Japan is best known for its springtime blooms. But if you can defy sub-zero temperatures and mounds of snow, you must explore the wintry delights of Hokkaido. Text & photographs by Sumeet Keswani
I’d always wanted to visit Japan. And as a consumer of popular itineraries and Instagram posturing, I had pictured myself in the country during its famous spring moods. Who wouldn’t want a sprinkle of cherry blossom on their canvas of memory (and album of holiday pictures), after all? So when I got invited to Japan during its chilly winter, it felt bittersweet. Add to that the realisation that I was heading to the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, Hokkaido and dread quickly sunk in. What followed was a spurt of extreme-winter shopping, the likes of which I had never undertaken before.
People come to Hokkaido for its natural attractions, which include everything from icy landscapes to natural hot springs, from primaeval forests to floral fields. We are headed to Sapporo, the largest city on the island and the capital city of Hokkaido Prefecture. A city of two million residents, Sapporo gets five metres of snow on average each year. This is no ordinary snow. Finer than your usual ‘powder snow’, this phenomenon is called ‘aspirin snow’, I’m told by my guides—Ikuko from Nagasaki and Sapporo resident Toshie. The unique form of snow means that it does not lend itself to building snowmen (Olaf would be disappointed!) or snowballs for a good old winter battle. On the other hand, it is excellent for skiing, a fact that draws plenty of skiers from Australia and other parts of the world. These tourists are joined by Japanese from other islands of the country that are not endowed with the slopes of Hokkaido. Japan’s land mass may be nine times smaller than India’s, but the weather across its islands varies so much that Sapporo feels akin to Europe for Ikuko.
The downside of the snow in Sapporo is the temperature. With a maximum of 0° Celsius and the minimum dipping 10° below, I feel well and truly like a popsicle the moment I step out of the New Chitose Airport. On our drive to the hotel, it’s evident that the houses of the city are designed to bear the burden of snow. Unlike other parts of Japan, where homes don terracotta hats, the houses in Sapporo are squatting cubes and gather snow on their roofs until it’s ploughed out. It might seem counter-intuitive for the residents, but Ikuko points out the arrangement is essential to ensure safety of pedestrians. A sloped roof would mean frequent, unpredictable mini-avalanches on the pavements. Heaps of white, gathering dirt, abound and coalesce into carbuncles on the roadside, some of the mounds growing taller than seven feet. The pavements, however, are impossibly clean; on enquiry, I’m told they are heated to ensure melting of snow. It’s the perfect example of Japanese efficiency.
On our way to Kiroro Resort, the first stop in our Sapporo itinerary, I spy the Ishiya Chocolate Factory, with snowmen perched on its window sills, dry poplar trees in white garbs and a couple of graveyards. It’s –4° Celsius; the wind lifts the powder snow deposited last night, carries it on its feathery back, and deposits it in a different part of the city. The horizontal snowfall drapes everything in an eerie veil. It’s almost as if I’m in a Murakami story. I wait for a cat to manifest and speak to me, but all I get is more snow and solitude.
The graveyards linger on in my consciousness, so I ask my guides what their after-life beliefs are. Ikuko tells me that the Japanese are born Shintoists—newborns are taken to a jinja, but they die Buddhists—the dead are taken to temples. Shintoism believes in kami, the spirits that occupy everything, including inanimate objects. If you’ve read about or follow the KonMari method of tidying up, you will know the kind of respect that the Japanese grant their possessions. “But the kami like purity and cleanliness. And death is impure in this belief system,” says Ikuko. So when Buddhism touched these shores in the sixth century and proclaimed that there was life after death, the locals embraced the religion. Shintoism doesn’t suffer from the insecurities common in some other religions, and hence, the locals remain free to practise both faiths in a single lifetime. While they largely practise Shintoism, in death they turn to Buddhism for the promise of rebirth. This brings us to the graveyards.
The Japanese originally used to bury their dead and the practice of cremation for purification was brought in by Buddhism. But it served a practical purpose too—full-body burials took up too much real estate. Today, post cremation, important bones from the throat and thigh are picked from the ashes and placed in urns, which are buried underneath gravestones in these cemeteries.
