Life not only survives winter on Hokkaido but thrives as the temperatures drop, helped by a national tradition of hot springs that keep away the winter chill.
Following Japanese etiquette I scrub myself thoroughly before taking a tentative dip in the hot water of the onsen. After a few minutes my body becomes accustomed to the boiling temperature and I relax into the sulfurous water. Then I feel the water in the public bath rippling gently. Despite a generous quantity of local sake with my dinner, I soon realize I am experiencing my first earthquake. I am naked and it is snowing outside, so I decide to take no drastic action but sit it out alone in the warmth.
Their position on the Pacific Ring of Fire makes the Japanese tragically familiar with the Earth’s tectonic activity. While the threats of deadly earthquakes and tsunamis are ever-present, the volcanic activity creates thousands of natural hot springs that have inspired a national passion for bathing. And not just in the Japanese people. At Jigokudani Monkey Park in the mountains above the city of Nagano macaque monkeys find relief from sub-zero winter temperatures in a hot water pool.
I make the hour-long trek from the ramshackle spa town of Shibu Onsen to Jigokudani along a deserted forest track covered with several inches of snow that is still falling at a heavy rate. My reward is to spot six monkeys soaking in the small pool, while dozens of others scramble up and down in the snow on the hillside nearby. The name Jigokudani means “Hell’s Valley”, a name that seems especially apt when I see the geyser bubbling a short distance away.
The harsh weather appears surprising given that Nagano is on the same latitude as Seville and San Francisco. Yet the winters here are severe and the macaques have become accustomed to spending their days in the hot pool. A young pair sit impassively, snow gathering on their heads as they warily observe the small group of humans watching them. A mother nurses her baby and two youngsters create a commotion when they face off, squabbling loudly before bounding past our cameras as if none of us are there.
I stay too long and miss the last bus back to town, so in the failing light I head back along the forest path, my earlier tracks now completely covered by the relentless snowfall. Arriving back in Shibu Onsen after sunset I watch as residents and visitors parade along the narrow lanes that squeeze between the wooden houses, carrying umbrellas and dressed improbably in their cotton yukatas and gumboots on their way to the onsen.
Jigokudani means "Hell's Valley"
While snow in this region is normal, the amount that falls that night is not. In the morning I learn how lucky I had been. Overnight more than half a meter of snow has fallen and the path to the monkeys is well and truly blocked. I meet Megumi and Taka, a disappointed couple from Tokyo who have travelled up to see them but will have to return south without making it to Jigokudani. We watch together as the residents of Shibu Onsen clear up the snow in what looks like a futile gesture.
“This is so normal for Japan,” says Megumi. “I’ve lived in North America and have never seen this type of community spirit. As soon as we have snow, people get out and clear the public paths. They will help each other and clear it from their houses if they need to. This feeling of public duty – I think it’s very Japanese.” I notice it is the older people doing most of the work, just one of many reminders I see of the demographic shift in Japan, with few infants to be seen and senior people shunning the idleness of retirement but enrolling instead as willing volunteers in a variety of duties.
Further north on the island of Hokkaido, heavy snow is part of a typical winter, with an average of five meters falling annually in the main city of Sapporo. It is no surprise therefore that the city hosts an annual snow festival, the Yuki Matsuri, which is a week-long celebration of the wonders of snow and ice that marked its 65th anniversary in 2014. Around two million people visit the 12 blocks around Odori Park to admire hundreds of works of art spread across the downtown area.
While most of the snow sculptures are modestly sized pieces, constructed by a small team from a three-meter cube of snow over a week, the centerpieces of the festival are the enormous replicas of world-famous buildings, involving enormous manpower and tonnes of snow. Hundreds of Japanese military were involved in the month-long construction of the replica of Kuala Lumpur’s Sultan Abdul Samad Building, complete with a 41-meter-high clock tower.
