Patrick Hulbert visits Japan's Northern-most island for a trip of a lifetime
If you’re going to Tokyo, great, but please get a flight to Hokkaido and explore the region for at least a couple of days. I’ve been to Japan a few times; it’s one of my favourite countries and I try to go every March. I could write a whistle-stop tour of many of the major cities with bits and pieces about lots of places, but I’d barely be touching the sides. So instead, I’m just sticking to one: Hokkaido.
Topographically speaking, Japan has to be the most random country in the world. In the north there are bears and the snow can reach higher than buildings (depending on the time of year). At the other end of the scale, down in Okinawa you see sea snakes and get sunburnt if you’re not careful.
I took a flight from Tokyo and stayed two nights and three days at Hokkaido’s capital, Sapporo, and its surrounding areas. Getting in at around 5pm on day one was perfect as it was a case of dropping my bags off and going to the Sapporo hops museum. This place is famous for two things: hops and the incredibly luscious and moreish jingisukan (Genghis Khan) dish, where I tasted mutton, grilled by yours truly. Cooking your own food is great fun and popular in Japan in general when you’re in large groups.
I was lucky enough to meet up with close friends from the island to share this with them. Also try the curry soup; it is popular in Tokyo now but it all started in Hokkaido.
While we’re on food, jingisukan may be popular in the region, but it’s not as good as the oysters, fresh from the Pacific. They remain the biggest, and the best I have ever seen or tasted. Don’t ruin them with lemon or Tabasco; eat them fresh from one of the many fish markets. I was lucky enough to taste them in Otaru (northwest of Sapporo), a small town that is great for a chilled day out.
While in Otaru, make sure you take a stroll down the picturesque and pristine Otaru canal. Depending on the time of year you go, the snow will be the perfect accompaniment to make the walk even more pleasurable. I did this on the second day of my excursion, to walk off a large lunch (and those oysters).
Then came my final day, and what could be better than a trip to the zoo? I went to Asahiyama Zoo, which I have on good authority is the best one in Hokkaido, as well as being animal-friendly. Every day you can follow the march of the penguins as they take a stroll to stretch their legs and people can watch; if the penguins don’t want to go on a walk, they are under no obligation from the zookeepers to do so.
There’s plenty more to do in Hokkaido. I really can’t rate it enough. I’d recommend spending at least a week there to enjoy everything else this beautiful island has to offer. That’s what I plan to do next time I make the journey to Japan. Then I will go to Okinawa, right at the bottom of the country, to warm up. I’ll keep you posted…
More to do in Hokkaido
Sapporo TV Tower Odori Park in Sapporo houses the famous Sapporo TV tower, which was built in 1957 by Tach Nait, famous for building Tokyo Tower (they look very similar). Make sure you get a photo by it.
Hokkaido Shrine Japan is famous for shrines in general (Golden Temple, Kyoto; Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima) and Hokkaido Shrine, located in Marayuma Park in Sapporo, also has its own charm. There is a yearly festival (June 14-16) and it looks spectacular during cherry blossom season (usually around late April-mid May).
Sapporo clock tower The tower, once more in Sapporo, now houses an agricultural museum and was originally built in 1878.
Skiing If you like skiing, you have to come to Hokkaido as cold air comes right across from Siberia. There are many tours available and an abundance of resorts. If you want to stay near Sapporo, the nearest resort is Sapporo Teine, which is 20km northwest of the city. Want to get away from the city? How about Tomamu, which is two hours from Asahikawa, another city on the island.