Words and Photos By Sam Beltran
A rich historical heritage, beautiful cities, an eclectic taste that range from the minimalist to the kawaii, and a stunning change of seasons — those are just some of the many reasons Japan remains to be one of the most beloved travel destinations around the world. One can explore the many tourist attractions in Tokyo, follow their stomachs at Dotonbori in Osaka, or even visit the Shinto shrines and old villages in Kyoto.
Not many, however, know about Hokkaido, the northernmost and second largest of Japan’s four main islands. As Japan’s coldest region, however, it does make for a stunning winter season amidst snow-capped mountains, perfectly frozen lakes, and soft, powder-like snow. Ski and snowboarding enthusiasts will point you towards the city of Sapporo, the capital. But the island is much more than just the big city, with memorable wintertime experiences to offer for seasoned travelers or snow first-timers. If you’re looking to enjoy winter wonderland in all its glory, explore a whole other side of Hokkaido and find yourself stumbling into charming towns, picturesque landscapes, and perfectly white sceneries.
To explore this side of Hokkaido, we hopped on a connecting flight from Manila to the Haneda Airport via Japan Airlines, where we eventually landed at the Memanbatsu Airport in the Okhotsk Subprefecture, the northeastern part of Hokkaido.
1. Snowmobile riding and smelt fishing on the frozen lakes
Part of the appeal of visiting Hokkaido in the wintertime is trying your hand at the classic winter activities you can only take advantage of this time of the year. Ice smelt fishing — where you, as the name suggests, fish for smelt through openings in the ice — was a surprisingly enjoyable activity on the beautifully frozen Lake Abashiri. After being caught, the fish are quickly fried into fresh, crisp and utterly delicious tempura.
Naturally, one activity we looked forward to was the snowmobile riding on Lake Akan. Imagine this — motor gliding on ice, the chilliest wind against your face while being surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It’s an ATV experience, but better.
2. Drift ice walking on the Okhotosk Sea
Walking on drift ice on the perfectly still Okhotsk Sea, part of the bodies of water that separates Japan and Russia, is one of the most exhilarating experiences in Hokkaido. Think of your standard outdoor trek, but on ice. Believe it or not, though, the adventure does not start once you step foot on the sea — it starts with the unique challenge of wearing the special dry suit, designed to protect you from slipping on the ice. We had to wear our suit in the outdoors, which meant taking off our hats, gloves and boots in the freezing -21-degree temperature. Walking on these frozen waves and ice caps is perhaps the closest thing some of us can get to visiting Antarctica, and is one heck of an adrenaline rush.