Japan: A Closer Look At Hokkaido

Nov 24th, 2008 | By | Category: Featured Articles, Regional Travel Resources

The Nihon Sun recently highlighted the tourism websites of the various regions of Japan in the article “Traveling to Japan? Look Beyond The Usual” and we will follow that with a series that will provide more travel planning resources and information about each of the eight regions.  The series will be called Japan: A Closer Look and we will start with the northernmost region of Hokkaido.


Hokkaido MapHokkaido occupies the second largest island in the chain of four main islands that make up Japan and it is the country’s northernmost region.  While other regions in Japan include a number of prefectures, Hokkaido is a region and a prefecture unto itself due to it’s size and relatively sparse population.  The region is made up of over 83 thousand square kilometers, is home to over 5.5 million people and has the lowest population density in Japan.  This becomes apparent when you compare Hokkaido, where there are approximately 68 people living in each square kilometer, to Tokyo that has over 5,500 occupying each square kilometer.

The largest city and prefectural capital of Hokkaido is Sapporo, the fifth largest city in Japan. Other major cities include Hakodate and Asahikawa.


It is believed that Hokkaido was settled by the Ainu people and others approximately 20,000 years ago.  As early as 658 the Japanese began exploring the area which prompted many battles and ultimately a rebellion.  The Matsumae clan ruled the region until the mid 1800’s and held trading rights with the Ainu people until that time.  Fearing a Russian invasion the Shogun of Japan took over the area around 1869 and named the region Hokkaido.

Hokkaido is Japan’s predominant agricultural area and is in one of the leading producers of rice and fish and vegetables.  Tourism is an important part of the economy of Hokkaido and employs many of it’s people.

Things to Do & See

Hokkaido Guri Guri – Tabi!, the areas tourism website divides Hokkaido into five area for travel planning.  Below we will highlight some of the sightseeing areas in each area.

Northern Hokkaido

Northern Hokkaido consists of a number of small islands that offers visitors an abundance of natural beauty:

  •  Kushiro National ParkRishiri Island is a volcanic island popular with hikers and flower lovers that can only be accessed by ferry or air.
  • Visit a reindeer farm in Horonobe for a ride in the winter or to see the babies in the spring.
  • Take Kushiro Shitsugen Norokko-go, the slowest train in Japan, to Kushiro Marshland, the first Ramsar Wetlands Site in Japan.

February finds the Ice Candle Festival in Shimokawa and you can also visit an astronomical observatory and many other great spots in  Northern Hokaiido.

Eastern Hokaaido

The highlight of Eastern Hokkaido is Shiretoko, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is an outstanding example of the interaction of marine and terrestrial ecosystems as well as extraordinary ecosystem productivity.  Shiretoko is also important for its marine and terrestrial species including a number of endangered and endemic species, such as the Blackiston’s Fish owl, the Steller’s sea Lion, a number of species of Salmon, and a variety of  globally threatened sea birds and and migratory birds.

Other highlights of the area:

  • Look for some of the very rare and somewhat mysterious marimo (algae balls) in Lake Akan.
  • Visit the Kiritappu Marsh, another Ramsar Wetlands Site and a breeding ground for Japanese cranes and other birds.
  • The open-air Abashiri Prison Museum provides an opportunity to learn more about the history of Hokkaido.
  • Visit Lake Mashu, one of the worlds most transparent lakes with underwater visibility measured at 41.6 meters in 1931.

Learn more about the sights of Eastern Hokkaiido at the Hokkaido Guri Guri – Tabi! Eastern Hokkaido page or at Welcome to Akan.

Taisetsu Tokachi Area

Home to the Taisetsu Mountain Range, which is called “God’s Garden” by the Ainu people, this is an area of contrast with severe mountain landscapes sitting alongside serene and breathtaking pastoral landscapes.  Highlights in the area include:

Learn more about the sights in the part of Hokkaido at Hokkaido Guri Guri – Tabi! or at Taisetsu Sightseeing Navigation.

Central Area

Home the the largest city in the area and the prefectural capital of Sapporo with its population of 1.8 million – this is the hub of Hokkaido.  Highlights in the area include:

Explore the city of Sapporo, and other sights in central Hokkaido.

Southern Area

Matsumae Castle Embark on a trip to Hokkaido by taking the Kaikyo Line of JR Hokkaido Railway Company through the Seikan Tunnel which runs under the channel that separates Aomori Prefecture and the island of Hokkaido.    The tunnel is Hokkaidō’s only land link to the rest of Japan and is 53.85 kilometers long, 23.3 kilometers of which is under the seabed. Then check out some of these sights:

  • Visit the hilly city of Hakodate and it’s red brick warehouses that take you back to a time when the area was a thriving port for foreign ships.
  • Make a trip to the the Hakodate Morning Market.
  • See the Sekikawa Country House in the town of Esashi.  This former home of a wealthy merchant houses a number of ancient documents and antique furniture pieces.
  • The only Japanese style castle in Hokkaido is Matsumae Castle.  Visit the museum that houses feudal artifacts including samurai armor and see a replica of the town during the feudal era and the 8,000 cherry trees on the castle grounds.
  • Enjoy fresh seafood such as sea urchin and abalone on Okushiri Island.

Find out more about this area on the Hokkaido Guri Guri – Tabi! Southern Hokkaido page.

Odd Facts & Trivia

The 1972 Winter Olympics were held in Sapporo.  Japan had never one a gold at the Winter Olympics until that year when three Japanese athletes swept the ski jump event for gold, silver, and bronze.

To drive around Hokkaido’s 4,400 kilometer circumference (including it’s islands) it would take you over two weeks driving six hours and approximately 300 kilometers per day .

Russia and Japan have never signed a peace treaty to formally end World War II due to Japan’s claim over four islands, the Kuriles, which Soviet troops seized in 1945 off of Hokkaido. The southernmost island in the chain is only 16 kilometers from Hokkaido’s coast.

Hokkaido Trip Planning

Review suggested Hokkaido itineraries at the Visit Hokkaido website or consider taking the two day self-guided trip along Hokkaido’s Golden Route as suggested by the Japan National Tourist Organization.

Be sure to read “Cut & Paste Japan Trip Planning” for other great resources on travel, culture and current events in Japan and check back next week when we take a closer look at Tohoku.

Image Credit: Map from Visit Hokkaido, Flickr, Kushiro National Park, Marimo, Rainbow Field, Sapporo Snow Festival & Matsumae Castle

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  1. Shiretoko is a fantastic area to visit. In winter it is very, very cold, but you may get a chance to see fields of sea ice. The frozen waterfall at Furepe no Taki is also worth a visit - you can hire a guide to take you snowshoeing into the National Park.

    The Abashiri Prison is fascinating, but quite harrowing - it deserves its reputation as the Alcatraz of Japan.

  2. Very nice post, Shane.

    I’ve never been to Hokkaido, but would love to go. Work will probably send me up that way sooner or later. I’ll be checking this post out again for recommendations at that time.

  3. Chris you are very adventurous - thanks for stopping by to comment. Keep on exploring so I can keep on living vicariously through you :)

    Billy - fingers crossed that you get to Hokkaido soon…

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