Hokkaidō (help·info) (北海道, literally "North Sea Circuit"), formerly known as Ezo, Yezo, Yeso, or Yesso, is Japan's second largest island and the largest, northernmost of its 47 prefectural-level subdivisions. The Tsugaru Strait separates Hokkaidō from Honshū, although the two islands are connected by the underwater Seikan Tunnel. The largest city on Hokkaidō is its capital, Sapporo, which is also its only ordinance-designated city.
Archeologists theorize that Hokkaidō was settled by Ainu, Gilyak, and Oroke 20,000 years ago. The Nihon Shoki, finished in 720, is often said to be the first mention of Hokkaidō in recorded history. According to the text, Abe no Hirafu led a large navy and army to northern areas from 658 to 660 and came into contact with the Mishihase and Emishi. One of the places Hirafu went to was called Watarishima (渡島), which is often believed to be present-day Hokkaidō. However, many theories exist in relation to the details of this event, including the location of Watarishima and the common belief that the Emishi in Watarishima were the ancestors of the present-day Ainu people.
During the Nara and Heian periods (710–1185), people in Hokkaidō conducted trade with Dewa Province, an outpost of the Japanese central government. From the medieval ages, the people in Hokkaidō began to be called Ezo. Around the same time Hokkaidō came to be called Ezochi (蝦夷地) or Ezogashima. The Ezo mainly relied upon hunting and fishing and obtained rice and iron through trade with the Japanese.
During the Muromachi period (1336–1573), the Japanese created a settlement at the south of the Oshima peninsula. As more people moved to the settlement to avoid battles, disputes arose between the Japanese and the Ainu. The disputes eventually developed into a rebellion. Takeda Nobuhiro killed the Ainu leader, Koshamain, and defeated the rebellion in 1457. Nobuhiro's descendants became the rulers of the Matsumae-han, which ruled the south of Ezochi until the end of the Edo period in 1868.
Matsumae-han's economy relied upon trade with the Ainu. The Matsumae family was granted exclusive trading rights with the Ainu in the Azuchi-Momoyama and Edo periods (1568–1868). During the Meiji Restoration, the Tokugawa Shogunate realized there was a need to prepare northern defenses against a possible Russian invasion and took over control of most of Ezochi. The Shogunate made the plight of the Ainu slightly easier, but did not change the overall form of rule.
Hokkaidō was known as Ezochi until the Meiji Restoration. Shortly after the Boshin War in 1868, a group of Tokugawa loyalists led by Enomoto Takeaki proclaimed the island's independence as the Republic of Ezo, but the rebellion was crushed in May 1869. Ezochi was subsequently put under control of Hakodate-fu (箱館府, Hakodate Prefectural Government). When establishing the Development Commission (開拓使), the Meiji Government changed the name of Ezochi to Hokkaidō (北海道).
The primary purpose of the development commission was to secure Hokkaidō before the Russians extended their control of the Far East beyond Vladivostok. Kuroda Kiyotaka was put in charge of the venture. His first step was to journey to the United States and recruit Horace Capron, President Grant's Commissioner of Agriculture. From 1871 to 1873 Capron bent his efforts to expounding Western agriculture and mining with mixed results. Capron, frustrated with obstacles to his efforts returned home in 1875. In 1876 William S. Clark arrived to found an agricultural college in Sapporo. Although he only remained a year, Clark left lasting impression on Hokkaidō, inspiring the Japanese with his teachings on agriculture as well as Christianity. His parting words, "Boys, be ambitious!" can be found on public buildings in Hokkaidō to this day. Whatever the impact these Americans had, the population of Hokkaidō boomed from 58,000 to 240,000 during that decade.
In 1882, the Development Commission was abolished, and Hokkaidō was separated into three prefectures, Hakodate (函館県), Sapporo (札幌県), and Nemuro (根室県). In 1886, the three prefectures were abolished, and Hokkaidō was put under the Hokkaidō Agency (北海道庁). Hokkaidō became equal with other prefectures in 1947, when the revised Local Autonomy Law became effective. The Japanese central government established the Hokkaidō Development Agency (北海道開発庁) as an agency of the Prime Minister's Office in 1949 to maintain its executive power in Hokkaidō. The Agency was absorbed by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport in 2001. The Hokkaidō Bureau (北海道局) and the Hokkaidō Regional Development Bureau (北海道開発局) of the Ministry still have a strong influence on public construction projects in Hokkaidō.
