Hokkaido is Japan with breathing space. People here don’t put on the air-conditioning in summer—they open the windows. Outside, fragrant air, wild mountains, virgin forests, pristine lakes, and surf-beaten shores are all within easy reach of cities and towns.
Hokkaido’s Japanese history is, compared to the mainland, relatively short. Born during the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912), Hokkaido was developed by Japan to keep Russia from getting to it. Until then, this large northern island, comprising 20% of Japan’s current landmass, had largely been left to the indigenous Ainu people, hunter-gatherers who had traded with the Japanese and Russians for centuries.
In the 1870s, after researching American and European agriculture, city design, and mining, Japan sent 63 foreign experts to harness Hokkaido’s resources, introducing a soldier-farmer system to spur mainlanders north to clear and settle the land. Hokkaido was replete with coal and gold, herring shoals, and fertile soil conducive to dairy farming, potato growing, horse breeding, and even cold-climate rice planting. The legacy lives on—small holdings with silos and barns still anchor the rolling farmland, while flat landscapes with mountains on the horizon give stretches of Hokkaido a frontier flavor.
On the losing end of this colonization were the Ainu, who died by the thousands from disease, forced labor, and conflict with the Japanese. Forced assimilation and intermarriage has largely eliminated their way of life (although recent decades of activism have given the Ainu a modicum of public acceptance as Japan’s only officially recognized distinct ethnic minority).
Hokkaido's people—who call themselves Dosanko—can be quite open-minded. Many readily come to the rescue of foreign travelers with a warmth and directness that make up for language barriers. Japanese tourists visit here for a less-traditional view of Japan, while others still settle here to seek an alternative way of life as farmers, artists, outdoor adventure guides, and guesthouse owners.
However, because Hokkaido consists more of countryside than culture-rich cities, the number of non-Japanese visitors has traditionally been small, and many locally promoted attractions—such as flower fields and dairy farms—may be of less interest to people from Western countries than the mountain scenery, wildlife, and volcanically active areas. Recently, visitors from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Australia have started to drop by in the hundreds of thousands to enjoy the snow and escape the summer swelter.
Hokkaido remains a frontier in terms of geopolitics. In prominent places are signboards demanding the return of the southern four Kuril Islands, Japan-administered territory that the Soviet Union invaded in the final days of World War II. Japanese Self-Defense Force bases still dot the map as a Cold War–era deterrent, and travel to neighboring Russian air- and seaports is quite restricted. Nevertheless, a Russian business presence is noticeable in Hokkaido's northern and eastern fishing ports, where road signs in Wakkanai and Nemuro are in Japanese and Cyrillic; locals in Monbetsu, Abashiri, and Kushiro might first address Caucasians in Russian.
It's easy to romanticize Japan's Great White North as largely wild and untamed, but Hokkaido also has large cities (Sapporo’s growing population is nearly 2 million, and nine other places have populations greater than 100,000), along with decent public transportation and first-world urban lifestyles. Beyond the cities, though, small-town life in Hokkaido is quiet, a tad cumbersome to explore without a car, and a bit stagnant—but for the adventurous visitor, wild beauty and open spaces abound.
The island is a geological wonderland: lava-seared mountains hide deeply carved ravines; hot springs, gushers, and steaming mud pools boil out of the ground; and crystal clear lakes fill the seemingly bottomless cones of volcanoes. Wild, rugged coastlines hold back the sea, and all around the prefecture, islands surface offshore. Half of Hokkaido is covered in forest, home to bears, owls, hawks, cranes, foxes, and other wildlife you would have trouble finding elsewhere in Japan.
Come to Hokkaido, and open your windows.