History of Hokkaido: The Natural Beauty of Hokkaido University



 Hokkaido University, located in the beautiful city of Sapporo, is not only one of Japan’s top universities but also a place of great historical and cultural importance. Nestled in the heart of Sapporo, northwest of Sapporo railway station, Hokkaido University—also known as Hokudai—offers visitors an incredible blend of academic excellence, stunning architecture, and a vibrant atmosphere.

 As you step onto the Hokkaido University campus, you will be greeted by a breathtaking blend of old architecture and modern facilities. The mix of old and new creates a unique and captivating atmosphere that sets Hokkaido University apart from other campuses. The highlight of visiting Hokkaido University is exploring its beautiful campus. With its expansive grounds and picturesque surroundings, the campus is a haven for nature lovers. The four seasons in Hokkaido University bring about stunning changes in the scenery, offering visitors a chance to experience the beauty of cherry blossoms in spring, lush greenery in summer, vibrant foliage in autumn, and a serene snow-covered landscape in winter.

 In this blog post, you can read about Hokkaido University and some of the exciting attractions that you can enjoy on campus. If you want to learn more about Hokkaido University, you might also enjoy our earlier blog post Hokkaido University: A Journey in the Footsteps of the Settlers.

The birth of Hokkaido University

 Hokkaido University (Hokkaido daigaku/北海道大学) (an outbound link)—or Hokudai (北大) for short as it is known by the locals—was established in 1876 as the Sapporo Agricultural College. The Japanese settlers to Hokkaido annexed the island in 1869 to Japan. They saw a lot of potential in the fertile soil and ample water and sun of Hokkaido, so they started to plan how to develop agriculture in the area. And to spread the best practices and the latest knowledge on agriculture methods, the predecessor of Hokkaido University was established.


 To utilize the very latest knowledge and farming technology, foreign specialists were hired to run the university. American William S. Clark was the first Vice-Principal of the Sapporo Agricultural College. He is known as the founding father of the university, even though he stayed only eight months in Sapporo. Clark’s famous words of farewell, ’Boys, be ambitious,’ are still the motto of the university, but shortened into a more inclusive ’Be ambitious.’

 Probably the most famous Hokudai alumni is Nitobe Inazo (新渡戸稲造), who was a scholar, educator, politician, and writer. Some of his achievements are for example being the deputy secretary general of the League of Nations and the author of Bushido: The Soul of Japan (published in 1899).

From agriculture college to world-famous university

 While the faculty of agriculture is still one of the well-known faculties of the university, Hokudai has developed so that it now has 12 undergraduate schools and 21 graduate schools. The number of students exceeds 18,000 (which includes almost 2,200 international students) and the university has almost 4,000 staff and faculty. The largest faculties by number of students are engineering (2,163), medicine (1,123), and science (998), followed by law (693), letters/humanities and human sciences (680), agriculture (670), fisheries sciences (660), and economics and business (621).

 Hokkaido University was fifth of the seven former imperial universities of Japan and is still highly evaluated both in Japan and abroad. There are two Nobel prize winners affiliated to the university and the university is ranked quite high both in the domestic and the international rankings. For example, in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Impact Rankings 2023, Hokudai was ranked 1st in Japan and 22nd in the world. In other rankings, Hokudai has been evaluated somewhere around the ranks 300th–114th in the international rankings and 8th–5th in Japan.

 The students and the local citizens as well especially enjoy the beautiful and green university campus. The campus is a 1.8-km-long, parklike area stretching from south to north just outside the north exit of the Sapporo railway station and covers an area of 1.77 square kilometers (0.7 square miles). Only 12% of the total area is occupied by buildings, so there is a lot of space for greenery, such as parks, lawns, forests, and farm fields. The campus area is a green oasis in the middle of the buzzing city of Sapporo and you can really feel the cooling effect of the lush greenery when you exit the campus area on a hot summer day: the temperature seems immediately to rise a couple of degrees when you leave the campus! You can look at the Hokudai Campus Guide map (an outbound link) yourself and estimate the ratio of buildings to greenery.

