Hokkaido, Japan’s second-largest island but with less than 5% of its population, has long been considered the nation’s last frontier. It didn’t open up to development until the latter half of the 1800s, when the Meiji government began encouraging Japanese to migrate to the island, build Western-style homes and buildings, farm the land, and work in mines and other industries. Between 1884 and 1886, 1,286 Japanese made the move to this vast and untamed land.
Those days are long gone, but you can still get a feeling of what life must have been like for those early pioneers by strolling the lanes of the Historical Village of Hokkaido outside Sapporo. I first visited the village in the 1980s, when it consisted of only a handful of buildings imported to the site. Today it has grown into a bona fide settlement, with approximately 60 Japanese- and Western-style structures, dating mostly from the Meiji and Taisho eras (mid-19th to early 20th centuries) and brought here from around Hokkaido, along with a few replicas.
A dairy farm modeled after an American barn of the 19th century
I love walking around here, peering into homes, farmhouses, and businesses ranging from a newspaper office and a post office to a noodle shop, blacksmith, brewery, barbershop, grocery, and inn, all outfitted with items and equipment as they would have been in the past. Structures are grouped into four distinct “villages”: a town, a fishing village, a farm village, and a mountain village. In summer, staff members dressed in period clothing are on hand to answer questions.
A post office, barbershop and grocery store line the main street of town
The town is the most stately, lined with imposing buildings like the Hokkaido Middle School, built in Sapporo in 1909, and the 1897 Matsuhashi Family Residence, a wooden structure with an tin roof and Western-style rooms but furnished with tatami, an open hearth, and shoji screens. The biggest and most eye-catching building is a replica of the Kaitakushi Sapporo Headquarters of the Colonization, originally made of wood in 1893 but destroyed in a fire. On a corner sits a brick police box, in use in Sapporo from 1911 to 1971 and still manned by a man in uniform.
Kaitakushi Sapporo Headquarters of the Colonization
This 1911 police box was used in Sapporo until 1971
For even more nostalgia, you can board a horse-drawn trolley (or, in winter, a horse-drawn sleigh) that traverses the main street and travels onward to the farm village, where you can tour farmhouses, inspect farming tools, and walk through an old dairy barn, built according to American specifications popular in the U.S. in the 19th century, with a stone silo addition. Don’t miss the silkworm house, once used to raise silkworm eggs and now with displays relating to this once-prosperous trade.
Horse-drawn trolley in the Historical Village of Hokkaido
A pleasant stroll away is the mountain village, where you can visit a reconstruction of a woodcutter’s shanty, used by men who felled and logged the trees. It must have been a rather chilly and lonely pursuit, as logging in Hokkaido was a winter activity so that the snow-covered grounds could facilitate the transport of logs. Nearby is a reproduction of a coal-making kiln; coal mining was once among Hokkaido’s largest industries and brought many young men to the area.
The fishing village is situated on a small lake. Prominent here is the compound of the Aoyama family, a large and wealthy family who once fished for herring along the shores of Otaru. In addition to sheds for storing nets and rice and drying racks for seafood, there’s the main house, with futons and clothing neatly folded and cooking utensils against one wall, as though its inhabitants might be back any minute. Interestingly, the family lived on the right side of the big, open structure, while the hired men lived on the left.
After touring the village, I suggest heading to the nearby Historical Museum of Hokkaido, where you can learn more about the island’s history, including the indigenous Ainu and their culture and the hardscrabble lives of 19th-century Japanese pioneers. Both are located in Nopporo Forest Park, about a 30-minute train and bus ride from Sapporo Station. You can easily spend a half day here, immersed in the history of Hokkaido and transported to a time that wasn’t that long ago.