Sansai - or wild plant picking - is an ancient tradition that is still practiced today by across Japan. By the time spring finally arrives here in Hokkaido (mid-April onward), we cannot wait for the sansai picking season to start! There are said to be over 280 types of sansai in Japan. Among the most well-known varieties are udo (aralia sprouts), kogomi (fiddle heads), fuki (butterbur), warabi (bracken shoots), nemagaritake (young bamboo shoots), and gyojya nin-niku（alpine leek), to name a few. Typical sansai meals include udo no Sumiso (boiled udo seasoned with vinegar & miso), tempura of all types and miso soup with fuki.
Sansai literally means "mountain vegetables" and is a general term for the edible wild plants that grow in Japan’s forests and wetlands. Spring is the only true season for sansai as the young sprouts are still soft enough to be eaten. After the first few weeks of growth, most sansai become too tough and rubbery, so getting out early in the season is critical for success. Even early on, some sansai are quite bitter, so many of the wild plants must be boiled to remove the bitterness.
According to Japanese mythology, the practice of sansai has exists for at least 5,000 years, dating back to the Jomon Period when Japan was populated by indigenous groups. It’s logical to assume that sansai origins may indeed be much older as hunter-gatherer societies relied on wild food to survive. Judging from the famed Sannai-Maruyama archeological site in Aomori Prefecture - said to be the largest & oldest Jomon Period site in Japan - archeologists believe that the ancient Jomon people even knew how to remove the bitterness from some sansai, as well as to preserve sansai using salt-pickling techniques that allowed the wild plants to be eaten the following winter.
What is certain is that since the advent of sansai picking many thousands of years ago on the archipelago, subsequent generations have preserved the knowledge in continuity until today. Frequently throughout Japan’s tumultuous history, the practice of sansai meant the difference between life and death, particularly between the 12th - 19th Centuries when famine, war and natural disasters were common across Japan due to (relatively) large populations but poor technological capabilities that limited the efficiency of agriculture, fishing and animal husbandry.
If you are heading out for sansai hunting, here are some guidelines to keep you safe and in harmony with nature:
1. Hire a Local Guide
Sansai grow deep inside forests and normally there are no trails that lead to the best patches. Even if you luckily find a good sansai patch, it can be difficult to identify which sansai to pick and which to avoid as many edible sansai have non-edible “cousins”. While your eyes are glued to the forest floor, it’s also easy to get disorientated, and inevitably, every year there are sansai hunters who require professional rescue teams to get them out. Please contact us at Hokkaido Nature Tours - where we specialize in private custom-made tours - for a safe, reliable and informative sansai picking experience.
2. Practice Sustainability
As with all food picked from forests and wilderness areas, it’s critically important to do so sustainably. With sansai picking, try not to pick more than you intend to eat and always leave the root systems intact for next year’s harvest.
3. Before You Go
It’s recommended to dress properly for sansai picking as you’ll be venturing into wilderness areas. That means you should wear long sleeves, proper footwear, bring rain gear, emergency food supplies, emergency blankets, plenty of water and always notify someone that you’re heading out & when you plan on returning.
4. Poisonous Plants & Bear Attacks
However, be forewarned that sansai picking is not without its dangers! For one, there are poisonous plants that resemble edible sansai, such as the popular gyojya nin-niku（alpine leek). Secondly - and especially in Hokkaido - there is the danger of running into Higuma brown bears. Sansai hunters often venture far from hiking trails and deep into the wilderness to find secret patches that are unknown to others. At the same time, bears are waking from their winter of hibernation, and are similar to staggering drunks on a weekend in the Susukino nightlife district of Sapporo: disorientated, sluggish and easily triggered. Bears waking from hibernation are literally starving, and they must reach lower altitudes to feast on the very same sansai prized by locals. Tragically, Hokkaido averages approximately 1 sansai bear attack every 2 years. Most often, the disoriented bears have no intention to attack, but are easily agitated in their famished states and act out of self-defense and confusion. It is highly recommended to go sansai picking with another person, either one that is super chatty or a very slow runner! ; ) Bring bear bells and whistles to make lots of noise every so often, which is the best way to scare off any lurking Higuma bears. With the proper respect for the dangers of the mountains, sansai picking is no more dangerous than any other outdoor activity.
So get out there while the sansai are young and at their best, or contact us at Hokkaido Nature Tours to include it as part of your custom-made spring tour itinerary for a wonderfully unique Japanese nature & culinary experience!
New Year or Oshogatsu is the most important holiday in Japan, but for the outsider it may not be so obvious. The count down fireworks are picking up big cities like Tokyo & Osaka, but in Sapporo you will not see festive lights, fireworks or night performances, not even people on the streets on New Year’s Night. On the contrary, most of people return to their hometowns to spend the holiday together with the families. To understand the Japanese New Year let's look at the rich traditions of Oshogatsu.
Its' customs are full of symbolism: from the house preparations to the food on the table on New Year’s Day, to the temples and shrines visits, everything has a special meaning rooted in ancient traditions and subjected to complexed procedures and rituals.
As many things Japanese, all the action happens indoors, in the privacy of a home.The last days before the New Year are spent cleaning one’s house, preparing osechi ryori, (New Year’s auspicious food), making house decorations and getting ready for rituals for New Year’s Day. There is a saying “Decisions made on New Year’s Day are the key to a successful year”, so the first day of the year is of the utmost importance. Symbolically, the best way to start it is by viewing the sunrise - hatsu-hinode - welcoming the New Year’s deity, Toshigami-sama, which in line with Shinto tradition descends from the mountains into the houses, bringing happiness and wealth.
No work should be done in the first 3 days of the year, as these days are reserved for rest and visits to temples and shrines. In the old times this was the only time of the year when women took rest from housework and cooking. Thus, osechi ryori - New Year’s auspicious foods - were cooked in advance. Some people call it delicious, but in my opinion, it’s hard to make delicious food that can be stored for 3 days without refrigerator. Nevertheless, osechi are presented in an exquisite, multilayered lacquered box and demand the prime place at the table on New Year’s Day. Mostly, due to its symbolic meaning. For example, datemaki is a sweet rolled omelette which resembles the scrolled paper and represents a wish for learning and culture. Kohaku komaboko is a boiled fish paste in the shape of the rising sun. It represents the first sunrise of a new year. Kazunoko is herring roe which symbolizes fertility. Ebi (shrimp) is for the wish of longevity. The bent body of a shrimp resembles a hunch of an old person, its antennas - long beard. There are more items in osechi box, meaning that each family member can focus on attracting a particular fortune or go all in.
