Call of the Wild
Japan’s northernmost prefecture, Hokkaido, is also its wildest. As the brown bears enter hibernation and the locals get out their overcoats, the laid-back cities and volcanic landscape are coated in a blanket of snow and ice—perfect for adventurous snowshoeing, hearty dining and, for one week in early February, visiting the legendary Sapporo Snow Festival By Chris Tharp
Everyone says the snows have come late, but as we pull out of Asahidake, Hokkaido’s second-biggest city, everywhere is coated in a glistening white. A storm has been brewing in the heavens above us and, as we drive, it unleashes millions of flakes, which pile up on the rooftops and weigh down the tree branches. The road is now a compact pancake of glossy ivory, but my guide, Ido Gabay, drives like it’s just another Monday morning.
“It’s been the worst snow season in more than 25 years,” he says, gripping the wheel. “But it looks like, finally, you’ve brought some weather with you.”
Ido, who’s rangy and gregarious, is the proprietor of Hokkaido Nature Tours, which specialises in the natural splendour of Japan’s northernmost island prefecture, Hokkaido. Today, he’s taking me into Daisetsuzan National Park—Hokkaido’s largest—to discover the mountains.
We stop at a pure, icy spring to fill our water bottles, then strap on our snowshoes and hit the trail. The snow continues to swirl, at times enveloping us and obscuring the landscape, as we shuffle up Tenninkyo Gorge. A crystalline river flows to our right, and snow hare tracks punctuate the pristine powder along our trail.
“I sometimes catch them by surprise when snowboarding,” Ido says. “Though here they feel our footsteps through the ground and are gone long before we can see them.”
Soon, we reach our destination: Hagoromo Falls, which spills down the rock face in misty, sensuous streams. Ido pours us tea from a flask and we sip the brew in reverential silence, soaking in the beauty of the undulating cascades. Hagoromo, Ido explains, means ‘angel’s flowing robes’—a name that fits the falls perfectly.
Our next stop is at the base of the dormant volcano, Asahidake, which, at 7,515 feet, is the island’s highest peak. We take a ropeway cable-car (filled with European skiers who’ve come to plough through the island’s famous powder) and step out onto a wide plateau.
It’s a scene to drink in: the whole of the landscape is smothered in a deep, unblemished white, and a frigid wind scours the mountainside, kicking up clouds of powder. The skiers slide by and shoot down their runs, while we deploy our snowshoes and trudge towards Asahidake’s stony rise. We soon arrive at the mouths of two fumaroles, volcanic vents that spew forth sulphuric smoke and steam. Acrid vapours sting my nostrils as I stand there in the driving snow, staring into these hissing, otherworldly portals. I’m witnessing nature in its purest, most unpredictable form, and I’m gripped with a kind of heady electricity.
This is why I’ve come here in winter. “People in Sapporo are known for
being laid-back,” says Yuichi Kudo, a local guide, as we make our way along the ice-slicked pavements of Hokkaido’s capital, later in my trip. “We’re openminded and tolerant, though the rest of Japan thinks we’re kind of slow, which is true, really: we like to drive slow, we walk slow, and we even talk slow.”
The Sapporo Snow Festival is in full swing, and we amble around, taking in an ice sculpture exhibition that stretches for a good four city blocks. The sun lingers behind the low haze of grey, and snow blows down in sharp, diagonal blasts. I bundle my jacket and throw up my hood, but Yuichi braves the onslaught without covering his head.
“I’m a local,” he laughs. “I’m used to it.”
After a visit to the seafood market, Yuichi escorts me back to my hotel, where I soak away the cold in the steamy waters of the onsen. Warmed and re-energised, I head back out to the Festival’s main venue: Odori Park.
A gumbo of languages bubble around me, reflecting the event’s international appeal, as I marvel at giant snow sculptures of subjects as varied as cutesy anime characters, Hokkaido’s native wildlife and ancient cultural symbols from the island’s indigenous Ainu people. All are illuminated by floodlights and feature multimedia projection shows. There’s also a snowboard exhibition, wine- and saketasting, music performances and a whole smoking lounge constructed from glistening blocks of ice.
While I’m dazzled by the snow art, I soon realise food is the real star of the show. The whole of the concourse is lined with stalls offering up local specialities: ramen, grilled meat, veggies, sweets and fresh seafood of every stripe. Over the course of the evening I try skewers of venison, crab and fried chicken, washing it all down with hot sake.
