Magazine article Sunset

Getting to Know Japan's Farthest-North Island

Magazine article Sunset

Getting to Know Japan's Farthest-North Island

Article excerpt

Hokkaido may well be the only part of Japan where visitors from the American West feel more at home than do visitors from Tokyo or Osaka. This northernmost island was Japan's frontier, settled in the mid-1800s by pioneers drawn by prospects of fortunes in timber, farming, fishing, gold. You'll find rolling dairy farms, forested mountains, lakeside resorts, clapboard buildings, corn-on-the-cob stands.

Similarities to the West are all the more fascinating for the contrasts: hip roofs of barns bear Japanese characters rather than "Mailpouch Tobacco"; outside national park hotels, guests stroll in cotton yukata, rather than jeans, after a muscle-soaking post-hike bath; wines bear names like Tokachi; and the local beef, salmon, and crab are eaten with chopsticks. Visitors who've traveled the tourist paths of Honshu, and first-timers who want to know a Japan of outdoorsmen, should consider Hokkaido. In three days, you can sample Sapporo and the closest national park. Plan on a week or more to see the central and eastern parts. High points are easily reached by train and bus.

Many hotels of Western-style accommodations, even at hot-spring spas, where the baths (sexually segregated) are a big draw. Prices for a double room range from $40 to $70 in a first-class Sapporo hotel, $60 to $80, including breakfast and dinner, in outlying spa towns.

Best time to come is from May (cherry blossom time) through October (fall color). July and August are busiest, with Japanese tourists leaving humid climes for Hokkaido's drier air and temperatures of up to 75[deg.]. Skiers favor a winter visit to Asia's best slopes. Sapporo, the place to start

From both Tokyo airports--Narita and Haneda--it's a 90-minute flight ($158 round trip), then less than an hour by commuter train, bus, or taxi into town. Sapporo is the easiest Japanese city for foreigners to navigate; the street grid makes map-reading easy, and the subway, built in 1972, has English signs.

Head to the Tourist Information Center on the second floor of City Hall, on the north side of O-dori Park mall. Hours are 9 to 5 weekdays, 9 to 1 Saturdays. Here you can get English maps and guides to the Sapporo environs; information on city and more distant tours (not conducted in English, but a good way to hit the highlights with guidebook in hand); and a simplified English train and bus schedule to national parks. Assistants will work out an itinerary and book trains and hotels.

Here's a don't-miss list in Sapporo: Stroll O-dori Park on a Sunday, when Sapporo families turn out to enjoy fountains and seasonal flowers, munch corn-on-the-cob and fried Hokkaido-grown potatoes.

In Nopporo Forest Park is the island's best history lesson: the impressive Historical Museum of Hokkaido traces development from the Ainu aborigines (related to Inuit, not Japanese) through the pioneers.

Viewing photographs, artifacts, and dioramas of loggers, fishermen, miners, and farmers, you'll feel a sense of deja vu--you know the story, but the faces are different.

Don't miss nearby Historical Village of Hokkaido; 20 structures, 1882 to 1919, have been moved in (16 furnished with artifacts and manikins), and development continues. You'll see the Sapporo Railway Station, a general store, newspaper offices, farmhouses, the mansion of a "herring king," and a pony express--style relay station. A trolley drawn by Mongolian ponies plies the streets. Both museum and village are closed on Mondays.

On Mount Okura, visit the 1972 Olympic 90-meter ski jump. Last year a chair lift opened to give the faint-hearted the eye-popping view jumpers face; Sapporo spreads out below. …

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