Nowadays, every supermarket, 7/11 and even online stores sell osechi, as well as weird looking kagami-mochi, “mirror rice cakes”, used as decorations. These 2 layered rice cakes with a little citrus fruit on top refer to the old belief that deities live in the mirrors. Long ago, mirrors in Japan had a round shape and were used for Shinto rituals. The mochi in the shape of ancient mirrors are meant for the gods, but can be eaten as well, by roasting them over coals.
Outside of houses and offices one can notice a pair of green decorations made of pine, bamboo and plum, called kadomatsu. From right after Christmas until January 7th it is providing a temporary home for the New Year’s deity to ensure that the family will have a great harvest and blessings from the ancestors.
At New Year’s night one of the most important Buddhist rituals of the year, Joya no Kane, is performed - ringing a temple bell 108 times. In Buddhism, it is believed that human beings are plagued by 108 types of defilements - such as greed, jealousy, anger etc. Each strike of the bell will remove one defilement from you, and by the end of the ritual you’ll be purified from the previous year’s impurities and prepared to enter a new year with a clean slate.
In the first days of the year families and relatives also visit Shinto shrines to pray for health and happiness. People buy omamori, good luck charms, and hamaya, sacred arrows, to invite good fortune and ward off the evil.
On New Year’s Day it is a Japanese custom for adults to give their children or young relatives otoshidama, or a gift of money. The tradition originated as an offering of kagami mochi to a New Year deity. Those rice cakes, given from parents to children, first were replaced by small toys, and today - by gifts of money.
A very popular custom is sending New Year's cards, nengajo, which are specially marked to be delivered on January 1. It is not uncommon for one person to send out dozens of cards to friends, relatives and co-workers; for public figures, businessmen and politicians this number can reach over a thousand. All nengajo also have lottery numbers on them, and when delivered, the holders of the winning numbers will be able to receive various prizes.
If you happen to be in Japan for New Year’s Night, go to a Buddhist temple to observe Joya no Kane, and make sure you get rid of all 108 defilements. Afterwards, enjoy Western style parties at night clubs and bars, and don’t forget to stop by a Shinto shrine in the following days to wish for good luck in the new year.
Happy New Year to you all!
When you think of Hokkaido in winter, what comes to your mind? It’s all white and beautiful and lots of tourist come to see the SNOW.
Locals start thinking about snow on the day they see yukimushi - snow bugs - which always appear right before the first snow. These tiny bugs with a tinier white puff (reminiscent of snowflakes) grow their wings for their once-in-a-lifetime flight in order to mate and lay eggs before the winter cold arrives. In Hokkaido, when thousands of yukimushi clutter the sky, we know the first snow is about to fall.
Usually, Sapporo snow begins in November, but quickly melts away. It’s only in December that snow begins to accumulate in the city, and it won’t fully melt until mid to late March. There is even a special word in Japanese for the first real snowfall, neyuki (lit. the root of snow). Statistically, Sapporo receives more than 1 meter of snow monthly in December & January, but in recent years we’ve experienced snow storms with over a meter of snow in less than 48hrs!
Snow is an amazing phenomena & experience, but for you to fully enjoy Hokkaido’s winter wonderland, we advise to properly prepare for your trip. Here, we would like to share our Top 5 Tips for travelling in Hokkaido in the snowy winter season.
1. Ice Grips:
You can buy ice grips at most convenience stores in Sapporo, or try the famous 24/7 Donki-Hotte chain. Ice grips are immensely helpful in walking on icy roads without falling and slipping. Their design is universal, so you just need to choose the size and they will fit over nearly every type of footwear. Bear in mind however, that ice grips do not go well with designer shoes as they are rough and can damage delicate leather. In general, we strongly recommend insulated boots in sub-zero temperatures, as they are properly insulated and have thicker soles for extra protection.
2. Heating Pads:
To give you additional comfort and keep your limbs warm throughout extended outdoor activities, we recommend heating pads. There are several sizes which can be purchased at any convenience store. Stick them to your clothes, under your gloves or socks, or just keep them inside your pockets. Our favorite type is the one heating pad for your feet, which easily slip into shoes to keep toes snugly warm. As nature guides, we love using them when we are guiding outdoor activities. Not only will heating pads keep you warm during snow play, snowshoeing, etc., but they will also allow you to leisurely stroll around Sapporo’s Snow Festival and enjoy taking all the pictures you want, instead of rushing through it like a madman with freezing and aching feet & hands.
*** Pro Tip: Place a heating pad on your mobile phone and/or camera battery while you are
outside, it helps to prolong battery life which otherwise is weakened by the cold!
3. How to Dress:
You may notice there are well developed underground shopping streets in Sapporo called chikagai. Unlike the cold winter nights of Hokkaido, the underground is pleasantly warm. Don’t forget that gloves, winter hats and scarves/neck warmers are your best friends! Winter jackets & boots also worth the investment if you plan to spend lots of time outside. Indulge in buying some top of the line gear. We recommend Shugakuso (multi-brand store loved by outdoorsy locals) and Ikeuchi Gate Shopping Center (specialized in outdoor clothing). For those on a tight budget, check out one of the numerous second-hand stores in Sapporo. “2nd Street” - a major second-hand chain in Japan - has a branch located at the Tanuki Koji Shopping Arcade in downtown Sapporo.
*** Pro Tip: Wear polyester shirts instead of cotton when doing outdoor activities. When you sweat, cotton doesn’t dry which is potentially dangerous in the cold weather. Once you stop moving, the sweaty wet cotton shirt quickly cools and will lower your body heat dramatically, which in the worst-case scenario can lead to hypothermia. That’s why mountaineers call cotton the “the death robe”.
