Hokkaido is the northernmost region of Japan. The main island of Hokkaido is the second largest, next to Honshu, of Japan’s four largest islands. It faces the northern tip of Honshu across the Tsugaru Straits, and the southern tip of Russia’s Sakhalin Island across the Soya Straits. Unlike the other three main islands of Japan, Hokkaido is not comprised of several prefectures, but the entire Hokkaido region makes one big prefecture (although we usually don’t call it “Hokkaido Prefecture” but simply “Hokkaido”).
The land area of Hokkaido accounts for about one-fourth of Japan’s entire land mass. However, with most of its population concentrated in big cities like Sapporo, the population density of Hokkaido is extremely low. And a large portion of this vast land is used for agriculture or as pasture for dairy cows. Agriculture in Hokkaido is often characterized by its large-scale operation using machinery, which is not typical in any other part of Japan. So, many Japanese people today might associate Hokkaido with this dynamic landscape of green fields or meadows that seem to go on forever.
On the other hand, Hokkaido still has a considerable amount of pristine environment that has not been greatly spoiled by human beings. Among these natural places, Shiretoko in eastern Hokkaido is worth a special mention.
The Shiretoko Peninsula extends a long distance into the Sea of Okhotsk. The winter climate of this area is especially harsh, with a lot of snowfall and the cold seasonal wind blowing from the west. At the center of the peninsula runs a series of volcanoes, which includes sulfur-spewing Mount Iou, and the Shiretoko’s highest Mount Rausu at 1,660 metres. Most of the peninsula’s coastline is characterized by precipitous cliffs, some of which reach as high as 100 metres. Largely due to these severe environmental conditions, Shiretoko has long avoided large-scale human exploitation.
In the period roughly spanning from late-January to mid-March, the sea off the coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula is often filled with drift ice. Shiretoko is known as the southernmost place on earth where drift ice can be observed in the Northern Hemisphere.
These ice floes contain, and also bring about, rich nutrients and micro-organisms, which attract fish like salmon and trout. And these fish, in return, become the feed for many birds and mammals, such as Hokkaido brown bears, white-tailed eagles, Blakiston’s fish owls, and killer whales. With this dynamic food chain, as well as the existence of a wide variety of living creatures, a large portion of the Shiretoko Peninsula and its surrounding sea zone was designated UNESCO’s natural World Heritage Site in 2005.
Hokkaido’s indigenous people are the Ainu. Hunter-gatherers, they lived in a straw-thatched houses called cise (pronounced “chee-se”), which were built in hamlets called kotan, whose locations were carefully chosen by considering the likelihood of natural disasters and food acquisition. Living in harmony with the land, they believed that kamuy (god) dwelled in all natural objects. So, they often named places after the natural environment, and some of these names are still used even by us Japanese today. For example, the name of Niseko, which is located in western Hokkaido and has become very popular internationally as a ski resort town, originated from an Ainu word meaning “the river gently meandering through a steep cliff.”
In fact, until 1869 when the name Hokkaido was officially introduced, the island was called Ezochi among Japanese people, which means “the land where the Ainu live,” whereas the Ainu themselves called the land Ainu Mosir, meaning “the earth where the people live peacefully.”
Photographs: properties of Unfamiliar Japan Tours.com