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Hokkaido Tunnel to Open 'Frontier'

September 08, 1985|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

SAPPORO, Japan — "Be a wind blowing over the Northern Land!"

For the city of Sapporo and the island of Hokkaido, these are words of celebration and hope, inviting visitors to discover a four-seasons destination where doors are "open to the world."

The doors were open wide in 1972, when Sapporo hosted the Winter Olympics, but in the years that followed a relatively small percentage of U.S. visitors have explored this northern island and its capital city, which often seems so far from the popular tourism destinations closer to Tokyo.

That is about to change, and Hokkaido is ready for what Gov. Yokomichi calls its "New Frontier Age."

The Seikan Tunnel, the world's longest undersea tunnel, will be completed soon between Hokkaido and the main island of Honshu. This will mean direct rail travel between Tokyo and the cities of Hokkaido, without the present ferry ride of nearly four hours.

The new Chitose Airport is also expected to open soon, adding an international terminal to Hokkaido's air travel facilities and underscoring the fact that Tokyo is only a 1 1/2-hour jet flight away.

Many Attractions

The Japanese people know well what Hokkaido has to offer. Their holidays here in every season have prepared many attractions and amenities for the anticipated increase in visitors from abroad. These include everything from ski resorts to health spas, vineyards, golf courses, tennis complexes, lakes and temples, forests, sophisticated cities and more than 27 festivals.

After six visits to Japan, we've finally been able to take the opportunity to travel across Hokkaido with an attractive Japanese guide who has her own weekly TV and radio program here. Twenty years ago she was an American Field Service exchange student in Pasadena. Through her insights, and the songs she sang, we quickly came to realize what Hokkaido is waiting to offer.

The story of Hokkaido begins thousands of years ago when the indigenous people were Ainu. This huge island is one of the four main islands of Japan, second in size only to Honshu. It didn't appear in Japanese historical writings until about the 7th Century, and then the dominant culture from the southern islands began to displace the Ainus, treating them by the 15th Century the way our American Indians were treated.

Most of the Ainus have disappeared through intermarriage, and many efforts are being made to preserve the remains of their culture on what is still considered the "young island of Hokkaido."

Youngest Big City

Sapporo, with a population of 1.5 million, is the youngest of Japan's major cities. It began in 1869 with seven settlers from the southern islands. With 22% of the land area of Japan, Hokkaido has a population of only 5.5 million. Gov. Yokomichi, elected two years ago, is at age 46 the youngest of Japan's 47 prefecture governors, an office comparable to the governor of a U.S. state.

An American educator, William Clark, from Massachusetts, helped to set up early educational programs at the University of Sapporo. The statue of him on campus carries his admonition: "Be ambitious."

Hi-tech and all the advanced technologies are being blended carefully into traditional values and customs. "A Sapporo welcome," says Mayor Itagaki in his message to visitors, "begins in the hearts of Sapporo citizens who have long acknowledged the integral part played by foreign cultures during the past 100 years of development in our city."

Superb Facilities

Superb facilities built for the 1972 Olympics winter events continue to be used for international competitions, and await discovery by recreational skiers other than the Japanese who have made Sapporo a prime winter holiday destination.

Since the Olympics of '72 the World Ice Hockey Championships have been held in Sapporo. The Asian Winter Competitions will be held here next March. The base of the ski slopes and cross-country runs, for the average skier as well as for the championship contenders, are only 21 miles south of town.

After our flight from Tokyo we checked into the Sapporo Grand Hotel, considered one of the best in the city, set in a Japanese garden in the heart of downtown. Transportation is provided for skating and skiing in the winter. Throughout the year tour buses depart to see the city sights, its environs and the rest of Hokkaido. Grand Hotel doubles start at $45.

Among the many city festivals, the Lilac Festival in May features open-air ballet, concerts and flower shows in Odori Park. The famed Snow Festival in February last winter brought 1.76 million people to marvel at the giant snow sculptures. The theme of the festival was "a world of friends in the communication of youth."

A Love Story

A favorite local story is about a U.S. Air Force pilot and an Australian girl, both studying at the University of Tokyo, who arrived a few winters ago for the Snow Festival. They met while working on one of the snow statues and were married during the festival.

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