4. Food & Drinks:
Did you know there are special winter foods that you can eat to stay warm? First and foremost, focus on everything hot! Even though everywhere in Japan ice cold water is served at restaurants, we recommend to adopt the Chinese habit of drinking hot or at least lukewarm water in winter. The body spends a lot of energy keeping itself warm and we want to help that process. To produce more body heat, try spicy, fatty and/or hot meals such as ramen or soup curry. The latter is a mouth-watering hybrid of curry & soup that is unique to Hokkaido.
Drink spiced tea infusions, masala chai, or ginger lemon honey. Never forget about vitamins that help to keep your immune defences strong: Lemon and ginger, garlic and onions, pickled radish and kimchi are all good for boosting your immune system. You may want to carry a small thermos with you to keep your favorite drink hot while spending time outside. While at the snow & ice festivals, try “amazake” - hot, sweet, unfiltered rice wine. As the alcohol content is less than a beer, locals even give it to children, so it’s safe to say the drink is for warming you up, not for making you drunk.
5. Driving in snow:
The number of foreigners driving on Hokkaido’s snow-laden & icy roads is increasing year by year; and so are the number of accidents. Driving in snow is much different from normal conditions. Please be aware to brake gradually, leave a lot of distance between cars, slow down before entering a turn (not while in the turn) and to accelerate slowly. It goes without saying that driving in a 2wd car, or without proper winter tires, is a recipe for disaster on Hokkaido’s challenging roads. In case of emergency, you’ll also certainly want to have your winter car stocked with a snow shovel, emergency blanket, thick winter blanket and chocolate!
*** Pro Tip: If your car does get stuck in a blizzard, do not try to self-rescue. Blizzard conditions in Hokkaido can be extremely sever and disorientating. Call the roadside assistance and wait for help. Heat the car for 10 minutes every 30 min - 1 hour, ensuring that the exhaust pipe is cleared of snow each time (sadly, carbon-monoxide deaths in stuck vehicles happen almost annually in Hokkaido). Eventually, the storm will pass and rescue will arrive.
Whatever you travel plans are, make sure to stay warm & active, safe & dry, and enjoy Hokkaido’s spectacular winter wonderland!
What Makes Hokkaido a Superb Travel Destination & How HNT Won a Prestigious International Travel Award
Dear friends of HNT,
This year brought about some great news for HNT: We have been awarded the Best Tour Operator in Hokkaido 2018 by the British Travel & Hospitality Awards!
Thank you to all our staff, guides, guests and friends for the inspiration with which we dedicate ourselves to being the best tour company in Hokkaido. The award comes as a reflection of the hard work and dedication, of our superb staff and team of nature guides, and the strong connections we continue foster with local communities through tourism at this great island destination.
Hokkaido has given us the joy of nature, of all four seasons – each in their own perfection - and we can’t be more grateful! It allows us to travel all year round and enjoy the copious amounts of snow, the cherry blossoms of spring, the warm and bountiful summer, and the foliage and harvests of fall. The seasons flow one into to the next, revealing in layers the magic of Hokkaido.
Hokkaido can be broken down into 5 regions: Sapporo & Otaru, Southern, Central, Eastern & Northern Hokkaido, and each region offers pristine nature and growing tourism.
A massive variety of activities around the island allows us to deliver exceptional tours created completely around guest preferences. Looking at a sample 7-day winter tour, activities include snowshoeing, dogsledding, ice fishing, drift ice walking and wildlife watching, scenic drives, culture and art, DIY workshops, Japanese gourmet and hospitality and more. We try to create tours that we ourselves would love to go on!
Hokkaido has so much to offer: Great nature and the Japanese seeking of perfection bring out the best features of every destination. Be it Stellar Sea Eagle spotting aboard an ice-breaker in the remote UNESCO Shiretoko Peninsula, a mozzarella workshop at a dairy farm which wins world cheese awards for 16 years straight, or guided multi-day trekking in Japan’s largest national park, Daisetsuzan National Park.
Hokkaido’s awesome places are quite spread out from each other which makes Hokkaido a heaven for road trips. We are constantly researching and out in the fields, exploring new destinations, so make sure to stay updated about our latest happenings via our HNT Facebook and Instagram accounts.
Here, life is constant adventure and exploration.
Come and share our joy!
Ladies, this post is for you in honour of our special day – International Women’s Day – which was started in the US in 1909 to commemorate women’s rights movements. In my native Russia, it is a national holiday and every woman is made to feel special with gifts of flowers, cards, congratulatory greetings, speeches on TV, luxurious dinners and so on. Womanhood is a big word with a lot of dignity and responsibility. But relax, this post is not about what it means to be a woman in this world. Rather, it’s about where to go and what to do if you want to pamper yourself on a special occasion, be it on International Women’s Day, your birthday or any other special day in your life (which can be any day indeed!).
So ladies, here are our Top 5 ways to spoil yourself in Sapporo:
1. Ladies-Only SPA in Downtown Susukino
If you love Japanese onsens and hot-room saunas, Honoka Super Sento is an absolute gem. To learn more about Super Sentos read this post:
This international chain is a longtime favorite among locals, with numerous locations around Hokkaido, and there is even one located in downtown Sapporo that is “Ladies-Only” (Tanuki Koji 3, Susukino). Honoka’s claim-to-fame are their sauna rooms, called gambanyoku, which are set to various temperatures and styles such as cypress, coal and Himalayan pink salt saunas. There is also an oxygen room, an infrared sauna, various baths and other health & beauty treatments: for example, salt-scrub massages for skin exfoliation. The on-site restaurant serves typical (and delicious) Japanese cuisine, has spacious relaxation rooms and even a manga library, all conspiring to keep you there way longer than you intended. Amazingly, Honoka is open 24hrs/day, making it a shoestring budget option for spending the night downtown in a pinch.
2. Treat yourself to a Michelin-Star Rated Restaurant
Japan has the most Michelin-Star restaurants in the world, a clear validation of this gourmand’s paradise and for many visitors, their top food destination worldwide. Even if you’re not a self-proclaimed foodie, I suggest a gourmet splurge at a Michelin-Star restaurant on your special day.
