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Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's four main islands, has a landscape strikingly different from that of any other place in Japan. With more than 83,000 sq. km (32,000 sq. miles) and accounting for 22% of Japan's total landmass, it has only 4.5% of its population. In other words, Hokkaido has what the rest of Japan doesn't: space. The least developed of Japan's four islands, it's your best bet for avoiding the crowds that plague Japan's more well-known playgrounds during peak travel season.

Hokkaido didn't open up to development until after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when the government began encouraging Japanese to migrate to the island (at the expense of Hokkaido's indigenous people, the Ainu). Even today, Hokkaido has a frontier feel to it, and many young Japanese come here to backpack, ski, camp, and tour the countryside on motorcycles or bicycles. There are dairy farms, silos, and broad, flat fields of wheat, corn, and potatoes. Where the fields end the land puckers up, becoming craggy with bare volcanoes, deep gorges, and hills densely covered with virgin forests and dotted with clear spring lakes, mountains, rugged wilderness, wild animals, bubbling hot springs, and rare plants. The people of Hokkaido are as open and hearty as the wide expanses of land around them.

Much of Hokkaido's wilderness has been set aside as national and prefectural parkland. Of these areas, Shikotsu-Toya, Daisetsuzan, and Akan national parks are among the best known, offering a wide range of activities from hiking and skiing to bathing at onsen, or hot-spring spas.

Hokkaido's main tourist season is in July, when days are cool and pleasant with an average temperature of 70°F (21°C). While the rest of the nation is afflicted by the rainy season, Hokkaido's summers are usually bright and clear. Winters are long and severe; still, ski enthusiasts flock to slopes near Sapporo and to resorts such as Niseko and Daisetsuzan National Park. February marks the annual Sapporo Snow Festival, featuring huge ice and snow sculptures.

With its New Chitose Airport, the city of Sapporo -- Japan's largest city north of Tokyo -- serves as a springboard to Hokkaido's national parks and lakes. Yet despite all the island has to offer, Hokkaido remains virtually undiscovered.