SAPPORO, Japan — With its dense forests, wide-open spaces and untrammeled wilderness, the rugged northern island of Hokkaido is about as far as one can get from the congested, densely built and harried life style of urban Japan without leaving the country.
Farms, dotted with red barns and silos, stretch on for miles. Cows idly graze, fishermen set out from the craggy coastline to harvest seaweed and fish, volcanoes rumble and the last vestiges of Japan's aboriginal people, the Ainu, continue to eke out an existence.
The winding, crowded streets, bamboo-fence enclosed homes and incense-burning temples that are so much a part of life in Japan's lower three main islands are not much in evidence here. Instead, this is where people come to experience the frontier, Japanese style. Hokkaido, with nearly 25% of Japan's total land mass, has only 5% of its population.
As a result, in summertime, Japanese flee the heat and stultifying humidity of the other islands and come here for the crisp, unpolluted air, lakes and streams in Hokkaido's pristine and justly famous national parks, where camping is both scenic and unpeopled.
It is in wintertime, though, that Hokkaido really shines. Home to the 1972 Winter Olympics, it offers good skiing within a subway or bus ride of Hokkaido's capital city, Sapporo, and even better farther away.
Putting its snowy climate to good use, Sapporo is also home to an annual winter festival--sort of an icy Mardi Gras--that has put Hokkaido on the tourist map.
For nearly a week in early February--this year it's Feb. 6-12--Sapporo comes to life with snow and ice sculptures decorating huge parks throughout the city. At night, tiny lights glitter on trees while the sculptures--ranging from characters out of Japanese myths and American television to huge replicas of famous buildings around the world--shimmer under artfully placed spotlights.
Day and night, people from around Japan and overseas throng the snowy creations, climbing on or in them, sliding down them or simply admiring their artistry and realism, while entertainment is offered on outdoor stages, using ice sculptures as backdrops.
Sapporo's restaurants--serving traditional Japanese fare as well as such local specialties as deer-meat noodles--and its snow-covered shopping streets take on a festive, Fifth Avenue-at-Christmastime air.
Sapporo's ice festival began nearly 40 years ago when a group of students and a few others hoped to boost the gloomy winter spirits of local citizens who, like everyone else in Japan, were still suffering from poverty and hardship after the country's crushing World War II defeat. Close to 50,000 people, mostly from Sapporo, came, and a tradition began. Last year, 1.9 million people visited, many of them foreigners.
The festival is a wonderful jumping-off point for seeing at least part of this oddly shaped island that is nearer to the Soviet Union than to Tokyo.
Tokyo tourist agencies recently have begun to offer package tours in both Japanese and English that take in the festival and also include stops in nearby Shikotsu-Toya National Park, one of Hokkaido's nicest.
The trips have proven so popular that a few agencies are now offering "sneak previews" of the area the week before the ice festival begins. These tours are much cheaper than at the time of the festival. Last year's three-day tour by Kintetsu International, for instance, cost about $300 per person from Tokyo for air fare, accommodations, some meals and tour bus.
That price is well below what it would cost an individual to fly to Hokkaido and back. Another plus: Fewer crowds mobbing the sculptures and the streets and restaurants of Sapporo.
The downside to these "sneak previews" is that some of the ice and snow sculptures have not been given the final touches. And the truly mammoth ones, built by a deployment of men from the Japanese Self-Defense Forces on a nearby base, do not open to the public until the festival officially begins.
Whenever and however you go to Hokkaido, it is worth spending a day in Sapporo before seeing the island's natural beauty.
For a foreign tourist, the city is much more approachable than many others in Japan because it was planned using a grid layout. Thus, while you can get lost easily in the maze of streets in Tokyo, most of which do not have names and follow no discernible pattern, Sapporo's attractive, broad and logically laid-out streets make it an easy city to roam about.
An old clock tower built in the Russian style is the major historical site in a city built only about 100 years ago. Hokkaido University and the city's botanical garden (in summer), with a museum specializing in Ainu culture, are also worth a stroll. Within an easy bus ride are the mountains where the 1972 Olympics were held, including Mt. Moiwa, which offers a broad view of Sapporo from its peak.