Hokkaido: Finding Japan Beyond Tokyo

The island of Hokkaido offers delights off the beaten tourist path

YOU MAY HAVE SIPPED SAKE in the boardroom or dined on late-night sushi while prepping for a court appearance, but if your trip to Japan started and stopped at Tokyo, you missed out. On your next (or first) visit, skip the expected and head for Hokkaido. Here’s why the northern island is worth the extra flight or rail time.\

> The history: The first people of Japan were the Jomon, who roamed the islands more than 6,000 years ago. The Ainu followed a few millennia later, and today many Japanese can trace their ancestry to these industrious tribespeople. You’ll find museums, performances and artwork throughout Hokkaido that celebrate these connections. Two to try are: the Ainu Museum in Shiraoi (pictured above) and the Hakodate Jomon Culture Center. 
www.ainu-museum.or.jp/en; www.hjcc.jp

> The hot springs: Bathing in Japan is a communal pastime. Strip down
(no bathing suits allowed) and get to know the locals at an Onsen; the volcanos that make up much of the island mean there are plenty of warm mineral waters for a soak. While most hotels offer separate bathing areas for men
and women, many also have unisex options. Two to try are: the Lake Akan Tsuruga Wings hotel, and the Windsor Hotel Toya Resort & Spa.
www.tsurugagroup.com/en/hotels/wings.html; www.windsor-hotels.co.jp/en

> The hillsides: Forget Tokyo’s skyscraper skylines and head for the Hokkaido hills. With more than a dozen volcanos, stunning mountain ranges and swimmable rivers and lakes, the area is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream destination. Milder summer weather than on the mainland offers chances to hike amidst wildflowers or cycle through small villages. Winter recreations include skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing. Two to try: the Toya Caldera and Usu Volcano Geopark for a view to remember and an understanding of what it means to live beside an active volcano; and the International Crane Center in Akan for the Japanese red-crowned cranes saved from extinction.
www.toya-usu-geopark.org/; aiccgrus.wixsite.com/aiccgrus/english-page

Heather Greenwood Davis is a lawyer and National Geographic Traveler contributing editor. Reach her at heather@globetrottingmama.com.