When we moved into our Japanese home, I found an old, curling National Geographic poster tacked up on the wall, entitled “Japan: 14 Iconic Sites”. Among the pictures of temples, shrines and well-known cities, there was one colourful photo that looked like it was taken across the world from all the others: It was of Biei, Hokkaido. From then on, I wanted to visit Hokkaido; the place that looked so different from anywhere else in Japan.
Sapporo, with its Western grid-like street layout, cool temperatures, and the most English-speaking locals that I’ve encountered in Japan, was our first stop in Hokkaido. I expected Sapporo to be boring. Its population was virtually zero until the late 19th century, and thus it lacks the history of Japan’s other major cities. But once we arrived, I began to notice that there were plenty of reasons to appreciate Sapporo. Compared to Tokyo or Osaka, Sapporo’s metro system was less congested, and the food and accommodation prices were more reasonable. The Susukino district was lively and fun at night; and the modern city layout made it much easier to navigate than Japan’s typical winding, irregularly numbered streets. Not only was Sapporo not a disappointment, I actually really liked it.
We journeyed into Hokkaido’s countryside to visit Furano and Biei, where the poster photo was taken. Our bus chugged through patchwork farmlands plowed by bright red tractors, with cool-looking mountains glowering in the distance. We saw rolling green fields dotted with Western-style farmhouses, and the occasional winery or cheese factory. Local wine in the land of sake? And cheese in the land of…well…pretty much any other food besides cheese? Most foreign foods aren’t particularly difficult to find in Japan, but cheese – or good cheese, anyway – is generally as expensive as it is rare.
We were lucky enough to visit this region during the lavender season, when the countryside explodes with flowers, tourists and lavender-based products. After touring one of the most famous lavender fields, Farm Tomita, we were offered everything from lavender teas, soaps and incense, to lavender ice cream. The lavender ice cream was a reminder that, despite the countryscapes we had seen that day, we were definitely still in Japan.
I can’t imagine people lining up for something as strange as lavender ice cream anywhere else in the world. It actually had a pretty mild, sweet taste.
From there, we traveled to Hokkaido’s pretty habour town, Otaru. With lampposts lining the old canal, weather-worn warehouses, and 19th-century merchant streets, Otaru looked more like Victorian-era Europe than modern-day Japan. If that wasn’t charming enough, from the moment we hit Sakaimachi Street, the store owners couldn’t seem to load us up with enough complimentary samples. We ate enough free chocolate and other sweets to not need lunch, and also tried local wine, beer and sake.
Sakaimachi Street is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon wandering and browsing the local handicrafts. We found one store that produced custom music boxes, another that sold incredible sand art, and another with necklaces made from polished glass fragments that had washed up on Otaru’s shores.
Fortunately, one thing that is still very Japanese about Hokkaido is the food. As a Prefecture with several major fishing ports, Hokkaido is famous throughout Japan for its seafood. When we found out that there was a single street in Otaru where dozens of sushi restaurants were concentrated, to say we were excited would be an understatement.
Somehow when I read about Sushi Street, I imagined a glittering entrance archway and cartoon fish everywhere (I guess after living in Japan for 4 months, you develop these kinds of odd expectations). The real Sushi Street looked pretty boring, but it did live up to its promise of having more sushi options than we knew how to choose from. And it really was some of the best sushi we’ve eaten in Japan so far. Big, fat slices of fish so fresh that I was pretty certain they had actually been swimming earlier that morning.
You might be left wondering why you would want to visit the most un-Japanese place in Japan because, presumably, a tourist visiting Japan wants to soak up all the Japanese culture they can find. In some ways, though, the Western influences in Hokkaido make its Japanese culture shine through even more distinctly. Hokkaido’s cross-cultural mix really demonstrates how Japan can adapt Western elements, yet still remain uniquely, and markedly Japanese at the core.
Are Hokkaido’s Western influences a turn-off? Or do you feel intrigued by this part of Japan too?