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10 reasons why Hokkaido is the perfect year-round nature escape
Posted on 22/08/2019 , Modified on 07/11/2019

NatureJapan

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Japan's second largest island is often considered the wildest place in the whole country.

10 reasons to visit Hokkaido

10 reasons to visit Hokkaido
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Rolling flower fields, snowy mountains and dense woodlands: when most people think of Japan's northernmost region, they think of nature. Its largest urban center is Sapporo, but no one is visiting Hokkaido for neon lights and skyscrapers. Here, wildlife outnumbers humans, and life takes on a slower pace with farmland and forests stretching out in every direction. It's also the ancestral home of Japan's only indigenous people, the Ainu. Find out what makes Japan's second largest island so special, and why Hokkaido might just be the perfect place to spend every season.

1. Surreal scenery

1. Surreal scenery
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Hokkaido's numerous parks and nature reserves take up about 10% of the island's total land area. There are six national parks in total, and five quasi-national parks full of wildlife including deer, brown bears and foxes. The island shines year round: flowers bloom through spring and summer, it shimmers under a blanket of snow in winter, and it's alight with fiery foliage in autumn.

Mount Usu, an active volcano, is one of the most impressive spots for hiking, jutting up above serene Lake Toya on the southeast coast. Its most recent eruption was in 2000, and the 60 new craters that cracked open on the mountain's western side have become popular with walkers and hikers.

Heading inland to the heart of the island, Daisetsuzan National Park is Japan's largest national park. It's home to Hokkaido's tallest point, Mount Asahi, a volcano standing at 2,291 meters, or 7,516 feet.

2. Flowers, flowers and more flowers

2. Flowers, flowers and more flowers
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Lavender has been cultivated in Hokkaido for 50 years, and the island has started capitalizing on it both as a product and as an attraction. The towns of Biei and Furano are the most popular spots for viewing the colorful spectacle, and the blooms last from spring all the way until fall. A number of farms offer tours and artisanal crafts, and flower festivals are held across the island between June and August celebrating the beautiful blooms. Shikisai-no-oka is a popuar farm in Biei, and in addition to walking tours it also offers ATV and golf cart rentals.

3. A balanced diet

3. A balanced diet
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The location of Japan's seafood capital is up for debate, but Hokkaido is the undisputed champion of uni, or sea urchin. Shakotan Peninsula, jutting out from Hokkaido's southwestern coast, has the best sea urchin in the country, and maybe in the world.

The island is also renowned for a number of regional dishes. Jingisukan, or Genghis Khan, is a grilled lamb dish named for the feared Mongol Emperor. It's a specialty of Hokkaido, and the hearty meal is best served with a cold Sapporo beer. Ishikari nabe is a dish originating from the town of Ishikari. The hotpot dish is made up of local ingredients such as salmon, potatoes, daikon radishes, mushrooms, prawns, and miso all stewed together. No matter the weather, be sure to finish off your meal with some of Hokkaido's famous soft serve ice cream, fresh from its many local dairy farms

4. There's even vegan food!

4. There's even vegan food!
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Hokkaido has even started to cater to vegan and vegetarian travelers. A recent initiative aims to put more plant-based options on menus around the island to make it a more appealing destination for vegan and vegetarian travelers. A number of restaurants in Sapporo have already begun stocking vegan and vegetarian-friendly menu items, and with such an abundance of fresh products it shouldn't be too difficult for others to follow suit. Hokkaido's government has announced that it will conduct a study looking into the viability of the island's vegetarian cuisine options. 100 foreign visitors across four areas of Hokkaido will also be asked about what they think of Hokkaido's restaurant offerings. After the study is complete, the government will compile an online list of vegetarian restaurants.

