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!
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