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Hokkaido: Japan's Great Sanctuary

Hokkaido: Japan's Great Sanctuary
Courtesy of Jnto (Niseko)

The snowcapped frontier fills the heart with savory seafood and warm spirits, in addition to some of the best skiing on the planet.

A kite in the wind, the island of Hokkaido flutters above the rest of Japan in the North Pacific. It's the last stop before obscure geography overwhelms the map with names like Kamchatka and Sakhalin and carves up the Bering Sea like scythes.

Thick strokes of kanji calligraphy adorn its wooden shrines and steel bank buildings, much like in the rest of Japan, but by comparison Hokkaido is a hinterland in a crowded country. While the Land of the Rising Sun promises a distinct sense of place throughout, its northern island is more than a meditation of temples and towers--it's a kingdom of volcanic mountains and soothing springs.

01-hokkaido-kiriko

Courtesy of Jnto (Niseko)

For the Japanese, the island's edible bounty is the most important part of the Hokkaido experience. Oceanic plunders promise succulent crab, scallops, and abalone served sushi-style in the resort harbor town of Otaru, lined with its cobblestone alleys and brick storehouses. Mountain chalets liberally pour Sapporo beers, which go perfectly with izakaya-style charcoal barbecue. Try Yanshu (KiroroHokkaido.com/En/Yanshu), at the foothills of Kiroro, where you can grill free-range pork, chicken, and floppy fish fresh from northern seas at your table. Whisky, too, is headquartered on the island; the Nikka distillery in the village of Yoichi is practically a place of pilgrimage for enthusiasts.

02-hotaru

Courtesy of The Kiroro (onsen)

The rest of the world--especially the international ski community--has long uttered "Hokkaido" in hushed tones; a destination famed for its talcum-covered slopes that has earned the name "Japow" among aficionados.

03-sapporo-snow

Courtesy of Yasufumi Nishi/Jnto (Otaru and Sapporo)

Niseko is the island's unofficial slalom capital, attracting a steady stream of international long-stay guests, but the recent redevelopment of Kiroro is reorienting the map. The renovation of the Kiroro, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel (KiroroHokkaido.com) democratizes the Japanese ski experience with affordable prices, sleekly decorated rooms blending indigenous Ainu design, and easy access to what many experts consider to be the best swath of snowfall in East Asia, if not on the planet. Chairlifts zip up and down the snowy peaks like the strings of a violin, each one connecting the 20-plus courses that cater to every level of skier and snowboarder. At the top of Asari, the highest point in the enclave, you'll find a modern version of a torii gate with a bell attached. It is believed that a couple who rings the chime together will have a lifetime of luck in love--a Shinto-inspired tradition that warms the shivering landscape.

04-distillery

Courtesy of Brandon Presser (Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery)

And the apres-ski experience is distinctively Japanese as well. Take quenching soaks in the onsen mineral baths, whose water is drawn from a boiling reservoir deep below the earth's surface.

05-mt-yotei

Courtesy of Jnto (Mount Yotei)

Several years remain before travel in Hokkaido will benefit from the bullet trains that have opened up distant recesses further south. But, in a way, the necessity of slow travel feels appropriate in a place that feels not only frozen, but frozen in time.

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