Falling snow greeted us when we landed at the New Chitose Airport early one morning last December. It was an enchanting sight that got me glued to the window while waiting for our domestic flight – until they announced that the flight had been cancelled because it was snowing too heavily.
Tourists flock to Hokkaido, in Japan, to enjoy its winters; snow is what they all come for. But last December’s snow was unseasonably heavy; later we found out it was the heaviest December snowfall in Hokkaido in 50 years. It snowed every day during our five-day trip there.
Most visitors congregate at the ski resorts of Sapporo, but we were heading to the less-explored Eastern Hokkaido. Though the flight cancellation was unexpected, our travel agent quickly made land arrangements and we hopped into a van for a surprise winter road trip.
As heavy snowfall had also affected the highway’s condition, our journey took longer than expected and we only arrived at our hotel in Utoro some nine hours later.
I didn’t mind the long drive at all. I’d never seen or experienced so much snow, and it was fascinating driving past towns, villages and the countryside covered in white.
We ended the journey with a dinner of jingisukan, a delicious meal of grilled mutton (one of Hokkaido’s signature dishes).
Shiretoko National Park
But the best part of the evening had yet to come. It was late when we got to our hotel in Utoro but our guide told us we had to experience the onsen, natural hot springs. Luckily, we mustered the strength to put on our yukata and make our way to the hotel bath house. The hotel we stayed in has an outdoor bath, and it was magical to soak in the hot pond in the darkness of the night with snow falling around us. It was the best therapy for bones tired from a cramped flight and a long drive.
Apart from being famous for its onsen, Utoro is also the gateway to Shiretoko National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site on the Shiretoko Peninsula. It’s one of the most remote areas in all of Japan, and is valued for the interaction of its terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The peninsula is home to a rich variety of wildlife, including brown bears, eagles, deer and foxes.
The national park has no sizeable settlements, and the northern portion of the peninsula does not even have any roads. The only ways to access the national park is to hike or by boat.
We didn’t have a hiking or boat trip scheduled. But at the Shiretoko Visitor’s Centre, we rented snow boots and went walking on the trail behind the building. There were signs with reports of bear sightings but we didn’t encounter any.
It was a surreal experience – there was a zen stillness in the trees and a softness of sounds in the bright crispness of the winter light. Temperatures were below zero but we were well-insulated from the cold in our layers of thermal wear. But then the gentle snowfall gradually got heavier, and we had to get indoors.
We still got to experience Shiretoko’s wildlife, but at its World Heritage Centre and via multimedia. Each visitor is given an iPad and the guides there were ever willing to help.
There are spots marked on the floor that visitors stand on and then tap on their devices for an interactive experience. So, you could see a whale swimming by or an eagle soaring above or a fox digging its way out of a hole. We did the entire circuit because it was so fun and educational.
In winter, the peninsula’s coast along the Okhotsk Sea is the northern hemisphere’s southernmost regions to see drift ice. Visitors go on sightseeing cruises on ice-breaking boats where they get to see birds, seals and other marine life resting on the ice.
We didn’t have the chance to see drift ice as they only come later in winter, in late January and February. But we did visit the Okhotsk Museum in Abashiri, where people go for their drift ice boat tours on the Okhotsk Sea. There is a deeply refrigerated room with drift ice to give visitors a taste of the experience. Visitors are given a wet towel that they swing in the ice room; it freezes solid in half a minute, so they get an idea of how cold the drift ice is.
Even without the drift ice, the Okhotsk Sea is a mesmerising sight with its wild stormy waves and squawking seagulls. But our schedule did not permit us to linger, and we soon left Shiretoko’s coastal roads to explore other parts.
Distances between the towns in Eastern Hokkaido are great, and we spent a few hours on the road each day. But road conditions are good and the driving is far more civilised than back home, so it was not a hardship at all. Besides, the scenery is gorgeous in all its pristine white wilderness.
At the Tofutsu-ko Waterfowl and Wetland Centre, near Abashiri, we went to watch the last of the migratory swans from Russia which had stopped to rest at the lake before continuing their journey. There are telescopes to watch the birds in the warmth of the centre, but we preferred to stand outside and watch the sun set … at 4.30 in the evening.
Kitami was our next base and we visited Lake Mashu at the Akan National Park. Lake Mashu is a caldera, a large cauldron-like crater formed by volcanic eruption. The current caldera is believed to have been created by an eruption that occurred around 7,000 years ago.
It was a sunny day and the lake gleamed bright and blue in the distance, and we stood at the observation deck to admire its beauty. But the temperature had also dipped to -10°C and we could only remove our gloves for so long to take photographs before our fingers went numb and frozen.
Hokkaido is famous for its dairy products, so of course we had to visit a farm. Takoyuki Watanabe is a funny and knowledgeable farmer who was unabashed in his affection for his cows. He explained in detail the workings of his farm and got us all to try milking his cow, but only after we’d patted Petra and sought her permission. We then went on a tractor ride around the snow-covered farm and ended the visit with a drink of the creamiest milk.
Such fine food
Throughout our trip in Eastern Hokkaido, we enjoyed delicious hearty meals – be it at highway stops or at the izakaya, Japanese gastropubs or at small homely eateries or at posh restaurants. The food was always superb, the presentation beautiful and the service impeccable.
But then again Hokkaido is known as a food paradise, with its abundance of fresh produce and seafood. Each area has its speciality and we enjoyed everything from a seafood bento to soya bean milk hot pot with gyoza to shabu shabu with beef.
The Kushiro Washo Market is the best place to learn about East Hokkaido’s food culture. It’s not touristy like the markets in Sapporo as Kushiro attracts fewer tourists, and it’s where locals shop. Due to its proximity to the sea, Hokkaido’s best seafood can be found here at prices that are way lower than those at Sapporo.
The stall owners were friendly and happy to hand out samples. Beautiful big hanasaki crabs, king crabs and snow crabs were plentiful, as were whale sashimi, salmon, smoked mackerel, cured fish roe and shellfish. The market is also famous for its katte don – a dish of rice and seafood. You get a bowl of rice and then select the seafood sashimi you want.
We came out of the market and found that it had started snowing again and that our flight back to Sapporo had been cancelled due to heavy snowfall. Again, I didn’t mind that our trip back to Sapporo would take six hours on the road instead of 40 minutes by flight.
I had fallen under winter’s spell and was content to stare at falling snow and white pristine landscapes. I still miss the tingling sensation of the cold on my face.
This media trip was organised and sponsored by the Japan National Tourism Organization Singapore Office (www.jnto.org.my).