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Getting to know Japan's farthest-north island.

Hokkaido may well be the only part of Japan where visitors from the American West feel more at home than do visitors from Tokyo or Osaka. This northernmost island was Japan's frontier, settled in the mid-1800s by pioneers drawn by prospects of fortunes in timber, farming, fishing, gold. You'll find rolling dairy farms, forested mountains, lakeside resorts, clapboard buildings, corn-on-the-cob stands.

Similarities to the West are all the more fascinating for the contrasts: hip roofs of barns bear Japanese characters rather than "Mailpouch Tobacco"; outside national park hotels, guests stroll in cotton yukata, rather than jeans, after a muscle-soaking post-hike bath; wines bear names like Tokachi; and the local beef, salmon, and crab are eaten with chopsticks. Visitors who've traveled the tourist paths of Honshu, and first-timers who want to know a Japan of outdoorsmen, should consider Hokkaido. In three days, you can sample Sapporo and the closest national park. Plan on a week or more to see the central and eastern parts. High points are easily reached by train and bus.

Many hotels of Western-style accommodations, even at hot-spring spas, where the baths (sexually segregated) are a big draw. Prices for a double room range from $40 to $70 in a first-class Sapporo hotel, $60 to $80, including breakfast and dinner, in outlying spa towns.

Best time to come is from May (cherry blossom time) through October (fall color). July and August are busiest, with Japanese tourists leaving humid climes for Hokkaido's drier air and temperatures of up to 75[deg.]. Skiers favor a winter visit to Asia's best slopes. Sapporo, the place to start

From both Tokyo airports--Narita and Haneda--it's a 90-minute flight ($158 round trip), then less than an hour by commuter train, bus, or taxi into town. Sapporo is the easiest Japanese city for foreigners to navigate; the street grid makes map-reading easy, and the subway, built in 1972, has English signs.

Head to the Tourist Information Center on the second floor of City Hall, on the north side of O-dori Park mall. Hours are 9 to 5 weekdays, 9 to 1 Saturdays. Here you can get English maps and guides to the Sapporo environs; information on city and more distant tours (not conducted in English, but a good way to hit the highlights with guidebook in hand); and a simplified English train and bus schedule to national parks. Assistants will work out an itinerary and book trains and hotels.

Here's a don't-miss list in Sapporo: Stroll O-dori Park on a Sunday, when Sapporo families turn out to enjoy fountains and seasonal flowers, munch corn-on-the-cob and fried Hokkaido-grown potatoes.

In Nopporo Forest Park is the island's best history lesson: the impressive Historical Museum of Hokkaido traces development from the Ainu aborigines (related to Inuit, not Japanese) through the pioneers.

Viewing photographs, artifacts, and dioramas of loggers, fishermen, miners, and farmers, you'll feel a sense of deja vu--you know the story, but the faces are different.

Don't miss nearby Historical Village of Hokkaido; 20 structures, 1882 to 1919, have been moved in (16 furnished with artifacts and manikins), and development continues. You'll see the Sapporo Railway Station, a general store, newspaper offices, farmhouses, the mansion of a "herring king," and a pony express--style relay station. A trolley drawn by Mongolian ponies plies the streets. Both museum and village are closed on Mondays.

On Mount Okura, visit the 1972 Olympic 90-meter ski jump. Last year a chair lift opened to give the faint-hearted the eye-popping view jumpers face; Sapporo spreads out below. Nearby, at the 70-meter jump, even summer and fall visitors are likely to see Asian national teams practicing on artificial grass.

To eat, try Hyosetsu-no-mon, on Minami 5-jo, for Hokkaido king crab served 30 ways; Sapporo Biergarten, on Kita 3-jo, for barbecue dinners and mugs of draft in the restored 1878 factory (tables outside in summer). Hundreds of small restaurants serve steaming miso ramen, noodles in tangy brown bean sauce. The national parks--volcanic wonderlands of lake, forest, cliff, gorge

All over Hokkaido, scenes of livestock and vegetable farms counterpoint the conical volcanic mountains that attest to the island's violent evolution. Three parks--Shikotsu-Toya, Daisetsuzan, Akan--offer the most dramatic and accessible scenery. All have hiking trails; signs warn that bears may try to get at your rice bowl. Towns are not really quaint or pretty, but settings are striking.

Shikotsu-Toya. Consider three places to stay: Toyako spa, Jozankei spa, and Noboribetsu spa. The 2-3/4-hour bus ride from Sapporo to Toyako via Jozankei is a four-star mountain drive (especially in fall). Both lakes Toya and Shikotsu have tour and rental boats.

Behind Toyako rises a double-coned volcano, still-active Mount Usu, which last burst forth in 1977. On a gondola reopened in 1983, you reach boardwalks leading through the destruction to lookouts. In 1943-45 eruptions, Japan's newest volcano rose from Usu's flank: Mount Showa Shinzan still hides in clouds of sulfurous steam; you can walk to the base.

In 1965, some 700 Ainu were moved to a re-created village at Shiraoi. Don't be deterred by the tourist-trap entrance. Inside, the year-old Ainu Museum offers the most complete picture you'll find of the disappearing ainu culture. Start there, then go into thatched huts where Ainu people in traditional dress demonstrate tasks. Dancers perform several times daily.

Daisetsuzan. Called the "roof of Hokkaido," this park boasts three volcanic mountain ranges with peaks more than 6,000 feet. Sounkyo spa, the best base, is 4 hours from Sapporo. The old road through Sounkyo Gorge's 500-foot-high cliffs is now a hiking-biking trail. A 7-minute gondola ride brings you to 4,300 feet. From here, miles of trail thread summitward along slopes blanketed with Jezo spruce, Sakhalin fir, and alpine flower fields to the rugged world above timber line (some snow year-round).

Akan. Seven hours from Sapporo brings you to virgin forests, volcanic peaks, and more caldera lakes with conical islets--many now gentled by the ages. Best bases are Akan Kohan spa on Lake Akan and Kawayu spa near Lake Kussharo.

Lake Akan is one of a handful of the world's lakes where marimo thrive; go to the island museum by tour boat to see these mossy green balls of duckweed in aquariums. Lakeshore trails lead to bubbling mud ponds and hot springs.

Lake Kussharo has some thermally heated sand beaches and conifer-covered islets. A mile south of Kawayu stands active Mount Io, pocked from base to 1,600-foot peak with solfataras emitting sulfurous clouds. Crystallized sulfur encrusts pines, birch trees, and azaleas, which have an eerie beauty when they bloom in June. Before you go

For Hokkaido brochures and tour information, write to the Japan National Tourist Organization, 360 Post St., Suite 401, San Francisco 94108; or 624 S. Grand Ave., Suite 2640, Los Angeles 90017. JNTO also has brochures on rail passes.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Hokkaido
Date:Apr 1, 1985
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