Welcome to the first in the series of ‘Japan by Prefecture‘ – a new weekly series here on Haikugirl’s Japan. It would be impossible to cover everything there is to say about a whole prefecture in one blog post, but this series aims to provide the highlights along with my personal favourites and suggestions from readers. This week, we’re looking at Hokkaido (北海道).
Japan has four main islands (Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu) and Hokkaido is the second largest of these after Honshu. It is also the northernmost island, with much more snowfall than the rest of Japan and much cooler summers.
Around this time of year, Hokkaido is all about the snow. With world-class ski resorts such as Niseko (ニセコ) offering light powder snow, people travel from far and wide just to get a bit of the white stuff.
In addition to winter sports, Hokkaido is famous for the Sapporo Snow Festival or ‘Sapporo Yuki Matsuri’ (さっぽろ雪まつり) as mentioned by Zooming Japan and also the slightly less famous Chitose and Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival (千歳・支笏湖氷濤まつり) as mentioned by Japan Australia. The Sapporo Snow Festival runs from 5th – 11th February this year and the Chitose and Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival runs from 30th January – 22nd February.
The only time I’ve been to Hokkaido was actually for the Sapporo Snow Festival, back in 2009. I visited the festival in Sapporo and also visited nearby Otaru (小樽) which is a quaint little harbour town. I absolutely adored the Snow Festival, and would go back in an instant if I had the chance.
As Japan Australia also mentioned in last week’s comments, Hokkaido is also worth visiting when it’s not snowing, especially if you’re into nature. Hokkaido is the least developed of Japan’s four main islands, and is therefore a great place for getting out on the open road and road-tripping, hiking, bird watching and also checking out the flowers. If you’re fortunate enough to visit Hokkaido any time between late June and early August, Furano (富良野) is the place to go for its spectacular lavender fields.
Hokkaido has a number of national parks, including Shiretoko National Park (知床国立公園), Shikotsu-Toya National Park (支笏洞爺国立公園) and Daisetsuzan National Park (大雪山国立公園). Daisetsuzan is Hokkaido’s largest and wildest national park, making it perfect for hikers and nature lovers. It’s also the first place in Japan to see both autumn colours and snow each year.
There are too many interesting places in Hokkaido for me to name them all, but I couldn’t write this post without mentioning Hakodate (函館). Hakodate is the southernmost city in Hokkaido, and it’s high on my list of places to visit. Hakodate is a port city known for its night views and delicious seafood. In addition, it was one of the first harbour cities to be opened to international trade after Japan’s period of ‘Sakoku’ (鎖国) or isolation which ended in 1853.
So, in a nutshell, Hokkaido is great in winter if you’re into snow and winter sports, or drift ice and bird watching, and lovely in the early summer if you’re a nature fan, hiker or road-tripper. Hokkaido doesn’t have as good a public transport network as most of the rest of Japan, so if you’re really keen to get off the beaten path a hire car would probably be the way to go. As a non-driver, next time I visit Hokkaido I expect I will stick to the cities and see how far the trains and buses can take me!
The Omiyage Section
Each post in this series will contain a section on ‘omiyage’ (おみやげ) or ‘souvenirs’ in which I will share the most popular food souvenirs of the prefecture. In Hokkaido, the top treats are made my Rokatei, Royce and Shiroi Koibito, and of course there is a range of interesting Kit Kat flavours available too! Rokatei are famous for their raisin and butter-cream sandwich biscuits (bottom left) and chocolate covered strawberries (top right below Kit Kats). Royce’s speciality is their chocolate covered crisps, which are divine (bottom right)! Shiroi Koibito make these delicious melt-in-the-mouth thin biscuits in beautiful blue and white snowy packaging (top left). Kit Kat flavours I’ve come across in Hokkaido include red bean, milk, melon, corn butter (yuck!) and jacket potato with butter (surprisingly yum!).
Next week I will be writing about Aomori (青森県). Have you been there? What’s good to eat there and what omiyage should I buy? What are the best sightseeing spots or hidden gems? Please do share your thoughts below, and join me next week for Japan by Prefecture!