Sculptor Simon Daly is a teacher of English from New Zealand, now working locally, who has worked on a silver fern sculpture for several days with two of his compatriots. With so many splendid creations in such a small space I ask what happens to them when the crowds have gone. “They’re not left to melt,” says Simon. “It’s all very unsentimental. The bulldozers come and knock them down the day after the festival. It makes sense in a way and emphasizes the impermanence of the material with which we’re all working.”
Heavy snow is part of a typical winter
As the crowd walks slowly along the trail, admiring the creations, staff from food stalls on each side create a wall of high-pitched noise as they try to lure customers in with the promise of hot food and drinks. I succumb to the temptation of a glass of hot mulled wine from a Russian stand and discover that I have to drink it instantly before it chills in the bitter Sapporo night. Meat skewers, racks of ribs and even Turkish kebabs are on offer, offering an international variety to the miso soup, steaming noodles and fish balls that provide home comforts to the predominantly Japanese crowd.
For many local people, it is the visitors who are one of the main attractions of the Yuki Matsuri. Mori, a young woman from Sapporo, has brought her mother out in the bitter evening chill to see this year’s snow sculptures. “We love to meet the visitors who come to our city,” she says. “I learned English at home and this is my chance every year to practise it with real people.” I compliment her on her language skills and she waves my praise away with typical Japanese modesty, before leading me to one of her favorite sculptures.
It is impossible not to be warmed by the atmosphere around an incredible replica of Agra’s Mausoleum of Itmad-Ud-Daulah. Produced using 450 five-tonne truckloads of snow and with construction involving 3,800 people, this is a monument as impressive as the original in its own way. As I watch, a loud blast of Indian music fills the night air and a multi-colored lighting display instantly brings the white faces of the sculpture to life. Meanwhile a group of five Indian men in turbans soak up the attention in front of the sculpture, posing happily as the crowds spot a quirky photo opportunity.
While the snow art at the Odori site is impressive, not least for its scale, the ice sculptures at the nearby Susukino site stand out for their intricate detail and transparent beauty, especially against the backdrop of the neon lights of what is Sapporo’s entertainment district. There is no danger of the statues melting, as has happened in previous years. In fact, the only weather-related headache I can see for the artists is the constant need to brush off snow as it keeps falling and adding an unwanted blanket to their creations.
The main activity for festival-goers at the two central sites is admiring the work of others but the emphasis switches to having fun and taking part at the Sapporo Community Dome, called Tsudome by locals, the festival’s third site on the city’s outskirts. I join a line of around 50 adults and children, all waiting to ride a rubber tire down a giant snow slide. It is enormously enjoyable and, despite emerging from the slide with a heavy coating of snow, I am straight into the line for the snow raft, ready to be pulled around a course by a snowmobile while the children on board shriek with excitement.
She waves my praise away with typical Japanese modesty
Sapporo native Akemi Yokoyama recalls her own Hokkaido childhood. “We had so much snow each year that we would ski to and from school,” she says. “We even had ski lessons as part of our curriculum. Two or three times a year we would be snowed-in home or even at school. My family would come to the festival but at that time it was much smaller and we could only look at statues. It was so cold and our feet would get so wet that we didn’t get excited. Now it’s different and I do like to visit the Yuki Matsuri.”
Sapporo’s is without doubt Japan’s premier winter festival, but it is certainly not the only one. Other towns and cities in Hokkaido celebrate winter in their own way and a short train ride away is Otaru, with its own Snow Light Path Festival. In this old fishing port, still famous for its sushi and hairy crabs, a crowd wanders beside the frozen canal, along a path lit by hundreds of home-made lanterns. It is an overload of kitsch, with heart-shaped lanterns, I Love You candles and tinkling music delighting the crowds, who pose for countless photos by the lighted displays. The appearance and atmosphere is of a Japanese version of Christmas, complete with the tempting aroma of fresh crab and hot soup from the nearby stalls.
