Many travellers to Japan yearn to see the countryside and the more rural areas. To do this well can become a bit of a quest for the Holy Grail, as many ‘rural’ parts of Japan with any kind of infrastructure are more built-up than you might imagine. However, in the north there is Hokkaido island: a place of fire, effervescing onsen, epic forests, indigenous communities and grizzly bears. Hokkaido is relatively undiscovered, but for those in the know it’s famed as one of the world’s best ski destinations.
Obviously there's a lot more, this is just to get you started...
Japanese cuisine is a major draw, and wherever you are in the country you’ll notice an intense regionalism around food that is more pronounced than in many other places. Even a simple dish, like miso katsu, tastes so much better in its home town of Nagoya than elsewhere. Hokkaido’s specialities are distinctive and delicious; kaisen don (assorted fresh seafood over rice), exquisite ramen, Sapporo beer, fresh crab, Jingisukan (yes, as in Ghengis Khan!) grilled mutton. For those with a sweet tooth, there’s lashings of cream, soft delectable ice cream, cheese, and a fabulous range of dairy-led desserts that celebrate Hokkaido’s many farms. Eat well, often and everywhere.
The original inhabitants of Hokkaido (and possibly of the nearest regions of Russia too), the Ainu have had an uneasy existence and struggled for recognition, and to delve into their story is a fascinating and important experience. There are some high quality museums where you can learn about the Ainu language and culture, with its intense spirituality towards nature, and view the art and practical skills of these not well understood people.
Shiretoko is about as wild as Japan gets. This park, and neighbouring Akan National Park, offer a plethora of natural attractions including lakes, waterfalls, walks and longer hikes (be careful though, this is bear country). A rental car is the best way to get around and make the most of your time. The town of Utoro makes a sensible base, and is also the departure point for a cruise to view some of the inaccessible sheer cliffs around the cape and where sightings of bears are common. From the east side of the peninsula it's possible to see one of the disputed Kuril Islands, which are officially part of Russia.
Wander along the ancient trails of Kumano Kodo and its spiritual shrines, enjoying the peaceful, and enchanting surroundings as well as taking in the hospitality of local families along the way.