Hokkaido Prefecture – Putting the “Win in Winter”
Whether its drift ice, onsen, skiing or snow festivals, Hokkaido knows how to do winters.
Hokkaido (北海道) is Japan’s northernmost, least-crowded prefecture – and at around 83,000 km², it the also most considerable. The expansive area it covers is revered for its cold climate and extensive wildlife – much of which is undisturbed. Because of its vastness, the region is split into 15 Subprefectures, with its capital, Sapporo (札幌), belonging to the Ishikara Subprefecture.
Sapporo became internationally recognised after hosting the Olympic Winter Games in 1972, nowadays however, it is more notorious for its world-class ski resorts, Yuki Matsuri (snow festivals) and Sapporo Beer.
The direct meaning of “北海道” is “North Sea Circuit”, with the kanji “道” acting much like the term “県” (prefecture). This makes the name “Hokkaido Prefecture” somewhat illogical – not that it really matters too much. Japan’s “North Sea Circuit” is separated from the mainland by the Tsugaru Strait, with its only land-link being an underground train tunnel. Access is still relatively easy though because there are frequent flights available all-year-round.
Sapporo City (札幌市)
If we take the town of Furano as Hokkaido’s centre, then Sapporo City lies around 120km to the West. The city started to dramatically develop after 1868, when the government decided that Hokkaido’s existing administrative centre, Hakodate, couldn’t accommodate the future needs of the island.
Sapporo is Japan’s fifth largest city and the birthplace of Japan’s oldest beer brand, Sapporo Brewery. Two of Sapporo’s most popular parks are Odori (大通公園), and Moerenuma (モエレ沼公園). Whilst Sapporo Beer Museum on the other hand, provides a nice alternative for beer enthusiasts.
Odori Park is located in the heart of the city and stretches across twelve blocks, making it an easy green-escape for the city’s residents and employees. It is open throughout the year and turns into a beer garden for the Sapporo Summer Festival (札幌夏祭り).
Moerenuma Park lies on the north outskirts of the city. Its contemporary design is thanks to Japanese-American sculptor, Isamu Noguchi. One of its key features is an eccentric glass pyramid building called Hidamari.
Sapporo Beer Museum (サッポロビール博物館) is open most days of the year and offers both free and paid tours. If you fancy staying a bit longer, there are also beer halls which offer which offer 飲み放題 (all you can drink), and restaurants to ensure that you drink beer the right way – with food!
With six national parks, five quasi-national parks and 12 prefectural national parks totalling around 147,000 hectares (more than any other prefecture), it’s no wonder that Hokkaido is a favourite amongst nature addicts.
Located roughly in the centre of Hokkaido is Daisetsuzan (大雪山) – Japan’s largest national park. Spanning around 2,270 square kilometres, it’s a similar size to Kanagawa Prefecture. Unlike Kanagawa though, the region is mostly mountainous consisting of 16 peaks from three volcanic mountain groups. Essentially this means two things, onsen and panoramic views!
Shiretoko National Park (知床国立公園) is another popular place to experience nature at its finest. It sits on the Shiretoko Peninsula in eastern Hokkaido, and is often said to be one of Japan’s most stunning parks. Some of its areas are so remote that they are only accessible by boat or foot!
There is plenty to experience in 北海道 throughout the year, but this prefecture is really in its element during the snowy season. Winter sports, snow festivals and drift ice tours are just a few of the ways that Hokkaido will win you over …
Drift ice is a common phenomenon observed on the northern coasts in Hokkaido along the Sea of Okhotsk. You can experience the beauty of this through a sightseeing boat from Abashiri (網走) or an ice walking tour from Shiretoko.
If you prefer snow to ice, then descending down the powdery snow in one of Hokkaido’s top ski resorts seems 100% necessary. Hokkaido is Japan’s skiing and snowboarding heaven. Insatiable slope-lovers, can feed their snow-related appetites with scenic routes and off-trail skiing at Niseko (ニセコ) – Japan’s most renowned ski resort
There are numerous snow festivals between January and April throughout Hokkaido, but the two million annual visitors to Sapporo’s Yuki Matsuri indicate that this is prefecture’s most celebrated. Dozens of fantastical ice structures – some of which stand at almost 30 meters high – make this festival like no other. The main site for Sapporo’s Yuki Matsuri is at Odori Park.
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