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Hokkaidō is Japan's second largest island and the northernmost region and prefecture. It is known for its dramatic peaks, gorges and lakes. It is separated from Japan's main island Honshu by the Tsugaru Strait, which can be crossed through the underwater Seikan Tunnel. The island is particularly popular with outdoor lovers, thanks to its unspoiled natural environment. It's also a cooler option during the hot summer months.
Hokkaidō is situated in the north of Japan, near Russia at roughly the same latitude as Vladivostok. It covers a total area of 83,453 km². Its eastern coast lies on the Sea of Japan, its southwestern coast is on the Pacific Ocean and its northern coast is on the Sea of Okhotsk. The center of the island has several mountains and volcanic plateaus. It has 5 volcanoes that are considered active; Mount Koma, Mount Usu, Mount Tarumae, Mount Tokachi and Mount Meakan. Hokkaidō is, like the rest of Japan, seismically active, with earthquakes a regular occurence.
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The Daisetsuzan National Park is located in the central part of Hokkaido and is one of the natural highlights of the country. The name means 'Great Snowy Mountains', which is true for a large part of the year; from October to May, the park or at least the higher parts are covered in snow. It's the largest national park in Japan and an absolute must for anyone wanting to do some serious hiking. The park has 15 mountains which are over 2,000 metres high and hikes range from easy strolls of several hours to challenging multi-day hikes. The highest point is the Asahi Dake at almost 2,300 metres. The main gateway to the park is at Asahikawa, which can be reached by train. Other points of entry include Furano and Rubeshibe, both also excessed by train. From there you need to catch a bus or rent a car. Entrance to the park and most parking is free. After hiking, a great reward is a visit to the famous Sounkyo Onsen (hot springs).
Due to its northern location and plentiful snow, Hokkaido has some of the best skiing in Japan. This means if you're planning a ski vacation to Japan, a stop at one of Hokkaido's ski resorts is a must.
Hokkaido has relatively cool summers and icy/snowy winters. Most of the island falls in the humid continental climate zone with Köppen climate classification Dfb (hemiboreal) in most areas but Dfa (hot summer humid continental) in some inland lowlands. The average August temperature ranges from 17 to 22 °C, while the average January temperature ranges from -12 to -4 °C, in both cases depending on elevation and distance from the ocean, though temperatures on the western side of the island tend to be a little warmer than on the eastern.
The northern portion of Hokkaido falls into the taiga biome, with significant snowfall. Snowfall varies widely from as much as 11 metres on the mountains adjacent to the Sea of Japan down to around 1.8 metres on the Pacific coast. The island tends to see isolated snowstorms that develop long-lasting snowbanks, in contrast to the constant flurries seen in the Hokuriku region. Total precipitation varies from 1,600 millimetres on the mountains of the Sea of Japan coast to around 800 millimetres (the lowest in Japan) on the Sea of Okhotsk coast and interior lowlands and up to around 1,100 millimetres on the Pacific side.
Unlike the other major islands of Japan, Hokkaido is normally not affected by the June–July rainy season and the relative lack of humidity and typically warm, rather than hot, summer weather makes its climate an attraction for tourists from other parts of Japan.
In winter, the generally high quality of powder snow and numerous mountains in Hokkaido make it a popular region for snow sports. The snowfall usually commences in earnest in November and ski resorts (such as those at Niseko, Furano, Teine and Rusutsu) usually operate between December and April. Hokkaido celebrates its winter weather at the Sapporo Snow Festival.
During the winter, passage through the Sea of Okhotsk is often complicated by large floes of drift ice. Combined with high winds that occur during winter, this frequently brings air travel and maritime activity to a halt beyond the northern coast of Hokkaido. Ports on the open Pacific Ocean and Sea of Japan are generally ice-free year round, though most rivers freeze during the winter.
New Chitose Airport (CTS) is the main gateway arriving by plane. Most major Japanese cities are served, as well as international destinations like Seoul, Hong Kong, Busan, Taipei, Guam, Beijing and Shanghai.
To/from the airport
Hokkaido has fast and frequent connections from Hokkaido. There are many connections from cities like Kobe, Osaka, Hiroshima, Kyoto and Tokyo directly to Sapporo. Check Hyperdia for schedules and prices.
