Anthony Pearce gets off the Golden Route and enjoys the fresh produce and bucolic beauty of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands.
A mist hangs over the peaceful Lake Onuma, obscuring the volcanic Mount Komagatake, which sits across the water. There is barely a soul in sight. The neon-lit streets of Tokyo’s Shibuya, home to the world’s busiest intersection, feel a long, long way away. With its dense alpine forests, volcanic landscapes, hot springs and heavy snowfall in winter, the sparsely populated and strikingly beautiful Hokkaido remains Japan’s wild frontier. The most northerly of its main islands, the prefecture makes up 20 per cent of the country’s land area but only five per cent of its population. To put that in perspective: Tokyo’s population density is 6,158 people per square kilometre; Hokkaido’s is just 72. Yet Hokkaido is remarkably accessible; Tokyo Haneda is an hour’s flight away, while the famed Hokkaido Shinkansen – better known as the bullet train – links the capital to the port city of Hakodate.
Although known for its ski resorts, Hokkaido has much more to offer than winter sports, as hikers, cyclists and other adventure seekers will attest. With cherry blossoms in spring, lavender in summer and beautiful autumn foliage, the island boasts breathtaking scenery year-round, as well as a fascinating history (that of its indigenous people, the Ainu), Sapporo beer, Nikka whisky and perhaps the world’s finest seafood. It’s no surprise that Lonely Planet named Hokkaido the top destination to visit in Asia in 2016.
Sixty-five per cent of tourists who visit Japan explore its famed golden route – Tokyo, Hakone (for Mount Fuji) and Kyoto. But with a target of 40 million visitors a year by 2020 (see news, p11), the government is keen to promote lesser-known regions and four-seasons tourism. It’s an easy sell: Hokkaido, which in parts feels more Scandinavian than it does classically Japanese, has charm in abundance.
As we soon discover in its lively capital, Sapporo – a calmer, but just as enthralling version of Tokyo – Hokkaido isn’t all about the great outdoors, but also its unique culture. Susukino, Sapporo’s bustling red-light district, is its most famous area, known for nightclubs, bars, izakayas (Japanese pubs) and restaurants. In the city, we eat at the Sapporo Beer Garden, adjacent to its famous beer brewery, where we enjoy a Mongolian-style banquet.
The food is a major part of Hokkaido’s appeal. The region is known for its produce – from dairy (milk, cheese and ice cream) to beef, whisky and beer. Each meal time, we’re treated to a feast: salmon, trout, scallop, squid, sea urchin, crab and octopus make up sushi, sashimi (raw fish) and tempura dishes, while we also try Japanese curry, ramen, broths, hot pots and sticky rice. Each dish is simple – never overpowered with flavour, with soy sauce or wasabi as an accompaniment – and thus completely reliant on the quality of the ingredients. The fish is the freshest, and best, I’ve ever tasted.
In Hakodate, we take in the city lights from Mount Hakodate, explore the historic Old Public Hall of Hakodate Ward, the city’s charming red-brick bay-area docks, which bears a strong resemblance toSan Francisco, and its bustling Morning Market, which appears to serve every
type of seafood there is. Here, moving among locals, cruise ship passengers and other tourists, we sample squid that is caught as we wait.
At the Nikka distillery in the Yoichi district of the Shiribeshi subprefecture, we’re treated to award-winning single-malt whisky, the result of one man’s pilgrimage to Scotland in the early 1900s and lifelong obsession with Islay malt. Whisky is a slow-moving world, but Nikka is now considered one of the world’s top producers. As one Japanophile quips: “When the Japanese decide to do something, they master it.”
It’s true that Japan is unlike any other country in Asia, or indeed the world. That it is a high-tech, highly developed nation is obvious from the moment you step off the plane: public transport is extremely punctual (our bullet train arrives five minutes early). It is also incredibly clean in all public spaces – you won’t spot litter anywhere). Even here, in what is essentially the country’s outback, everything runs like clockwork; there’s an attention to detail in every part of society that makes it one of the world’s most fascinating destinations.