A river in Hokkaidomwith houses on both side. Snow is on the ground and there are mountains in the distance.

In a Nutshell: Hokkaido

If there’s one place that gets beer enthusiasts, ski lovers, kombu fans, and history buffs all perked up, it’s Hokkaido. The northernmost island of Japan is the center of agriculture and food, and a home to a fascinating nation unique in the world.

From deep, ancient forests, over high mountain tops and deep volcanic lakes, to vast, neat expanses of crops, Hokkaido seems to have it all. Let’s take a leap into the lovely geography, dramatic history, and fascinating cultures found on the second-biggest Japanese island.

Hokkaido – Geography and Climate

Positioned in the far north, the only way to reach Hokkaido from Honshu, Japan was by a 4-hour-long ferry trip for most of its history. Today, the 55-km Seikan tunnel and numerous bullet trains connect Hokkaido with the southern part of the country.

With a grand total of 180 municipalities, Hokkaido is the biggest prefecture of Japan. At the same time, the prefecture is the second largest island of Japan – Hokkaido spreads across 83,424 square kilometers of mountains, wetlands, forests, and plains. That’s roughly the same size as Austria, and about 20% of Japan’s total landmass.

Yet despite great conditions for crops and vast lands, the chilly Hokkaido is home to only 5.2 million people – less than 5% of Japan’s total population. This huge expanse is sparsely populated (1/5 of the national average), giving nature and wildlife the space they need to thrive.

Rows of flowers in Biei, Hokkaido
Biei in Hokkaido is famous for its “mountains of flowers”

Hokkaido Climate

Being in the far north of Japan, Hokkaido is a lot cooler and drier than the rest of the country.

During the summer, there’s less humidity and precipitation. Summers are pleasantly cool, so many Japanese travel here to escape the hot, sticky weather and typhoon season hitting other parts of the country.

Hokkaido is a popular travel destination in the winter too, when its mountains boast first-class powder snow for skiing enthusiasts. Needless to say, Hokkaido winters can get harsh and long, which may partly play a role in Hokkaido’s declining population.

Volcanoes, Lakes, and Hot Springs

Volcanic zones are dotted across Hokkaido, with a total of 15 active volcanoes. The volcanic activities created a plethora of beautiful crater lakes and natural hot springs (onsen), adding a relaxing spa day to the wide range of activities attracting tourists to Hokkaido.

Mount Yotei in Hokkaido with trees in the forefront. The mountain is covered with snow and there is mis at the top.
Mt. Yotei, Niseko, one of the most popular Hokkaido skiing destinations

Animal and Plant Life on Hokkaido

Hokkaido has many cities, but it also boasts vast expanses of farmland and untouched nature.

A lot of the terrain is covered with thick, rich forests – about 22% of Japan’s forestland can be found in Hokkaido. The mixture of deciduous and evergreen coniferous trees reflects the island’s diverse climate conditions.

Hokkaido’s forests are home to a lot of wildlife, most notably the Ussuri brown bear, an animal revered in the native Ainu culture.

Vegetation sure seems to thrive in Hokkaido. Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk, this island is famous for food production. That includes seafood, dairy products, and a variety of vegetables and cereals.

Beautiful Ishikari River in the autumn
Ishikari River

A Brief History of Hokkaido: From Hunter-Gatherers to Japan’s Agriculture Center

For most of its history, Hokkaido wasn’t a part of Japan. It was only in 1869 that the Meiji government seized the land then known as Ezo (蝦夷).

Until that time, the population of Ezo was mostly Ainu a society of hunters and gatherers with a unique language and spirituality. Their origins can be traced back to the pre-historic Jomon civilization.

The Ainu people didn’t farm the land, instead hunting, fishing, and trading with neighbors, including the Russians, Chinese, and Japanese (whom they often called by the Japanese term Wajin (和人), or Shisam in the Ainu language).

Annexed by Japan in the 19th century, Hokkaido was suddenly populated with a society very different from the hunting-gathering Ainu. The Japanese invested in the rapid agricultural development of the region, but suppressed the Ainu lifestyle and forced the nation to assimilate. Most of Hokkaido’s towns were built in the last 100-or-so years, so today the island is full of modern-looking settlements.

Japanese language dominates the island. A lot of Ainu culture and language has been suppressed and lost in previous centuries, but the recent turn of the political tide shows efforts to restore and preserve the native peoples’ cultural identity.

A village street with wooden buildings lined up along the street
An Ainu village near Lake Akan on Hokkaido

Who are the Ainu?

For the most part, the Ainu people didn’t write, so much of their history is open to interpretation. However, there are clear and enduring traces of Ainu culture that stand as a firm testament to its uniqueness.

The Ainu language is what we know as language isolate. That means it’s somewhat unique, it doesn’t seem related to any other language, much like Basque and Korean. The language doesn’t have a writing system, so Ainu speakers adopted the Japanese katakana as they got an education in Japanese schools.

Written records being scarce, Ainu transferred their mythology, culture, and values through oral tradition. Ainu have a deep relationship with music. Dance, songs, and chants play an especially important role, and to this day Ainu mythos and hero stories are being passed down through sung epics (e.g. Yukar).

