Nopporo Woodland Park, located approximately 15 km east of central Sapporo in Hokkaido, is huge, with a total area of 2,051 hectares. It is rare to find such a large and wonderful park so close to a major city in Japan. The citizens of Sapporo, Ebetsu and Hiroshimacho are privileged to have this natural amenity right on their doorstep.

It was lashing down rain on the day I visited the park. Normally, Hokkaido does not get hit by typhoons, but last August much of the Tohoku region was battered by them, and the southern part of Hokkaido got the tail end of this in the form of torrential rain. The natural sheer beauty of this park was just amazing, though, and I was not going to let a bit of rain dampen my spirits!

It is hard to imagine that just a little over 100 years ago, before the main colonization of Hokkaido commenced, all of it was covered with forest. In 1890, the Japanese government designated Nopporo as an Imperial Household Forest. Only two years later, though, the national government developed a plan to put the forest under the Hokkaido government, which would mean it could be subdivided and sold to developers.

Magozaemon Sekiya opposed the plan and in 1908, thanks to his persistent efforts, it was designated as an experimental forest, out of reach of the developers. Nopporo forest was first opened to the public in 1968 to celebrate the centennial of Hokkaido’s development. A 100-meter-high commemoration tower was erected in 1970, but it is now closed for renovation.

The park contains the Hokkaido Historical Museum and the Hokkaido Historical Village. The museum’s main exhibition is divided into eight themes: the geological origins of Hokkaido, the Ainu people, Hokkaido’s industrial development (mainly coal mining and logging), the present-day situation and the impact of development on the natural landscape.

The historical village includes period houses and other buildings that were gathered from all over Hokkaido and reassembled here in this “village” museum. The spectacular large wooden entrance building was originally Sapporo Station. To see these two places alone would take the best part of a day.

The Nopporo Forest sits on a rise, 20-90 meters above sea level, and looks down on the Ishikari Plain and Sapporo City. A lowland forest, it has vegetation that can be classified as transitional, with plants from both the cool temperate forests (rei-ontai-rin) and semi-boreal coniferous forests (hoppo shin’yojurin) found growing side by side. A small tributary of the Chitose River flows through the eastern part of the forest, and the Toyohira River through the western section. The annual average temperature is 7 C.

All the wildlife and flora found in the park are protected. An estimated 110 native and 60 foreign species of trees grow there; many of the foreign trees were planted to see if they would do well in Hokkaido’s harsh winter climate. In one such experiment in silviculture, alternate rows of Norway spruce (yoroppa tohi, Picea abies) and the Japanese larch (karamatsu, Larix kaempferi) were planted in 1913 and now look very fine.

Two of the majestic deciduous trees from Japan’s temperate zone are absent from Nopporo: the Japanese beech (buna, Fagus crenata) and horsechestnut (tochi-no-ki, Aesculus turbinata). The most northerly point for the beech is Kuromatsunai on the Oshima Peninsula, southwest of Sapporo. The Japanese horsechestnut almost makes it to Nopporo; its northerly point is Zenbako (or Chisan, in Ainu), which is halfway between Sapporo and Otaru.

At Nopporo, the katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) makes up for the lack of the above-mentioned two trees. The Ainu name for katsura is ranko; the Ainu people valued these trees and made dug-out canoes from the larger tree trunks. The heart-shaped foliage, the graceful appearance of the crown and the lovely autumn color make this a highly sought after amenity tree. Not far from Hagino Pond, on a sheltered embankment, grows the largest multitrunk katsura I have ever seen — 12 to 15 large trunks on one giant tree.

The Japanese lime (shina-no-ki, Tilia japonica), called nipes and kuperkep in Ainu, is plentiful. From the bark of this tree the Ainu people made rope.

The Sakhalin fir (aka-todomatsu, Abies sachalinensis), a tree with smooth gray bark, is a very important forest tree in the boreal climate area of Hokkaido. It grows on the slopes of one of Japan’s coldest mountains, Mount Daisetsu (2,290 meters), where winter temperatures fall below minus 30 C. The Ainu called this tree hup, and used the bark to make roofs for their wooden houses. They were certainly very knowledgeable about the practical uses of native plants.

In the sunny places, I could see many Japanese silver birch trees (shirakamba, Betula platyphylla var. japonica) growing. Silver birch bark is very white, and in the winter it must look attractive in the snow. This fast-growing tree is a close relative of the common European silver birch (Betula pendula).

Over 400 species of wild flowers grow in Nopporo, both native and a small number of invasive foreign species such as the American goldenrod (oawadachiso, Solidago gigantea var. leiophylly) that have taken over many of the open, sunny forest rides.

In the wetter places, I saw yellow touch-me-not (ki-tsurifune, Impatiens noli-tangere). This annual grows to a height of 40-80 cm and is common all over Japan.

There is even one wildflower named after Nopporo, Nopporo gankubiso (Carpesium divaricatum matsuei). Carpesium belongs to the composite family (Compositae); 10 species of this strong-growing perennial are native to Japan. Its stems are up to 150 cm high, with large leaves and tiny yellow flowers only 6-8 mm wide, opening in August and flowering until October.

Another giant member of the composite family that grows along the edge of the forest in Nopporo is hangonso (Senecio cannabifolia). The stems grow up to 2 meters high, with large corymbs containing many yellow flowers each up to 2 cm wide and large pinnate leaves. It flowers in late summer.

Nopporo Forest is a very enjoyable place to walk around, but one must still be careful. There are no less than 10 species of yellow hornets (suzumebachi, Vespa mandarinia) there. From spring to autumn these hornets are active; they are especially fond of sweet fruit juices and tree sap. Hornets can be dangerous!

The Japanese lacquer tree, also known as sumac (yama-urushi, Rhus trichocarpa) and a climber from the same genus (tsuru-urushi, Rhus ambigua), occur naturally in the forest. Care should be taken not to touch these trees with bare hands at any time, and the tsuru-urushi is especially dangerous immediately after rain.

After all, this is a natural forest, and nature demands respect. These plants and insects are part of the natural ecosystem and should not be destroyed.

The easiest way to get to the main entrance of the Nopporo Forest from central Sapporo is by bus. Shinrin Koen Station is 800 meters from the entrance. Entry to the forest is free but entry to each museum costs 300 yen for adults. Remember to bring drinking water and a snack — the forest is big. For more information, contact the park management office (011) 898-0455.