Hokkaido has 40% of Japan’s agricultural land, making our northern island the only place in the country that can boast food self-sufficiency. To truly appreciate the art of high cuisine and the spirit of shokunin – craftsmen – you must go to a special place to prepare yourself for a one-of-a-kind experience. Choose a seat at the counter just in front of the chef and be amazed at the mastery of food preparation. It’s a true food-art performance. Hokkaido Michelin Guide is a good resource, or ask your hotel concierge for their recommendations. Michelin-Star restaurants start from roughly 3,000-5,000 yen for lunch, and can reach 20,000+ yen for dinner per person.
The best part for me is that you can find Michelin rated restaurants in random and otherwise forgotten corners of Hokkaido. Here are my personal favs:
3. Japanese Gel Nails
Have you ever seen Japanese gel nail art? In Japan, they call themselves nailists, but what they create are truly pieces of art! Patient, committed and attentive to details, Japanese nail artists have achieved an incredibly high level of mastery over the tiny canvases on which they create their masterpieces. When I feel like painting the world in new colors, I go no further than my nailist. The design and creation of gel nails is a wonderful collaboration between the artist and client, and always leaves me uplifted and inspired. If in a rush, you don’t have to create your own designs from scratch as the nailist already has plenty of templates for you to choose from. Just flip through their catalogues, filled with countless patterns, colors and styles. My favorite studio is Riva Couture, owned and operated by the incredible Rie Imai. Look her up on Instagram (#rivecouture) and you will understand why she’s been invited to show her talents in Sapporo, Seoul & New York.
Japanese shiatsu massage (lit. finger pressure) is based on the principles of traditional Chinese medicine. Not only fingers are applied, but also palms, elbows and feet; stretching, twisting and bending the body to deliver ultimate results and relaxation. Whenever I feel sore after snowboarding, trekking with a heavy backpack, or a stressful week in the city, I entrust my body to a shiatsu masseuse’s hands, working her magic to restore much needed health and vitality.
If you are looking for a budget massage option and don’t mind a shared room, I suggest Riracle (りらくる). You will find their salons, with the recognizable yellow signboards, in many locations throughout Sapporo and Japan. The courses start from 3,000 yen for 1 hour – dirt cheap for Japan. Check out their website for more information and locations: https://riracle.com/
For a private massage I recommend Plumeria Garden SPA – a small massage salon in the Odori area with only female masseuses on staff. They specialise in aroma oil and Thai massages, as well as traditional shiatsu, head & foot reflexology. The atmosphere of the salon is very pleasant and guests are welcomed with a cup of herbal tea. Thai style massages are 4,100 yen for the 1 hour session. You can even make reservations online via their website: https://www.plumeriagardenspa.com/
Of course there are many more options: luxurious packages with deep sea minerals and placenta, treatments with LED lamps to improve the lymphatic flow, fight cellulite or improve digestion, and more. My personal favorite is Partir, another tiny establishment near Nishi 11-chome subway station. I go there for hair treatments, but they also have facials and body procedures with the same approach of quality and efficiency. If you are ready to spend 10,000+ yen on their luxury treatments, you will not be disappointed in the results. You’ll also learn firsthand about the secrets of the Japanese beauty industry: http://partir-hair.net/esthe.html#esthe-pr
5. Personalized Cosmetics
We all know that the “Made in Japan” label often means the best quality products, so true for Japanese cosmetics as well. Famous all over the world, with millions of devoted customers, Japanese cosmetic brands base their production on scientific research and innovation. When shopping for cosmetics in Japan, the main question is how to choose among the infinite variety of products and brands?! If you want to experience something different than just picking bottles off store shelves hoping they will work for your skin type, I recommend experimenting with the latest achievements in the field of skin research. Head to a downtown department store or boutique cosmetic shop, aim for the counters with the strangest looking apparatuses such as at SK II, or Pola Apex, then get your skin analyzed by a machine. The machine takes a close-up picture of your skin, then reads its qualities such as texture, radiance, spots, firmness and wrinkles. Afterwards, it provides a graph with the results, showing which issues need special attention. The consultant can then recommend the products that will work best for your skin. One of my favorites is Pola Apex, among the oldest of cosmetic companies in Japan with numerous industry awards for outstanding achievements in the beauty industry. About 300 scientists work on the creation of each new product (and I’m not even joking). Apex is their latest line, focused on personalized skin analysis. You can visit their Aurora Town branch in Sapporo’s Chikagai underground walkway. SK II is another luxury brand with a similar approach. Skin consultations can be done at their Daimaru Department Store location. Best of all, this scientific approach to personalized skin care is completely free of charge!
So what are you waiting for! Go spoil yourself in Sapporo, be it on a special occasion or just a rainy day like today. And remember, we don’t need to justify self-love and care, neither do we need to feel guilty for splurging on our wellbeing. There is no other time than now!
Jump into the rabbit hole of the Hokkaido February events calendar and you may lose yourself in a variety of joyful celebrations with all kinds of features, sizes, flavors and characters. Winter's coldest month also has the most festivals of the calendar year, we counted over 150 events island-wide. But how not to get lost in the myriad of events; and how to decide which to visit, considering you may only be here for a week or less?!
To give you some ideas among the many events taking place in February, we’ve chosen our favorite three festivals. Of course, the most conspicuous event is the Sapporo Snow Festival, and since it receives so much attention, we're not going to talk about it in this short blog. Unless you're a local(!), you will not miss it anyway if you happen to be in Sapporo from February 5th to 12th.
Without further ado, let's look at our top picks, which are accessible from Sapporo on a day-trip or can be incorporated in your multi-day custom-made tour.
1. Noboribetsu Onsen Hot Spring Festival: February 3rd – 4th, 2018
Noboribetsu Onsen is a popular destination for a day-trip from Sapporo, and one of the most impressive geothermal sites on the island. On the night of February 4th, the town will host a hot-spring-water splashing battle as the final event of the 2-day onsen festival. One hundred young men - dressed only in traditional loin cloths at -20c - show their valor to perform bravely during this ecstatic, 30 minute hot spring battle, This fierce and energetic ritual of purification is actually performed to symbolically ward the cold away. The opening ceremonies on day 1 of the festival (exorcism processions and ritual burnings) will be followed by a parade and the spectacular water battle on day 2. Don't miss this very special cultural event showcasing the Japanese samurai spirit and their special relationship to the cold.