On the left, an Ainu woman plays a traditional stringed instrument. On the right, Ainu totem poles.
On the left, an Ainu woman plays a traditional instrument. On the right, Ainu totem poles.

Ainu Spirituality

In their language, the word Ainu translates to human. Ainu bow before the mighty kamuy.

The Ainu spirituality can be roughly described as animism. Ainu show great respect for nature and natural phenomena, as they believe that the kamuy, the divine spirit, is present everywhere – in all elements, objects, and living creatures. They particularly revered ussuri black bears and deer, but also found kamuy in plants or common objects like a knife or a hearth.

In a way, Ainu tended to give back all resources they take from nature. This is reflected in their foraging and worshipping of hunting prey, as well as some of their ceremonies.

For instance, Ainu practiced expressing gratitude for nature’s blessings as they entered Hokkaido’s rich forests in search of food.

Some sources also mention “sending-back” ceremonies as thanksgiving to tools that were no longer usable. They believed that by doing so they release the kamuy that dwelled in the object, sending it home to its divine home with many gifts from the human world. In a way, these rituals demonstrate the great respect Ainu have for their resources.

The Ainu sense of aesthetic is reflected in toned-down colors, symmetrical designs, and the traditional Shinue tattoos on women’s faces and arms that were believed to have protective powers. The tattooing died out as Japanese culture spread, but remains a point of pride and cultural heritage for the Ainu people.

The Ainu were skilled craftsmen and many of their beautiful objects inspire awe to this day. For instance, Attushkimonos are woven out of elm tree fibers, and feature fine geometrical patterns that can rival modern art deco designs in beauty and intricacy.

If you happen to visit Sapporo, Chitose, or Muroran in Hokkaido, take the drive to Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park. The museum complex is amazing and provides deep insight into Ainu legacy.

Hokkaido – The Breadbasket of Japan

So, what happened to make Hokkaido go from a forest foraging society to the hub of agriculture in Japan?

The short answer is – Meiji restoration.

Around the time when Japan annexed Ezo, today’s Hokkaido, the samurai class lost its power. Many samurai, being educated men, turned to accounting, building their homesteads and working the land. Some immigrated to Hokkaido, clearing the forest and planting the first crops despite facing harsh winters.

A farm with rows of crops
A farm in Hokkaido

With some government investment and imported technology, Hokkaido quickly became the bread basket of the entire country.

  • Soybeans are the cornerstone of Japanese cuisine – and as much as 40% of Japan’s soybean production takes place in Hokkaido.
  • Major seafood products include salmon, scallops, trout, and kombu (konbu) seaweed, the essential ingredient for dashi broth. It’s estimated that around 90% of kombu in Japan is harvested in Hokkaido.
  • More than half the milk in Japan is sourced from Hokkaido From pleasant climate to gentle treatment, Hokkaido has perfect conditions for mouth-watering dairy products.
  • Crops like corn, wheat, rice, and sugar beet seem to grow well in the north. About 7% of the nation’s rice is grown in Hokkaido paddies.
  • An abundance of crops often leads to the world’s favorite alcoholic beverage. Sapporo is the oldest beer brand in Japan, established in Hokkaido’s capital back during the times of Meiji restoration.

A Few Places to Go in Hokkaido

If you take a trip to Japan, don’t miss out on Hokkaido! The island has something to offer to all kinds of travelers.

Hikers and nature lovers will love the unspoiled expanses of forest, natural hot springs, crater lakes, and monumental mountains. The Shiretoko peninsula national park at the eastern end of the island offers majestic views and free-roaming wildlife, and the Daisetsuzan national park is an equally breathtaking place to go closer to Sapporo.

If you’re looking for the right time to visit Sapporo, consider early February to catch the Sapporo Snow Festival. Oh, and don’t forget to grab a tummy-warming bowl of Sapporo ramen while you’re at it, and take a stroll through the marvelous Odori park afterwards!

An ice carver creating a sculpture at the Sapporo Snow Festival
An ice carver creating a sculpture at the Sapporo Snow Festival

Niseko, referring to the municipality and mountain area southwest of Sapporo, boasts world-class skiing resorts and top-notch snow during its 5-month long skiing season.

When you ask people from other parts of Japan what Hokkaido looks like, chances are they instinctively think of the Tokachi plains. The vast farmlands are truly a spectacular view, and the set to many Japanese TV dramas. If you’re staying near the city of Obihiro, consider booking an onsen!

At the south end of Hokkaido it is the town of Hakodate, an important historic site close to the only castle on Hokkaido – the Matsumae castle.  Hakodate is the terminus of the Shinkansen, the Northernmost stop of the Japanese bullet trains.

Travel the Path of the Northern Seas

Written in Japanese, the characters 北海道 spell out – The Northern Sea Route – Hokkaido. I like this term because it suggests that there’s a certain way things go up there near the northern seas.

Colorful houses with mountains in the distance.
The beautiful city of Asahikawa in Northern Hokkaido

While it’s not as dramatically divergent as the Okinawan Ryukyu culture, Hokkaido definitely has its own gentle spirit quite unique in Japan.

It may or may not be the influence of the kamuy dwelling in its wilderness.

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