As we go higher and higher up to Kiroro, we’re flanked by creaking birches, their joints clogged by snow and lively green Japanese larches, whose flatter branches avert accretion. The ski resort itself, with a peak altitude of 1,180 metres, has seen three metres of snow on the day of our visit. Compared to its record of 20 metres, however, experience, one of the many activities on offer. After a snowmobile has hauled our raft through a snow circuit with the wildest drifts possible, I inspect my glove to make sure none of my fingers have fallen to hypothermia. With enough chill in my bones I give the resort’s Ice Bar a skip and take to the Snow Park, where kids struggle to fashion snowballs out of the powder snow. Following the lead of a five-year-old, I haul a snow tube to the top of a small hill and channel my inner Calvin (and Hobbes) on the ride down.
Given the region’s weather patterns, skiing is an accepted pastime for locals. Sapporo has 10 avenues within an hour’s radius. People ski and snowboard to while away their evenings. In fact, kids strap on their first skis when they’re as young as three or four. I took longer to ride my four-wheeled bike! Our local guide, Toshie, recalls that she learnt the art on a small hill on her school’s playground. While the inland children learn to ski, the coastal kids learn to swim, chips in Ikuko, suggesting that she isn’t bereft of special skills. It’s a refreshing policy—schools teaching kids skills pertaining to their geography.
Our second stop in Hokkaido is Otaru, a port town that lies nearly an hour northwest of Sapporo on Ishikari Bay. What was once a bustling centre of trade with Russia and China is now a tourist town. The central canal area flanked by stone and brick buildings, which were built for business in the early 20th century, now serves as a cornucopia of selfie spots for tourists—domestic and international. Cafes, museums and souvenir shops are generously scattered on both sides of smaller canals that once aided last-mile transport of goods from the harbour. After a hearty meal of sushi at the three-decade-old Otaru Nihonbashi, which uses locally caught fish, I take a stroll on what was once called the “Wall Street of Hokkaido.” A tourist favourite, the street is filled with shops selling miniature glass models, jewellery, music boxes and matcha sweets—just a few of the things Otaru is famous for. The walk ends at the Le TAO bakery, with its many sweet temptations. Hokkaido is famous for producing some of the best milk in the world, resulting in unparalleled dairy products. This inevitably leads to delicious cream-based desserts at shops like Le TAO. Through my tour, I will lose count of the numerous cream buns, cheesecakes, cream puffs and white chocolate-filled langue de chat (baked white cookie) picked up off departmental-store shelves.
Our final stop in Hokkaido is the Asahiyama Zoo, where a pre-scheduled penguin march steals the show for most visitors, age no bar. The zoo offers rare glimpses of winter creatures like the Arctic fox, polar bear, snowy owl, wolf, red fox, snow monkey, Japanese crane, Pallas’s cat and the Hokkaido sika deer that forms one half of Kyun Chan (the island’s tourism mascot). Somewhere, a weather marker casually displays –9.8° Celsius. Each creature in the zoo has its own way of adapting to the freezing conditions. The snow monkeys huddle together in twos and threes. The Pallas’s cat has grown its hair longer to become a rotund ball of fur. And I tremble beneath three layers of wool and down feathers.
While I started my Hokkaido tour with cold feet, figuratively and literally, the region sprang surprises that a tropical paradise could never have. I came back with lessons in woollen-layering, postcards of a Narnia-esque winterscape and a renewed love for cream and cheese goodies.
Keio Plaza Hotel Sapporo: Five minutes away from Sapporo station, this four-star property is located in the heart of town and offers a variety of rooms and suites across its 21 floors, the topmost being the most luxurious. Standard Single Room from INR 17,384 per night.
Kiroro Resort: There are two Marriott International branded hotels here, The Kiroro, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel, Hokkaido, and Sheraton Hokkaido Kiroro Resort. Both the properties are endowed with great views, with the latter being closer to all the skiing action.