japan.
Formerly known as Ezo (蝦夷), Hokkaido was for millenia the home of the Emishi people, whose descendants are today's Ainu. While loosely ruled by Japanese feudal lords since the 1500s, direct Japanese control was limited to the Oshima Peninsula around Hakodate. Mass migration from mainland Japan only began after the Meiji Restoration in 1869, with the Hokkaidō Development Commission (開拓使 Kaitakushi) created to settle the island and exploit its resources. Lacking the thousand-year-old temples and visible traces of history so plentiful in the rest of Japan, to this day the island retains a bit of a frontier feel, with planned cities with neat grid layouts and plenty of log cabins.
Hokkaido was particularly hard hit by the end of the Bubble in the late 1980s, with the collapse of local lender Takugin Bank taking down many local businesses. Add in marginal agricultural land and increasingly unprofitable mining and industry, and it's no surprise that many Japanese have been fleeing for warmer clime. Projections indicate the prefecture may lose half its population by 2050. The one bright spot in the economy is winter sports, with Sapporo hosting the 1972 Winter Olympics and ski hotspot Niseko in particular booming.
Hokkaido is cooler than the rest of Japan, and the merciful lack of Japan's muggy summers and rainy season makes it a very popular domestic destination between May and August. Some of Hokkaido's inland areas have a continental climate, with large daily and yearly temperature variation. With a number of ski resorts and some of the best powder in the world, Hokkaido attracts millions of domestic and international skiers and snowboarders in winter.
Alone among the main Japanese islands, Hokkaido is not divided into multiple prefectures. Instead, there are four circuits (道 dō), which are in turn split into subprefectures (支庁 shichō).
|Central Circuit |
With capital Sapporo and much of the mountainous interior.
|Eastern Circuit |
The largest and remotest part of the island.
|Northern Circuit |
Covering the northern peninsula but poking down toward the center.
|Southern Circuit |
Centered on Hakodate.
- 1 Sapporo – the capital and by far the largest city in Hokkaido
- 2 Abashiri – northern fishing port, home to Japan's most infamous prison
- 3 Asahikawa – the coldest city in Japan (literally)
- 4 Furano – with lavender in the summer and some of the world's best powder in winter
- 5 Hakodate – historical city and the capital of the short-lived Ezo Republic
- 6 Kitami – between Saroma and Lake Akan, this city is well known for its peppermint farms
- 7 Obihiro – the main city in the Tokachi Plain, one of Japan's major agricultural belts
- 8 Otaru – Hokkaido's largest port
- 9 Wakkanai – Japan's northernmost city, a major port with many connections to Russia
- 1 Biei – the land of beautiful patchwork hills
- 2 Niseko – trendy ski destination
- 3 Noboribetsu – Hokkaido's largest hot spring resort
- 4 Shimukappu – village
- 5 Shinhidaka – thoroughbreds and beautiful cherry blossoms
- 1 Akan National Park – known for its mysterious lakes, including Lake Akan
- 2 Onuma Quasi-National Park – peaceful lake near Hakodate in southern Hokkaido
- 3 Shiretoko National Park – this eastern peninsula park, where bears roam in the wilderness and bathe in hot waterfalls, was designated as a World Heritage Site in 2005
- 4 Daisetsuzan National Park – Japan's largest national park, in the middle of Hokkaido, and the Holy Grail of extreme hikers and people love eating seafood
- Kushiro Wetlands National Park
- 5 Shikotsu-Toya National Park – volcanic hot springs, two beautiful caldera lakes with rumbling volcanoes and mossy canyons make scenic Lake Toya one of Japan's most popular tourist destinations
- 6 Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park – covering the small islands off Wakkanai at the northern tip
Standard Japanese is spoken everywhere. Being largely populated by migrants from throughout Japan, there are no strong regional dialects of note.
A few still speak Ainu, but the language is endangered: a 2011 UNESCO report indicated there were just 15 elderly native speakers and a few hundred more with limited ability. As a visitor, the main place you'll see the Ainu language is in place names, which tend to use many plosive "p"-sounds (rare in Japanese) and have characteristic endings like -betsu, -nai and -horo/poro.
The Seikan Tunnel, the world's second longest rail tunnel, is the only land link that Hokkaido has to Japan's main island of Honshu. Trains through the tunnel, ferries, and airliners are the only means of reaching Hokkaido. The only way to enter Hokkaido by car is to ship it across on one of the many car ferries.
Sapporo's Chitose Airport (CTS IATA) is Hokkaido's sole international gateway of significance, with flights from Hong Kong, Taipei, Kaohsiung, Shanghai, Beijing, Honolulu, Seoul and Busan. However, there are only limited international flights and most visitors will need to transit through hubs such as Tokyo and Osaka. The route between Tokyo and Sapporo is, in terms of capacity and planes flown daily, the busiest in the world. If transiting via Tokyo, beware that most Sapporo flights use Haneda (HND IATA), and you'll need at least 3 hours to travel there from Narita (NRT IATA).