Hokkaido is an island so you can't travel by bus from Honshu to Hokkaido. There is however a submarine train tunnel that links the two islands. Numerous bus companies, JR Bus and WillerExpress among them, provide connections to cities in northern Honshu where it is possible to catch a ferry to Hokkaido.
Hokkaido is linked by ferry to Honshu. From Honshu you can travel from Aomori and Oma to Hakodate, and from Hachinohe to Tomakomai. Further connections are available, also see the Japan Guide website.
Due to its vast size and numerous outlying islands, Hokkaido has a fairly well-developed commuter airline network. The main regional carriers are JAL subsidiary Hokkaido Air Commuter and ANA subsidiary Air Nippon (now operating in its parent's livery). Many turboprop flights operate out of the tiny Okadama Airport in central Sapporo.
The train network in Hokkaido is (by Japanese standards) limited, although it's more than adequate for travel between major cities. However, access to many of the more interesting sites, such as Hokkaido's many national parks, will require either relying on infrequent and expensive buses, renting your own car, or trying your luck at hitchhiking.
Some convenient express trains include the Hokuto and Super Hokuto between Sapporo and Hakodate (3.5 hours, ¥8,830 each way); the Super Kamui between Sapporo and Asahikawa (1.5 hours, ¥4,810 each way); the Tokachi between Sapporo and Obihiro (3 hours, ¥7,220 each way); the Super Ōzora between Sapporo and Kushiro (4 hours, ¥9,370 each way); and the Super Soya and Sarobetsu between Sapporo and Wakkanai (5.5 hours, ¥10,450 each way).
JR offers a special Hokkaido Pass, separate from the Japan Rail Pass, which allows the bearer to ride all JR trains in Hokkaido, as well as most JR buses.
By far the most convenient way of getting around sparsely populated Hokkaido is by renting a car. This is especially so when visiting some of the national parks or onsen resorts. However, visitors not used to driving in snow should be careful in the winter, and note that speed limits are reduced significantly (only about 80km/h) in winter when the expressways are covered in snow. As such, give yourself more time to cover the same distance in the winter than you would in the summer.
A cheaper if slower and less comfortable option than the train is using buses, which also cover all the areas not accessible by train. Sleeper services radiate from Sapporo to most corners of the island. Note that local bus schedules can be very sparse, so check them carefully to avoid being stranded.
Much of Hokkaido's population lives by the sea, and consequently seafood figures heavily in Hokkaido fare. Check out the hairy crabs (毛蟹 kegani), king crabs (タラバ taraba) and the delicious sushi. Akkeshi's oysters, Saroma's scallops, and the northwest coast's sea urchin (うに uni) are considered to be among Japan's very best seafood.
More unexpectedly, Hokkaido produces most of Japan's dairy products and particularly in the east you will run into many creative uses for them. Ever had cream cheese in your curry, or butter in your noodle soup (bata-kon ramen)? How about asparagus, corn, or squid ink ice cream? In Hokkaido, you will.
Hokkaido is home to some of Japan's finest sake, the most famous of the bunch being Asahikawa's Otokoyama (男山). Beer is also big in Hokkaido, the most famous brand being Sapporo Beer (naturally from Sapporo), but the many microbrews found in nearly every town are also worth sampling.
Hokkaido is one of Japan's best places for camping, but beware of the nighttime chill - even in the summer months you'll need a good sleeping bag. In particular, the southwest coast can be surprisingly cold, due to the ocean currents.
Many of Hokkaido's cheaper accommodations slap on an extra fee for winter heating (冬期暖房 tōki danbō), as Japanese houses even in the north are notoriously poorly insulated and chew up vast quantities of fuel when the temperatures fall. This shouldn't be more than ¥500 or so.
If you are coming for the mountains, be sure to stay in one of the many mountain huts (山小屋 yamagoya) in Hokkaido. Most are free, and they're both a cheap sleep and a good cultural experience. You'll be sure to make Japanese friends as well.
|Hotel Kawanami||Toyako Onsen 53, Soubetsu-cho, Usu-gun (Lake Toya spa resort)||Hotel||-|
|Hotel Masyu||3-22, 2-chome Yunoshima Teshikaga-cho||Hotel||-|
|Owashi Lodge||188-7, Aza-Yamada Kutchan-cho, Abuta-gun||Guesthouse||-|
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