It was the dark of night when we set foot in Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest and northernmost island. The cold wind made us tuck ourselves into our jackets as we alighted from the cab at our hotel. We had journeyed for more than 13 hours and our tired bodies were screaming for some much needed rest. The curtains in our hotel bedroom were drawn shut. The bed looked inviting and before long we were snoring. Lost in a deep dreamless sleep. Outside the window, nature was slowly working up its surprise for us – all night.
A thin ray of light pierced through the edge of the window. It danced on my eyelids to dispel the dark shadows that shrouded my eyes. I was a bit dazed like anyone would be when roused from deep slumber. Realising where I was, I rushed to draw the curtains aside. Outside the window both nature and man had toiled for long hours just to make me gasp. One had showered the landscape with snow flakes and the other cleared the pathways and stacked them like walls along the road side. I stood there awestruck, imagining how flakes of ice, ever so soft danced their way to earth, layering themselves over each other changing the landscape overnight!
As I gazed out of the window I felt Joseph awake. He strode up and stood behind me. His arms around my waist. We stood transfixed at the scenario outside. For him it was his first experience with snow in a city. For me it had taken 24 years to experience snow again, because the last time I saw it, I was a mere child.
Sliding into my UGG boots, I made my way out leaving Joseph to his compulsory coffee fix. I enjoyed seeing my breath hanging in the air and the chill that made my nose tingle. The snow was soft and squeaked under my boots. It was a brand new day and the start of our 4-day tour, exploring Eastern Hokkaido with JAPANiCAN.
Day 1 – Onwards to Sounkyo
As our bus made its way along the highway, we could see the white stains from the salt used to de-ice the roads. Flat plains covered in six feet of snow on either side of the highway are farmland. The farmers are on a holiday in winter and so with absolutely zero movement, it’s impossible to figure out that the vast snow covered landscape are actually farms. Hokkaido ranks first in Japan in the agricultural production of wheat, soybeans, potatoes, sugar beet, onions, raw milk and beef and we got to sample and relish some of its produce like cheese and ice cream at every pit stop our bus made along the way.
Our beautiful guide Ms. Suzuki informed us that it would take 3 hours to reach the Asahiyama Zoo in Asahikawa. Seated at the window, I was thoroughly enjoying the ride. The jagged thrusting spires of the Taisetsu-zan mountain range appeared to pierce the thick foggy sky. I simply love winter and everything associated with it. In rapturous wonderment, I gazed at miles and miles of snow-covered land with a smile on my lips.
Presently the bus slowed to a halt. We had arrived at the Asahiyama Zoo – a popular destination that showcases some unique animal enclosures that allow visitors to observe animals from different angles. For instance a glass dome that brings you right into the polar bear enclosure or the Marine Way, a tube that connects the two pools within the seal enclosure. The star attraction and my favourite however was the Penguin Walk that takes place at 2.30pm just one hour before closing time in the winter season. The 30 minute Penguin Walk brought us just an inch away from these chubby birds. The idea behind this cute waddle is to fend off obesity during the winter months when they tend to be less active and accumulate more fat. We could have spent hours at the zoo but we had to continue our journey to Sounkyo. Remember if you ever want to visit this zoo, check with your travel guide about the penguin walk. Note the timings and plan to visit it at that appointed time.
I took the window seat again. It is not like I had any intention to switch places with Joseph. The bus made its way through railroad crossings and bridges over frozen lakes. The trees on either side of the highway were brown with branches covered in snow instead of leaves. Hokkaido’s birch and pine trees in winter starkness are a contrasting and poignant statement. Beauty can be bereft and cold too.
It was getting colder as we went deeper into Hokkaido. By the time we reached the 100-metre high cliffs of the Daisetsuzan National Park, it was about minus eleven degree Celsius. Out came the gloves and my bright red hat! At the foot of Mt. Kurodake lie two beautiful waterfalls called Ginga no Taki (Milky Way Falls) and Ryusei no Taki (Shooting Star Falls) that are frozen solid but beautiful to behold nonetheless. I have watched cascading waterfalls before, but to look at a frozen one while in extreme cold temperatures was an exciting affair. The falls were just a 10 minute walk from our hotel for the night.
We had passed the Sounkyo Ice Waterfall Festival (Sounkyo Hyobaku Matsuri) on our way to the gorge and were delighted to find that it was right in front of our hotel when we reach the Sounkyo Kanko Hotel. Our room for the night was washitsu style. This meant that the flooring was of tatami mats, there was a low table with zabutons to sit on and in the evening our room was converted into a sleeping area with mattresses (futons) on the floor.
Sleeping on futons laid on tatami flooring is a must try for anyone visiting Japan for the first time. It was a great way to immerse ourselves in local culture and understand the traditional Japanese way of life. We also had complimentary access to the onsen which are communal baths that have natural hot water from geothermally heated springs. Clothing is prohibited when using an onsen, so that would mean no swim shorts or swim suits either. The practice of “hadaka no tsukiai” or naked communion breaks down social and hierarchical boundaries between individuals allowing for uninhibited and relaxed conversations. If you are shy, then reflect upon this advice given to us by our guide. “If you are shy to go naked, use the towels provided and – COVER YOUR FACE!”
After a full spread buffet dinner at the hotel that consisted of snow crabs, grilled beef, hot pot soups and a variety of seafood dishes we made our way to the ice waterfall festival. As we walked along the Ishikari River we realised that the temperatures had dipped further. We were after all in the coldest part of Hokkaido. The festival features multi-storey buildings and igloos made of ice and snow.
Mimicking the penguins we saw at the zoo earlier, we waddled our way across the ice pathway between the igloos until we came upon the ice buildings that looked like a city straight out of a fairy-tale. Some areas were slippery so it was necessary to exercise caution when walking or descending ice steps. The insides of the ice structures have tunnels that open up into several large rooms with crystalline walls. Colourful lights bring the ice structures to life and it created a magical ambience . It transported us to a completely different realm. Our spirits were uplifted and we had a lot of fun. We couldn’t have ended our day any other way!
Outside our hotel window, the night was dark and mist had filled the land. We lay on our futons talking about our experiences for the day and drifted off into a wonderful sleep.