Hokkaido was finally linked to the national shinkansen high speed network in March 2016 with the opening of the segment between Aomori and Hakodate via the undersea Seikan Tunnel. A one-seat trip from Tokyo to Hakodate now takes just four hours using the Hayabusa service. By fiscal 2030, the line from Hakodate to Sapporo is expected to be finished.
The terminal station in Hokkaido for the shinkansen is Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station (新函館北斗). From here, travelers can take a 15- to 20-minute shuttle train ride down to the center of Hakodate city, or take a limited express train up to Sapporo.
Car rental facilities are located just outside the station.
Seishun 18 Ticket
Since the Seishun 18 Ticket does not allow travel using bullet trains, users who want to go to Hokkaido from Honshu must purchase a separate option ticket for ¥2300. The special ticket allows trips in any available standard class seat on Hokkaido Shinkansen trains between Okutsugaru-Imabetsu (the last bullet train stop in Honshu) and Kikonai (the first such stop on Hokkaido). It also covers travel on the private Isaribi Line between Kikonai and Goryokaku, where the rest of the local JR network can be accessed. You must be in possession of a valid Seishun 18 Ticket to purchase and use the option ticket.
Ferries are mostly popular among people bringing their own cars to Hokkaido.
- Ferries from Hakodate link to northern ports in Tohoku, including Aomori and the Shimokita Peninsula.
- Otaru provides links to Maizuru (near Kyoto) and Seoul.
- Tomakomai connects with Akita, Niigata, Tsuruga, and sometimes Maizuru.
- Wakkanai has ferries to Russia.
Hokkaido is vast in size, so allow plenty of time to get around and don't try to do too much if your time is limited. Many Japanese maps show Hokkaido with a larger scale than the rest of the country, which may make distances appear deceptively small.
Due to its vast size and numerous outlying islands, Hokkaido has a fairly well-developed commuter airline network. The main regional carriers are JAL subsidiary Hokkaido Air Commuter and ANA. Many turboprop flights operate out of the tiny Okadama Airport in central Sapporo.
The train network in Hokkaido is (by Japanese standards) limited, although it's more than adequate for travel between major cities. However, access to many of the more interesting sites, such as Hokkaido's many national parks, will require either relying on infrequent and expensive buses, renting your own car, or trying your luck at hitchhiking.
Some convenient express trains include the Hokuto and Super Hokuto between Sapporo and Hakodate (3½ hours, ¥8,830 each way); the Super Kamui between Sapporo and Asahikawa (1½ hours, ¥4,810 each way); the Tokachi between Sapporo and Obihiro (3 hours, ¥7,220 each way); the Super Ōzora between Sapporo and Kushiro (4 hours, ¥9,370 each way); and the Super Soya and Sarobetsu between Sapporo and Wakkanai (5½ hours, ¥10,450 each way).
JR offers a special Hokkaido Pass, separate from the Japan Rail Pass, which allows the bearer to ride all JR trains in Hokkaido, as well as most JR buses.
A cheaper if slower and less comfortable option than the train is using buses, which also cover all the areas not accessible by train. Sleeper services radiate from Sapporo to most corners of the island. Note that local bus schedules can be very sparse, so check them carefully to avoid being stranded.
Hokkaido is among the few places in Japan where renting a car is worthwhile, since access to many national parks and onsen resorts without one can be quite difficult. Major cities are covered by a good network of expressways. However, speed limits are low, with many expressways capped at 70-80 km/h and even the straight, wide and flat highways of Tokachi limited to a poky 50 km/h. Speeding is thus quite common, but so are speed traps and heavy fines.
In winter, the same snow that makes the island a ski haven can also mean dangerous driving conditions, and speed limits drop even lower. Winter tires are mandatory from November onwards (rental cars should be fitted with these already, but it doesn't hurt to ask). Beware of black ice, leave yourself plenty of distance to brake and budget extra time to cover long distances.
Hokkaido is a cycling paradise from April to September. There are many bike paths and most main roads have very wide sidewalks. Also there are many beautiful back roads to get you where you want to go. Information in English is very limited, the best way is to buy a good map and plan by yourself.
Hitchhiking is a viable option in Hokkaido, and due to the limitations of the public transport network it's not unheard-of to see Japanese with their thumb out (a very rare sight in the rest of the country). The major caveats are that even private car traffic can be minimal on some roads, and for half the year the weather is colder than the rest of the country.
See also: Hitchhiking in Japan
See and do
For many visitors Hokkaido's numerous National Parks are number one on the agenda, offering near-unlimited hiking opportunities.
Hokkaido's other major attractions are flower gardens, high-quality agriculture and seafood, hot springs, and powder skiing.
