Unspoilt Hokkaido is wild and remote, covered in thick forest, icy mountains and hot springs. Japan’s second-largest island, it’s home to just 5% of its population – meaning there’s more of it for you to enjoy for yourself. Even Sapporo, Hokkaido’s urban hub, is characterised by tree-flanked boulevards and large public green spaces – it’s also a stylish city with a great reputation for food and one of the best beer scenes in Japan. Sapporo also hosts a Snow Festival each February, a quirky and typically Japanese celebration featuring statues, slides and mazes carved from snow and ice, accompanied by the region’s best food and wine.
Yunokawa’s onsen hot springs offer another opportunity to spot one of Japan’s most adorable animals, the Japanese macaque – also known as the snow monkey. These fluffy red-faced primates like to warm up during the cooler months with a dip in the natural hot springs, and draw tourists from far and wide. Another site of natural beauty is Daisetsuzan National Park, Japan’s largest and most unspoilt, home to a large population of brown bears and the small, rabbit-like pika.
Hokkaido’s unspoilt nature and unique culture is explained by the fact that it has only been colonised by the Japanese over the last century-and-a-half; many of its sites of cultural interest, such as temples and shrines, pre-date this period. Hokkaido’s indigenous people are the Ainu, who, despite a long history of oppression at the hands of the Japanese, have maintained a very distinctive culture. One of the best places to experience this culture and meet Ainu people is the Ainu Village on the western edge of Akanko Onsen, which is touristy but a great place to pick up carved handicrafts and leatherwork and savour some Ainu food. The volcanic Lake Mashu in Akkan National Park is known to the Ainu as the Lake of the Gods, and is one of the clearest lakes in the world.