Traveling to Hokkaido, Japan [Off The Beaten Track]

お久しぶりです!『ohisashiburidesu』It’s been a while!  Per request, Japan [Off The Beaten Track] is going to begin again strong with Hokkaido 北海道, the number one place in Japan where people take adventuring very seriously!  This northern island is rugged and can be thought of as Japan’s Wild Wild North.  People come from all over the world to take part in exploring Japan’s jewel of nature and home of the indigenous people called the Ainu.  This article aims to give you a starting point to getting off the beaten track, but Hokkaido is so big and has so many opportunities for adventures, you’ll have to go there yourself to make your own way on the “north sea road.”  Like in the Shikoku and Saitama posts, I’ll be giving you ideas for food, interesting dialects (in this case the Ainu language), frozen and thawed festivals, and most importantly ADVENTURES!!!  行きましょう!Let’s GO!

Hokkaido’s Food

MMMmmm, scary, hairy, and delicious.  For Japanese and foreign travelers alike, a main draw for coming to Hokkaido is the seafood.  The cold, pure waters surrounding Hokkaido provide superb locations for harvesting seafood of all varieties.  Above is the Horse Hair Crab 毛蟹『kegani』, which is one of many kinds of crab that can be enjoyed in Hokkaido.  Other dishes famous to Hokkaido are sushi made from 海胆『uni』sea urchin, and ホタテ『hotate』scallop, which are best eaten absolutely as fresh as possible.  Both sea urchin and scallops are typically difficult for foreign visitors to eat raw, but when served in Hokkaido, the often off putting smell is lessened because of the superb freshness.  One of the best cities to eat seafood in is Hakodate because of its location on surrounded by water on the southern peninsula of Hokkaido, so you can jump off the train as soon as you arrive and eat some delicious sea food.  Be sure to bring your wallet!  It’s worth it!

For those of you rugged travelers who do not have money to throw down for expensive seafood cuisine, or for those who just do not like seafood, there is always one amazing alternative…..

RAMEN!!!!!!!

This is Sapporo Ramen.  The REAL Sapporo Ramen, not to be confused with the crappy instant ramen brand found in most Costcos.  If you read my Shikoku article, then you know my strong feelings for Ramen already.  It is truly the friend of the traveler and must be utilized, especially in Hokkaido where many agree that it is the best you can find in Japan.  The ramen in Sapporo is typically a sweet miso ramen designed to fill and warm you up on a wickedly cold night.  There are different variations of what goes inside, but generally seafood, meat, egg, and corn are the most common.  If you become a ramen fanatic like I am, you MUST have some if you visit Hokkaido.

Ainu Language

In all likelihood you will never be in a situation where you will only be able to use the Ainu language.  Please PROVE ME WRONG AND TELL ME WHERE YOU WENT!!!

In a quick history overview, the Ainu are an indigenous group of people in Japan with rather mysterious origins.  While they initially inhabited a large part of northern Japan, they were gradually pushed north by the Japanese, eventually limited exclusively to Hokkaido.  After the Meiji Restoration (1867), Hokkaido was annexed by the Japanese and the Ainu were forcefully assimilated and their language and culture was largely destroyed.  Only very recently, beginning in the early 1990s, have the remaining descendants of the Ainu gained significant ground in the revival of their language and culture.  Here is a great resource for learning more about the Ainu language.  If you want first hand experience learning the language, a good place to start are Ainu villages called “Kotan.”  Most are more like tourist destinations rather than places where people actually live a traditional lifestyle, but if you go to either and show interest in the language, I’m sure you’ll get on the right track.

Music = Language

One of the best ways to understand how the Ainu language sounds is to listen to the music because music is one of the main methods that has been used to preserve this language as well as other similar “lost languages.”  The following are a couple of samples of Ainu music, one traditional and one modern.

First is a very traditional piece that show cases how music might have actually sounded before the Japanese assimilation:

Iuta Upopo (Husking Song)

The piece is a functional work song for husking, as the name implies.  Originally, Ainu songs were not performance pieces, but served specific purposes in everyday life.  The key when listening to the language is to notice how different the pronunciation is from Japanese.

Second is a great duo who did a great deal to popularize the Ainu cultural revival through modern interpretation of traditional Ainu music – Oki Kano, and the late Umeko Ando:

Battaki

The stringed instrument played by Oki Kano is called a “Tonkori” and while it is a traditional Ainu instrument, it is being played with a modern pop music flair.  The chanting by Umeko Ando, is very similar to traditional Ainu music, and the drummer is playing rhythms from modern popular music.  This music is a fantastic way to become introduced to how beautiful the Ainu language sounds!

