By Matt Alt
The northernmost island of Hokkaido was the final frontier for the citizens of Japan, so it's only fitting that it's the final frontier for visitors as well. Hokkaido confounds expectations at every turn. While the mainland of Japan has a reputation for being tiny and crowded, Hokkaido is expansive and sparsely populated. While the mainland features typically Asian architecture, the major cities of Hokkaido have a distinct, almost European feel. And while Japan is known as a technological paradise, Hokkaido overflows with natural wonders, from fields of alpine flowers in the summer to breathtaking ice-scapes in the winter months.
It also teems with unique wildlife, from giant cranes to bears to mysterious underwater creatures. The skiing is second to none -- the winter Olympics were held here in 1972, and the island's ski resorts continue to host regular ski and snowboard world cups. And did I mention the food? This is the birthplace of Sapporo beer. The salmon and crab is to die for. And thanks to Hokkaido's abundant pastures, its beef and dairy products are some of the best in Japan -- or anywhere else.
Whether it's your first time visiting Japan or you happen to be an old hand, there is something for everyone in Hokkaido. It's literally a different world.
Matt Alt is a translator and author based in Tokyo, Japan and the author of the forthcoming Frommer's Japan Day by Day. His website can be found at http://altjapan.typepad.com.