 In addition to the Sapporo campus, Hokkaido University has a campus in Hakodate (fisheries sciences) and several field research facilities—experimental farms, research forests, aquatic research stations—all around Hokkaido that belong to the Field Science Center for Northern Biosphere. For example, there is an experimental forest in Tomakomai (苫小牧) and a livestock farm in Shizunai (静内) (an outbound link) in the Hidaka area, where Hokkaido-bread dosanko horses are raised. You can also buy some products made of the crops and produce of the university’s experimental farms, for example, at Hokudai Marché Cafe & Labo (an outbound link, in Japanese only)—located in the southern part of the campus, about 300 meters (980 ft) from the main gate—the visitors can enjoy tasty ice cream that is made of milk from the cows raised at the Hokkaido University campus.

Historical places to visit at the Hokkaido University campus

 The Sapporo area, just like the whole of Hokkaido, was inhabited by the indigenous Ainu people before the Japanese settlers took over the island. When Hokkaido University was built, an Ainu village called Sa kus kotoni (erroneously often called ’Sa kushu kotoni’ due to the distorted Japanese pronunciation of the name) was forced to relocate and give way to the campus and the growing city of Sapporo. The only reminder of the village’s existence today is the (now artificial) Sakushukotoni River (サクシュコトニ川) that flows through the campus. The best place to view the river is the Central lawn of the southern campus or next to the Ono pond in the mid-campus.

 The Ainu culture is developed from the preceding Jomon and Okhotsk cultures of Hokkaido. The Okhotsk people were mainly concentrated in the northern and northeastern Hokkaido but Jomon people lived also in the current Hokudai campus area. The Jomon (縄文) are known for making ceramics with decorations made by pressing a rope against wet clay (hence the Japanese name jo (縄) ’rope’ and mon (文) ’pattern’) and living in pit houses—houses that are partly dug in the ground. There are also some remains of these pit houses at the Hokudai campus. These are located in the virgin forest on the northern campus and while the pits are not a spectacular sight (basically just round dimples in the ground), they are an important cultural heritage and a reminder of the people living here already thousands of years ago.

 A bit newer part of the history of the Hokudai campus can be seen at the northern part of the campus at the Sapporo Agricultural College Farm No. 2 (Sapporo nogakko daininojo/札幌農学校第2農場) (an outbound link). In the early days of the university, William. S. Clark established a large farm that brought modern agriculture to Hokkaido, including livestock. His former student, W. P. Brooks, continued this effort by importing crops and farming tools and providing guidance on operations. This contributed significantly to developing a unique farming method for Hokkaido. Farm No. 2 at Sapporo Agricultural College was established as a model farm with a livestock farmer’s residence and facilities for livestock operations. The buildings, including a barn designed by W. Wheeler (built in 1877) and a feed storehouse designed by W. P. Brooks, were constructed in the popular “balloon frame” style of the Midwest United States during that period. The first floor of the model cattle barn was used for housing cows, while the spacious second floor served as a hayloft. This design aimed to promote dairy farming in Hokkaido’s climate. Additionally, the silo (constructed in 1912) is believed to be one of Hokkaido’s oldest farm structures and offers valuable insights into dairy farming practices from that era.

 If you want to learn in more detail about the history of the university or the campus area, there are two interesting facilities to visit at the campus: Hokkaido University Museum (北海道大学総合博物館) (an outbound link) and Hokkaido University Archaeological Research Center (埋蔵文化財調査センター) (an outbound link) on the opposite side of the street to the museum. Both of these can be entered free of charge. The museum is closed on Mondays and public holidays and the Archaeological Research Center on weekends and public holidays. If you don’t know how to read Japanese, it’s best to go with a guide with Japanese skills, because the exhibitions are mainly in Japanese only. Contact us, and we can plan together your visit to these facilities. Take a look at the Historic map of the Hokkaido campus (pdf) or its mobile phone version (pdf), too, if you want to know more about specific locations at the campus.