Hokkaido’s Festivals


Ainu Festivals

Speaking of Ainu, some of the best festivals in Hokkaido are ones that display Ainu language and culture like the Ainu Music Festival in Sapporo.  Look at the picture above with Oki Kano rocking out on amplified Ainu tonkori.  EPIC! Other Ainu festivals can be found in Sapporo as well as Ainu villages (kotan) throughout Hokkaido, so go check some out!

The most famous (or infamous) Ainu festival is called the Iomante Festival, but I have a feeling most of you won’t want to go.  It is a religious ceremony where a bear is sacrificed to the bear god in order to encourage more bears to come to the earth.  The festival is very rare, mostly because the practice of slowly killing a bear is seen by many as inhumane to animals.  The practice looks very similar to bull fighting, except the young bear is tied to a rope nailed to a peg in the ground, so it’s even more unfair.  This festival is an opportunity to see Ainu culture in a way that most people never can, but it is not for the faint of heart.

Ice Festivals

The real big attraction to Hokkaido, as many of you know, are the ice festivals most famously the Sapporo Ice Festival, pictured above.  The festival attracts over 2 million people and is one of the best ice festivals in the world with huge structures that push the boundaries of the human imagination.  That being said, there will be crowds, so here’s one of many other Ice Festival options for those of you wanting to get further off the beaten track.

Sounkyo Ice Festival

The Sounkyo Ice Festival is located in the beautiful Sounkyo Gorge, southeast of Asahikawa.  The region itself is worth going to any time of year to appreciate nature, get away from tourist traps, and to get in on the many opportunities to have adventures in any of the four seasons.  The festival takes place from January-March and is illuminated by beautiful colored lights covering the many ice sculptures, caves, and pathways, which cover an extensive area for walking around for viewing it all under a large weekly fireworks display.  You won’t see quite the same level of massive structures like at the Sapporo Ice Festival, but the Sounkyo Ice Festival makes up for it in spades with a great location, beautiful illumination, and smaller crowds.

There are many ice festivals in the Asahikawa area, some with other cool features like hot air ballooning, so please find one that suits you, bring some warm clothes, and have a good time!  Here’s a link for the Asahikawa Tourism website to get you started!

Hokkaido’s Adventures

For adventures in nature, Hokkaido is hard to beat.  It is filled with world class national parks, pristine hiking trails, light powder snow for winter sports, and spectacular view points of waterfalls, mountains, and rivers.  Heck, you can even go dog sledding! Hokkaido is such a large island that you really could write a whole book about exploring what it has to offer.  I hope I can provide you with material to start your first chapter!

Daisetsuzan National Park 大雪山国立公園 is a great place to get started exploring Hokkaido because it offers so much opportunity for great hiking, skiing, onsens, scenery, and meeting interesting people.  Above is Asahidake 旭岳, the tallest mountain in Hokkaido at 2291 meters and one of the centerpieces for the national park.  The climb to the summit in the summer is filled with stunning 360 degree scenery, smoldering geysers, and uneasy footing on the path up the side of the mountain due to deposits of volcanic rock. Thanks to a gondola, however, getting as far as where this picture was taken is only a short ride away, and in the winter skiing or boarding down is highly encouraged to experience Hokkaido POW.  The types of people who choose to continue the journey to the very top are surprisingly diverse from professional level climbers who spend all summer carrying packs nearly twice their size to camp and hike around the region, to elderly couples and their toddler grandchildren.  The origins of the visitors are spread out as well from salary men from Tokyo and Osaka seeking to get away from the fast paced stress of their work to tour groups from Western Europe and the United States as well as Japanese families on vacation.

The start of the gondola is located in a very small mountain town with the same name as the mountain, Asahidake.  There, you can find a youth hostel just a short walk away from the gondola with pretty reasonable prices for rooms that include breakfast, and even a small lunch if you pay a little bit extra.  There is a wonderful complimentary outdoor onsen 露天風呂 「rotenburo」included in the price, with water flowing from the natural hot spring creek that runs right past the hostel.  From there, it is easy to access the many nature trails and the hike from the hostel to the nearby Tenninkyo Onsen 天人峡温泉 requires a little bushwhacking but provides great vistas of gorges and waterfalls (below).