2. Otaru Yukiakari no Michi, Snow Light Path Festival: February 9th – 18th, 2018
The most romantic ice festival among the many in Hokkaido is just a half hour train ride away from downtown Sapporo. During their snow festival, the historical port city of Otaru has a captivating fairy tale-like feeling, especially so along the Sakaimachi District. It can't help but leave visitors wondering how it used to be in the early days of the 20th century when Otaru was at its peak as the most prosperous city and gateway to Hokkaido. With cobbled streets and gas lamps, lit by hundreds of ice candles, Otaru becomes a picture-perfect destination for a date or a day trip. Not only couples, but families, friends, and solo-travelers alike will certainly find something to connect to and enjoy at this charming festival. Whether you like Japanese art & crafts, ice sculptures, night views, candle lights, historical buildings, charming old streets, shopping, gourmet seafood or photography – Otaru has it all! Just don't forget to pick-up some hand & feet warmers to fully enjoy the most romantic winter festival in Hokkaido.
3. Lake Shikaribetsu Ice Kotan: January 27th – March 21st, 2018
Lake Shikaribetsu is located in the eastern area of Daisetsuzan National Park and is the highest lake in Hokkaido with an altitude of 800m above sea level. The picturesque lake is one of Hokkaido's hidden gems and among my personal favorites, along with Lake Kussharo. With it's steep shores holding primeval forest, the caldera Lake Shikaribetsu is set amidst a deep lava dome - like a rough gem stone. The whole place is very peaceful with usually just a few tourists around. To attract more attention to this incredibly beautiful area, locals started the ice festival 35 years ago, and it's still growing in popularity every year.
Lake Shikaribetsu is a 3,5 hour drive from Sapporo, bringing you to experience the unique outdoor hot spring on the frozen lake (!), igloos, an ice bar, an ice chapel with regular services & concerts, ice carving DIYs, ice fishing, ice skating and other snow play activities – all this on the surface of the frozen lake! If you want to extend your trip, you can reserve rooms at the only hotel at the lake, Fusui Onsen Hotel, for about 9,000 yen per person per night. But the real deal - for those with a love of cold & ice - is the ice hotel, which is located on the lake as part of the Ice Village. The most adventurous and cold-resistant visitors are welcomed for an overnight stay for only 6,500 yen per igloo, accommodating 4 pax. At this price, who could say no! ; ) If even the idea of walking on a frozen lake sounds like fun, along with all the fantastic festival activities, then you're sure to have a great trip with memories that will last a lifetime!
Enjoy nature, be happy!
Dear friends and clients, long time no see! This season brought many changes as HNT is continuing to grow and develop, so I thought it's a good time to ask Ido, the founder, to share his experience and give some travel tips on Hokkaido. But before that, a bit of our personal story.
I met Ido in 2011 in the Himalayas of Northern India. We were both wanderers & wonderers who loved to travel. After meeting with assigned seats next to each other on a serendipitous 2-day bus, set off for a 2-year journey across Asia and Latin America. We travelled mostly overland, with all the ups-and-downs of backpacking: experiencing the changing natural and political landscapes, mountains and seas, languages, habits, food, architecture, and everything really - changing - but for the most part, seeing the change in ourselves in a continuous journey of self-discovery. Eventually, we knew it was time to settle down. Ido had lived 3 years in Hokkaido before we had met, and he thought the northern Japanese island would be good for us as a couple.
We arrived in 2013 and Ido returned to teaching English in Sapporo’s high schools, while I juggled a few part-time jobs till I found a full-time position at a kindergarten. I instantly fell in love with Hokkaido’s nature as it so resembled my native island of Sakhalin, just 42 kms north of Hokkaido. We escaped into the wilderness at every opportunity, one of the many blessings of living in Sapporo – a city so close to pristine nature. We carefully planned our excursions and explored Hokkaido with our “weekend warrior” friends.
Working in Japan is definitely a challenge for a foreigner: the Japanese work culture has a completely different set of norms and expectations as compared to the West. We often found yourselves in a kind of quest, trying to figure out what is expected from us and what we could expect from others. Here in Japan, being a good team player is way more important than efficiency or productivity, more so even than truth. It’s a completely different approach from the Western working culture, that has everybody competing to be the best. We both realized that the way to our own happiness and work fulfillment would be somewhere in between.
After a few years we decided that it was time for another life change, and so . . . we got married!
It was on our honeymoon that we started creating our passion project, the private tours company that became HNT, and we never looked back. Hokkaido is the perfect setting for exploration and road trips: it has a pulsing network of interesting destinations in often hard to access locations, amazing nature sightseeing at every turn, tons of adventures to be had, a wide variety of accommodation, incredible onsens nearly everywhere, top-notch cuisine and awesome people!
Our favorite part of HNT remains being on the road with our guests, who become like friends to us. Seeing people have new experiences, thoroughly satisfied with their tours, and promising to return for more in different seasons: this is how we know we’re on the right path at this very special moment in our lives. Most importantly, we love what we do, and it shows.
- Ido, what was it like in the very beginning of HNT?
Ido: Even with the fear of sounding somewhat out of touch, I often felt like I was giving birth to, and raising, a child called HNT. I poured my heart into each and every tour, fussed over other people working with us, spent countless long hours into the night developing this idea and that inspiration, and just really fell in love with the process, the life that HNT became for us and others. Even now, with HNT continuing to grow with the contributions from our wonderful team, I still hover around like a “helicopter parent”, at times worried, at times proud, and almost always madly in love and appreciative.
- What do you think about Hokkaido life?
Ido: I think Hokkaido is a blessed land, land of so much natural resources, such a wonderful natural environment. Everything grows in abundance here! And the weather here is also spectacular, with the 4 seasons with all that it brings: from the flowers, to the foliage, to the powder snow. So in terms of a nature lover I think Hokkaido answers all of those nature lover’s questions, like where to live, in what kind of climate. You kind of have everything here. In midsummer sometimes you feel like you’re in the tropics even, it’s so hot and humid, there is bamboo in the forest. And in midwinter sometimes you feel like you’re in the Arctic, standing at the top of the mountain with the wind and the snow battering your body.
