The train chugged along, seemingly forever, winding its way through snow-covered terrain and a desolate, windy coast. Waves crashed on the frozen beach with not a soul wandering along the shore. The air was cold, the surroundings grey, and we seemed to be traveling to the ends of the earth. In reality, we were on our way from Sapporo to Otaru, a city in Hokkaido that faces Ishikari Bay and the Sea of Japan. The trip probably lasted less than an hour and yet time seemed to stretch into eternity, holding a much more abstract concept at the age of nine.
After we disembarked the train, we walked along a canal that snaked through the center of town. Russian fishermen sell their fish at this port, bringing an unexpected Russian influence. I was delighted by the hand-painted Russian artisanal treasures—a hair clip and small jewelry box that we found. It was as if we had been transported to yet another world altogether. I was free from preconceived judgements and expectations and experienced the delights of the world through fresh, excited, impressionable eyes, something that fades with age as we become more set in our ways.
Childhood in Japan
Japan was the first country I went to abroad and one that left an immeasurable impression upon me. I moved to Yokohama, a sizable port city just south of Tokyo, with my family when I was seven. Many of my earliest and most formative memories were created in Japan. Over the years, these memories have become entirely entwined with my identity as a third culture kid and later my identity as a global nomad.
This tangle of memories has grown blurrier as time has passed but left me with the vivid notion of falling in love with the world and exploration, an experience that undoubtedly shaped me and the way my life has continued to unfold over the years.
During the three and a half years that we lived in Yokohama, my family and I travelled around Japan a fair amount, including visiting some of the other islands aside from Honshu. In February of 2000, we found ourselves on Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s islands known for rugged forests, soaring mountains, deep blue lakes, steaming volcanoes, and bubbling onsens (natural hot springs dotted around Japan’s islands).
Welcome to Hokkaido and the Snow Festival
We arrived in Hokkaido on the eve of the Sapporo Snow Festival. This world-renowned festival draws creators and visitors from Japan and around the world each year to carve elaborate statues and figures out of snow and ice. The festival is spread out over three sites: Odori Park, Tsudome, and Susukino.
During our first days in town, we walked through the streets of Sapporo in awe of the elaborate Pokémon characters, temples, and cities being carved from blocks of ice. I still remember my mom talking about seeing the festival written about in an issue of National Geographic when she was a teenager, and how she had dreamt of coming to it ever since. That image has stuck with me from the time I attended the festival when I was nine years old through to present day.
I recall Sapporo, Hokkaido’s biggest city, being starkly cold and feeling as though it was enveloped in a dreary fog. Yet, the industrial-feeling city set against the backdrop of mountains came alive with the bustle of the ice festival. Many of the streets were shut down to give space to the artists bringing characters, statues, and life size buildings to life out of blocks of ice and snow.
At night, the city became a winter wonderland, where sculptures glowed with blue, green, pink, orange, and purple lights. The white and grey cast of daytime were transformed into a vibrant rainbow display of lights illuminating the sculptures. My brother and I slid down ice chutes and climbed over snow structures, bundled up and almost oblivious to the bitter cold.
To warm up, we ducked into steaming ramen houses and slurped up bowls of the warm noodle soup. We paid a visit to a chocolate factory and to the Sapporo Beer Factory. The museum and brewery dedicated to the city’s namesake beer was something I couldn’t fully appreciate at the time but would love to revisit now in a different stage of life.
My memories of Sapporo, the ice festival, and Hokkaido, have been preserved through the lens of an impressionable young girl who held onto arbitrary snippets of the trip through rose-tinted glasses. Free from the stress and the responsibility of planning and navigating a trip, I was able to enjoy each moment with bright eyes. While we only explored a small slice of this abundant island, it left me with treasured childhood memories and an inevitable interest to return one day to explore the rest of the wild offerings of Hokkaido.
Japan’s northernmost island offers much more beyond Sapporo. From an abundant food and drink culture, to its diverse and beautiful landscapes, Hokkaido rewards curious travelers and outdoor enthusiasts with a less-frequented beat of travel.
Food and Drink
Japan is a destination for foodies and Hokkaido is no exception. From steaming bowls of rich ramen broth to succulent soup curries, Hokkaido offers the best of Japanese cuisine alongside many regional specialties. Seafood is at its best on the island thanks to the plankton-rich waters of the Sea of Japan. Crabs are especially ubiquitous, with king, snow, and Hannasaki queen on offer. Indulge in salmon roe, sea urchins, squid, and scallops, as well. And to top it off, splurge on local ice cream, which, thanks to the high quality of Hokkaido milk, is decidedly distinct, incredibly creamy, and an unmissable treat.
For fellow imbibing enthusiasts, Hokkaido is a place that won’t disappoint. Pay a visit to the Sapporo brewery and have a pint of the island’s namesake beer. After Sapporo, go on a quest to explore some of Hokkaido’s phenomenal distilleries. Japanese whiskey has become something of a legend in recent years.
Perhaps the best-known whiskey distillery on the island is the historic Yoichi distillery, which was built by Masataka Taketsuru, father of Japanese whiskey. Hokkaido is also home to some of Japan’s best up-and-coming craft gin. At Benizakura Distillery, one can try Japanese gin that mixes local Hokkaido botanicals, such as shiitake mushrooms and Hidaka kelp, with the traditional ingredients such as juniper, lemon peel, and cinnamon.
As the most sparsely populated of Japan’s islands, Hokkaido delights outdoor adventurers throughout the seasons. Winter is one of the most magical times on this cold island. Hokkaido is dotted with ski resorts that are covered in fresh, powdery snow come wintertime, making it a fantastic destination for skiers and snowboarders. To warm up from the frigid temperatures after hitting the slopes, unwind in one of Hokkaido’s hot spring towns, where you can soak in a steamy onsen, rich in minerals.
This island lives in a frozen slumber for longer than the rest of Japan. Spring comes later and the cherry blossoms don’t bloom until May. As the island slowly warms up, the national parks also open up.
Explore the remote reaches of Shiretoko National Park, covering most of the Shiretoko Peninsula. Search for brown bears among the forests and hike to Kamuiwakka Falls, a hot springs waterfall. Be enchanted by the vivid blue waters of Shirogane Blue Pond and kayak in the waters of Onuma Quasi-National Parkand. Head to the mountains of Daisetsuzan National Park, one of Hokkaido’s pristine national parks, abundant in hiking trails through green alpine forests and snow-capped peaks, as well as a number of onsens.
By July, the lavender fields of Farm Tomita will have turned brilliant shades of purple, alongside pink, yellow, and orange tulip fields. Come October, fall foliage is at its peak in Hokkaido, making it the perfect time to hike and camp among the golden and orange hued trees.
Whether you’re looking to experience ice festivals or see the cherry blossoms, our Japan Travel Guide will tell you all you need to know about planning your adventure.
This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.