An unspoiled frontier, an escape from industrialized Japan and a chance to connect with nature – although this vision of HOKKAIDŌ (北海道) is rose-tinted, Japan’s main northern island certainly has an untamed and remote quality. Over seventy percent of it is covered by forest, and wildlife is ubiquitous, both in and out of the enormous national parks, where you’ll also find snow-covered slopes, active volcanoes and bubbling onsen. This is Japan’s second-largest island, yet a mere five percent of the population lives here. Even so, cities such as the stylish capital Sapporo and historically important Hakodate are just as sophisticated and packed with facilities as their southern cousins.
Only colonized by the Japanese in the last 150 years, Hokkaidō is devoid of ancient temples, shrines and monuments over 200 years old. What it does have is a fascinating cultural history, defined by its dwindling Ainu population. Spring through autumn are the ideal times to explore the island’s six major national parks and countryside. Apart from those highlighted opposite, Shikotsu-Tōya National Park has two beautiful lakes and a volcano that only started sprouting in 1943, while the countryside around Furano bursts in colour with fields of lavender and other flowers. Come winter Hokkaidō takes on a special quality; you can ski at some of Japan’s best – and least crowded – ski resorts or view many snow and ice festivals, of which Sapporo’s giant Yuki Matsuri is the most famous.