Call of the wild: classic winter adventures in Japan's rugged north

Welcome to Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost prefecture. During winter, the volcanic landscape is coated in a blanket of snow and ice — perfect for snowshoeing, hearty dining and, for one week in early February, visiting the legendary Sapporo Snow Festival.

Published 25 May 2020, 08:00 BST, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 04:57 GMT
Snowshoeing in Sounkyo Gorge, Daisetsuzan National Park, is one of the joys of winter in Japan's ...

Snowshoeing in Sounkyo Gorge, Daisetsuzan National Park, is one of the joys of winter in Japan's northernmost prefecture.

Photograph by AWL Images

Everyone says the snows have come late, but as we pull out of Asahikawa, 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 7,515ft, 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 open-minded 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-energized, 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 sake-tasting, 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.

InsideJapan offers a 14-night Winter Highlights small group tour costing from £4,295 per person, taking in the Sapporo Snow Festival, spotting sea eagles off the Shiretoko Peninsula and ice flows off Abashiri. Includes accommodation in hotels including OMO7 Asahikawa, transfers and the full-time services of a tour leader. Excludes international flights.   

The iconic red crowned crane, seen here in Tsurui Mura, eastern Hokkaido, are one of the wildlife viewing opportunities during winter in Hokkaido.

Photograph by AWL Images

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. ms-aurora.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 cable-car, or take a night cruise in a specially constructed snow vehicle. zao-spa.or.jp

Go ice-fishing 
An hour outside Hokkaido’s capital, Lake Shinotsu is the perfect spot for some ice fishing. Nearby, a calming hot-spring soak awaits before you return to the bustle of the city. Chuo Bus offers full-day tours to Shinotsu from Sapporo. uu-hokkaido.com

Try dog-sledding
Hokkaido’s raw splendour and winter traditions are highlighted on a dog-sledding 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-cared-for canines across a snow-covered, four-mile course. moonlightladies.info

Visit the Yokote Kamakura Snow Festival 
Located in northwestern Honshu’s Akita Prefecture, this centuries-old festival (which is held between 15-16 February 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  

Published in the May/June issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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