Hokkaido's surprising winter adventures 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY SUZANNE MORPHET
  • Photo by Suzanne Morphet

The young man from the U.K. is most apologetic.

"I wish you were able to see the resort at its best—it's a very special place," he says wistfully.

His name is Will and he's been working and skiing at Niseko the entire season and loving it. But in early March, when I arrive, the Japanese resort that boasts the best powder skiing in the world is a mushy mess. It hasn't snowed in weeks and now it's raining at the bottom and foggy at the top.

I meet Will on the ride up the mountain my first day. The conditions are so bad we're the only two in the gondola. He kindly offers to show me a couple runs, stopping occasionally to tell me what I'm missing. "On a clear day you can see the ocean on both sides from up here." 

If I had planned to spend my entire week at Niseko, I would be sorely disappointed. Fortunately, Japan's northernmost island offers much more than skiing.

Hokkaido is almost as big as Newfoundland and is at roughly the same latitude. But even with 10 times the population—about 5 million people—it's still largely rural or wild.

Studded with active volcanoes, deep lakes, a vast wetland, and forests and fields where bear, deer and fox roam freely, it's also exceptionally beautiful.

Given its natural bounty, it's not surprising that adventure tourism has taken off. In winter, there's everything from ice fishing on frozen lakes to cruising offshore on an icebreaker, and from snowmobiling to snowshoeing. 

My friend Mark and I will squeeze in as much as we can on a road trip from Sapporo, the island's largest city in the southwest corner of the island, to Kushiro in the southeast. But first we have one more day of skiing at Niseko.

On our second morning we wake to brilliant sunshine and clear blue skies. Overnight the temperature dropped and the snow hardened to a steely crust. But at least we can see—and see what some of the fuss is about.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY SUZANNE MORPHET
  • Photo by Suzanne Morphet

Mark opts for backcountry cat skiing at Chisenpuri, a scenic 30-minute drive from the village, and I head there too with my own guide for a day of ski touring with skins for the uphill climbs. Emerging from the beautiful birch-tree forest half way up, we see Mount Yotei, the Mount Fuji look-alike, towering majestically above several other volcanoes in the distance.

We end our day immersed in steaming water at a nearby onsen, thankful that the hot springs are reliably wonderful, even when the snow isn't.

Departing Niseko, we stop at the port town of Otaru, famous for its seafood, where we feast on fatty tuna and crab at the Central Seafood Market. Our guide explains that cold ocean currents from the north meet warm currents from the south at Hokkaido, creating a nutrient-rich feeding ground for sea life.

Sated, we head inland to Furano, almost smack in the centre of the island. Every July, locals celebrate their geographical position with a Belly Button Festival. The wind conditions aren't the best for paragliding, but we each enjoy a short and exhilarating motor-assisted flight over the snow-covered fields just as the setting sun casts the clouds in glorious shades of pink and purple.

After dark, we visit the festively lit Snow Village for dog sledding and tubing.

The following day we get down to more serious adventure on Mount Asahidake, the highest mountain in Hokkaido, in Daisetsuzan National Park. A single gondola, holding about 100 people, whisks us up to 1,600 metres (the summit is 2,291 m) where the wind howls, whipping up snow and blocking the sun. Clipping on snowshoes, I blindly follow my local guide, Kazu Arai, until we come to a couple of vents in the side of the mountain. Steam billows up and the roar is terrifying. Kazu heaves chunks of snow into the mountain's gaping maw where they explode like firecrackers.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY SUZANNE MORPHET
  • Photo by Suzanne Morphet

Returning to Furano, we drive through a dramatic black and white landscape near the village of Biei.

It'll be hard to beat Mount Asahidake for excitement, but we try at Atreyu Nature Therapy, where we don thick wetsuits, hats and mitts for a paddle down the Kushiro River. In winter, the temperature can drop to minus 25 Celsius, yet the river doesn't freeze. When I tentatively dip one hand in, I learn why—the water is warmer than the air, thanks to nearby hot springs.

When we pull ashore, our guide hands us snowshoes for the trek back through the deciduous forest. Never would I have imagined snowshoeing in wetsuits. These guys think of everything.

Driving past Lake Kussharo, Japan's largest caldera lake, we stop to admire dozens of snow-white Whooper swans. The lake is known for its cobalt-blue water in summer when it's popular with water sport enthusiasts, but in winter hundreds of swans take over, enjoying the warmish water at the lake edge that's free of ice due to thermal springs.

Walking from our hotel to a dance performance by local Ainu that evening, I'm pondering a return visit to this wondrous island in summer when we're reminded it's still very much winter. 

It begins to snow.

To find out more about this tour visit Hokkaido Treasure Island Travel here

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