Hokkaido - The Frozen North
Hokkaido is the northernmost and second-largest of the four main Japanese islands. The main attractions for visitors are nature and winter sports. While the whole country is mountainous, Hokkaido also has areas of rolling hills and farmland. The island produces most of Japan's dairy foods as well as large quantities of rice and vegetables. Inhabited by the native Ainu people, the island known as Ezo was largely ignored by the Japanese until the late 19th century. After renaming it Hokkaido in 1869, the government encouraged people to settle on the island and the Ainu were gradually assimilated into Japanese life. Today, Ainu culture can be seen mostly in museums and occasional festivals.
The canal that runs through Otaru
Apart from the major cities, places worth visiting include several national parks, active volcanoes and lakes. The climate is quite different to that of the mainland. Colder and drier, it's a popular destination during both the hot summer months and the winter ski season. From Tokyo, it's less than 1 hour 30 minutes by air to Sapporo (Chitose airport) or Hakodate. The Air Do airline started providing discounted air travel to Sapporo in the late 1990s. The travel time by Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Morioka and express train to Sapporo, via an undersea tunnel, is around 11 hours. But a new Hokkaido Shinkansen is due to open in 2016, reducing the travel time between Tokyo and Shin-Hakodate Hokuto by more than an hour. But sleeper trains will likely remain a popular option. There are also ferry services connecting various parts of the island with Tokyo, Sendai and Hachinohe.
- See our page on the official websites for each prefecture and major city: Guide to Japan's Regions and Cities