When establishing the Development Commission (開拓使), the Meiji Government decided to change the name of Ezochi. Matsuura Takeshirō submitted six ideas, including names such as Kaihokudō (海北道) and Hokkaidō (北加伊道) to the government. The government eventually decided to use the name Hokkaidō, but decided to write it as 北海道, as a compromise between 海北道 and because of the similarity with names such as Tōkaidō (東海道). According to Matsuura, the name was thought up because the Ainu called the region Kai. Historically, many peoples who had interactions with the ancestors of the Ainu called them and their islands Kuyi, Kuye, Qoy, or some similar name, which may have some connection to the early modern form Kai. The Kai element also strongly resembles the Sino-Japanese reading of the characters 蝦夷 (Sino-Japanese /ka.i/, Japanese kun /emisi/), which have been used for over a thousand years in China and Japan as the standard orthographic form to be used when referring to Ainu and related peoples; it is possible that Matsuura's Kai was actually an alteration, influenced by the Sino-Japanese reading of 蝦夷 Ka-i, of the Nivkh exonym for the Ainu, namely Qoy or /kʰuɣi/.
The island of Hokkaidō is located at the north end of Japan, near Russia, and has coastlines on the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Pacific Ocean. The center of the island has a number of mountains and volcanic plateaus, and there are coastal plains in all directions. Major cities include Sapporo and Asahikawa in the central region and the port of Hakodate facing Honshū.
The governmental jurisdiction of Hokkaidō incorporates several smaller islands, including Rishiri, Okushiri Island, and Rebun. (By Japanese reckoning, Hokkaidō also incorporates several of the Kuril Islands.) Because the prefectural status of Hokkaidō is denoted by the dō in its name, it is rarely referred to as "Hokkaidō Prefecture", except when necessary to distinguish the governmental entity from the island.
The island ranks 21st in the world by area. It is 3.6% smaller than the island of Ireland while Hispaniola is 6.1% smaller than Hokkaidō. By population it ranks 20th, between Ireland and Sicily. Hokkaidō's population is 4.7% less than that of the island of Ireland, and Sicily's is 12% lower than Hokkaidō's.
There are still many undisturbed forests in Hokkaidō, including:
|Shiretoko National Park*||知床|
|Akan National Park||阿寒|
|Kushiro Shitsugen National Park||釧路湿原|
|Daisetsuzan National Park||大雪山|
|Shikotsu-Toya National Park||支笏洞爺|
|Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park||利尻礼文サロベツ|
|Quasi-national parks (準国立公園)|
|Abashiri Quasi-National Park||網走|
|Hidaka Sanmyaku-Erimo Quasi-National Park||日高山脈襟裳|
|Niseko-Shakotan-Otaru Kaigan Quasi-National Park||ニセコ積丹小樽海岸|
|Ōnuma Quasi-National Park||大沼|
|Shokanbetsu-Teuri-Yagishiri Quasi-National Park||暑寒別天売焼尻|
Hokkaidō is one of eight prefectures in Japan that have subprefectures (支庁 shichō). However, it is the only one of the eight to have such offices covering the whole of its territory outside the main cities (rather than having them just for outlying islands or remote areas). This is mostly due to its great size: many parts of the prefecture are simply too far away to be effectively administered by Sapporo. Subprefectural offices in Hokkaidō carry out many of the duties that prefectural offices fulfill elsewhere in Japan.
There is a plan to reorganize the 14 subprefectures as 9 general development bureaus (総合振興局 sōgō shinkō-kyoku ), but as of 2009, the implementation of the plan has stalled.
Before the current political divisions and after 1869, Hokkaidō was divided into provinces. See Former Provinces of Hokkaidō.
