Hokkaidō (北海道) is the Japan of wide-open spaces, with 20% of the country's land area but only 5% of its population. There are large swathes of wilderness here, with primeval forests, tropical-blue caldera lakes, fields of alpine wildflowers and bubbling, in-the-rough hot springs. In the summer, all this (plus the cooler, drier weather) draws hikers, cyclists and strollers.
Winter is a different beast entirely: cold fronts from Siberia bring huge dumps of light, powdery snow, which has earned Hokkaidō a reputation as a paradise for skiers and snowboarders; there are international-level resorts here, but also remote backcountry opportunities.
The island's stunning natural scenery and the promise of outdoor adventure tend to overshadow everything else Japan's northernmost island has to offer, which is a lot: there is excellent food, especially seafood; a vibrant capital city; and a compelling history, starting with the legacy of Hokkaidō's indigenous people, the Ainu.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Hokkaidō.
Historic Otaru canal is lined with warehouses from the late 19th and early 20th centuries when this port city served as the financial centre of Hokkaidō and a bustling center of trade with Russia and China. This was a time when traditional Japanese architecture was infused with Western-style building techniques, leading to some intriguing architectural styles being on display. Most of the canal-lined spots have been restored and now house museums and cafes. Unfortunately the canal itself is half-buried by a major thoroughfare, despite the best lobbying efforts of local preservationists. Still, a stroll along the canal's banks is a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon, particularly in February when twinkling lanterns line the river as part of the town's Snow Light Path Festival. Otaru canal cruise The view of the canal is even prettier from the vantage point on the water. Cruises depart from Chūō-bashi and last 40 minutes; though recommended, no advance booking is necessary. Hotels close to Otaru canal Otaru is an easy day trip from Sapporo, though it also works as a convenient stopover on the way to Niseko. There are plenty of places to stay here, the best (and priciest) of which have rooms overlooking the bay. For proximity to the canal, you can't beat Hotel Nord Otaru or Hotel Sonia, both located right on the canal bank. For those on a budget, the excellent Otarunai Backpackers' Hostel Morinoki is around a 15-minute walk from the canal side.
Considered by many to be Japan's most beautiful lake, Mashū-ko once held the world record for water clarity. The island in the middle was known by the Ainu as the Isle of the Gods. A road runs along the western rim. You can't get down to lake level, but there are two official viewing points called Viewpoint 1 and Viewpoint 3; there's no parking fee at the latter.
Mention you've been to Hakodate and every Japanese person you know will ask if you took in the night view from atop Hakodate-yama (334m) – it's that famous! You want to get up here for sunset or after dark: what's striking is seeing the lit-up peninsula (which locals say is shaped like Hokkaidō itself) against the pitch-black waters. In addition to the viewing platform and parking area, those who hunt will find the remains of an old fort behind the buildings, with interesting foundations intact.
This ski-jump slope was built on the side of Ōkura-yama for the Sapporo 1972 Winter Games. At 133.6m it's just slightly shorter than Sapporo TV Tower, with a 33-degree incline. What would it feel like to whiz down that? You can hazard a guess after taking the rickety old lift up to the top and staring down the slope. Keep that image in mind when you try the highly amusing computerised simulator in the museum below.
This legendary Sapporo attraction is in the original Sapporo Beer brewery, a pretty, ivy-covered brick building. There's no need to sign up for the tour; there are plenty of English explanations throughout about Japan's oldest beer (the brewery was founded in 1876). At the end there's a tasting salon (beers ¥200 to ¥300) where you can compare Sapporo's signature Black Label with Sapporo Classic (found only in Hokkaidō) and Kaitakushi Pilsner, a re-creation of the original recipe (found only here).
This haven in the heart of the city is fully 13 blocks (1.5km) long, with the TV Tower at its eastern end. Among the green lawns and flower gardens are benches, fountains and sculptures; don't miss Noguchi Isamu's elegant Black Slide Mantra. This is also where many of the city's major events and festivals take place.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, a roaring herring trade turned Esashi (江差; pop 8110) on the west coast of Hokkaido's southern peninsula, 70km west of Hakodate, into a boomtown. The Nakamura-ke Residence is the sole legacy of the town's glory days. The beautiful, sloping wooden house, made of cypress and stone (without a single nail) was built by a wealthy merchant; it's since been restored and opened to the public. Buses travel to Esashi from Hakodate (¥1880, 2¼ hours, five daily).
Part of Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park, these marshlands are 40km southwest of Wakkanai. Fields of wild flowers bloom here in summer, which can be appreciated from boardwalks built over the marsh. Infrequent trains on the JR Sōya line run between Wakkanai and Toyotomi ( futsū ¥930, 50 minutes; tokkyū ¥1550, 40 minutes). Buses (¥380, nine minutes) run from JR Toyotomi Station to the Sarobetsu Wetlands Centre at 8.30am, 1.25pm and 2.50pm (June to September) and at 9.15am and 1.50pm (October to May).
Here is a rare chance to bear witness to modern mountain-making: Shōwa Shin-zan (昭和新山; 398m) – whose name means 'the new mountain of the Shōwa period' – arose from a wheat field following the 1943 eruption of Usu-zan. The Usu-zan Ropeway runs up to a viewing platform for Shōwa Shin-zan, with Tōya-ko behind it.