Japan’s northernmost prefecture, Hokkaido, is home to troves of cultural, natural and culinary treasures, and every year throngs of travelers visit to partake in the region’s seasonal activities.
Given its many attractions, Hokkaido is the perfect setting for this year’s G20 Tourism Ministers’ Meeting, which will be held in the town of Kutchan on Oct. 25 and 26.
Hokkaido is easily accessible from the rest of Japan. The main airport of Sapporo, New Chitose Airport, is a 90-minute flight from Haneda or Narita and can be reached via flights departing from 29 airports around the country. Those traveling by shinkansen can reach Hakodate from Tokyo in about four hours. New Chitose Airport, which serves as a gateway to Hokkaido, also has international flights to Asia. Starting from winter 2019, Finnair will open a new route for direct flights from Helsinki, while Qantas will begin direct flights from Sydney.
Kutchan and Niseko area
Kutchan’s proximity to the Niseko mountain area has cemented the town’s status as a preferred destination among travelers. World-class ski resorts and high-quality powder snow have made Niseko a hub for winter sports, attracting skiers and snowboarders from around the globe. Opportunities in the area continue to attract investment, ensuring further development in and around Niseko.
Though famous for its winter activities, Kutchan also offers a wide selection of outdoor activities to be enjoyed off-season, such as cycling, rafting and canoeing. As the seasons change, Kutchan sheds its snow to reveal beautiful greenery, pristine lakes and excellent hiking trails, with the picturesque Lake Hangetsu and majestic Mount Yotei embodying the region’s beauty. During summer, the charming homes, plentiful rice fields and azure sky of Kutchan’s farmland offer an ideal setting for enjoying Hokkaido’s rural landscapes.
Kutchan is only a two-hour drive away from central Sapporo. Because of its popularity among foreign travelers, the town has made extensive efforts to ensure visitors’ stays are as comfortable as possible. English signage, as well as language assistance at the general hospital, are just a couple of the services available. With its rejuvenating hot springs, seasonal activities and scenic grace, Kutchan stands out among Hokkaido’s many exceptional destinations.
Nature and wildlife
Hokkaido brims with wildlife and rich natural habitats, offering ample opportunities to appreciate regional nature throughout the year. During summer, travelers can visit the beautiful Lake Akan, a crater lake in Akan-Mashu National Park, home to the rare algae species marimo, which morph into fascinating green balls that can grow up to the size of soccer balls.
Brown bear, deer and over 100 bird species also call this area home. With around 1 million seabirds inhabiting Teuri Island alone, Hokkaido is a birdwatcher’s paradise. At the Akan International Crane Center, visitors can see elegant red-crowned cranes, symbols of good fortune since antiquity that appear in many paintings and folk tales.
The Shiretoko Peninsula to the east is among Hokkaido’s prominent natural wonders and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for its precious ecosystem and biodiversity. The peninsula is one of northeast Asia’s premier areas for whales and orcas and is home to 13 species of whales. In spring and autumn, travelers can take night tours of the peninsula by car and enjoy glimpses of wildlife, as well as views of the starry sky undisturbed by artificial lights. There are also bear-watching boat cruises for travelers to admire the brown bears that inhabit the peninsula.
Hokkaido is commonly associated with winter. No sight better captures the magic of winter in Hokkaido than the drift ice that covers the Sea of Okhotsk. Travelers can take cruises departing from the cities of Abashiri and Mombetsu to see close-up views of this ice that is carried by winds and sea currents. More adventurous travelers can put on special dry suits and step out onto the ice for themselves. The sea eagles that swoop over and gather on the drift ice punctuate the breathtaking beauty of this natural phenomenon.
The Hokkaido region has a sacred connection with the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido. The Ainu observed an animist faith, and worshiped daily necessities, such as fire and water, or things beyond their control as gods.
Though the Ainu were stripped of their distinctive culture due to the government’s past assimilation policy, travelers can still interact with it by watching traditional dance performances and fire festivals at Akanko Ainu Kotan near Lake Akan, and learn about the indigenous people’s culture through their government-designated traditional crafts or at museums in the Nibutani district.
Hokkaido is also known for its rich local delicacies, such as fresh seafood and vegetables, as well as livestock products such as beef, cheese and milk.
Much of this food can be savored in Sapporo. Delicacies include Genghis Khan, a popular grilled mutton dish often referred to as the “soul food” of Hokkaido, as well as local varieties of ramen and soup curry that have captivated the palates of foreign travelers.
Surrounded by the Sea of Okhotsk, the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean, Hokkaido is blessed with an abundance of ocean fish, and the historic city of Hakodate in southern Hokkaido is a haven for seafood lovers. Long flourishing as a trading port to supply the Japanese mainland, the city is filled with restaurants and markets that serve up mouthwatering dishes of fresh crab, scallops and salmon.
Travelers may also be delighted to learn that Hokkaido has a rich history of producing beer, whisky and wine. In the town of Yoichi, travelers can tour the facilities of iconic whisky maker Nikka Whisky Distilling Co., and learn about the maker’s history and preparation methods.
Visitors can also stop by the Sapporo Beer Museum to learn about the history and brewing process of one of Japan’s most popular beers, produced in Sapporo since the 19th century. Wine connoisseurs are also in luck as Hokkaido produces distinctive wines that pair perfectly with award-winning local cheeses.