5. Historic sights and cultural monuments

5. Historic sights and cultural monuments
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Colonized by Japan in the 1800s, Hokkaido is the home of the Ainu people. About 25,000 of them live here and on neighboring islands. Historically, the Ainu have struggled to receive recognition socially and politically and were only recognized in the 2000s as an indigenous people. Steps have been taken in recent years to revive Ainu life and culture, and the Kussharo Kotan Ainu Folk Museum has a number of artifacts including a traditional Ainu house. The Ainu Kotan Theater also puts on performances of Ainu dance and music.

Northwest of Saporro, Otaru is the island's canal city. Once a major point of trade, here you'll find the herring mansions: large homes built by wealthy fishermen who made their fortune in the herring trade. Many buildings date back to the 1800s when business was booming, and the old warehouses and factories along the canals give a glimpse at a bygone era.

A rather quirky cultural monument can be found in the inland town of Obihiro. A defunct train station has been turned into an ode to love and happiness thanks to its name, Kofuku. Kofuku translates to happiness in English, and Kofuku Station has taken on a new life as a stop for newlyweds and couples who tack train tickets, business cards and notes all over the station building.

6. Thermal baths

6. Thermal baths
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The onsen is an integral part of Japanese life and culture, and Hokkaido is no exception. Blessed with mineral-rich thermal springs, Hokkaido is the perfect spa destination no matter the season. Noboribetsu Onsen is the most popular on the island, so popular in fact that the onsen produces its own bath salts for sale. Its sulfur spring is the most visited, but it has several other mineral springs that are believed to have beautifying and detoxifying properties. Nearby you can find Jigokudani Valley, affectionately named Hell Valley for its thermal waters, steam vents and volcanic activity. Another must-visit is Toyako Onsen. Found at the foot of Mount Usu, it offers stunning views over Lake Toya and of the mighty volcano.

7. Street markets

7. Street markets
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Since Hokkaido is so full of fresh food, it shouldn't come as a surprise that its street markets are excellent. Fish markets in particular abound, and here you can buy both fresh seafood to prepare at home and something hot from the stove or grill for breakfast. Just be prepared to queue! The city of Otaru alone has nine fish markets. Once the center of Hokkaido's bustling fishing industry, even today it's considered the island's seafood hub. It's by far the best place to experience life at the market in Hokkaido and get a taste of its unmatched cuisine.

8. A winter wonderland

8. A winter wonderland
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To say that Hokkaido gets cold in winter is an understatement. Much of the island is blanketed in snow and the temperature is frequently below zero. But a number of enchanting natural phenomena occur here in winter, and the island is hardly in hibernation. Chunks of delicate ice, called jewelry ice, wash up on the shores of Otsu Beach, and Lake Suwa is known for its own icy phenomenon. Every few years, the difference in temperature from day to night will cause the ice on the frozen lake to crack and refreeze, creating a ridge that is said to be a passage for the gods. Sapporo hosted the Winter Olympics in 1988, and an array of resorts catering to lovers of skiing, snowboarding and everything in between can be found here. For the less sporty, Sapporo also hosts a snow festival, complete with intricate ice sculptures, snow creations and colored lights. If you're looking for something truly unique, take an icebreaker ship out into the Okhotsk Sea to get a glimpse of drifting sea ice. You can even get off the ship and have a quick ride on an ice floe.

9. Agritourism and ecotourism

9. Agritourism and ecotourism
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Hokkaido has begun to harness its agricultural prowess for tourism, offering tours of working farms and artisanal agricultural workshops. Besides its iconic blooming fields, there are apple orchards and fruit picking fields, horseback riding through farmland, and dairy farm tours. Heading to the source of Hokkaido's fresh products is also the perfect way to sample them. Fresh milk, ice cream, and butter are all on offer, and workshops are offered to show visitors how it all gets made.

10. Coastal wonders

10. Coastal wonders
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While a beach holiday may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Hokkaido, Japan's wintery northernmost island still has a splendid coast worth visiting. Tiny fishing villages dot Hokkaido's edges, offering a glimpse at local life and an abundance of fresh seafood. Views of cliffs and mountain peaks are spectacular even when it's too cold to swim.

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