In the land of major metropolises and futuristic technology, there is still an oasis of calm and nature. Away from overcrowded subways, robot waiters, and neon intersections, Japan’s island of Hokkaido offers respite from the hustle and bustle of the cities.
The island offers mountain ranges and active volcanoes in its center, as well as dense forests, rushing rivers, coastal plains, and dramatic shores. Not only does Hokkaido have the largest reserves of untouched nature in all of Japan, it also boasts the most dramatic variety of ecosystems. With a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a Global Geopark, protected wetlands, and unique wildlife, Hokkaido is one of the most exciting parts of Asia for nature lovers to discover.
Life moves slowly on Hokkaido, without the stress of modernity. Tradition and heritage are the way of life across much of the island, with the possible exception of the capital, Sapporo. With a population of 2 million people, Sapporo is small compared to Tokyo. But still it stands out as an urban jungle among the natural forests surrounding it.
Hokkaido is Japan’s northernmost island, separated from the main Japanese island of Honshu by the Tsugaru Strait, which is only 12 miles across. There has been a tunnel connecting Hokkaido with Honshu since 1988, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the Shinkansen (the famed bullet train) was able to pass through it.
That sense of isolation—perhaps more of a mindset than a logistical reality—does make itself felt on the island. For a country where overcrowding is a huge problem and space is always at a premium, Hokkaido has plenty of wide-open areas. It makes up about 20% of Japan’s total land mass, but only 4% of its population. Here’s a look at some of the island’s most impressive natural attractions:
It can take a long time to travel around Hokkaido and see the highlights: After all, it is about the same size as Ireland. I think the best place to start to really appreciate the wonder of the island is the Shiretoko Peninsula.
Shiretoko has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is the only one in Hokkaido. It’s one of the richest integrated ecosystems in the world, with important animals both on land and in the water.
Along the coast, there are cliffs with waterfalls and seasonal sea ice. Just inland, streams flow down to lakes, and green primeval forests run between. It’s relatively easy to spot brown bears, deer, and foxes.
The waters around Hokkaido are particularly rich in nutrients. So the isolated region has become an important sanctuary for migratory birds and a home for globally threatened seabirds. In addition to being a UNESCO Site, Shiretoko is also protected as a national park—one of six on Hokkaido.
Daisetsuzan National Park
Found in the center of Hokkaido, Daisetsuzan National Park is the largest national park in Japan. Its name means “great snowy mountains,” which is an excellent description for what you find here.
The park offers some of the most rugged scenery in all of Japan. It boasts more than a dozen mountains, including the island’s highest, Asahidake, which stands at 7,510 feet.
Living amongst the mountains you’ll find brown bears, ezo deer, and rare birds like the black woodpecker and Blakiston’s fish owl. There are also butterflies here that are found nowhere else in Japan.
In winter, snow covers Daisetsuzan in a blanket of white. In spring, colorful alpine flowers create a rainbow across the fields.
Akan National Park
Akan National Park was officially established on the same day in 1934 as Daisetsuzan, making them the two oldest national parks in Hokkaido, Japan.
What makes Akan so spectacular are the lakes that have formed in the enormous craters of ancient volcanoes. These caldera lakes are crystal clear. The most famous of them all, Lake Mashu, sometimes offers visibility of up to 130 feet!
Beneath the ground, the earth continues to bubble away and the heat finds its way to the surface. This creates warm springs, boiling mud, and even a popular hot waterfall.
Shikotsu-Toya National Park
The volcanic activity on Hokkaido creates both fear for residents and excitement for visitors.
One of the island’s most active volcanoes, Mount Usu, last erupted in 2000. But that doesn’t stop tourists from climbing up ropeways to the top and peering over into the crater every day. Mount Usu is in Shikotsu-Toya National Park, which has also been declared a UNESCO Global Geopark.
While smoke billows in the background, the calderas here are also filled with clear lake water. There’s a beauty in the scars that lava flows have left across the landscape, and the plants that have formed on top over the centuries. Hikers will love exploring the trails that crisscross the region.
Kushiro-Shitsugen National Park
I’ve mentioned the diversity in the landscapes of Hokkaido; nowhere is this more evident than in the contrast between the volcanic mountains and the nearby wetlands of Kushiro-shitsugen National Park, which are located just 25 miles away.
Down the slope, as you approach the coastline, you’ll see the vast tract of green and brown that is the largest collection of reed-beds in Japan. The wetlands here have also been officially protected by Ramsar, which is also known as the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.
But it’s the inhabitants who call Kushiro home that are so special, specifically the red-crested white crane. This beautiful bird is considered the traditional symbol of luck and longevity in Japan. It was once believed that the cranes were extinct, until 20 of them were found in the marshes here in 1926.
Rishiri & Rebun Islands
Just off the coast of mainland Hokkaido, about 12 miles from the northwestern tip, lie two islands, Rishiri and Rebun. Together with a small part of the main island, they form the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park.
Rishiri Island is easy to spot, with its dramatic white peak in the center. This mountain was formed by a cone-shaped extinct volcano, and looks slightly like Mount Fuji. It offers excellent treks for hardy hikers who don’t mind a steep incline.
Rebun Island is flatter, but also has excellent hiking opportunities. There’s a popular trail running between the island’s north and south points that takes about eight hours to complete. But Rebun Island is most famous for its flowers, which turn the island into a bright kaleidoscope of colors in the warmer months. It’s even been dubbed “the floating island of flowers.”
Whether you seek flowers on an island or colorful blooms on the slopes of tall mountains, crystal-clear water-filled calderas or wetlands populated by a bird considered to be a national treasure, Hokkaido, Japan is truly a nature lover’s paradise.
It’s not just an escape from Japan’s thriving cities, but a completely different side of the country that few travelers ever see. Much of it has been protected by the collection of Hokkaido national parks we’ve discussed, which represent the island’s biodiversity so well.
There may be bullet trains arriving in Hokkaido from Honshu now; but the groundwork for nature and wildlife conservation here has already been laid. Now it’s up to all of us, as travelers, to make the most of it.
Michael Turtle has always had a passion for learning about the world. He worked as a television and radio reporter for more than a decade in Australia before he began to travel indefinitely. He has visited more than 60 countries and writes about the people, places, and cultures he discovers on his travel website Time Travel Turtle.