Columnist Lee Miller uncovers one of Japan’s most overlooked attractions.
HOKKAIDO, Japan — If you talk to Americans who have traveled to Japan, certain cities, regions and attractions usually fill their itineraries: Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Mt. Fuji, Nikko and perhaps Okinawa, to name a few. However, Japan is known for much more than its shrines, cities and world-renowned volcano.
The northern island of Hokkaido is one of the most spectacular regions in the country, if not the world, and while it’s not on most people’s radar, it should be.
There are a plethora of reasons a Westerner might never make it to Hokkaido, or even realize it’s worth visiting. Hokkaido is a far-from-common feature in media outside Japan, and the multitude of photography books highlighting exotic Japanese subjects and landscapes rarely focus on it.
Accessibility is also a problem. Tourists cannot adequately sightsee Hokkaido by train, unlike most of Japan. In order to see Hokkaido, visitors need a car, but to get a car, they need an international driver’s license – a trip that can’t be made spur-of-the-moment for most.
Actually, even getting to Hokkaido is a problem before you can ever worry about moving around the island. A tunnel links rail travel to and from the island, but it is not able to handle Shinkansen, the bullet trains. It will be able to handle such trains in the near future, but for now, it can take as many as 17 hours to travel from Tokyo to Sapporo, Hokkaido’s largest city.
Tourists also have the option of flying to Hokkaido, but domestic air travel in Japan can be expensive. I booked well in advance for the cheapest rates yet paid nearly $400 round-trip. Last-minute flights can be far more expensive.
Though, if you can make a trip to Hokkaido work, it’s worth it. Hokkaido is a whole different Japan. Rural life switches from many small farms to huge cash-crop ones, growing anything from sunflowers to pumpkins and huge ranches, raising something you’ll rarely see on the main island of Honshu: cows. Much of this is a result of late-19th-century programs to emulate Western farming.
Foodies are in for a treat of salmon, beef and crab legs, while history buffs can experience the last communities of the Ainu, the first people to inhabit Japan.
While the current Ainu culture only came to form approximately 800 years ago, the people are thought to be descendents of those who first inhabited Japan nearly 37,000 years ago.
Few remain after being conquered by the “ethnic Japanese” (many books have been written on debates as to what exactly Japanese ethnicity is). They intermarried, and the Japanese government forced them to integrate, so far as to refuse to accept them as an indigenous ethnic group until 2008 – another topic too involved to delve in to.
But, to break the bank for a trip like I did, visitors probably want to see something spectacular. Hokkaido delivers spectacular national parks that give world-famous U.S. National Parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite a run for their money.
Unlike those places, Hokkaido has an inaccessibility that grants visitors a relative solitude even if they don’t go days into the bush on foot. I visited Lake Akan in the middle of the change of the fall leaves, and it was a ghost town.
The centerpiece of Hokkaido’s collection of national parks has to be the massive Daisetsuzan. The park consists of a series of volcanoes, with 16 mountains taller than 6,500 feet, and it has some of the most adventurous and rugged hiking around.
Spectacular views, waterfalls and wildlife make Daisetsuzan well off Western radars help define a destination tourists will never forget. It’s at the top of my bucket list. I went to Hokkaido with plans to go, but unfortunate circumstances left me tantalizingly close, but oh so far away.
Lee Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.