Hokkaidō is known for its cooler summers and icy winters. Most of the island falls in the humid continental climate zone (Köppen Dfa (humid continental) in some inland lowlands, Dfb (hemiboreal) in most other areas). The average August temperature ranges from 17 °C to 22 °C (63 °F to 72 °F), while the average January temperature ranges from −12 °C to −4 °C (10 °F to 25 °F) depending on elevation and latitude. The island tends to see isolated snowstorms that develop long-lasting snowbanks, in contrast to the constant flurries seen in the Hokuriku region.
Unlike the other major islands of Japan, Hokkaidō is normally not affected by the June-July rainy season and the relative lack of humidity and typically warm, rather than hot, summer weather makes its climate an attraction for tourists from other parts of Japan.
In winter, the generally high quality of powder snow and numerous mountains in Hokkaidō make it one of Japan's most popular regions for snow sports. The snowfall usually commences in earnest in November and ski resorts (such as those at Niseko, Furano and Rusutsu) usually operate between December and April. Hokkaidō celebrates its winter weather at the Sapporo Snow Festival.
During the winter, passage through the Sea of Okhotsk is often complicated by large ice floes broken loose from the Kamchatka Peninsula. Combined with high winds that occur during winter, this brings air travel and maritime activity almost to a halt on the northern coast of Hokkaidō.
Hokkaidō's largest city is the capital, Sapporo. Other major cities include Hakodate in the south and Asahikawa in the central region. Other important population centers include Kushiro, Obihiro, Abashiri, Nemuro.
Hokkaidō has the highest rate of depopulation in Japan. In 2000, 152 (71.7%) of Hokkaidō's 212 municipalities were shrinking. Altogether, shrinking municipalities in Japan in the same year numbered 1,171.
Although there is some light industry (most notably paper milling, beer brewing) most of the population is employed by the service sector. In 2001, the service sector and other tertiary industries generated more than three quarters of the gross domestic product.
However, agriculture and other primary industries play a large role in Hokkaidō's economy. Hokkaidō has nearly one fourth of Japan's total arable land. It ranks first in the nation in the production of a host of agricultural products, including wheat, soybeans, potatoes, sugar beet, onions, pumpkins, corn, raw milk, and beef. Hokkaidō also accounts for 22% of Japan's forests with a sizable timber industry. The prefecture is also first in the nation in production of marine products and aquaculture.
Tourism is an important industry, especially during the cool summertime when visitors are attracted to Hokkaidō's open spaces from hotter and more humid parts of Japan. During the winter, skiing and other winter sports bring other tourists, and increasingly international ones, to the island.
The Abashiri brewery in Hokkaidō sells a range of beers, including Bilk, a blend of beer and milk. Bilk has a fruity taste, and is sold in 330 ml bottles. It was developed in response to declining milk consumption resulting in a milk surplus.
Hokkaidō's only land link to the rest of Japan is the Seikan Tunnel. Most travelers to the island arrive by air: the main airport is New Chitose Airport at Chitose, just south of Sapporo. Tokyo-Chitose is in the top 10 of the world's busiest air routes, handling 45 widebody round trips on four airlines each day. One of the airlines, Air Do was named after Hokkaidō. Hokkaidō can also be reached by ferry from Sendai, Niigata and some other cities, with the ferries from Tokyo dealing only in cargo .
Within Hokkaidō, there is a fairly well-developed railway network (see Hokkaidō Railway Company), but many cities can only be accessed by road.
Hokkaidō is home to one of Japan's three Melody Roads, which is made from grooves cut into the ground, which when driven over causes a tactile vibration and audible rumbling transmitted through the wheels into the car body.
The sports teams listed below are based in Hokkaidō.
Hokkaidō has relationships with several provinces, states, and other entities worldwide.
As of July 2008, 73 individual municipalities in Hokkaidō have sister city agreements with 111 cities in 19 different countries worldwide.
Home to Japan's aboriginal Ainu people, Hokkaido continues to represent the untamed wilderness with many great national parks. For many visitors the scenery resembles northern Europe, with rice paddies and concrete warrens replaced by rolling fields and faux-German cottages. However, the ubquitous hotspring resorts in much of the island still serve as a reminder that you are still in Japan.
