More natural and less inhabited than the rest of Japan, the northern island of Hokkaido is an ideal place for adventure holidays, with a twist. Take Tomamu, a ski resort about an hour’s drive from Sapporo, whose main summertime attraction is an early morning gondola ride up to 1088 metres, to see a phenomenon called the unkai (“sea of cloud”).
Even if you miss seeing the unkai, the pre-dawn journey to the top of the mountain in a cosy yellow four-person gondola is worth getting up early for; watch for deer grazing below and mountain doves above (and, if you’re lucky, a bear or two). Tomamu also offers romantic river rafting picnics and, summer or winter, indoor surfing – at one of Japan’s largest wave pools.
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Not far from Tomamu, at Lake Shikaribetsu, in Daisetsuzan National Park, you can go kayaking, canoeing and fishing or take meditative nature walks through the forest in summer. In winter the lake freezes to become an icy wonderland where the locals build a village of ice-lodges you can stay in.
Hokkaido has unusual edible offerings too. At Koshimizu Natural Flower Garden, a botanical wildflower garden on the north-east coast, you can treat yourselves to cones of gelato in flavours such as asparagus, cheese, even “drift ice” (made from Siberian sea ice that collects along this coastline every winter).
But it’s the unexpected natural delights that stay with you long after a trip to Hokkaido: hand-feeding Ezo chipmunks overlooking the picturesque Lake Mashu; being woken by the sun peeking through undrawn curtains at 3.30am (it really does rise at this unearthly hour in summer); sitting side-by-side on a wooden bench, soaking your feet in a hot pool you have dug yourselves from black sand on the edge of Lake Kushiro; and taking a cruise on Lake Akan to see, in purpose-built aquariums, lurid green basketball-sized moss balls (marimo) that look like something Dr Seuss might have dreamed up.
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Lake Akan, in eastern Hokkaido, is also one of the few places in Japan still inhabited by indigenous Ainu. After watching a performance of traditional barefoot dancing, we met a particularly friendly Ainu shopkeeper who took great delight in dressing me in an authentic Ainu outfit, complete with headscarf and heavy beaded necklace; he then handed me a large wooden fish so my bemused boyfriend could take photos.
Hokkaido’s piece de resistance for nature-lovers is Shiretoko National Park, which was World Heritage listed in 2005; its forested hiking trails are some of the best in Japan, and there are spectacularly scenic cruises along its rugged peninsula. Add to all this the fact that Hokkaido has hundreds of onsen (hot spring) hotels, and you have the perfect way to end each perfect, natural day.
For everything you need to know about holidays in Hokkaido, as well as fantastic packages, visit Japan National Tourism Organization.