Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, is a relatively new territory of Japan having only been settled fully by the Japanese from the early 1900s. Originally known as Ezochi, it was considered a wild, inhospitable place inhabited by the Ainu, a hunter-gather people indigenous to Hokkaido, Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. The Ainu traded with Russians, Chinese and also the Japanese, who established their first toehold in 1550 on the Oshima Peninsula in the island’s south. However, few Japanese ventured beyond here until after the Meiji Restoration in 1868 when it was declared a territory of Japan and renamed Hokkaido.
Today, the Ainu are largely assimilated into the society of the Japanese, who came to Hokkaido mainly to farm the rich land and surrounding seas. The human population density remains one of the lowest in Japan but its wild animal population, including the famed Tancho red-crested crane, is probably one of the highest. And what the territory lacks in Japanese history and culture it more than makes up for in its wide-open landscapes including mountain ranges, volcanoes, lakes, expansive farmlands and forests. It is Japan’s wild frontier, with deep winters, mild summers and some of the best quality food in the whole of Japan.