The great thing about Hokkaido is that this is just one of the countless locations where you can get off the beaten track, experience beautiful scenery, and interact with interesting people from Japan and around the world who are on similar journeys for adventure.

Hokkaido’s Transportation

For being such a massive, rugged island, it really is not that hard to get around with public transportation.  The JR Hokkaido Railway Company crisscrosses the island pretty well to get you at least in the general vicinity of where you want to go.  From there, there are lots of buses available to get you to a specific destination that does not have a train station.

Most people fly to Sapporo and then take a bus or train, but if you are hardcore and happen to have a JR Pass (basically an all-you-can-ride pass for increments of 1-3 weeks if you’re on a tourist visa) you might try taking the train all the way up.  It’s a LONG ride, and not real comfortable if you aren’t in a sleeping car, so if you don’t have a JR pass, it’s just about the same price to fly so I would do that unless you have lots of time on your hands and want to see some of northern Honshu before getting into Hokkaido.

With that, good luck in Hokkaido!  Go out and try to get lost!  Make sure to wear bells on your backpack to ward off bears and have a good time!

いろいろな地域を探検してみてください!(iroirona chiikiwo tanken shitemite kudasai) “GO EXPLORE!”

P.S.  If you have a place in Japan you love that’s off the beaten track and want to share it on Tofugu.com, send a short summary of your experience to nick@tofugu.com.

  • xiongmao

    oh god the ramen looks amazing!! i feel so tempted to lick my screen….

  • blueshoe

    Gotta find the time – I'd love to go someday…just not in the winter.

  • http://twitter.com/pasell Will Purcell

    That sounds like an amazing place! I really like the idea of ice festivals, because in Australia I'm lucky for the place to even get a bit chilly, I've never seen snow.

  • http://ailelie.dreamwidth.org/ Aile

    You forgot soup curry. When I lived in Hokkaido for two years with JET, I knew ALTs in Sapporo who had guides to the best soup curry in their city. When my brother visited, it was his favorite food of everything he tried. It does not exist many places outside of Hokkaido (Tokyo and Osaka have some pale imitations, but that is all I know of) and is utterly delicious. Just saying– it'd be rather unfortunate to go to Hokkaido without at least trying soup curry.

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  • Toothpaste

    I've been interested in the Ainu culture for awhile now. Of course, I was too lazy to do any actual research, because I was looking more into the racial tensions between the Ainu people and Yamato people. It's certainly cool to learn about the Ainu culture – although the Iomante Festival does sound pretty brutal. I did a little more looking into that and was surprised at what I found. Oh, and that ramen looks really good. You've successfully made me starving. Thanks.

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  • http://twitter.com/jbtutor Jeremiah Bourque

    I always love seeing pictures of Japan's natural beauty. The food is interesting as well, but it's the landscapes that really inspire me.

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  • http://www.google.com/profiles/102303527208203595432 Mark

    Best holiday I ever had – 5 day cycling tour of western Hokkaido. Beautiful place. Went all along the coast from Otaru -> Iwanai -> Oshamambe -> Towako -> Sapporo.

    I only recommend doing something so ridiculous in June or May ;).

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  • Crowbeak

    The Sapporo Snow Festival is grand. Hundreds — literally hundreds — of snow and ice sculptures take over Odoori Park and the surrounding streets. They sculpt stages out of snow and ice, too, on which there are all kinds of entertainment in the evenings — a lot of up and coming musicians of all genres.

    The first Narnia movie was about to come out when I went to the Sapporo Snow Festival, and Disney bought up an entire blook of Odoori for it; they built a snow stage for it, then ran a light and sound show over the stage to give passersby a summary of the story. It totally made up for the six billboards in the middle of the square.

    I must say, though, that while there are a lot of very good snow and ice sculptures at the Sapporo Snow Festival, I've seen better ice sculptures at the World Ice Carving Championships in Fairbanks, Alaska. More pop culture — especially Japanese pop culture, of course — is represented in Sapporo, though. I have a picture of a Darth Vader head snow sculpture right next to a cute chocobo snow sculpture.

    The train ride from Sapporo to Tokyo is fantastic. I found it a very relaxing way to get a last look at Hokkaido and Honshu before I left Japan. I had books and stuff with me to pass the time, but ended up staring out the window the whole time.

    I did have a sleeper car; the train left Sapporo around 5 PM and got into Tokyo around 9 AM the next day. I slept my way through the underwater tunnel… it was boring to look at, anyway. No fantastic see-through look at the ocean bottom. It's like a tunnel through a mountain, only less well-lit.

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