Dhe train journey to Japan’s second largest, northernmost island is a bit monotonous, as it takes the Hokkaido Shinkansen through the almost 59 kilometers long Seikan tunnel. It connects Japan’s main island of Honshu under the sea floor with the north island of Hokkaido and is the second longest railway tunnel in the world.
However, Hokkaido itself is anything but boring – if only because the island is very different from the rest of the country: First, it is much less bustling here than in Tokyo or Osaka, for example, because only around 5.3 million of the 126 million Japanese are alive Hokkaido. Second, the mountainous, wooded landscape and the cool climate seem almost Scandinavian.
Thirdly, the animal world is special: In the largest Japanese national park Daisetsuzan, for example, live the giant fish owl and the highly endangered, white-feathered red-feathered crane with the red blotch of color on its head. It was considered to be extinct on Hokkaido at the end of the 19th century, and a flock was not discovered again until 1924 on the island; the Japanese Ministry of Culture then elevated the bird, which is a symbol of health and longevity, to a national monument.
Fourth, you can relax on Hokkaido – because of the many active volcanoes, there are plenty of hot springs, called onsen in Japan, in which you can bathe, even in winter. Noboribetsu, the so-called Hell Valley, is famous all over the country for its sulphurous streams and ponds, billowing steam and geysers.
The winters on the North Island are long and cold and give Hokkaido a world-wide unique powder snow, which makes the island – fifth – an excellent winter sports area.
Palaces made of snow and ice in Sapporo
In 1972, Hokkaido’s capital, Sapporo, hosted the Winter Olympics. With the sporting event, the Sapporo Snow Festival also became known, where artists create sculptures and palaces out of snow and ice every year. Southwest of the city is Japan’s most popular ski area, Niseko, whose fine powder snow attracts winter sports enthusiasts from all over the world.
Skiers and hikers are more lonely on the Asahi-dake, Hokkaidos with 2290 meters highest mountain, an active volcano in the northeast. It was considered a playground for the gods by the indigenous people of Ainu. Hokkaido’s newest ice cream fun is trips by icebreaker through the drift ice on the Sea of Okhotsk.
Safari to the brown bears on the Shiretoko peninsula
The chances of a sighting during guided tours are 90 percent. Anyone who makes such promises has to be pretty sure. And the rangers on the Shiretoko Peninsula are certain.
The 25 kilometers narrow, northeasternmost tip of Hokkaido protrudes 70 kilometers into the Sea of Okhotsk. It is one of the most sparsely populated areas of Japan, home to an estimated 500 brown bears. The cape, traversed by a 1,500 meter high ridge, is their habitat, here the furry predators wake up from their winter dormancy in April, mother and young animals then roam the sea in search of food.
You can discover them on hiking trails and from the coastal road – but be careful when stopping for photos: a full-grown brown bear, two meters tall and weighing up to 400 kilos, can knock over a car. And he has no hesitation in attacking people, nine cases of death or injuries have been reported here in 2021.
Boat tours are therefore safer and more recommendable. Then you get to see the most lonely part of the cape, to which there is no road, as well as sometimes dolphins and larger whales. Most of the Shiretoko peninsula has been a national park since 1964 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005.
The lowest temperature ever recorded in Japan
On January 25, 1902, the temperature measured in Asahikawa on Hokkaido was minus 41 degrees Celsius – the lowest value ever recorded in Japan. But it is not only in the city of 330,000 in the interior of the island that it regularly gets bitterly cold. In Rikubetsu, a small town in the east, the average temperature at the end of January and the beginning of February is always below minus 20 degrees, the daily average temperature in January is minus 11.4 degrees.
The Japanese arm themselves against the cold with Cairo – that’s the name of the little warming pillows for on the go that you get in convenience stores everywhere in winter. The heater for the trouser pocket is a portable package that reacts with oxygen after opening and generates heat.
Where the world famous pumpkin comes from
The Hokkaido pumpkin comes from Hokkaido? But that’s only half the story, because pumpkins weren’t always found in Japan. Pumpkins did not come to the island state until the 16th century with Portuguese sailors.
The Kuri aji variety, on which Hokkaido is based, goes back to agricultural advisers from North America who brought large, rather tasteless Hubbard pumpkins with them towards the end of the 19th century.
A Japanese vegetable farmer refined the vegetables. The result was the small, deep orange Hokkaido with its nutty aroma and the thin, edible shell. Because the first exported seeds of this new pumpkin variety came from Hokkaido, the island was named after.
“I took the boat out last night. The marshland and the moon were beautiful “
Marnie, character from “Memories of Marnie”, raves about Hokkaido. The strip is an anime – one of the typical Japanese cartoons. In 2016 the work was nominated for an Oscar in the category “Best Animated Feature Film”.
The area we are talking about is the Kushiro Marshes, at 183 square kilometers they are Japan’s largest swamp area. The local Kushiro Shitsugen National Park, home to 600 plants and 200 species of birds, can be explored by canoe or on a Hokkaido pony, just like in a film.
Quirky, record-breaking, typical: you can find more parts of our regional geography series here.
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