For the last few days I’ve been in Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island, and the only one that until now I hadn’t visited. It truly is a wondrous place; a winter wonderland, replete with ice sculptures and snow statues, frozen lakes, sea ice and the coldest temperatures I’ve ever experienced, as well as some of the most beautiful vistas. In 6 days I managed to cover a lot of ground, mainly in my friend Pete’s car. We were in Sapporo for the Snow Festival for two days, then drove up to Abashiri, Japan’s Alcatraz, home to a scary prison and perhaps the most amazing thing I’ve seen in Japan; drift ice. From there we went back down to Asahikawa, visiting the snow festival before driving into the mountains to Pete’s home, Shirataki.
The original reason for me going to Hokkaido at this time of year was to visit the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri, a snow festival held every year for one week. It didn’t disapoint, with ice bars selling champagne, huge snow sculptures and a row of ice sculptures in Susukino, with brilliant names such as “Paradisue (sic) of Swan” and “Goldfish of Play”. The snow sculptures featured all of Japan’s favourite characters- Anpanman, Hello Kitty, Totoro, Doraemon, and even Kojima Yoshio! We went to an amazing bar called Brits Beat Club, with a live band that played Britpop and 60s stuff. We were with a large group of JETs, but me and the other 2 Brits there were singing along to everything (you can see our enthusiasm in the photo on facebook). The singer, Kaz, was a cool guy. You can check out online performances at http://www.brits.jp/. After leaving Sapporo we drove up to Abashiri on the north east coast, and it was only then that I realised how vast Hokkaido is. Flat rice fields covered in snow stretched off into the distance, before mountains took over, and the sky seemed huge compared to down here in Honshu. It was Japan, but totally different to the Japan I know. We left Sapporo sleep deprived and hungover at 10am, and got to Abashiri at about 7pm after stopping off at the Asahikawa Zoo, and some frozen lakes on the way.
Ice Walking on the Sea- Abashiri (網走）
Easily the most impressive thing I saw in Hokkaido was the Abashiri 流氷, or drift ice. Every winter frozen ice leaves the mouth of the Amor River in Russia, and drifts south to the coast of Hokkaido. Its an massively impressive sight, and walking out onto the sea is a bizarre experience. When I was there the conditions were perfect- crystal clear skies, and ice as far as the eye could see. It was unbelievably cold though, especially on the boat. But what an amazing place!!
Matsuri in Asahikawa (旭川）
After visiting Abashiri we made our way back down to Asahikawa, staying again at a friend of Pete’s place, then went to the Asahikawa Matsuri the next day. We had lunch in Cocopelis, the best Italian restaurant I’ve been to in Japan, situated in a log cabin about 45 mins drive from Asahikawa. The views from this remote restaurant were spectacular, out across the plains with the mountains in the background, and the food really was great. After that we went to the Snow Festival, where Pete was dancing in his towns Yosoki ソーラン team, which was very entertaining. After staying the night up in the mountains in Pete’s home town of Shirataki, all that was left was the long journey home.