- What is the best way to travel in Hokkaido?
Ido: Yeah, Hokkaido is very special place: it’s at once very accessible, and also quiet remote. When you live here you realise that you can explore the island all year around and it creates so many wonderful possibilities. Because the place is completely different from winter to summer, the entire landscape changes and what you can do entirely changes. And all those other remarkable Japanese things, like the great quality of food, the onsens everywhere, the safety, the impeccable cleanliness, all together it creates a wonderful place.
- For the people who come to Hokkaido for the first time, seeking some adventure, what would you recommend?
Ido: You know, Hokkaido for me is not about places that have the “Wow!” factor. It’s not a place that you say, “OMG, this is unique in the world.” What Hokkaido has is that overall sense of well-being and healthy nature. So for that, just getting out into the mountains, whether it be on a multi-day trek, or visiting nature sights - it really depends on the person - but Hokkaido provides all of that on different levels. Whoever comes here feels that well-being. I see it time and time again as a guide here: that people come here and when they leave they have that sense of Hokkaido being taken with them back home. And that’s just magical to witness and experience.
- You said that Hokkaido has a sense of well-being. What else do you think our readers would be interested in?
Ido: I think for people who are into gourmet, Hokkaido is such a good destination. For example, the island is getting more and more Michelin star restaurants, and it’s well-known that Japan has the most of those out of any country in the world. And the ones that are here are renowned, especially for the freshness and quality of the seafood. It is a very high quality of cuisine, even at the basic street or a hotel level. You get very nice quality food, with wholesome ingredients made fresh, and it’s certainly a big part of the experience for many of our guests.
- Yes, definitely. Can you talk about the hotels in particular?
Ido: Sure! Staying at ryokans is another unique experience. We have one ryokan that’s really a signature ryokan for us. The magic there is that you can spot Blakiston’s Fish Owls, which is one of the rarest birds in the world, with only about 140 birds in existence in Hokkaido. It’s the largest owl, standing at 55 cm tall, and it lives in very few places in the world. Named after a British naturalist from the 1800s who lived in Hokkaido and cataloged it. The fish owl was also one of the most important Gods of the indigenous Ainu. So, this owl comes to the ryokan to feed at the small fish pond that they stock with fish nightly. Imagine, as a guest, you get not only the traditional ryokan experience with a great kaiseki dinner and sublime hot springs, you also get a chance to spot these amazing owls which will take your breath away. It’s a rare example of coexistence of people and wild nature which benefit both. And it happens a lot in the island, especially in the Eastern region.
- Could you give more examples?
Ido: Sure! A well-known one is a story of the world’s greatest re-population success of the once highly endangered Tancho Red-crested Crane. The symbiotic relationships extend to fishing villages outside Rausu and Shiretoko’s bears, the Marimo algae of Lake Akan, and the migration of the white-chested geese over Central Hokkaido. Japan has come a long way in preserving nature, and much of it can be credited to public awareness and tourism opportunities. It’s a remarkable turnaround in less than a hundred years, when Japanese hunters used to shoot Tancho cranes!
- What would you like to say to HNT clients and friends?
Ido: What I can say is only “thank you,” because without our guests, and without our hard working and enthusiastic team, HNT would be stale and dry, like a burnt out landscape. To share my love of Hokkaido and inspire others to “Enjoy Nature, Be Happy!”, it’s an honor and blessing for sure. I often say “thank you Hokkaido”, for it’s a land not just Japanese, and not just a job; it’s a land that is now my home.
Co-Authored by Jonathan Mott & Anastasia Mayamsina
Photo Credits: Anastasia Mayamsina
Look up the word “hack” in a dictionary and the usage is pretty standard. As a verb, to hack is, first and foremost, to cut something with hard or heavy blows. The point is that the word hack, while used in many ways, has maintained clear-cut meanings. These days it’s a buzz word meaning “to use something well, in a conventional or an unconventional way.”
Before settling down in Sapporo, we spent years living out the highs and lows of backpacking around the world. Our own travel experiences taught us countless travel hacks – from customizing backpacks to fit your extra small body size, to knowing how to use cultural code words to ease your way across different countries, to endlessly cutting costs and saving money on activities and accommodation –travel hacks which are, in fact, a core principle for most long-term travelers.
With the sharp eye towards great travel hacks, we came to Japan and discovered the everyday reality of endless convenience and the best customer service in the world. So what more is there to hack in such a hacked country already, where you can buy 10kg bags of rice from a vending machine or enter a taxi with the back door opening like magic as you approach? As seasoned travelers, we’ve certainly found and cherished a few great hacks in our years spent living here in Hokkaido.
Hokkaido Hack #1: Convenience Stores
Like clean bathrooms you can use without making a purchase? Me too. Like 300 yen lunches and 500 yen dinners? Of course you do. Fresh ground and individually brewed coffee? Couldn’t live without it. How about beer or wine 24/7? Don’t mind if I do! Need free Wi-Fi, an ATM that reads foreign cards, a copy/fax/photo printing using-nearly-any-device machine, or an exact address in the neighborhood? A Conbini – short for convenience store – has all that and so much more.
How much time have we all wasted wandering around neighborhoods trying to navigate the archaic address system, until finally giving up and heading to the nearest conbini with a plea for help from the always-kind staff? At many conbinis, you can even order concert tickets, pay for flights, send your luggage across the country and countless other services that we have no idea about, all with stupidly good service which internationally is only expect at high-end retail. Lastly, conbinis are literally a life-saver as they’re often the only establishments open in Hokkaido’s depopulated countryside late into the night.
Hokkaido Hack #2: Super Sentos
Being on the road, even in Japan, can leave a traveler exhausted, less-than-clean and on a tight budget. In a country where watermelons can sell for as much as a 4 star hotel room, sometimes cutting corners is absolutely necessary to keeping the adventure going. Why spend 10,000 yen at a hotel, when you can stay all night in a giant public bathhouse for a fraction of the cost? Super Sentos (as they’re known) have all the amenities of a hotel, minus the beds. That’s OK though, because when it’s time to sleep, there are plush public rooms to do just that. Of course, there are also restaurant services, meaning you may never want to leave (at least until the typhoon has passed!).