Hokkaido is by far Japan's largest prefecture, consisting of Japan's entire northern island and its surrounding islets. Hokkaido is cooler than the rest of Japan, and the merciful lack of Japan's muggy summers and rainy season makes it a very popular domestic destination between May and August. Some of Hokkaido's inland areas have a continental climate, with large daily and yearly temperature variation.
Most of Hokkaido was settled by the Japanese within the last 100 years, compared to the thousands of years of Japanese history and pre-history. As a result, its architecture and cities are much more modern, and mostly based on western-like grid layouts.
Alone among the main Japanese islands Hokkaido is not divided into multiple prefectures. Instead, there are four circuits (道 dō), which are in turn split into subprefectures (支庁 shichō).
The Seikan Tunnel, the world's longest rail tunnel, is the only land link that Hokkaido has to Japan's main island of Honshu. Trains through the tunnel, ferries, and airliners are the only means of reaching Hokkaido. The only way to enter Hokkaido by car is to ship it across on one of the many car ferries.
Hokkaido's sole international gateway of significance is Sapporo's Chitose Airport, although there are no intercontinental flights and most visitors will still have to transit via Tokyo. The route between Tokyo and Sapporo is, in terms of capacity and planes flown daily, the busiest in the world. Note that Narita Airport and Haneda Airport are quite far apart from each other, so make sure you factor in at least 3 hours travelling time to make the transfer in Tokyo.
Hokkaido is not (yet) linked to the Shinkansen high speed network, but night sleeper trains from Tokyo are a popular option.
When the Seishun 18 Ticket is effective, it can be used on Hakucho limited express trains between Kanita and Kikonai, making it possible to cross between Honshu and Hokkaido for as little as ¥2,000. However, because of the scarcity of local trains around Aomori and Hakodate, scheduling such a trip can be a bit of a hassle.
Ferries are mostly popular among people bringing their own cars to Hokkaido.
Hokkaido is vast in size, so allow plenty of time to get around and don't try to do too much if your time is limited. Many Japanese maps (including the generally excellent Japan Road Atlas) show Hokkaido with a larger scale than the rest of the country, which may make distances appear deceptively small.
Due to its vast size and numerous outlying islands, Hokkaido has a fairly well-developed commuter airline network. The main regional carriers are JAL subsidiary Hokkaido Air Commuter and ANA subsidiary Air Nippon (now operating in its parent's livery). Many turboprop flights operate out of the tiny Okadama Airport in central Sapporo.
The train network in Hokkaido is (by Japanese standards) limited, although it's more than adequate for travel between major cities. However, access to many of the more interesting sites, such as Hokkaido's many national parks, will require either relying on infrequent and expensive buses, renting your own car, or trying your luck at hitchhiking.
Some convenient express trains include the Hokuto and Super Hokuto between Sapporo and Hakodate (3.5 hours, ¥8,590 each way); the Super White Arrow between Sapporo and Asahikawa (1.5 hours, ¥4,680 each way); the Tokachi between Sapporo and Obihiro (3 hours, ¥7,920 each way); the Super Oozora between Sapporo and Kushiro (4 hours, ¥9,120 each way); and the Super Soya, Sarobetsu, and Rishiri between Sapporo and Wakkanai (5.5 hours, ¥10,170 each way).
JR offers a special Hokkaido Pass , separate from the Japan Rail Pass, which allows the bearer to ride all JR trains in Hokkaido, as well as most JR buses.
A cheaper if slower and less comfortable option than the train is using buses, which also cover all the areas not accessible by train. Sleeper services radiate from Sapporo to most corners of the island. Note that local bus schedules can be very sparse, so check them carefully to avoid being stranded.
Hokkaido is a cycling paradise from April to September. There are many bike paths and most main roads have very wide sidewalks. Also there are many beautiful back roads to get you where you want to go. Information in English is very limited, the best way is to buy a good map and plan by yourself.
Hitchhiking is a viable option in Hokkaido, and due to the limitations of the public transport network it's not unheard of to see Japanese with their thumb out (a very rare sight in the rest of the country). The major caveats are that even private car traffic can be minimal on some roads, and for half the year the weather is colder than the rest of the country.
See also: Hitchhiking in Japan
For many visitors Hokkaido's numerous National Parks are number one on the agenda, offering near-unlimited hiking opportunities.
