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JAPAN


Hokkaido Call of the wild


Japan’s northernmost prefecture, Hokkaido, is also its wildest. As the brown bears enter hibernation and the locals get out their overcoats, the laid-back cities and volcanic landscape are coated in a blanket of snow and ice — perfect for adventurous snowshoeing, hearty dining and, for one week in early February, visiting the legendary Sapporo Snow Festival. Words: Chris Tharp


Everyone says the snows have come late, but as we pull out of Asahidake, Hokkaido’s second-biggest city, everywhere is coated in a glistening white. A storm has been brewing in the heavens above us and, as we drive, it unleashes millions of flakes, which pile up on the rooſtops and weigh down the tree branches. The road is now a compact pancake of glossy ivory, but my guide, Ido Gabay, drives like it’s just another Monday morning. “It’s been the worst snow season in more


than 25 years,” he says, gripping the wheel. “But it looks like, finally, you’ve brought some weather with you.” Ido, who’s rangy and gregarious, is the


proprietor of Hokkaido Nature Tours, which specialises in the natural splendour of Japan’s northernmost island prefecture, Hokkaido. Today, he’s taking me into Daisetsuzan National Park — Hokkaido’s largest — to discover the mountains. We stop at a pure, icy spring to fill our


water bottles, then strap on our snowshoes and hit the trail. The snow continues to swirl, at times enveloping us and obscuring the landscape, as we shuffle up Tenninkyo Gorge. A crystalline river flows to our right, and snow hare tracks punctuate the pristine powder along our trail. “I sometimes catch them by surprise when


snowboarding,” Ido says. “Though here they feel our footsteps through the ground and are gone long before we can see them.” Soon, we reach our destination: Hagoromo


Falls, which spills down the rock face in misty, sensuous streams. Ido pours us tea from a flask and we sip the brew in reverential silence, soaking in the beauty of the undulating cascades. Hagoromo, Ido explains, means ‘angel’s flowing robes’ — a name that fits the falls perfectly.


56 nationalgeographic.co.uk/travel Our next stop is at the base of the dormant


volcano, Asahidake, which, at 7,515ſt, is the island’s highest peak. We take a ropeway cable-car (filled with European skiers who’ve come to plough through the island’s famous powder) and step out onto a wide plateau. It’s a scene to drink in: the whole of


the landscape is smothered in a deep, unblemished white, and a frigid wind scours the mountainside, kicking up clouds of powder. The skiers slide by and shoot down their runs, while we deploy our snowshoes and trudge towards Asahidake’s stony rise. We soon arrive at the mouths of two fumaroles, volcanic vents that spew forth sulphuric smoke and steam. Acrid vapours sting my nostrils as I stand there in the driving snow, staring into these hissing, otherworldly portals. I’m witnessing nature in its purest, most unpredictable form, and I’m gripped with a kind of heady electricity. This is why I’ve come here in winter. “People in Sapporo are known for being


laid-back,” says Yuichi Kudo, a local guide, as we make our way along the ice-slicked pavements of Hokkaido’s capital, later in my trip. “We’re open-minded and tolerant, though the rest of Japan thinks we’re kind of slow, which is true, really: we like to drive slow, we walk slow, and we even talk slow.” The Sapporo Snow Festival is in full


swing, and we amble around, taking in an ice sculpture exhibition that stretches for a good four city blocks. The sun lingers behind the low haze of grey, and snow blows down in sharp, diagonal blasts. I bundle my jacket and throw up my hood, but Yuichi braves the onslaught without covering his head. “I’m a local,” he laughs. “I’m used to it.” Aſter a visit to the seafood market, Yuichi escorts me back to my hotel, where I soak


away the cold in the steamy waters of the onsen. Warmed and re-energized, I head back out to the Festival’s main venue: Odori Park. A gumbo of languages bubble around


me, reflecting the event’s international appeal, as I marvel at giant snow sculptures of subjects as varied as cutesy anime characters, Hokkaido’s native wildlife and ancient cultural symbols from the island’s indigenous Ainu people. All are illuminated by floodlights and feature multimedia projection shows. There’s also a snowboard exhibition, wine- and sake-tasting, music performances and a whole smoking lounge constructed from glistening blocks of ice. While I’m dazzled by the snow art, I soon


realise food is the real star of the show. The whole of the concourse is lined with stalls offering up local specialities: ramen, grilled meat, veggies, sweets and fresh seafood of every stripe. Over the course of the evening I try skewers of venison, crab and fried chicken, washing it all down with hot sake. Red-cheeked and tipsy, I finish the night in


front of a snowy replica of Warsaw’s Lazienki Palace, celebrating Poland and Japan’s diplomatic centennial. A pianist sits at the lip of the stage, plinking out Japanese pop songs and classical pieces. As I take my final sip of sake, I feel its warmth blossom in my chest. Outside, the temperature continues to plummet and the snow continues to fall.


InsideJapan offers a 14-night Winter Highlights small group tour costing from £4,295 per person, taking in the Sapporo Snow Festival, spotting sea eagles off the Shiretoko Peninsula and ice flows off Abashiri. Includes accommodation in hotels including OMO7 Asahikawa, transfers and the full-time services of a tour leader. Excludes international flights. insidejapantours.com omo-hotels.com/asahikawa snowfes.com


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