Further north I stop in Asahikawa in central Hokkaido where the bewildering quality of the ice sculptures on display belies the otherwise provincial feel of the city’s winter festival. Thermal layers just about keep me warm in the -15°C temperatures, and I watch as a giant stage made entirely of snow is used for an impressive laser show using multi-colored light beams perfectly choreographed to the beat of electronic music. And on the northern coast of Hokkaido in the port town of Abashiri I ignore the bone-chilling winds howling in from the ice-filled waters of the Sea of Okhotsk to see another set of snow and ice sculptures, this time with a distinctly smaller and predominantly local crowd braving the elements.
In the big cities of Honshu, the island of Hokkaido is often perceived as a wild, dramatic place, full of wild animals and fantastic landscapes. Professional photographer Makoto Ando welcomes guests from around the world who come to photograph the island’s birdlife. He speaks excellent English and needs little encouragement to play one of his guitars; in fact his home is named Hickory Winds in homage to the country rock classic by American singer and songwriter Gram Parsons.
I ask Ando-san about the chances of seeing Hokkaido’s rare red-crowned cranes and he sounds a little pessimistic. “It’s better when it’s cold,” he says. “Tonight will be a warm night – maybe -9°C. We will see fewer cranes tomorrow than normal. They like to rest in the river overnight and then set off for the fields at first light. The sight of them flying low against the misty rising sun is something special. But we need -20°C; then it’s perfect.”
Hokkaido is often perceived as a wild, dramatic place
The next morning he takes me to his favorite spot – “a secret place” he calls it – away from the hundreds of birdwatchers and photographers who visit the Kushiro marshes every winter to catch sight of the cranes as they perform their elaborate courtship dances. His secret spot is a road bridge and we are soon watching a pair wading in the shallow water, unaware or untroubled by our presence. Later, Makoto stops his car by the roadside and leads me down a narrow trail through the woods. We find a Ural owl sitting in the hollow of a tree, looking dismissively at me as I stare in wonder.
At the Akan International Crane Center, around 100 camera-wearing visitors have gathered near the perimeter of the marsh. I can see many cranes, dancing occasionally and waiting patiently for their daily feed. At precisely 2pm a staff member steps out and throws live fish to the waiting birds. The daily routine attracts other species and shortly a dozen or so white-tailed eagles gate-crash the party, causing the occasional squabbles, much to the delight of the waiting photographers with their bazooka-sized lenses.
While the cranes on Kushiro marshes are easily accessible to anyone with a car, seeing the eagles just off the Shiretoko Peninsula requires a little more planning. This jut of land in the far north-east of Hokkaido is one of Japan’s premier natural wonders, recognized as a Unesco World Heritage Site as the lowest latitude in the northern hemisphere where sea ice forms.
The name Shiretoko derives from the native Ainu words “sir etok”, meaning “the end of the Earth” and in winter it is not hard to see how it earned its name. That is when the surrounding Sea of Okhotsk fills with drift ice as vast quantities of fresh water from the Amur River merge with the cold seawater and are blasted by prevailing northerly winds. This thin layer of drift ice forms an ideal habitat for two large eagle species that feed on the rich marine life in the denser water just under the ice plates.
I set out from Rausu harbor on a sunny morning in the ice-breaker Kamuiwakka. Within 20 minutes, we are crunching slowly through the drift ice surrounding us on all sides, with the stretch of clear water between our boat and the land slowly receding. Very soon I spot my first Steller’s sea eagle, perched on a pinnacle of ice, waiting patiently to pounce for his next meal.
To my surprise the boat quickly serves as a magnet not only for the Steller’s sea eagles, but also white-tailed eagles, which come to the boat in expectation of an easy meal. We stay on the ice for two hours admiring these magnificent birds, which hover near the boat waiting for the crew who from time to time cast a fish onto the ice for the birds to scrap over.
Back on dry land, I warm up with another soak in the warm luxury of the local onsen. I have had many surprises on my winter journey through Japan. Just like the eagles of Shiretoko, I have found that the Japanese winter has plenty of rewards for those ready to look beneath its freezing surface.