Japan is so fraught with extraordinary urban landscapes that often, the general picture outside visitors have of the country is a frenetic ward scene from Ginza, Tokyo or Kita, Osaka. Yes, from Yokohama to Nagoya, Hamamatsu to Sendai, Japan is a nation of intense urban clusters. But beyond the steel skylines is another side of Japan – a side we highlight here with a look at the awesome island of Hokkaido.
The home of Sapporo (beer and city) is a notable haven of natural beauty, with a tidy half-dozen national parks (and five quasi-national parks) to explore. This eminent ensemble is easily accessible from Sapporo hotels and with Tokyo 90 minutes away by plane (four hours by Shinkansen bullet train by 2020), well worth the trip.
Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park
The 212 km2 Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park is in northwest Hokkaido and as the name suggests, spans the islands of Rishiri and Rebun. A gorgeous swath of Hokkaido coastline also makes up part of the park but for visitors, the twin islands lure the lion’s share of summer visitors. Ferry service is sparse from the mainland in winter but quite frequent throughout the warm months, when wildflowers dot the landscape. Perfect for avid hikers, Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park provides both hostels and campsites for visitors.
Shiretoko National Park
Shiretoko National Park encompasses the Shiretoko Peninsula, one of Japan’s most significant and remote UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The rationale for the 2005 inscription was the area’s pristine and nonpareil marine environment. A delicate sanctuary for rare fauna and flora alike, Shiretoko National Park (from the term “End of Earth” in the native Ainu language) is as close to Russia (Kuril Islands) as you can get in Japan.
Daisetsuzan National Park
With more than 2,200 km2 of land to explore, Daisetsuzan National Park is without peer in Japan. The central Hokkaido gem spans sixteen summits of more than 2,000 metres. Indeed, the name of the park translates as “Great Snowy Mountains”. The volcanic peaks form some of the most difficult and harsh terrain to traverse in Japan – which makes the park all the more spectacular and photogenic. Most tourists venture here for exceptional thermal waters.
Akan National Park
A national park since before World War II, Akan is famous in Japan for pristine lakes, volcanic spas and otherworldly marimo, or giant balls of algae. From crystal-clear caldera lakes to hot mud pools, distinctive wildlife to ski slopes, Akan National Park has it all.
Kushiro Shitsugen National Park
To the east of Hokkaido we go, all the way to Kushiro Shitsugen National Park. At 270 km2, the nature reserve is manageable but far from homogeneous. The inimitable landscape unfurls a strange amalgam of peat bogs, reed marshes, rivers and lakes, the likes of which exist nowhere else in Japan. The city of Kushiro, home to 185,000 people, is a supreme gateway to the park.
Shikotsu-Toya National Park
Home to a perennial top hot spring resort, Noboribetsu, the picturesque confines of Shikotsu-Toya National Park span almost 1,000 km2. The central Hokkaido park contains five distinct sections that include dramatic conical volcanic peaks and remarkable circular caldera lakes.