JAPAN Inspiration Gallery 11 Japan
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If you venture far enough North in Japan to reach Hokkaido, we promise you will be rewarded for taking the somewhat unusual journey to this far-flung island, since this region is truly the wildest of them all. Famed for its epic landscapes, rare animals and cooler temperatures, this colossal wind-swept region is the least developed part of the country, meaning a visit here is sure to be memorable - whether you go for a rural escape or a city break.

Home to phenomenally pristine terrain, a distinctive culture and a sparsely distributed population, Hokkaido is heaven for adventurous travellers and outdoor enthusiasts. Its National Parks offer unparalleled beauty and a vast array of pathways that weave their way through ancient forests, sweeping landscapes and staggering mountainous areas past scenic volcanic plateaus from which steaming spring water bubbles up from the ground to form the natural hot spring pools (onsen) that the country is celebrated for. While the UNESCO-protected Shiretoko National Park is perhaps the most well-known, we believe the mighty wilderness of Daisetsuzan is also worth a visit - not to mention Shikotsu-Toya National Park with its caldera lakes, geothermal springs and Fuji-like Mount Yotei.

Those seeking extraordinary wildlife sightings will not be disappointed for dramatic viewings are likely here, from the endangered Japanese red-crowned cranes (whose dancing mating ritual have won them the nickname ‘snow ballerinas’) found in The Kushiro Marshland, to the graceful whooper swans (that migrate to onsen lakes to keep warm) found in Lake Kussharo in Teshikaga. Hidden within sheltered forested areas, you can also find traces of brown bears and see Steller’s Sea eagles, deer, squirrels, foxes and more. Take to the expansive Sea of Okhotsk in the East of the island to spot whales and dolphins, as well as walk across the magnificent ice floes for an intrepid experience. While Joanna Lumley visited Hokkaido in the first episode of her BBC TV series, she hardly saw this part and it remains virtually virgin territory for foreign visitors.

Keen skiers will also love this region - in particular, Niseko Village - for it offers sublime powder snow, countless runs and bubbling volcanic springs that form soothing hot tubs, which make for the most relaxing après-ski activity. Grand Hirafu is arguably one of the best ski resorts nearby and has plenty of family friendly luxury hotels to choose from as well, like Aya Niseko. The fresh snowfall is celebrated annually in the Sapporo Snow Festival, which you may well recognise, for it draws visitors from all over the globe every February to admire the impressive ice sculptures that lie scattered around the city. Sapporo also has plenty of other attractions if you enjoy city-life, including a unique food scene (don't miss out on its delicious crab meat, regional ramen found down a dedicated atmospheric alleyway, or the local beer that has won international acclaim).

If you would prefer to visit Hokkaido during warmer months then fear not, for summer is also a great time to visit. A highlight of a holiday to Japan is witnessing spring cherry blossom - 'sakura' - and these burst into flower on this island later than Honshu, so you can avoid the peak season crowds that hoard the mainland. This is bliss, and we recommend this particularly for luxury honeymoons, so you can appreciate the romantic petals in all their glory. You can also see rolling fields awash with vivid wildflowers during a tailor-made luxury holiday here, if you wish. To add to this, unique Japanese festivals abound, which we recommend attending with one of our specialist travel guides to get the most out of it. Our favourite is the Nachi Biei Fire Festival that takes place in July, during which participants carry giant flaming torches to a Shinto Shrine.

As this region is one of Japan's largest islands, the hotels in Hokkaido range from luxury resorts and boutique hotels to traditional Japanese guesthouses and spa hotels. It has to be said that many of their stunning locations make some of these the best hotels in Japan and, thanks to the highly efficient transportation network here, luxury travellers can reach Hokkaido by speedy bullet train - so there's no reason to miss out on one of the top destinations in this wonderful country.

>> Read our blog: Japan's Wild North: James' Winter in Hokkaido

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When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.
Susan Heller

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