Hokkaido's other major attractions are flower gardens, high-quality agriculture and seafood, hot springs, and powder skiing.
Much of Hokkaido's population lives by the sea, and consequently seafood figures heavily in Hokkaido fare. Check out the hairy crabs (毛蟹 kegani), king crabs (タラバ taraba) and the delicious sushi. Akkeshi's oysters, Saroma's scallops, and the northwest coast's sea urchin (うに uni) are considered to be among Japan's very best seafood.
More unexpectedly, Hokkaido produces most of Japan's dairy products and particularly in the east you will run into many creative uses for them. Ever had cream cheese in your curry, or butter in your noodle soup (bata-kon ramen)? How about asparagus, corn, or squid ink ice cream? In Hokkaido, you will.
Hokkaido is home to some of Japan's finest sakes, the most famous of the bunch being Asahikawa's Otokoyama (男山). Beer is also big in Hokkaido, the most famous brand being Sapporo Beer (naturally from Sapporo), but the many microbrews found in nearly every town are also worth sampling.
Hokkaido is one of Japan's best places for camping, but beware of the nighttime chill - even in the summer months you'll need a good sleeping bag. In particular, the southwest coast can be surprisingly cold, due to the ocean currents.
Many of Hokkaido's cheaper accommodations slap on an extra fee for winter heating (冬期暖房 tōki danbō), as Japanese houses even in the north are notoriously poorly insulated and chew up vast quantities of fuel when the temperatures fall. This shouldn't be more than ¥500 or so.
If you are coming for the mountains, be sure to stay in one of the many mountain huts (山小屋 yamagoya) in Hokkaido. Most are free, and they're both a cheap sleep and a good cultural experience. You'll be sure to make Japanese friends as well.
Hokkaido has the worst fatality rate for traffic accidents in Japan. Hokkaido is one of Japan's most spread-out areas, well-known for its wide-open roads. Locals drive at least 20 kph over the posted limits in many areas. It's not unusual to see cars traveling at over 100 kph on regular highways (the posted limit is 60 kph). Head-on collisions in Japanese cars at these speeds, especially with minicars, are catastrophic.
Hokkaido has many country farm roads which are narrow, poorly marked, and arrow-straight. These often run parallel to highways and tend to be much less crowded. It's not unusual for locals to exceed 100 kph on these roads. Missing a stop sign can be fatal, and signs may be hard to spot. Be careful of farm vehicles backing out of sheds with no warning, and especially careful of bicycles in the summer, as there are no shoulders.
Winter driving in Hokkaido is not for the faint of heart. Very little sand or salt is used on the roads, and the heavy snow in many areas means that the roadways turn into packed snow, then solid ice. This also means that the road markings will be totally invisible. Look for overhanging center line (中央線 chūosen) signs above the roads at intersections. Highways have arrow signs pointing downward at the shoulders of the road, which will also be invisible. Winter tires are mandatory. Chains are recommended for mountain driving. Because speeds are lower, there are less fatalities, but there are more accidents in the winter. If you have never driven in the winter, do not attempt to learn here.
The Hokkaido fox carries the echinococcus parasite, which can be fatal in humans. Because this parasite can be spread through water, do not drink any unboiled river or lake water in Hokkaido. Approaching or feeding foxes is also not recommended. (Feeding wildlife is also illegal.)
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Hokkaidō (kanji 北海道, hiragana ほっかいどう)
Sapporo is the largest and the capital city on Hokkaido.
Hokkaido is the 2nd largest island of Japan and the 21st largest in the world. It is about twice the size of Switzerland. It is an island positioned between the Sea of Japan to the west, the Sea of Okhotsk to the northeast, Pacific Ocean to the southeast, and the Tsugaru Strait to the south. Hokkaido is located between 139 degrees east and 148 degrees east, and between 41 degrees north and 45 degrees north. It is separated from Honshu by the Tsugaru Strait, but connected by the underwater Seikan tunnel. The Chishima Islands are occupied by Russia, but the Government of Japan still considers them Japanese.
Hokkaido is famous for winter sports and has many ski resorts.