When I decided to move to Hokkaido, I knew what I was getting into as far as weather is concerned: long, dreary winters with high piles of snow and bitter cold temperatures. Being from the suburbs of Chicago, I am no stranger to excessive snowfall and icy temperatures.
However, what I wasn’t prepared for was the wealth of distinct culture that exists here, ranging from popular snow festivals and famous beer brands well-known in Japan and abroad to the delightful, powdery snow that seems to beckon skiers and snowboarders from both near and far.
Originally inhabited by the Ainu (also known as the Yezo) people starting some 20,000 years ago, Hokkaido was believe it or not, not the landmass’s first name. It was first known “Ezochi” (蝦夷地) by the Japanese people and “Kai” by the Ainu people, followed by the final decision on Hokkaido (北海道) by the Meiji Government.
This name incorporates both the island’s original name, “Kai”, and sounds strikingly similar to Tokaido (東海道), a region in Honshu best known for having the most prominent of the five trade routes in the Edo period. Modern Hokkaido sports 9 subprefectures, making it one of the eight other prefectures in Japan that has subprefectures. Located in Ishikari subprefecture is a city many of us think of when we hear the word “Hokkaido”: Sapporo.
Sapporo is not only known as the Hokkaido prefecture’s capital, it is also a veritable hotspot for distinctive local cuisine, various festivals and a number of historic landmarks. Sapporo is also, you guessed it, the birthplace of some of Japan’s most popular beers with “Sapporo” proudly presented on the fronts of their bottles and cans.
Yebisu (ヱビス) and Sapporo Draft were created and made famous by what is now known as Sapporo Breweries Limited. One can purchase small glasses of these and other beers with distinctive flavors for around 250 yen a glass at the Sapporo Beer Museum located in Sapporo Garden Park in Higashi-ku, Sapporo inside Sapporo Factory, in addition to learning about the history of the company.
I personally tried a limited time only beer that was meant to replicate the flavor of darker German beers, and it had a surprisingly deep and robust flavor. At 250 yen a glass, it is most likely encouraged that you give many flavors a try. Similarly, you can most likely expect a specialty beer of some sort as they change from time to time.
If you have a soft spot for the many and eclectic flavors of ramen, there are many in Sapporo to choose from. However, as miso ramen has its roots in Hokkaido I would highly recommend giving it a try. There are so many variations even within the miso ramen type that even if you don’t care for one, you are likely to find another that suits your palette if you keep looking.
If festivals are your thing, Sapporo hosts one for nearly every season of the year: the Sapporo Snow Festival for winter with various ice sculptures and snow structures, the Sapporo Lilac Festival for spring, during which people enjoy the sweet scents and sights of flowers and drink wine, the Sapporo Summer Festival for summer and the Sapporo Autumn Festival for fall (both of which encourage the drinking of beer with each season’s accompanying decor.) Each festival provides its own unique atmosphere and activities and is sure to be enjoyable no matter which you go to.
So what happens when we move away from Sapporo and look at Hokkaido in general? For starters, Hokkaido’s economy relies largely on its agriculture boasting nearly a quarter of Japan’s usable land for plants such as potatoes, wheat and corn. Additionally, Hokkaido is the nation’s leading producer in raw milk and beef, making it a substantial provider for much of Japan’s dairy and beef industry.
As my wife’s parents live in a residential area in the midst of one of many agricultural communities, I was suddenly jolted out of my seat by a loud alarm one night as we sat down dinner at their house.
When I asked what the deal was, they explained to me that many farmers in Hokkaido still rely on a very loud outdoor alarm system to let them know when it’s time to start work (six in the morning), when their lunch break is (noon) and when it’s time to wrap things up (six in the evening). While those unfamiliar with this system may very well find it obnoxious, I can see how it would be beneficial in terms of time management.
The Cold Season
Lastly, Hokkaido is world renowned for a special quality of light, powdery snow which make for ideal snowboarding and skiing conditions. Niseko is an area considered by many to be one of the greatest and most popular places for skiing and snowboarding and features Niseko United, a skiable area of nearly 2200 acres with 4 different resorts offering lodging and various activities even during the warmer seasons.
For anyone planning to visit Niseko, you can expect many of the restaurants and lodgings to be run by westerners as the area is fairly well known to attract folks from all over the world. As such, if you are concerned about language barriers you have little to worry about in this instance. That said, you can find Japanese restaurants but you might need to do a little bit of searching if you prefer the authentic Japanese restaurant feel.
As one could come to expect from any area having such a deep history and vibrant culture, this is but a brief introduction to the many experiences that Hokkaido has to offer. However, I do hope that I’ve at the very least given you a place to start and that you have come to understand yet another of the many sides of Japan a little bit better.