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January 30, 2012

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Escaping to Hokkaido a pleasure in winter

JAPAN'S northernmost island of Hokkaido offers world-class skiing, pristine scenery and hot springs, modern Sapporo, quaint, artsy ports and plenty of sashimi, sake and beer. Liam Singleton explores. In days of yore, people fled the savagery of the inhospitable and lawless northern territories of Japan. Hokkaido, the northernmost island, represented the severest challenge: demanding terrain, temperatures that drop to almost minus 30 degrees Celsius, heavy snowfall weighing down the rugged land and soul-searching blizzards that can engulf you in a moment.

Yet today, people escape to Hokkaido from all over Japan, and from further afield. And it's not just Shunji Iwai's "Love Letter" that brings people in droves.

Many come for the slopes, reportedly some of the best skiing in the world, but there is plenty more of offer on an island that covers over 83,000 square kilometers, more than twice the size of Taiwan.

The tallest mountain, Asahidake, stands at over 2,200 meters, and unsurprisingly mountaineering is a national pastime. In the summer, purple fields prompt numerous passages of purple prose. Hokkaido's beauty is unmatched, whatever the season.

Five and a half million people live in Hokkaido, around a third of whom live in the thriving metropolis of Sapporo. In the winter, the streets of Sapporo are coated in a thick skin of ice, over which people skate from one heated room to the next, in outfits that would make even the most daring blush.

Cabs and cars hurtle by, apparently confident of their stopping ability. Tourists slip and slide haphazardly, fully aware of their inability to brake.

The city boasts few star-attractions: a TV tower with viewing decks, and a seven-block, 126-year-old shopping arcade, Tanukikoji.

Thankfully it is the atmosphere that compels, buoyed by the local tipple - beer flows through the veins of this buzzing city, as the Liffey flows through Dublin. But it is the food that really lingers; from high-end restaurants, to rickety stools around market stalls, the choice and quality on the menu is remarkable.

Sapporo's own fresh-fish market, unlike the leviathan chaos of Tokyo's Tsukiji, is an intimate affair. Despite its small stature, it's still home to a bewildering choice of fish, roe, crustaceans and mollusks.

Hokkaido long-legged crabs can be seen creeping off every counter, or bound in icy status awaiting deliverance.

In the heart of the market, stalls offer fabulously fresh and succulent sashimi platters at modest prices. Pink-faced crowds huddle around tiny tables, pooling body heat as they wolf down fat slices of tuna and overflowing spoons of roe.

Hokkaido's famous ice cream (made from the milk of Jersey cows) is for dessert, the rich and creamy cone captivating its frozen flock.

Escaping Hokkaido's largest city, a short train ride takes you to Otaru, on the western coast facing the Ishikari Bay, and an altogether different experience.

A place where the Japanese go to escape the excesses of the city, it has become quite touristy, but remains a quaint old port town. Wandering the streets, one sees menacing icicles hang off exposed edges, and red berries sparkle on frostbitten branches.

The town is filled with glass and ceramics factories, sake breweries and galleries and art and craft boutiques, fostering a bohemian vibe that is matched by its new inhabitants.

Renovated dock buildings and factories, a picturesque candle-lit canal, and Herring and Salmon museums mean that the town caters to all crowds, and reminds visitors of the town's trading past.

A number of breweries-cum-warehouses offer sake tastings, plus a tantalizing selection of the rice-wine concoction.

The frozen, pure air and pristine, spring water of Hokkaido provides perfect conditions for producing sake, which is then bottled for your pleasure.

Sweet, medium or dry, a choko of sake keeps you warm on a cold Hokkaido night, especially if it's followed by a hot spring.

And for those who need a little more of a kick, the locally produced whisky from the Nikka distillery, which has helped to propel Japanese whisky onto the world stage in recent years, is worthy of its reputation.

Hokkaido blends industrial past, stunning natural beauty, exquisite local produce and rapid development. Old world and new beginnings, the island casts an enchanting spell on all those who take the time to come down off the pistes. An inhospitable island with an endearing charm, it's no surprise people escape here, and dread to leave.

(Liam Singleton is a Shanghai-based freelancer.)


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