Hokkaido is Japan’s wild frontier, especially in winter, when cars must be swapped for snowmobiles and huskies, cranes dance, hot springs steam and the sparkling Sapporo Snow Festival comes to town
Hello Kitty rushed through the crowd, waving as she went. A 2m-tall fox posed for photos with a group of old Japanese women. News crews filmed their reports from the steps of a Malaysian government building made entirely of snow. And as more snow fell, a brass band picked up its instruments and launched into a funky version of ‘Winter Wonderland’. With a dramatic flourish, Sapporo’s annual Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival) was officially open.
There’s no shortage of snow up on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. In winter, it covers everything. “To clear the snow in Sapporo, the government spends ¥100 million every day,” local guide Kunihiro Oikawa told me. “That’s one million US dollars (£600,000) every day. For 100 days!”
The Snow Festival started in 1950 on Odori Koen, a strip of park in the heart of Hokkaido’s capital. “The art teacher at a school in Sapporo recommended the students make snow statues, maybe to demonstrate their art abilities or for fun,” Oikawa said. “That’s how it began. It grew bigger. Now, every year, two million people come from all over the world.”
The scale of the statues is impressive. A 23m-high recreation of the Itmad-ud-daula tomb from Agra in India, inspiration for the Taj Mahal, used 2,250 tons of snow and took 3,800 people 30 days to build. I watched men with long brushes trying to clean fresh snow off a house-sized bear; it was a battle they couldn’t win – the snow just kept coming.
We walked the length of the festival, passing statues of Manga characters, Japanese legends, animals and, of course, Hello Kitty. Kids bundled in thick layers zipped down blue ice slides. Snowboarders jumped off a ramp, attempting acrobatic stunts. It was bitterly cold but stalls sold warming Hokkaido specialities such as crab soup, scallops and hot wine. Not far away, I found Ramen Alley and thawed out in one of its small, steamy cafés with a bowl of noodles.
Even better, just a short bus ride from the city centre, was Sapporo Beer Museum. Built in 1876, it was Japan’s first beer factory. A young Japanese man, Seibei Nakagawa, defied Japan’s isolationist policy to secretly travel to Europe and learn how to brew beer, before returning to Sapporo. For around ten years, Nakagawa was the only man in Japan who knew how to make beer. I imagine he wasn’t short of friends.
In the morning I caught a train out of Sapporo into more remote parts. Hokkaido is Japan’s wild frontier, one of the largest and least-populated regions, home to the indigenous Ainu culture and some of the country’s oldest national parks. In the summer, it’s a place to explore colourful lavender fields, mountains and lakes, and to spot brown bears and other wildlife. But in winter, the landscapes of Japan’s northernmost prefecture are dazzling, a white world of ice and snow, with excellent skiing at resorts such as Niseko.
I hadn’t come to ski, but there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the snow. From the town of Furano, where metre-long icicles hung from shopfronts, I headed out into the countryside on a snowmobile, speeding through forests of silver birch along roads closed by snow. The wind was ridiculously cold. When we stopped for breaks, guide Syuji Kodaka opened the snowmobile covers so we could defrost our fingers on the hot engines.
The next day I drove out of town with guide Toshihiro Kato, heading for Daisetsuzan National Park, the largest in Japan. “Today is very cold, so we can see ‘diamond dust’,” Kato said, pointing to where the air was sparkling in the sunlight. “The moisture in the air is frozen.”
We drove through flat land, vegetable farms during the summer now blanketed in crisp velvety white. Snowploughs and blowers were out on the roads. Men and women with big shovels cleared paths and driveways. This level of snow would bring Britain to a halt for a decade. Here, it’s just a way of life. At Daisetsuzan, we put on snowshoes and hardcore winter clothes. The skies were blue but we still needed to wrap up: “Right now,” said Kato, calmly reading a thermometer, “it’s -14°C.”
Powdery snow squeaked underfoot as we hiked through the forest. Kato measured the depth of snow we were walking on with a metal pole; beneath our feet, there was a 2m layer. Branches of birch, pine and fir trees were outlined with a sugary white coating. The effect was magical. Some tree trunks were splitting, the water inside freezing, expanding and contracting. It can reach as low as -40°C here at night.
We climbed to a high ridge. There were dead trees on the slope of the still-active volcano, Tokachi-dake; they’d been caught in the firing line of the last major eruption, 90 years ago. “It’s still alive,” Kato told me. “On a clearer day, we see smoke coming from the top.”
Back in the forest, we stopped for lunch. “Follow me, please,” ordered Kato, and we shuffled around in a square, flattening the snow, leaving an elevated platform as our table. Kato heated a pot of vegetable soup on a stove; we ate it with hazelnut bread and green tea as snow fell on the forest.
One of the best things about getting cold in Hokkaido, though, is getting warm again. There are onsen (hot springs) across the region; some inside, others just outdoor rock pools. At Hakuginso onsen, I took my kit off with a load of old Japanese guys and climbed into a hot pool to warm my bones.
There was diamond dust in the air again as I travelled by train from Furano to Asahikawa. Not to be outdone by Sapporo, the city holds an annual World Ice Sculpting Competition. Along the high street, teams worked with chainsaws and blasters on dragons, warriors and spiders’ webs. The sculptures were intricately detailed, right down to a crocodile’s individually carved teeth.
