Amazing Adventures in Hokkaido

The abundance of the natural environment, the lifestyles and culture of the people who live there – Hokkaido has many incredible stories that are as yet unknown.
In this column, we learn about the appeal of Hokkaido’s four seasons from the people who guide adventure tours there. We hope such stories enrich the time spent in Hokkaido, the next time you visit.

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Column: Winter’s grip is waning, yet spring lies deeply hidden.

In southern Japan, delicate vernal blossoms of plum, peach and cherry now bedeck tree branches, proving that a new season has arrived and showing that everything is alive
— It’s spring!

Meanwhile, in northern Japan, it is snow that coats the limbs of trees, snow that blizzards and lies deeply piled and drifted between forest trees, snow that brightens mountain flanks and threatens to crush the ageing roof beams of abandoned houses, and it is drift ice that covers the sea, proving that the old season’s frosty, vicelike grip remains hard — It’s still winter!!

By Mark Brazil

March, clearly, is a crazy and confusing month. It promises a bright future yet remains rooted in a dark and frigid past. Another, ancient meaning of march describes a border or frontier, separating one country from another. How apt this is for a month that is the border between two greatly-contrasting seasonal ‘countries’ — Winter and Spring.

Since the ground first froze in Hokkaidō during late November, snow has accumulated with every snowfall. Now, it lies deeply, blanketing the landscape still. Blizzards have come and gone forcing road, rail and air traffic to a standstill, and drift ice has crept down the Sea of Okhotsk. Seeded by the voluminous outpouring of freshwater from the mighty Amur River into the northwestern portion of that sea, and driven south by northerly winds and the southward flowing East Sakhalin Current, ice forms, builds and drifts steadily southwards eventually reaching Hokkaidō’s Sea of Okhotsk coast in January or February. Its flow is temporarily blocked by Hokkaidō’s northeastern extension, the Shiretoko Peninsula, so that the ice first fills in the great bay on which the city of Abashiri sits. Then, it sweeps around the peninsula’s tip and is carried on the swift current through the Nemuro Strait down Hokkaidō’s eastern coast to Nemuro and beyond.

Utoro makes the perfect base for drift ice walking
Drift Ice arrives at Notoro Misaki, just west of Abashiri
The shapes and colours of drift ice are endlessly photogenic

To those for whom the sea seems forever blue, grey, or perhaps depressingly leaden, witnessing a brilliant, sun-reflecting, whitened expanse reaching to the horizon is beautiful but baffling. Then, to recognise that this is not one fixed sheet, as lake ice might be, but an undulating, swell-dampening carpet of jumbled blocks and chunks of ice, is utterly mesmerising. The interplay of rising and falling tides continues unabated, but the sounds of crashing waves are gone, dampened now to a gentle swelling and undulation. Instead, ice jumbles, scrapes and pushes ashore in jagged and jumbled blocks that range in size from those of small suitcases to small trucks and that may be as much as a metre thick. Wander a few paces out onto this expanse of drifting ice and new sounds are noticeable.

The ice blocks crush against one another, scrape and brush past each other, tumble and turn, and as they do so they release groans, creaks and eerie emanations. The ice falls silent, then suddenly emits further bizarre pent-up sounds, as the sea rises and falls beneath it.

Steller’s Eagles gather on drift ice off the eastern coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula

Where the drift ice flows down the Nemuro Strait it becomes the inspiring backdrop against which hundreds of magnificent eagles gather and hunt, and on which seals sometimes rest and even pup. Pods of orca may even hunt near the ice edge or out in the channel. Beneath the drifting floes is another world entirely, home of ice-related phytoplankton that ‘seeds’ and spreads during the season of the ice, providing food for larger zooplankton. This sub-ice ecosystem consists largely of microscopic organisms, but the predatory clione or ‘sea angels’ are both exceptional and spectacular — they are large enough to be visible to the naked eye and are translucent! These shell-less, pelagic marine molluscs can be seen by peering down into the dark water between the ice floes, but are best seen by diving beneath the ice itself.

Sea Angels or Clione seem like beautiful but unworldly life forms; they are in fact shell-less marine snails

Offshore, ice helps retain Hokkaidō’s winter chill. Onshore, ice forms along cliffs and at waterfalls, and also drips from trees as sap begins to rise during sunny days and draws small birds for an energy-rich drink. In the forests, snow still lies deep in ever-compacting layers making snowshoeing easy and great fun at this time of year. Sun-warmed tree trunks radiate warmth, and around their bases the snow thaws away leaving an inverted cone that eventually reaches down to expose the forest floor — here, the first spring flowers will emerge, though not yet for some weeks.
March may promise spring in Hokkaidō, but it is not here yet!

When frozen Fureppe Waterfall takes on a delightful blue appearance
Winter conditions inside caves form stunning icy stalactites and stalagmites which are then sculpted by the wind
During March, tree-wells form around the bases of trees exposing the first greenery of spring
Beside Lake Toro, ice appears to emerge from dry soil and forms snow-white sculptures

Dr Mark Brazil, a British writer, naturalist, ornithologist and international expedition leader, is a long-term resident of Hokkaidō. He founded Japan Nature Guides in 2011. Mark is the author of ten books, mostly about Japan and East Asia; his latest are Japan: The Natural History of an Asian Archipelago published in January 2022 by Princeton University Press, and Wild Hokkaidō: A Guidebook to the National Parks and other Wild Places of East Hokkaidō published by Hokkaido Shimbun Press in June 2021.

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