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Geography of Hokkaido, Japan

Updated on April 12, 2013


Are you planning to visit, or have you ever been to, Hokkaido?

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Hokkaido highlighted on a map.
Hokkaido highlighted on a map.

Hokkaido is the northern-most island of Japan, a country made up of islands. Even though Hokkaido is the island of Japan farthest north, it is just as far north as major cities in Europe and North America, such as Monaco, France and the state of Maine is the US. "Hokkaido" translated literally, means "Northern Sea Circuit"; this is a fitting title, considering Hokkaido's location.

Hokkaido is separated from the next-closest island, Honshu, by the Tsugaru Strait; however, the two land masses are connected to each other by the Seikan Tunnel, an underwater railway. Hokkaido is surrounded by sea, and has coastlines on the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Pacific Ocean. The island is made up of mostly mountains, volcanic plateaus, and lots of coastal plains. Hokkaido is Japan's second-largest island.

Technically, the governmental jurisdiction of Hokkaido does not only include the island of Hokkaido, but also several smaller islands, such as Rebun, Rishiri, and Okushiri Islands. The Japanese also consider some of the Kuril Islands to be part of Hokkaido. Hokkaido ranks 21st among islands in terms of area, being smaller than Ireland but bigger than Hispaniola, and 20th in terms of population, having a population smaller than Ireland's, but bigger than Sicily's.

Japan is known for its seismic activity, and Hokkaido is no exception. Hokkaido is prone to numerous earthquakes, such as one with a magnitude of 7.8 that occurred 1993, which generated a tsunami that killed 202 people in the town of Okushiri. Not only does Hokkaido experience earthquakes, the island of Hokkaido also has six active volcanoes. Hokkaido has six National Parks, one of which (Shiretoko National Park) was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005. Hokkaido also has five quasi-national parks, as well as twelve prefectural natural parks, which cover the most area out of the combination of any other prefecture's natural parks.

Because of where it is, Hokkaido has fairly cool summers and very cold, icy winters. The island is known to get quite a lot of snow, but only in certain areas. For example, the mountains adjacent to the Sea of Japan may receive 400 inches per year, while the Pacific Coast might receive only 71 inches per year. Hokkaido is a popular vacation spot during the summer for the Japanese, as Hokkaido, unlike most of Japan, is not affected by the rainy season. The island has a relative lack of humidity and warm, not hot, summers, which is enticing to those enduring the humid, hot summer in the more southern parts of the country.

Japan is mostly a mountainous country, and while Hokkaido also has mountains, the island also contains nearly one-fourth of Japan's viable land, making Hokkaido the primary manufacturer of agricultural goods for Japan. As Hokkaido's only physical connection to the rest of Japan is the underwater railway, most travelers arrive by plane. It is also possible to travel to and from Hokkaido by ferry. Though Hokkaido has a fairly well-developed railway system, many cities can be reached only by road. Speaking of roads, Hokkaido has one of Japan's only three 'Melody Roads', which are made from grooves cut into the ground that creates an audible sound when driven over.

Hokkaido has several notable cities, the largest of which being its capital, Sapporo, home of the famous Sapporo Snow Festival. Two other major cities are Hakodate and Asahikawa. Other population centers are Kitami, Nemuro, Obihiro, Abashiri, and Kushiro. Hokkaido has the highest rate of depopulation in Japan, which already has a declining population.

Fun Fact: The 1972 Winter Olympics were held in Sapporo.


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