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The extreme polarities of a winter in Hokkaido

“The seed was planted, my curiosity awakened, and my journey began. The one-way train of thought with its destination in self-actualisation of this experience could not be stopped.”

A cold Siberian wind whispered its secrets in my ear about a mountainous and magical winter’s paradise sprinkled in fresh powdered snow.

Hokkaido can result in up to 14-18 metres of snow annually and is literally ‘dumped with powder’. In comparison to its counterpart ski resorts, its slopes may not be as steep, but they are deep!

The seed was planted, my curiosity awakened, and my journey began. The one-way train of thought with its destination in self-actualisation of this experience could not be stopped.

The planning filled me with intrigue about this island in the north of Japan. An island that has become known for its fresh powder ski resorts in the colder months of the year.

Hokkaido offers some top-rated skiing gems in a treasure box that includes hot springs (Onsen) and volcanoes amidst a cultural experience of culinary flavours and Eastern traditions in the land known for karaoke, karate, origami, sushi, samurai and sake. This trip was never going to just be about the skiing.

hokkaido

Hokkaido is an island that is literally on the other side of the world. Navigation is an experience in itself. An internal flight from Tokyo with Jetair or AirDo takes you to New Chitose Airport (Sapporo).

Niseko is about 100km southwest from the airport. From there, you can access the ski resorts by public transport such as train or bus, although cancellations are not uncommon in the extreme winter weather conditions. Alternatively, you can brave the roads and hire a car on the island. You may, however, find yourself driving blindly in a wave of uncertainty with very few English road signs in the eyes of the snow storms.

We decided beforehand, with mixed reviews and conflicting advice on offer, that we would hire a car in this foreign land. We decided to drive from Sapporro airport to Niseko village. The journey requires attentiveness to the roads, both in the absence of adequate visibility and with signs that, to us, were incomprehensible. In a country that is extremely technologically advanced, we were provided with a navigation system that couldn’t fully translate into English.

We embark on our Hokkaido driving experience lost in translation in our sparkling new vehicle that has but a handful of kilometres on the clock.

The navigation system can assist us as long as we have a telephone number for our destination.  Intrigued, I start to bear witness to the polarities. Technological limitations in a technologically advanced country.

Among the white snowflakes that fall around us, we focus on the road in order to negotiate the black ice that lies ahead. We are enclosed in a white wonderland looking out for the black! 

As the storm strengthens we experience white-out, visibility is extremely limited and driving takes on a new challenge. Rather than focussing on the road, you are required to focus above it, on the arrows that indicate where your lane is so that you avoid oncoming traffic. We find ourselves driving in these harsh conditions looking above us rather than ahead of us.

As the storm passes, visibility clears up and we seek to spot some wildlife as suggested by the road signage including the red fox and the Yezo Sika deer.

Hokkaido1

We arrive safely at the small and quickly developing ski village of Niseko. From the icy conditions outside, the house is invitingly warm inside and even the toilet seat is heated. Whilst some parts of your body are experiencing frostbite, at least others are not affected.

Driving into town you are aware that Niseko is no longer a secret. Among the ski resorts available on the island of Hokkaido, including Rusutsu, Furano and Asahidake, Niseko has become a favourite amongst Australians, New Zealanders and adventure seekers from Singapore. It is now regularly welcoming thrill seekers in search of fresh snow and endless powder-filled blue, red and black runs to experiment their snowploughs and freestyle moves. For the more experienced and daring skiers, the powder conditions allow for some of the best off-piste runs.

Ski slopes

Just like the Sake (Rice Wine) and Edamame beans can be enjoyed hot or cold, Hokkaido can also be experienced at two extremes. The snow parks and ski resorts serve as a stark contrast for the hot swims in the Onsen therapeutic springs that are situated throughout as a unique natural bathing experience in nature. From fully clothed to undressed in a few minutes as you shift between slopes and bathing. There is a ritual to be mastered in exploring the Onsens with strict rules to be adhered to, but from one day to the next you can grow from a learner to a teacher of these rules.

For those not keen to share a bathing experience, Hokkaido offers a night ski experience, an unusual alternative to the traditions of apres ski typical of European ski resorts. Skiing in the dark with Christmas tree lit-up slopes adds something quite different to harness the experience.

The evenings require fire-lit eateries and bowls of hot Ramen to warm the chills that the snowy mountains install. Whilst it is a first world country, the island of Hokkaido shows us another version of its limitations by challenging us with almost no options for money withdrawals and currency exchange.  So, in an attempt to go out, we are met with frustrations.

Beyond the slopes, there are other opportunities to enjoy the island. A day visiting the therapeutic town of Lake Toya (part of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park) in the southwest of Hokkaido is well-worth the short drive from Niseko.

Active Mt Usu stands proudly watching over the lake that has formed as a result of volcanic eruptions. A lake that does not freeze, booming its smoke to communicate its overwhelming strength and power.

All over the town you can find small hand and foot baths that flow with volcanic waters to attend to various aches and pains. These can be experienced throughout the day at one’s own leisure and are free to the public.

volcano

En route back, we stop in the town of Noboribetsu situated in a volcanic valley with its extreme heat as the source of the thermal waters that are rumoured to be inhabited by ‘oni’, the Japanese ogres. The town’s spring offers a total of eleven different waters to cure various ailments. This is also the town where the bear park can be accessed via a cable car trip up the mountain. 

As we descend, I look over the island from above, the volcanic smoke smouldering away, a real Heavenly place, that has come to be known by the name ‘Hell Valley’ (Jigokudani). And so, I am left perplexed by the polarities of this place.

Simcha van Bel

Simcha has had the privilege of having lived in rural Belgium, through to wild Zimbabwe, and the metropolis of London before settling for a breath of fresh air in Cape Town. As a working mother and wife, she continues to embrace travel as an important part of her holistic well-being and seeks regular adventures to feed her mind and soul.