The island of Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. It is viewed much like the Alaska of Japan: a mountainous frontier populated with wild animals such as foxes and brown bear. In winter, Hokkaido transforms into a legendary winter wonderland when the cities host snow festivals and the northern coast along the Sea of Okhotsk develops sea ice. That’s right, I said sea ice.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I realized that Japan’s Great White North was at a mere 44 degrees North latitude, which puts this drift-ice-laden island south of Portland and even Rome. It’s not exactly the North Pole.
The other remarkable thing is that Hokkaido wasn’t developed by the Japanese government until the 1800s, though there was of course a native population and remote outposts long before then. This means that the island doesn’t have the 1,000+ year old temples and other historical sites typical of Japan’s other islands. Instead, Hokkaido has farms and cities that are modeled after western countries, due in part to American agricultural consultants that were hired during the formal development years.
All of this gives Hokkaido a flavor very unlike the rest of Japan – and we had to go see it.