Japan's Wild North: James' Winter in Hokkaido
Last February, I visited Hokkaidō – the northernmost, least developed part of Japan – with the Japan National Tourism Organization and JTB. This incredible trip covered the remote eastern corner of the island. This is perhaps the most pristine part of Japan, untouched by urban sprawl, full of panoramic vistas of lakes, wetlands, snowy terrain and ice floes from the Sea of Okhotsk. There is a spectacular array of wildlife here, the highlight being the wonderful red-crowned ‘dancing’ cranes with their idiosyncratic mating rituals. There was also a very good chance of seeing whales off the Shiretoko peninsula (a UNESCO World Natural Heritage since 2005) and absorb natural vistas while relaxing Japanese-style. We learnt about the Ainu people, indigenous to Hokkaido, who have a culture and history distinct from Japanese culture that spread northward from Honshu island to the south. Joanna Lumley visited Hokkaido in the first episode of her recent BBC TV series, but she hardly saw this part and it remains virtually virgin territory for foreign visitors.
On this extraordinary trip I experienced rare wildlife, a dramatic coastline and the most incredible food (wonderful seafood, delicious dairy products and fantastic beers and whiskeys). Although, I have only been to Hokkaido in winter one can easily see that it also has a lot of offer in spring, summer and autumn. Its pristine nature, extremes of temperatures and stunning volcanoes are an incredible sight and provide lots of exhilarating activities for those who enjoy nature and the outdoors. For visitors who want to see cherry blossom the season here is one month later than in Kyoto and minus the crowds!
See below a photo diary of my winter trip together with pictures of Hokkaido during the rest of the year.
1). A picturesque merchant house in Shukutsu, Otaru. This charming port city was once known as Japan’s ‘Northern Wall Street’ at the height of its foreign trading success.
2). Lunch on the first day, complete with a spectacular view.
3). Shukutsu and the wintery sea beyond.
4). Touring the historic Tanaka Sake Brewery in Nobukacho.
5). The production of sake, Japan’s national drink, is considered an ancient art form.
6). The brilliant ethnographic ‘Museum of Northern Peoples’ in Abashiri.
7). The ice floes of Abashiri.
8). Abashiri’s famous blue beer!
9). Freezing temperatures
10). Dressing up for our walk on the ice floes in Shari-gun.
11). Thick wetsuits are much needed in minus temperatures
12). The ice floes in all their glory.
13). Another Hokkaidō delicacy – the Hanasaki crab, known for its vivid colour and sweet meat.
14 - 17). Walking in Shari-gun’s forest through deep snow. The area is home to bears, whose claw marks adorn the surrounding trees, and sika deer.
18). A Steller's Sea Eagle on the lookout for pray in Shibetsu-shi.
19). A serene frozen lake in Otchii-shinishi.
20). Shaving seaweed kinshi konbu, one of Hokkaidō’s many specialties.
21). Well-arranged seaweed packets
22). Nemuro – the dairy capital of Japan.
23). Crisp blue sky welcomed us into Hamanaka
24 - 27). We had superb weather for our boat ride in Ochiishi. The clear conditions made spotting rare birds and marine life even better.
28 - 29). Wrapped up to survive the wind on the high seas!
30). Primary colours along the Hamanaka coast.
31). Blending into the landscape!
32). Ryokan room.
33). Private onsen.
34). Dinner in our ryokan room.
35). Sunset komorebi (a unique Japanese word meaning sunlight shining through trees).
36). Neatly tied o-mikuji (fortune-telling paper strips) at a local Shinto shrine.
37). The renowned oysters of Akkeshi are harvested all year round.
38). An authentic izakaya experience in Kushiro, enjoying a delicious dinner whilst singing karaoke.
39). Mama-san applauding!
40). Multi-coloured sushi bowl.
41). More kareoke Izakaya fun!
42). The magnificent red-crowned cranes in Tsurui
43). Graceful swans keeping warm by migrating to the hot spring lake in Teshikaga
44). Gliding on swan lake.
45). Our exact location well within the lake – walking on (frozen) water!
46). One of the many impressive ice sculptures found in the region. Every February, the celebrated Sapporo Snow Festival attracts visitors from far and wide.
47). Ice sculpting in action on the lake!
48). Mount Meakan in Akan National Park.
49). Hotel Akan Yuku no Sato Tsuruga has wonderful views over Akan.
50). Outdoor onsen overlooking the national park.
51). Contemporary Ainu handcrafted sculptures.
52 - 53). Sweet stop at a family-run farm café.
54 - 55). Tasting the delicacies with the chef, Hattori-san, all together.
56 - 57). From November all the way through until May, Hokkaidō is the ideal destination for a skiing holiday, complete with the ultimate apres ski: relaxing outdoor hot spring onsen to soothe one’s muscles after a day on the scenic slopes.
While Hokkaidō is famed for its winter, it is equally beautiful the rest of the year when splendid colour abounds.
April to May: Cherry Blossom in Matsumae.
May to June: Pink Moss Festival in Takinoue Park.
July: Aoi-ike (‘blue pond’) in Biei.
July to August: Flower Festival in Shikisai-no-Oka Gardens.
June to August: Lavender Festival in Furano.
August: Sunflowers in Yoteizan.
August: Cape Sukai on Rebun Island.
September: Red coral grass in Lake Notoro, Abashiri.
October: Autumn leaves frame Lake O-numa.
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