Updated: Jan 1, 2021
Hokkaido is the often-overlooked cold north of Japan and is home to an array of undiscovered yet beautiful locations. When visiting Japan, most travellers stick to the well-known cities: Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and while these all have their own appeal, a number of other beautiful areas of Japan are often missed. This can come down to time pressures, costs and more, but next time you are visiting Japan, Hokkaido just might be the place to go for a truly unique experience.
So now we’ve caught your interest, where and what is Hokkaido? Hokkaido is the northern-most prefecture of Japan and fills the entirety of the second-largest island of Japan. It is the largest prefecture in Japan and is separated from the main island of Honshu by the Tsugaru Strait. Due to its location, Hokkaido is one of the coldest parts of Japan with freezing winters. However, this is a positive during most of the year as it is much less hot and humid than the rest of Japan. Hokkaido is well-known for its dairy industry. In fact, throughout Japan it is a sign of quality for products to claim they are made with Hokkaido milk, Hokkaido butter or Hokkaido ice-cream. It is also one of the few areas of Japan in which lamb is a commonly-found meat. These small differences can make Hokkaido’s cuisine a different and interesting experience for those who have tried the regular Japan fare of sushi, ramen and tonkatsu.
With Hokkaido being so far-flung and north of most of the population, it is often considered very remote and therefore, not easy for tourists to experience. However, Hokkaido has done a lot to combat this assumption by offering a number of rail passes and seasonal trains to stunning sightseeing spots. This includes the Japan Rail Pass which allows unlimited use of all JR trains in Hokkaido. This rail pass also includes use of some buses in Sapporo, the main city of Hokkaido. Using this pass to travel around major cities or between major cities of Hokkaido (Sapporo, Hakodate, Asahikawa) gives great value and allows visitors to see more of Hokkaido.
One of the most popular draws to Hokkaido is the lavender. The best time for viewing lavender in Hokkaido is in the middle of the Japanese summer (July – August) making it a popular respite for domestic tourists seeking a break from the overwhelming humidity of the rest of the country. The main area for lavender farms is the small city of Furano in the centre of Hokkaido. These range from the largest lavender farm in Japan, Lavender East, to Choei Lavender Farm, where four types of lavender and various other flowers can be viewed from above on a ski lift ride, to Farm Tomita, hailed as the home of the lavender revival in Hokkaido. These farms are all accessible via the Furano/Biei Norokko Train. This is a seasonal train operating from June to September between Asahikawa, the picturesque town of Biei and Furano. It also stops at the temporary Lavender Field station, close to Furano. Asahikawa is the second-largest city in Hokkaido, making it convenient for travellers. Because this train is designed for those visiting the lavender fields, it goes at a slow speed with large windows to allow those travelling to truly enjoy the scenery. As mentioned, it also stops at Biei, a small town with a number of popular scenic areas to view. This is a way to not only see the beautiful lavender fields, but also have an insight to rural Japan and the tranquility of the countryside.
For a different perspective of this quieter Japan, there is also the Kushiro Shitsugen. This is an enormous national park located in the east of Hokkaido. It differs from most other national parks in that it is mostly wetlands. This makes it a key area for animal conservation and nature photography. In particular, it is known for the conservation of Japanese cranes. These cranes were thought to be extinct but a small colony in Kushiro Shitsugen has helped revive the species. However, this means that the cranes are now only found in this small part of Japan. To visit the wetlands and see the cranes is a special experience. Kushiro is one of the areas of Hokkaido least affected by snow and ice in winter, making it possible to visit year-round. There are two seasonal trains that cater to this demand – the Kushiro Shitsugen Norroko train in summer and autumn and the Winter Wonderland train which starts at Kushiro and runs through to Shibecha in January and February. Both trains offer unique sightseeing opportunities and are designed to give travellers a great viewpoint on the wetlands outside.
Hokkaido is often seen as the cold, imposing, remote prefecture of the north with no-one and nothing around. However, while it is cold, this could not be further from the truth. It is filled with beautiful nature, both farmed and wild. It is often skipped by visitors to Japan in favour of the more popular Tokyo or Kyoto, but for a truly unique experience, Hokkaido is the way to go. Luckily, Hokkaido recognizes the stereotype and has provided a number of seasonal trains to visit some of the most interesting sightseeing spots. Whether you enjoy skiing, flowers, food culture or onsen and geothermal springs, Hokkaido has something for you.