Big in Japan: Gadling goes to Hokkaido

All this month, we’re on the road in Hokkaid?, Japan’s northernmost island. Join us as we take a look at the rugged wilderness, world-class skiing and remote hot springs that make this winter wonderland so justifiably famous…

Let’s start off with a quick geography lesson, shall we?

Hokkaid? (??????, literally North Sea Circuit) is Japan’s second largest and northernmost island. If you’re not Japanese, you might have trouble identifying this landmass, though you’ve most certainly heard of its most famous export.

Indeed, Hokkaid?’s capital is the production center for the delicious amber nectar that is Sapporo beer, though the island offers much, much more than mere alcoholic delights.

First settled by the Ainu, Japan’s northerly indigenous population, Hokkaid? has been strongly influenced by Russia, Europe, America and – of course – Japanese mainlanders. Today, the island is thoroughly integrated into the modern nation, though it’s largely unlike anything you might expect to find in places like Tokyo and Kyoto.

So, without further adieu, let’s kick off our special series by taking a closer look at Japan’s winter wonderland.

In the minds of the Japanese, the island of Hokkaidō is a rough and rugged frontier that is somewhat equivalent to Alaska or the Yukon.

Surrounded by the frigid waters of the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the northern stretches of the Pacific Ocean, Hokkaidō experiences mild summers and Siberian winters.

The centre of the island is also characterized by soaring mountains and volcanic peaks, which happen to harbor some of the world’s best skiing.

While few Americans would mention Japan and skiing in the same sentence, Hokkaidō is one of the most popular overseas destinations for winter-sports lovers from Australia and New Zealand.

The action is firmly centered on the resort of Niseko, which is regarded by skiiers and snowboarders as something of a powder heaven.

For fans of apres-ski culture, you can quite literally fling yourself down the slopes, strip down to your birthday suit, and soak the night away in a natural hot spring while cradling a bottle of sake. Bliss!

Not surprisingly, the city of Sapporo hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics, and continues to host the annual Snow Festival every February. Ice bars might be the latest rage in North American cities, but where else in the world can you see a huge and hulking ice sculpture of Hello Kitty?

Sure, it’s cold, but the island specializes in winter-warming cuisine, such as the famous Sapporo ramen, a hearty dish of miso-based soup noodles that is served up with fresh butter and sweet corn.

And, if you start to lose sensation in your fingers, you can always down a pint or two of Sapporo beer, which should help get your blood circulating.

Want to learn more about Hokkaidō? Sure you do!

Tune in all this month as Big in Japan heads north and blogs from the road.

** All images courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons Project **