Much of Hokkaido's population lives by the sea, and consequently seafood figures heavily in Hokkaido fare. Check out the hairy crabs (毛蟹 kegani), king crabs (タラバ taraba) and the delicious sushi. Akkeshi's oysters, Saroma's scallops, and the northwest coast's sea urchin (うに uni) are considered to be among Japan's very best seafood.
More unexpectedly, Hokkaido produces most of Japan's dairy products and particularly in the east you will run into many creative uses for them. Ever had cream cheese in your curry, or butter in your noodle soup? How about asparagus, corn, or squid ink ice cream? In Hokkaido, you will.
Other Hokkaido classics include:
- miso ramen (味噌ラーメン) noodle soup, often with butter and/or corn (バターコーンラーメン batākōn ramen). Hokkaido's most famous ramen chain Santouka, now franchised around the world, hails from Asahikawa.
- soup curry (スープかれー), a hearty curry-flavored soup chock full of veggies, particularly popular in Sapporo
- Genghis Khan (ジンギスカン jingisu kan), sliced lamb and vegetables that you grill yourself, the Japanese version of Mongolian BBQ (hence the name)
- chanchanyaki, a stir-fry of miso, salmon and vegetables
- zangi (ザンギ) deep-fried chicken, made with a soy/ginger/garlic marinade
- corn on the cob (とうきび tōkibi or とうもろこし tōmorokoshi)
- cantaloupe melons (メロン meron) from Yubari, fantastically expensive in Tokyo department stores but practically given away in season
Hokkaido is home to some of Japan's finest sake, the most famous of the bunch being Asahikawa's Otokoyama (男山). Beer is also big in Hokkaido, the most famous brand being Sapporo Beer (naturally from Sapporo), but the many microbrews found in nearly every town are also worth sampling.
Hokkaido is one of Japan's best places for camping, but beware of the nighttime chill - even in the summer months you'll need a good sleeping bag. In particular, the southwest coast can be surprisingly cold, due to the ocean currents.
Many of Hokkaido's cheaper accommodations slap on an extra fee for winter heating (冬期暖房 tōki danbō), as Japanese houses even in the north are notoriously poorly insulated and chew up vast quantities of fuel when the temperatures fall. This shouldn't be more than ¥500 or so.
If you are coming for the mountains, be sure to stay in one of the many mountain huts (山小屋 yamagoya) in Hokkaido. Most are free, and they're both a cheap sleep and a good cultural experience. You'll be sure to make Japanese friends as well.
Hokkaido has the worst fatality rate for traffic accidents in Japan. Hokkaido is one of Japan's most spread-out areas, well-known for its wide-open roads. Locals drive at least 20 km/h over the posted limits in many areas. It's not unusual to see cars traveling at over 100 km/h on regular highways (the posted limit is 60 km/h). Head-on collisions at these speeds, especially with minicars, are catastrophic.
Hokkaido has many country farm roads which are narrow, poorly marked, and arrow-straight. These often run parallel to highways and tend to be much less crowded. It's not unusual for locals to exceed 100 km/h on these roads. Missing a stop sign can be fatal, and signs may be hard to spot. Be careful of farm vehicles backing out of sheds with no warning, and especially careful of bicycles in the summer, as there are no shoulders.
Winter driving in Hokkaido is not for the faint of heart. Very little sand or salt is used on the roads, and the heavy snow in many areas means that the roadways turn into packed snow, then solid ice. This also means that the road markings will be totally invisible. Look for overhanging center line (中央線 chūosen) signs above the roads at intersections. Highways have arrow signs pointing downward at the shoulders of the road, which will also be invisible. Winter tires are mandatory. Chains are recommended for mountain driving. Because speeds are lower, there are less fatalities, but there are more accidents in the winter. If you have never driven in the winter, do not attempt to learn here.
The Hokkaido brown bear (エゾヒグマ ezohiguma, 熊 kuma), sacred to the Ainu, is Hokkaido's most famous predator. An estimated 10,000 still roam the island, but they're shy, reclusive creatures and you're highly unlikely to encounter one outside remote areas like Shiretoko National Park. Many Japanese hikers carry bear bells (熊鈴 kumasuzu). If camping in the wild, don't store any food in your tent.
The Hokkaido fox carries the echinococcus parasite, which can be fatal in humans. Because this parasite can be spread through water, do not drink any unboiled river or lake water in Hokkaido. Approaching or feeding foxes is also not recommended. (Feeding wildlife is also illegal.)
The Ainu people who are indigenous to this region were historically marginalized by the Japanese. Many Ainu concealed their heritage in order to avoid discrimination, and many mixed-race individuals are not aware of their Ainu heritage. Ainu rights to their own culture and tradition were first recognized by a court only in 1997. A resolution in 2008 and bills in 2019 granted official recognition to the Ainu people, which may help to save their culture from extinction.
While you may be able to politely ask people about the history of the Ainu vis-à-vis the Japanese, this is a sensitive subject, and your opinions on the matter will probably not be welcome.