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.

Nov. 11

Special feature

Column: Get Ready! Winter is Arriving in East Hokkaidō.

The transition from autumn to winter brings hordes of migratory birds hurrying into East Hokkaidō. Their flocks are restless and noisy: geese and swans clamour at coastal lagoons; ducks, divers, grebes and gulls become plentiful offshore and in harbours; and chattering flocks of thrushes, buntings and finches are on the move southwards busily seeking warmth and food.

By Mark Brazil

November heralds winter. Occasional wintry blasts of cold Siberian air hasten torpor on late-active Brown Bears, deepen hibernation of already sleeping Siberian Chipmunks, and carry avian migrants, such as waterfowl and thrushes, from Russia into Hokkaido.

High-pressure weather systems bring pellucid azure skies; they seem visibly to carry the chill of the coming winter with them. Snow dusts over, then accumulates on, the mountain peaks of Akan, Shari and Shiretoko. Yet near sea level, although the region’s various root crops have long-since been harvested, some grass meadows remain lush and surprisingly green against the surrounding sombre post-autumn colours.

Against azure skies and white snows, the Angels of Winter – Whooper Swans – arrive, clamouring. Their enormous seraphic wings appear ethereally creamy. Resting, and roosting beside lakes and lagoons or adrift on water, with their long necks draped over their backs and their heads buried deeply in their dense plumage, they appear dormant, and soft-contoured like scattered white pillows.

Against the remnants of green pastures, stately Red-crowned Cranes are starkly patterned in white and black. Pairs pace and strut, projecting their long-legged and long-necked elegance, occasionally pausing to sky-point and bugle their duets to the heavens. They have forsaken the marshy wetlands where they summered, exchanging them for farmland and the easy post-harvest pickings to be had there. Some adults have youngsters in-tow — learning the tricks of the crane-trade from their parents — separable by their lingering, cinnamon-brown neck feathers where their parents sport sharp black and white cowls and red crowns. A watchful crane-parent glancing skyward gives away the overhead passage of another inbound migrant — an enormous eagle!

Whereas airborne swans on their autumnal emigration must beat their angelic wings continuously to remain aloft, the eagles soar! Using air currents, uplift over hillsides, rising columns of warmed air, and riding on the back of the wind, the eagles come gliding and soaring, making their seemingly effortless annual journey from further north. Mid-brown plumage and short, rounded tails mark the White-tailed Eagles. The small Hokkaido breeding population of eagles is soon great exceeded by those in-bound from Russia. Yet these seemingly enormous raptors are dwarfed as their even larger cousins – Steller’s Eagles – arrive to join them for winter.

Steller’s Eagle’s blackish-brown plumage, pure white shoulders, thighs, and tail feathers, along with its deep yellow legs and massive bill render it both impressive and unmistakable. Soaring high over the wintry landscape, their white shoulders flashing like epaulettes marking their rank, they seem to be surveying their island realm. These are our largest winter predators and they provide a thrill at every sighting.

Dr Mark Brazil is a British writer, naturalist, ornithologist and international expedition leader. A long-term resident of Hokkaidō, he founded Japan Nature Guides in 2011. Author of ten books, mostly about Japan and East Asia, his latest is Wild Hokkaidō: A Guidebook to the National Parks and other Wild Places of East Hokkaidō published by Hokkaidō Shimbun Press.

With November’s passing, temperatures fall steadily until the ground itself freezes and every snowfall accumulates to soften the contours and bring silence to the landscape. The sea seems to darken, but soon it will be the season of the sea ice which will bring a brilliant whiteness to the scene. Within the next few months the mountains will be snow-covered, and cold weather and cold currents will bring northern marine species, such as Steller’s Sea Lion, to the shores of Hokkaidō. There is so much to look for in every season.

Special feature

When I arrived on the island of Hokkaido for the first time in November of 2006, I had no idea that this would become the place I called home for the next 15 years (and counting). As an Australian ...