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If Japan ever had a wild west, it was Hokkaido. Oh, all the classic movie stuff of samurai bashing each other with swords never made it this far north, but the image of the West—open spaces, places to disappear, actual land horizons (which no other island in Japan has)—lingers.
Hokkaido's remoteness is so legendary that it figures into one of Japan’s most important historical tales: After losing a battle in 1189, good guy Minamoto Yoshitsune managed to escape capture and death by heading to Hokkaido (no one felt like chasing him that far). In one version of the story, he returned from Hokkaido to the mainland and, if you give alternate readings of the characters in his name, became Gin Ke Ka—Genghis Khan.
Hokkaido is the only spot among Japan’s primary islands where a non-Japanese culture manages to survive relatively intact, at least as an identity if not a lifestyle. The Ainu were here first, and are fairly easy to recognize; they have paler skin and more hair than ethnic Japanese. Cornerstones of Ainu culture remain, too: ceremonies that include sacrificing a bear (not often—bears are rare, although, this being the wild west, there are still some out there), the beautiful attush robe, a dislike of uncooked fish. And they’re not going anywhere. In 1997, the Japanese government finally recognized the Ainu's right to their own culture. Get a taste of that unique culture in Hakodate, the capital city of this northern island.