The four seasons at the Hokudai campus

 The Hokudai campus is one of the best places in Sapporo to view the changing seasons. Most of Sapporo is a developed urban environment, and although you of course will notice whether there is snow on the ground or whether the leaves are starting to emerge on the branches of the trees lining the streets, you can’t see the whole beauty of changing seasons. So, whatever the season you visit Sapporo will be, the Hokudai campus is always worth visiting.

 In Japan, the new school year starts in April, so spring is not only the time for nature to awake after a long and snowy winter but also for the start of new life for students. In the spring, the most breathtaking sight on the campus is the blooming cherry trees. There are different varieties of cherry trees on the campus, so the blooming season lasts from late April until mid-May. You can read more about the best spots for cherry blossom viewing at the Hokkaido campus in our earlier blog post Sapporo: The City of the Fleeting Cherry Blossoms.

 As the spring turns into summer, the trees, bushes, and lawns turn into lush green. The Hokudai campus is the best place to be on a hot summer day, because the old, large trees shade the walkways, so the temperature feels more bearable. One of the nicest places to have a rest in the heat of the day is Ono Pond (onoike/小野池) at the central campus. The pond is surrounded by different kinds of shading trees and white and pink water lilies bloom on the pond beautifully in July and August.

 There are also fun events at the campus during the summer. Hokudaisai student festival (北大祭) (an outbound link, in Japanese only) is arranged in early June and lasts for three days (from Friday to Sunday). During the festival, visitors can enjoy food and drinks from various food stalls, music performances, and other activities arranged by the Hokkaido University students. Later in the summer, around the end of July and early August, a bier garten is opened and visitors can have a jinpa, that is, a jingisukan party (available by reservation) in front of Seicomart convenience store in the mid-campus. Jingisukan means mouton and lamb grilled with vegetables, such as cabbage, onion, and bean sprouts.

 The fall turns the leaves on the trees into blazing shades of red and yellow. Probably the most visited place in Hokudai campus during fall is the Ginkgo Avenue (icho namiki/銀杏並木) in the mid-campus; a 380-meter-long avenue that is lined with 70 tall ginkgo trees (originally there were maples and cherries but they were replaced with the ginkgo trees in 1938). Hokkaido University Golden Leaf Festival (Hokudai Konyosai/北大金葉祭) (an outbound link, in Japanese only) is the big event for autumn leaves viewing at the Hokudai campus. The event is held yearly on a weekend around the 20th of November at Ginkgo Avenue. Read more about autumn colors in Sapporo in an earlier blog post, Sapporo: The City of Spectacular Fall Leaves, and more about the Golden Leaf Festival in Sapporo: The City of Seasonal Festivals.

 Winter wraps the campus in a thick blanket of snow. Sapporo accumulates as much as 5 meters (16.4 feet) of snow in winter (all of it is not of course on the ground at the same time, the snow melts and accumulates again, especially in the early and late winter months). So, if you want to see some pure white, undisturbed snow, head to the campus. Please do note that some of the places, such as Ono Pond, can’t be visited in winter because there is so much snow! The pathways at the campus are usually cleared off the snow quite fast, so even though other streets might be still under the snow, the campus is a nice place to have a stroll on a cold winter day.

 Not part of the campus itself, but a couple of blocks south from the campus, lays the botanic garden of Hokkaido University (北海道大学植物園/Hokkaido daigaku shokubutsuen) (an outbound link). The garden operates with shortened opening hours or is completely closed during the winter months (short opening hours 10–15:30 from November to December, closed from January to April) but it’s a superb place to enjoy Hokkaido nature of spring, summer, and fall. There are different kinds of gardens, such as an alpine plants rock garden, a rose garden, a shrub garden, a natural woodland that shows how the place today known as Sapporo was before urban development, and even a small northern peoples’ museum. See also the leaflet about the botanic garden (an outbound link, pdf) for more information. Note that there is an entrance fee to enter the garden.

 So, what do you think? Will you visit the Hokudai campus next time you come to Sapporo? If you would like to know more about the Hokudai campus or arrange a guided tour of the campus area, you can always contact us through the ’contact us’ button below.