Escapist outdoor fantasies of the urban Japanese often end up with Hokkaido as a wilderness, or bizarrely, farming destination to settle in. Around 700 miles from capital, it’s a real outpost and the second biggest of the Japanese islands. I’ve disregarded the isolation in my four visits, though, and have embraced fun in the snow and outdoors with beer and BBQ for sustenance.
Getting there: The brilliance of the JR pass
The main city in the region, Sapporo, has an international airport, but in reality most journeys there seem to involve going from or through Tokyo. For this route in particular, flying is a soulless way to make your way up so it’s a great use of the JR (Japan Railways) pass. Various types for various circumstances exist, the best value ones are available to tourists (only) in their home countries. On my four trips up I’ve used a range of passes, all of which give you unlimited train use between Tokyo and Sapporo.
My particular favourite route utilises bullet train to Aomori, starting with urban sprawl and ending in snow and wide open plains, changing to express trains for the Sekkan tunnel, the longest train tunnel in the world under sea, to Hakkodate, the third biggest town in the region. A second express train completes the journey, taking in lunar landscapes and huge volcanic activity to Sapporo. In one hit, it takes about nine hours in three, three hour chunks of rapidly changing scenery.
Entry point Hakkodate
When Japan opened up to the world in 1854, Hakodate was one of four officially designated ports of entry to Japan and this influence is still obvious now. If you’ve been in Japan a while, the European architecture, exemplified by Russian onion domed churches, are a fascinating and eclectic contrast. For a curiously mixed attitude to foreigners, you can also ponder the fort, Goryokaku, and some high lookouts over the docks, accessed by ropeway, that are great to take in the topography of the town.
The main activity here though, at least from my perspective, is seafood. The seafood market is best taken in early in the morning for breakfast delights such as barbecued scallops and crab. You can also catch your own squid from an indoor boat/tank and have it turned into sushi or sashimi on the spot. This isn’t for the squeamish though, it’s probably still technically alive when you eat it. A lunch of ramen noodles with half a crab on it is yours for lunch, for £5, while dinner at Akachouchin allows you to choose your fish or meat from a massive selection on ice to have it BBQ’d in front of you. My biggest tip here is to go twice and speak some really bad Japanese. On my second visit I was plied with free beer and food for my loyalty.
The varied Outdoors
A train between Hakodate and Sapporo uncovers a huge host of activities that take advantage of spectacular alpine landscape. The terrain here is hugely volcanic and generally geologically unstable, as demonstrated by the Showa Shinzan mountain which has appeared and grown 400 meters within the last seventy years. Skiing and hiking options around here are abundant with slopes and trail heads accessible via train. Both are quite thrillingly unstructured and my knee still gives me problems from a 2003 ski collision with a Japanese infant’s head. A typically Japanese situation of convenience and deregulation.
The greatest benefit of volcanic activity is bubbling hot spring water. I’ve written about this before in Tokyo, though the local variety is sulphurous and whole towns here reek of it. Noboribetsu Onsen has a lunar landscape to explore this with massive geysers and pools which are great to hike around. Outdoor pools to soak in are available in locations too numerous to mention to relax in after, many with snow-capped mountain views.
There is also a bear park here, though rumour is it’s kept in bad condition so I’ve avoided it. I have, however, been chased off a mountain by a smaller bear on an off-piste ramble. The threat of bear activity combined with the ferocious three-meter tall stuffed beast at the train station is stimulus enough.
Sapporo beer city
Volcanic landscapes apart, Hokkaido is actually a perfect area for farming as well – a bit of a rarity in the rest of rocky and mountainous Japan. This point wasn’t lost on early European settlers. Noting hops and malt in the area, several huge breweries have cropped up in Sapporo, the modern, compact and exciting main city of the island. Like the rest of the city, there are some very obvious Western influences. It’s the main source of beer in Japan which despite its recent history of brewing is now a nation of enthusiastic beer guzzlers.
Eschewing any sort of responsible alcohol sale, the Sapporo beer factory and the Kirin Beer Garden have huge halls where you can put down £15 for unlimited beer drinking, for £30 you can add as much lamb and crab BBQ as you can down in 90 mins as well. It’s hugely over the top, one of my favourite Japan memories was seeing several sixty or seventy year old blokes collapsing outside in the snow through consumption, cackling with laughter red faced, with long suffering wives looking on despairingly.