Hokkaido Hack #3: Secondhand Stores
Go to a secondhand store in Japan and, assuming you’re flexible with colors and aren’t over two meters tall, you can walk out with almost anything you’re looking for. This is particularly useful for visitors staying more than a couple of weeks who are interested in exploring the great outdoors. 2,000 yen tents, 500 yen sleeping bags, 3,000 yen hiking boots, used skis/snowboards from beginner level to powder crushers, goggles, snow pants et al. Whatever the season, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find perfectly viable and great condition used outdoor & indoor gear at a fraction of what it would cost new. And if you haven’t destroyed your purchases while out in the mountains, you can even try to resell them to the same shop! A personal Sapporo favorite is Mandai: They’ve got everything from Nintendo 3DS games and anime figurines to old ceramic vases and original designer handbags. Even if you’re not equipping for adventure, there will no doubt be some funky knick-knack for you to take back home, or a unique gift that you may never find again.
Hokkaido Hack #4: Hitchhiking
Japan doesn’t really have a hitchhiking culture. But Hokkaido is pioneer country, and the pioneer spirit remains. Besides, it's a smart way to avoid ridiculously expensive domestic transportation costs. While you won’t see many natives with their thumbs out on the side of the road, it doesn’t mean that you can’t give it a try. Drivers are often eager for a bit of an international experience, and will no doubt try out their English skills. It’s also a great chance to practice your Japanese. Just remember to write down your destination in Japanese on a small sign. This will let drivers know that you’re not looking to move in for life and will increase your chances of begin picked up quickly, often in under ten minutes! But please don’t hitchhike on narrow, busy roads. Instead, choose a spot near a parking or service area where cars can easily stop without disrupting traffic or causing an accident (*err, learned from experience!).
Hokkaido Hack #5: Sapporo Bicycle Rentals
Available when the streets are free of snow (April – October), Sapporo city offers Porocle, a bicycle sharing rental service. Pay 1,080 yen for a 24-hour pass and you can rent any bike from a variety of downtown locations. Pick up a bike in Odori and drop it off at Nakajima Park or Sapporo Factory. Take one on a Saturday afternoon and return it the following day after cycling out for lunch. The bikes, while not suited for long-distance travel, offer a fun and slow-paced way to explore the city and its outer limits.
So whatever your favorite hack, keep exploring Hokkaido and as always, “Enjoy Nature, Be Happy!”
Author & Photographer: Jonathan Mott
Sapporo is synonymous with beer, so much so that many summer visitors to our northern city will inadvertently stumble upon it. The annual Sapporo Beer Garden held in Odori Koen (park) is the second largest festival in the city following the iconic Snow Festival. Started in 1959 and gaining popularity every year, beer-guzzling revelers flock to the city center to grab one of 12,000+ seats and enjoy a cold one outdoors. Beginning about the 3rd week in July and continuing through the Obon holiday, this beer garden is a tribute to Sapporo’s sister city Munich, famed for its legendary Oktoberfest. From western blocks five to ten, all of the big breweries are in attendance, as well as a block dedicated to world beers. Although now tamer than previous years, a Bacchanal atmosphere permeates the air, inciting strangers to toast, exchange phone numbers, and sometimes wander off together.
The Godfather of all beers Japan, Sapporo Beer - with its tall statuesque silver cans - has long been available in North America and Europe, while a variety of export and domestic labels color Asian markets. The brewery, Sapporo Beer LTD (札幌ビール株式会社) was founded in 1876, making it Japan’s first proper beer brand. A lot has happened in 141 years. Other major brewing companies such as Kirin, Asahi and Suntory have become equally as popular, both home and abroad. And thanks to the lowering of minimum brewing quantity requirements for beer manufacturing licenses in the past 25 years, smaller regional breweries have popped open all over the country. Literally called local beer (ji biru/地ビール), these pioneers of smaller scale brewing are smartly styling themselves after American craft scene juggernauts.
As the major breweries depend on revenue from mass-produced pale lagers and pilsners, the microbrewery beer scene flourishes by satisfying the flavor-starved palates of thirsty drinkers, leaving the big boys scrambling to get a piece of the market. In Hokkaido alone new craft breweries are opening up every year. While giants like Suntory have recently introduced microbrewery-style wannabes like the not-so-subtlety-titled The Craft Select IPA (think darkish lager with a shot of pine-scented hand soap), North Island Brewing in Ebetsu has a citrusy 7% IPA that is a long-standing favorite.
Travel farther out across the island and a number of craft beer destinations open up. Niseko Brewery, located in the once sleepy town famed for its unreal annual snowfall, entered the stage in 2015 with a strong selection of beers. My personal favorite, The Oyster Stout, has a rich chocolate sweetness and a touch of brine from the oysters that make each sip a mouthful of umami goodness.
Heading to Noboribetsu for an onsen? Why not swing in to the Noboribetsu brewpub for a post-bath pint? With its award-winning Oni-Dentsu Double IPA and line-up of main and seasonal beers, you’re bound to find a few brew to please your palate. This brewery is unafraid of experimentation, having produced white peach, strawberry and raspberry beers as well as 6.5% Sicilian Rouge Tomato Vegetable Ale that uses tomatoes, basil and coriander. I call that dinner in a bottle.
Going as far as the Sea of Okhotsk? Abashiri is well known for its prison-turned museum and delicious seafood, but the Abashiri Beer Brewery is not to be overlooked. Originally founded in 1994 by the Tokyo University of Agriculture as a biological industry research center for developing local beer, the brewery went commercial in 1998. Most famous is its Ryuhyou (Ice flow/流氷) Draft, noted for its gardenia pigment derived blue color, which evokes the winter ice flows even on a hot summer afternoon.
While these are but a few of the innovative breweries rising from the Hokkaido landscape, one needn’t leave Sapporo to try them. Over the past several years, craft beer-centric restaurants have been multiplying throughout the city. One of the oldest and best in Kalahana, located right in the center of downtown Sapporo’s Tanuki-koji shopping arcade. Stroll down to the west seven block and pop in for an up-and-coming Japanese brew or an American craft favorite. Tsuki to Taiyo (Moon & Sun/月と太陽) is just 8 blocks in the opposite direction. This working brewpub has fresh tap beer made on location, with a gourmet menu that compliments each beer perfectly. Since opening in 2015 it’s been an instant success among locals and foreign visitors, with no decline in sight. They’re setting the standard for in-house-production brewing, and here’s hoping we see more and more of them in the years to come.
