Hokkaido in Winter, Japan

North Hokkaido drinks machines, Japan

North Hokkaido in winter.

Things to do and see, Hokkaido in winter

Akanko Lake snowmobiling, Hokkaido, Japan

Ikuko on Lake Akanko, Hokkaido. Snowmobiles on ice travel faster than on snow, much faster, very little friction! And no bears to get in the way.

On Akanko visitors buy a timed route marked by coloured flags, ranging from a couple of hundred metres to all the way around the lake. We were glad to have chosen the second longest package and separate vehicles. It was a hoot!

Hokkaido in winter best bits

Dog Sledding

• This 20km ride dragged by four Huskies was the most interesting activity we tried in Hokkaido. There are a handful of kiddie-style 1 km rides available but this was the only half-day, full-on dog sled education opportunity we found.

The organisers were well-intentioned but slightly unclear about some aspects, such as how to find them! The sled handling training was also minimal since the three other participants had a train to catch (most visitors come by train and are collected by the  school).

Still, it was a fascinating time. After a brief run-around with the sled, learning how to stand on the sled runners, how to brake (between the runners), and how to anchor the sled so the dogs don’t run off with it if you step away, we met the dogs.

About 45 dogs live in individual pits in a snowy, wooded area behind an old school house, each attached to a chain so they can’t fight with each other and a little wooden hutch for cold protection. We were introduced to our teams, especially the leader of the pack. My leader was Brit.

Our first job was to unclip our dogs and lead them (or more precisely be dragged by them) to a kennel-truck that would take them to the start of the trail.

Dog sledding in Hokkaido, Japan

This is what hot dogs look like in Hokkaido.

On arrival at the trail head we led our dogs to our sleds and clipped them into position, not particularly easy as the dogs are excited and powerful.

Husky voice commands in Hokkaido are Hike! (go); Up! (uphill, more power needed) Woah! (slow or stop)

And they’re off!  A good sense of balance is useful  as the sleds are light, slim and not very stable, especially since one hand is controlling the dog leads.

Experience on either skis/snowboards or motorcycles plus having taken powerful dogs for walks is an asset so neither Ikuko nor I fell off/crashed out during the three hour trip but a couple of the other tourists fell off on a regular basis, stopping the whole canine train.

We followed a beautiful trail curving through light forest and up to a high viewpoint where we took a 10 minute rest.

The trickiest aspect of sled control was going downhill as the sled begins to go faster than the dogs so braking is necessary to avoid running them over, effectively meaning you have to stand on one foot, brake gently with the other, guide the sled with one hand and control the dogs with the other. Then add to the mix  cornering downhill  at speed (15 kph/10 mph) and as the dogs go round a bend  the sled takes the shortest path (the hypotenuse) across soft – possibly sloping –  virgin snow and it all becomes quite exciting.

Shikotsu Lake ice festival

Shikotsu Lake, Hyoutou ice festival, Hokkaido, Japan

Shikotsu Lake, Hyoutou ice festival, 40 minutes drive south of Sapporo.

This little event running at about the same time as the Sapporo Snow Festival was a delight. It delivered everything that Sapporo should have but didn’t. It was totally traffic free, ice creations were fully 3-dimensional, in fact visitors could enter most of them to see fish frozen into walls of ice, or waterfalls of frozen vegetation, or climb into the ice scraper to view a fake Blue Pond. Kids could use the slides, wobble around the ice rink,  and ride ponies while dads drank warm saké.

Lake Shikotsu is volcanic and steams slightly while all around snow lies thickly on the ground and volcanoes loom menacingly – as opposed to  drab buildings looming dully in the case of Sapporo city. Brilliant!

Lake Akanko, Hokkaido in winter

• Lake Akan (the suffix ko means lake) is one of Hokkaido’s best  winter tourist destinations, with a variety of activities on the frozen lake, terrific views past thick forest to two mountains (volcanoes?), a good selection of hotels and a neat, old-fashioned high street. Akanako is more popular in summertime as an activity centre.

Akanko lake ice fishing, Hokkaido, Japan

Lake Akan ice-fishing, where all the kit – including tent –  is rented. There’s a tiny fish on his line that’s about to go into his ice-box to join another 500.

Ice fishing was something we were interested in trying, so after a wild 40 minutes on skimobiles we hired small rods, a bucket of worms and a tent with ready-made hole. An hour later we were cold, bored and fish-less so abandoned the project.
However! On the way back to base we came across the guy in the photo above. He had been fishing for 7 hours and had caught around 500 (small) fish. It’s all in the technique!

Trees on a north Hokkaido hilltop, Japan

Silver birch trees on a hilltop, a popular tree in Hokkaido.

The weather in north Hokkaido in March varied from fairly thick snowfall to bright sunshine and melting snow. After dog sleds and Akanko activities our next most enjoyable day was driving around from one dazzling panorama to another in search of a Japanese favourite, solitary trees on hilltops. I took a few pictures of solos but at the end of the day preferred this line of silver birches.

Ice festival, Hokkaido, Japan

Sōunkyo Ice festival was pretty good, interesting structures including an ice saké bar, ie everything in the bar except the bottles was ice – tables, chairs, bar, building. Night lighting was excellent as you can see, fireworks too, on the last night. Drawbacks?  Bloody cold!

Noboribetsu hot springs, Hokkaido, Japan

Noboribetsu hot springs, a good place for walks in the hills, with plenty of volcanic activity visible and no trouble with the cold!

Shiretoko National Park

At this time of year Shiretoko is closed to visitors but we came to Abashiri hoping to take a cruise through drift ice on the Sea of Okhotsk via an icebreaker ship. Unfortunately the ice went elsewhere/melted about a week before we arrived. Apart from that Abashiri has little to offer as entry to Shiretoko was closed and the Meiji-era Abashiri prison was hardly worth the 2 hour drive from Akanko.

Sapporo city, Hokkaido in winter

Sumikawa main road snow, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

Sumikawa main road in October, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan.

When we first arrived in Sapporo we were horrified at how dull the city was, both architecturally and in lifestyle. The Sapporo Snow Festival is a disastrous example of imagination failure.
Of course Tokyo sucks up Japan’s most  ambitious, creative, hyper-active head-bangers so those that flee to the chills of the far north are not exactly the créme de la créme, in fact they’re more likely to be the custard, and old custard at that.

However, months down the line and we have realised Sapporo has a definite plus side. It’s relatively uncrowded, safe (we’ve never seen a patrolling police officer and police cars are rare), uncompetitive, relaxed, comfortable, clean  and very efficient. This is Prius country.
Sapporo also does little things with style. For example, as soon as June arrived the streets became lined with flowers as property owners and council workers dedicated themselves to days of digging and planting. And kindergarten kids school buses are shaped into giant dogs, elephants and wild west trains complete with open balconies at the back.

Snow walls, nicely matured after 6 months of winter and many snow plough runs, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan.

Snow walls on a sidewalk, nicely matured after 6 months of winter and many snow plough runs, Sapporo, Hokkaido in winter.