An escape from the industrialized mainland, Japan's main northern island is covered with enormous national parks, snow-covered slopes, active volcanoes, and bubbling onsen. Even so, cities such as the stylish capital Sapporo and Hakodate are just as sophisticated as their southern cousins. Only colonized by the Japanese in the last 150 years, Hokkaido has a fascinating cultural history defined by its dwindling indigenous Ainu population.
Sapporo's Otaru Canal in Winter
The fifth largest city in Japan, Sapporo is famous for its Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival), a snow festival held every February. The festival now includes an international snow sculpture competition and many other events, such as nightly music performances in Odori park. After dark, the bars of restaurants of Susukino spark to life and you'd be hard pressed to find a lifelier nightlife district outside of Tokyo and Osaka.
Singaporeans often head to the winter resort city of Niseko for its powder snow and top-class ski fields. However, the area also makes a good summer base for adventure sports such as whitewater rafting, kayaking, and mountain biking when it's far less crowded. Another skiing destination is Furano, where free cultural performances are held every Saturday night courtesy of the local tourism office.
If you travel to Hokkaido by train, the first major city you'll come across is Hakodate, one of the first ports in Japan to open to foreign traders following the Japan-US amity treaty of 1854. Among the city's draws are the lively fish and fresh produce market Asa-ichi, and an outstanding exhibition on Ainu culture at the Hakodate City Museum of Northern Peoples. Overlooking the city is the 334m Hakodate-yama, which is best visited for its night-time panorama, when the twinkling lights of the port create a majestic scene.
Getting There: Fly to Chitose Airport, southeast of Sapporo, or take express train from Aomori through the undersea tunnel to Hakodate. There are also nightly direct sleeper trains from Tokyo to Sapporo, via Hakodate, and several a week from Osaka.