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Hokkaido: Japan’s Great Sanctuary

alex yocu

The snowcapped frontier fills the hearth with savory seafood and warm spirits, in addition to some of the best skiing on the planet. 

A kite in the wind, the island of Hokkaido flutters above the rest of Japan in the North Pacific. It’s the last stop before obscure geography overwhelms the map with names like Kamchatka and Sakhalin and carves up the Bering Sea like scythes.

Thick strokes of kanji calligraphy adorn wooden shrines and steel bank buildings there, much like in the rest of Japan, but by comparison Hokkaido is a hinterland in a crowded country. While the Land of the Rising Sun promises a distinct sense of place throughout, its northern island is more than a meditation of temples and towers—it’s a wild kingdom of volcanic mountains, rippling lakes, soothing springs, and boreal flowers.

Left: Riding a ski lift in Hokkaido. Right: View from above Hokkaido at dusk. (Photos by Brandon Presser)

The global ski community has long uttered “Hokkaido” in hushed tones; the destination, famous for its talcum-covered slopes, has earned the name “Japow” among enthusiasts. Niseko is the island’s unofficial slalom capital, attracting a steady stream of international long-stay guests, but the recent redevelopment of Kiroro is reorienting the map. The renovation of the Kiroro, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel, democratizes the Japanese ski experience with affordable prices, sleek rooms blending indigenous Ainu designs, and easy access to what many experts consider to be the best swath of snowfall in East Asia, if not on the planet. 

Chairlifts zip up and down the white peaks like the strings of a violin, each one connecting the 20-plus courses that cater to every level of skier and snowboarder. At the top of Asari, the highest point in the enclave, you’ll find a modern version of a torii gate with a bell attached. It is believed that if a couple ring the chime together, they will have a lifetime of luck in love—this Shinto-inspired tradition warms the shivering landscape. 

Left: Exterior of the Kiroro Hotel. Right: Lobby of the Kiroro Hotel. (Photos courtesy of the Kiroro Hotel)

The après-ski experience is distinctively Japanese as well. Head to the onsen mineral baths and soak in water drawn from a boiling reservoir deep below the earth’s surface. Afterward, sample the Sapporo beers on tap and enjoy the do-it-yourself charcoal grilling at Yanshu, where you can prepare the island’s bounty—free-range pork and chicken, and floppy fish fresh from northern seas—to your liking.

Food is an important part of the Hokkaido experience. In fact, for the Japanese, the island is more revered for its dinners than for its skiable snowcaps. Oceanic plunders promise succulent crab, scallops, and abalone served sushi-style in the resort harbor town of Otaru, lined with its signature cobblestone alleys and brick storehouses. Whisky, too, is headquartered on the island; the Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery in the village of Yoichi is practically a place of pilgrimage for aficionados.

Several years remain before travel in Hokkaido will benefit from the swooshing bullet trains that have opened up distant recesses further south. But, in a way, the necessity of slow travel feels appropriate in a place that feels not only frozen, but frozen in time.

Left: Oriental Suite room at Kiroro Hotel. Right: Mountain Suite bathroom at Kiroro Hotel. (Photos courtesy of Kiroro Hotel)

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Brandon Presser