Another favorite of mine is the aptly named Beer Cellar, located near the Prince Hotel. This wood-paneled den of mirth features eight beers on tap and a variety of Portland imports, as well as domestic craft bottles. While there isn’t much of a food menu going just yet (as they don’t have a proper kitchen), Beer Cellar is a great place to go before or after dinner. The vibe is friendly and the $10 sampler set is a sure way to put you in a good mood.
And that’s just Hokkaido! Hop down to Tokyo, Osaka or any of the other southern metropolises and there is no shortage of craft beer options. There are literally thousands of pubs and alehouses to visit, as well as local breweries to tour and beer festivals to attend. Just last week, I moseyed up to the Sapporo Craft Beer Forest, an annual event that grows in popularity every year. It was a blast. Any city worth its suds is doing something similar, and there’s no better time to visit Japan and surf the craft revolution wave than now. Kanpai!
Author & Photographer: Jonathan Mott
Standing tall in the middle of the Furano-Ashibetsu Prefectural Natural Park, Ashibetsu-dake is a classic Hokkaido mountain. On a clear day, the 1,726-meter peak offers commanding 360-degree views of the surrounding Yubari Range and Furano plain. To the northeast Taisetsuzan National Park’s jagged profile rises from a sea of green into the clouds. Taking into account the shape and accessibility of Ashibetsu-dake, it’s easy to see why it could be a member of Japan’s 100 famous mountains.
I had the pleasure of going up the mountain for the first time just last week. Having accepted the invitation to join my good friends Ido and Anastasia, I was excited to climb something new. Our party was squared to four with the addition of our German friend Ulli, another experienced mountaineer.
We left Sapporo at 7:30am and enjoyed two hours of scenic Hokkaido countryside before arriving in Furano. After stocking up at the grocery store with victuals for the BBQ and beers for the cooler, we drove to the Ashibetsu-dake campground, seated at the foot of the mountain. Hokkaido’s campgrounds are some of the best in the country, and this one was no exception. The groundskeepers had just finished mowing the wide grassy lawns which exuded a fragrance of pure summer. The campsite has two covered wash areas with sinks and tables, as well as bathrooms in the center of the grounds. An enormous fire pit sits in the far corner of the campground, and on this day there was a pile of wood in its center taller than me.
Our hike began with a bit of confusion, as we started not on the actual trail to the peak, but a scenic horseshoe trail unconnected to the main path. After an hour of back and forth along this little woodland walk, we returned to the campground and took the time to find the actual Shindou (新道/new road) trailhead. By the tall wire gate is a registry box for hikers to sign before heading up the mountain. Going through and then locking the gate itself gave the start of our hike a slightly foreboding feeling. The forest is dark and shaded, with ferns lining the pathway. In June the sasa is still short, allowing for views deep into the woods. After seeing bear poop on the horseshoe trail, I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder from time to time.
Although infrequent, encounters between hikers and bears happen every year. Most of these are mere sightings. Just keep in mind that a frightened bear is a dangerous bear and bear bells are a necessary part of any hiker’s kit. Even better is to carry a whistle and blow it intermittently as you proceed on your way. Bears have every incentive to avoid humans, so giving them a heads up that you’re coming through is a good way to prevent accidents.
Having lost Anastasia to the allure of onsens and gourmet jam stores, the three of us powered up the trail at a strong pace. Our false start had robbed us of an hour of sunlight, and we anticipated seven hours of walking round trip. The woods were cool, the trail even and well maintained. The approach runs steadily up the spine of the ridge, without ever becoming taxingly steep or gnarly. It’s a nice trail. One that relatively fit people of all ages can enjoy.
Nature’s perfume permeated the air, filling our noses with vegetal sweetness. Azaleas bloomed in pink bursts to our right and left, while white viburnum bent above us in the breeze. We got our first good views at about the halfway point. Rock outcroppings overlooking the canopy of birch and beech forest gave us a terrific view of the valley basin below. Clouds fit for a Ghibli movie floated like flat-bottomed puffballs across the sky. One’s shadow covered half of Furano. The blue backbone of other ranges undulated like a snake along the horizon.
I should note there’s a trail connecting the new trail to the old trail (Kyuudou/ 旧道). We had originally thought to go up and explore the old trail but were told by the groundskeepers that it was overgrown and eroded. Given our race against the light and our disinterest in meeting Mr. Bear, we stayed on course. A pair of hikers coming down warned us to be careful on the snowy sections, one of them showing us fresh bruises on her arm. Sure enough, we soon came upon several large patches of snow, one of them a good hundred meters long.
After four hours of huffing and puffing, we arrived at the peak at about 4pm. The breeze was welcome as we sat down to have some lunch, snapping pictures and enjoying the beers we’d brought along. The weather was ideal, affording us spectacular views in all directions. We could even make out the smoke roiling out of Tokachi-dake’s fumaroles roughly 50km away. A dead phone battery didn’t stop Ido from showing us his drone piloting skills by flying sans display screen. At one point I was sure the drone wasn’t coming back, but he proved me wrong.
With only two and a half hours of daylight left, we hustled back down the mountain. The snowfields proved trickier than expected to navigate while standing, so we slid down them (somewhat haphazardly) on our butts. The orange evening light gave the forest the soothing, contemplative quality of a Maxfield Parrish painting. We pounded downhill as the woods darkened around us, sometimes in conversation, sometimes quiet. Ido blew the whistle from time to time, and being at the back of the line I was alert to make sure a fourth member wasn’t tagging along.
Our legs were at their limits as we spilled out of the trees and onto pavement. Sweaty and exhausted, we slapped high fives for a mountain well-hiked. Anastasia, knowing full well what tired hikers need at the end of the day, had camp chairs set up and the bbq going. Hot grilled food and cold beers fueled our conversation under the starlit dome of the night sky. Let this be the standard for anyone visiting Ashibetsu-dake. It’s as good as June Hokkaido gets.
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