Hokkaido, the Ultimate Japanese Snow Country
On the starkly beautiful island, you can find a rugged mountain landscape and an unexpected mash-up of cultures.
If all you know of Japan’s countryside is what you see outside your bullet-train windows on runs between Osaka and Tokyo
—a picturesque banality managed to within an inch of its life—
Hokkaido will surprise you. This northernmost of Japan’s main islands is also the harshest, coldest, and least settled, accounting for 22 percent of the nation’s landmass yet only 4 percent of its population. There are a couple of marvelous cities and lots of picturesque (and slowly dying) towns. But its real draws are its vast primeval forests (which cover 70 percent of the island), its volcanic peaks (some ring-of-fire active), its mild summers, its fecund Western-style farms, and above all else its winter, which lasts a good six months and brings lovely snows (191 inches a year).
Hokkaido in winter is truly sorcerous. Nothing in the guidebooks, photographs, or GoPro videos can prepare you for the astonishing beauty of this stark land. It’s no coincidence that many of Japan’s finest artists—Akira Kurosawa, Haruki Murakami, Takuboku Ishikawa—have set much excellent work in its wintry precincts. Hokkaido is the environmental equivalent of the epic; here is a harmony of natural forms that is more or less the equivalent of the earth dropping the mic…forever.
Hokkaido is the homeland of the Ainu, the island’s persecuted indigenous inhabitants, who have stubbornly preserved their culture despite the best efforts of centuries of Japanese occupiers. It is Japan’s great wild frontier. It is the North Beyond the Wall; it is Deep Earth.