There was a Winter Festival too, down by the river, with snow statues of eagles, martians and Sulley and Mike from Monsters, Inc. After admiring the icy art, I caught a bus out to Takasu to meet Dan and Kyoko Murakami and their Alaskan and Siberian huskies. “This isn’t an amusement park ride where you strap in,” Dan told me during the safety briefing. “If you’re not paying attention, there can be problems.”
Kyoko started attaching dogs to the sled. The others barked excitedly, hoping to be picked – they love to run. “Each dog has a personality,” explained Kyoko. “Sox, at the front, is a good leader. She’s a strong mum. I raise them from puppies. I know each personality.” The dogs tugged impatiently. I detached the brake, jolted forward, and we were off, the huskies pulling meat 30km/h through a pristine white world.
It was surprisingly easy, standing on the runners, instinctively leaning with the curves. The wind was icy on my face. But, incredibly, the dogs risk overheating. “They’re cold weather animals,” Dan told me. “Today’s only -3°C, so they’re getting hot.” Each time we paused, the dogs jumped into the banks, cooling their bodies and faces in the snow.
In the morning, I picked up a rental car and drove out of the city. Hokkaido soon became wilder – and more treacherous. Highways were icy, with wind blowing snow across the road. I saw cars slip and spin into banks of snow. My little car couldn’t handle the snow-filled country lanes and got stuck. I considered abandoning it and walking for help but managed to dig the tyres out and turn around.
The blizzard lasted all day and most of the next. Finally, I reached Tsurui village in Kushiro Wetlands National Park, Japan’s largest wetlands and home to the iconic red-crowned crane. “This is a secret spot,” birding expert Makoto Ando told me at dawn the next morning as we stood on a small bridge, watching a lone crane standing in the misty river. (He forbade me from giving the bridge’s name in case it gets swamped by photographers.)
I can see his point. At Otowa Bridge, a better-known crane hotspot, around 50 photographers had lined up, each with a cannon-sized lens, all jostling for position. As the day warmed, around 80 cranes took flight from the river. “Temperature and timing is everything for crane-watching,” Aldo explained. “In the morning, they’re in the river. This river is 5°C. Outside is -15°C or -20°C. To them, it looks like a hot spring. In the day, they move to feeding stations, then they come back to the river in the evening.”
The red-crowned crane – or tancho (red top) in Japanese – is the official bird of Hokkaido. “It’s the most beautiful bird,” said Aldo. “It’s in so many traditional stories. It means long life.”
Hokkaido’s cranes were nearly hunted to extinction. “In this area in 1924, there were only 14 left alive,” Aldo continued. “In the 1950s and 60s, the government protected them. Now, 1,200 cranes have come back. But it’s still not enough; 120 years ago there were cranes all over Hokkaido. They’re still endangered.”
We spent the day, from sunrise to sunset, finding and photographing cranes. Whooper swans from Russia mingled with them at a feeding station in Tsurui village. I watched two cranes circle each other, leaping and spreading their wings. “That’s the marriage dance,” Aldo said. “It’s how they decide a mate. They try many times before they’re successful. Females can be very difficult.”
Once ‘married’, cranes usually stay together for life. We drove to Akan International Crane Center, arriving for feeding time. Dozens of regal-looking cranes stalked the snow, lowly crows moving between their legs. They looked antsy; they knew what was coming. As a Japanese woman threw fish onto the snow, black kites, white-tailed eagles and mighty Stellar sea eagles swooped in from the surrounding mountains. The birds scrambled for the fish, the peak of Akan-Fuji – which resembles Mount Fuji – in the background.
I drove north the next morning, heading for the Shiretoko Peninsula, referred to by the Ainu as ‘the end of the world’. With the sun shining, I saw the incredible landscapes that I’d missed in the blizzards. Sweeping fields were covered with glistening snow. Volcano and mountain peaks were crisp against the blue sky.
I stopped at Lake Kussharo, which was covered by ice and snow. A pair of swans had the right idea, resting in a little corner of the massive lake where the steamy water is naturally heated. Further east was Mashu Lake, deep blue, only partially frozen, and framed by mountains.
Snowy peaks turned pink and orange as I reached the remote town of Rausu in Shiretoko National Park at the far edge of Japan. Here I stayed in a traditional tatami room at Daiichi Hotel, which had onsen and private dining rooms serving some of Hokkaido’s seafood riches, including sashimi and whole crabs.
The next day, it was another early start. In darkness, I made my way down to the harbour to find boat captain Kamio Norikatsu. Our boat crunched through thick slabs of sea ice in the harbour. As daylight rose, boatmen threw fish out for around 200 white-tailed and Stellar sea eagles. “Usually we see this many, but only in the season, in February,” Norikatsu said. “Some white-tailed eagles and other birds live in the mountains here but most come from Russia.”
The eagles perched on ice flows and tore the fish apart. Kites and bold crows tried to grab a share or waited humbly for scraps. Back on land, it started snowing again. Keen to see ‘the end of the world’, the very extreme of the peninsula, I drove along the coastal road. But a few kilometres from the end, snow blocked the way. I helped a family whose car was stuck, then turned back.
On my return to town, I spotted a fox by the road, warming in the sun. He eyed me craftily from behind a tree. I watched him climb into the snowy hills and disappear among the rocks and trees, walking in this winter wonderland.
The author travelled with InsideJapan, on their 13-night Northern Snow trip.