Red-cheeked and tipsy, I finish the night in front of a snowy replica of Warsaw’s Lazienki Palace, celebrating Poland and Japan’s diplomatic centennial. A pianist sits at the lip of the stage, plinking out Japanese pop songs and classical pieces. As I take my final sip of sake, I feel its warmth blossom in my chest. Outside, the temperature continues to plummet and the snow continues to fall.
MORE WINTER ADVENTURES
Cruise Through Drift Ice Ice
from Russia’s Amur River flows southward to Hokkaido in the winter and it’s possible to witness this phenomenon from the deck of an icebreaker. The best spot for this is the port of Abashiri on the Sea of Okhotsk, just 40 minutes by bus from Monbetsu Airport. Take a sightseeing cruise on the Aurora. msaurora.com/abashiri
Meet the Snow Monsters
In wintertime, the snow-smothered fir trees overlooking the ski resort village of Zao Onsen in Honshu transform, taking on beautiful, otherworldly shapes. Marvel at these natural snow sculptures as you ski, snowboard, ride a cablecar, or take a night cruise in a specially constructed snow vehicle. zao-spa.or.jp
An hour outside Hokkaido’s capital, Lake Shinotsu is the perfect spot for some ice fishing. Nearby, a calming hotspring soak awaits before you return to the bustle of the city. Chuo Bus offers full-day tours to Shinotsu from Sapporo. uu-hokkaido.com
Hokkaido’s raw splendour and winter traditions are highlighted on a dogsledding experience in Takasu, a city near Asahikawa. After an hour’s training session, you’re ready to pilot a sled pulled by a team of happy, well-caredfor canines across a snow-covered, sixkilometre course. moonlightladies.info
Visit the Yokote Kamakura Snow Festival
Located in northwestern Honshu’s Akita Prefecture, this centuries-old festival (which is held between February 15-16 each year) features hundreds of snow domes called kamakura. Visitors enter the candlelit structures and sample sweet sake and rice cakes. There are also food stalls, snow sculptures and special events, lending a modern vibe to this most traditional of celebrations. japan.travel
Hokkaido’s Shiretoko Peninsula is one of the most sparsely populated areas in Japan— at least by humans. The area’s woods, rivers and mountains are home to an impressive roster of fauna. Guide Tyler Palma, from InsideJapan Tours, explains more
The best time to see brown bears—which number around 3,000 on Hokkaido—is during summer. Perhaps surprisingly, the safest way to view them is by boat. When hiking in areas with bears, you’ll hear the constant jangling of bear bells coming from the rucksacks of Japanese hikers since brown bears can be aggressive.
HOW TO DO IT: Take a bear cruise in Utoro with operator Gojiraiwa Kanko. Alternatively, guided walks through bear country are available at Goko Lakes Trail, Shiretoko National Park. kamuiwakka.jp/cruising goko.go.jp
Ezo is a term with its roots in Japan’s feudal history; it’s used to refer to the lands north of Honshu, Japan’s mainland. Hokkaido is home to Ezo deer and Ezo red fox. Also look out for are Ezo momonga (flying squirrel) and the Ezo crying rabbit, a type of pika that’s said to have provided inspiration for the Pokemon character, Pikachu.
HOW TO DO IT: The conservationists at Picchio Wildlife Research Center in Utoro offer wildlife tours. shiretoko-picchio.com
BLAKISTON’S FISH OWL
While the iconic Japanese cranes get a lot of attention in winter, for any birdwatcher, Blakiston’s fish owl is reason enough to journey to the wilds of Hokkaido. Not only is this the largest species of owl in the world, it can regularly be seen on the Shiretoko Peninsula despite the fact that only about 150 owls currently remain in the wild.
HOW TO DO IT: Head to the small Washi no Yado (Eagle Inn) guesthouse near Rausu, which the owls visit nightly. fishowl-observatory.org
WHALES & DOLPHINS
Orcas, sperm whales and Baird’s beaked whales are all attracted by the nutrient-rich waters around Hokkaido and can regularly be seen on summertime cruises.
HOW TO DO IT: Whale-watching boats, such as those operated by tour company Shiretoko Rausu Lincle, depart daily from Rausu. shiretoko-rausu-lincle.com
JAPAN IN BLOOM
The samurai poet Watsujin once wrote the following haiku: ‘The cherry blossoms/ Put the whole world/ Under the tree.’ He’d have had no idea that a couple of centuries later, the poem could feel quite literal in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo each spring. So popular has the sakura (cherry blossom) or hanami (flowerviewing) season become that the cities often see their hotel occupancies filled long before the blossoms peak in April. Cherry blossom fever infects every part of life, with sakura KitKats, sakura Starbucks lattes, even a sakura beer. Whether any of it tastes nice hardly seems to matter during the height of hanami mania.
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