Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost prefecture, feels sometimes like it is still a land of its own. This is no wonder, since the area was for a long time, geographically and culturally isolated from mainland Japan. Drift ice that has traveled for 1000 kilometers arrives every year to the eastern shores of this island, that face the Sea of Okhotsk. The drift ice phenomenon makes this a very mineral rich ocean, which attracts both fishermen and wildlife that cannot be seen in any other part of Japan.
Blakiston’s fish owl, the largest existing species of owls, is one such animal. This creature holds symbolical importance for Ainu, the indigenous people of present Japan and Russia. The island of Hokkaido while part of modern Japan, is to this day truly exceptional in its nature, history and culture.
Welcome to Japan's final frontier!
Let’s start the adventure with a serene and special sight. Your journey to Hokkaido wildlife starts with a visit to Akan International Crane Center. Red-crowned crane, also known as Japanese crane, is one of the rarest crane species in the world. This is usually a bird with migratory habits, but interestingly there is a crane population that lives permanently in East Hokkaido.
For dinner, it will be cool to step back in time and have a little venture around Hokkaido’s oldest market street “Akachochin Yokocho”, literally “Red Lantern Back Alley” in Kushiro city.
– Red-crowned crane, also known as Japanese crane or “tancho” in Japanese was almost extinct due to overhunting, and erosion of its natural habitat around World War II.
– A small population of around 20 birds managed to survive in Eastern Hokkaido, and thanks to protection of their breeding sites and creating special eating grounds currently there are over 1000 cranes alive. The bird is however still endangered.
Quality time with a local fisherman and amazingly fresh seafood
Before heading into the wilderness, relish the opportunity to meet some people and get in touch with real local Hokkaido culture. This is also a good occasion to put a twist on your national park adventure and think about the symbiosis of nature and people.
Meet a local sea urchin fisher in Hamanaka town. This delightful personality with a fascinating profession will take you for a stroll in a small local harbor and teach you about his work and himself. Many people might associate fishing with summer, but for professional fishermen there is plenty to do also during the winter season. There will of course be tasty seafood. How about some super fresh sea urchin?
A sleeping volcano in Akan Mashu National Park
From here on it will be a full course of Hokkaido nature. One place of interest in this stunning national park, one of the oldest in Hokkaido, is a sleeping volcano located between two stunning lakes, known as Mount Io (“Sulfur Mountain”) in Japanese and Atosanupuri (“Naked Mountain”) in the Ainu language. As the names suggest, this is a stoic, bare volcano with a peculiar color and a distinctive smell.
After a thought-provoking day learning about this magnificent volcano, you will be staying at an atmospheric Japanese inn with hot springs. There is a feeding spot for large Blakiston’s fish owl in the area. So if you are lucky, you might get to meet this glorious creature that is also symbolically significant in Ainu culture.
– Atmospheric inn with natural “onsen” hot springs.
– Both Japanese style rooms with “tatami” mats and Western style rooms are available.
– Various types of baths to enjoy, from large open-air hot springs to completely wooden indoor baths with a nostalgic timber fragrance.
– Original, creative menu of seasonal cuisine making full use of local ingredients.
– Interesting location on the edge of the deep forests of Akan-Mashu National Park and agricultural lands of Nakashibetsu area. Nearby there is a place where it is possible to spot Blakiston’s fish owls, largest living species of owls.
Birdwatching cruise in UNESCO World Heritage Site Shiretoko National Park
One of the coolest things about Hokkaido is its diversity which you are just about to experience. After check-out, you can get up to an observatory hill, where you can enjoy a spectacular sunrise and a panoramic view of the surrounding agricultural land. It almost feels like you are the only people in the world.
Next stop: welcome to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shiretoko National Park. This place is known by the name “End of the World” in the Ainu language. Today we are hoping to see something spectacular. In Shiretoko there are nature-watching boats that make cruises in the peninsula area. A small but powerful boat will make its way through the icy cold ocean water to the areas where wild birds can be found. If everything goes well, you will see some white-tailed eagles and giant Steller’s sea eagles on the drift ice.
– Steller’s sea eagle is the largest existing species of sea eagles.
– These giant animals have an impressive bright yellow beak and a distinctive white area in their otherwise darkish brown coat.
– In wintertime Steller’s sea eagles that usually live in the Eastern Russian side of the Sea of Okhotsk move south toward Hokkaido.
– Fun fact: the East Hokkaido locals are so used to seeing these birds, that for them they are as common as crows!
Snowshoeing in the stunning Shiretoko National Park
Today it is time to land right into the snowy scenery and enjoy the pristine nature of Shiretoko National Park scenery on foot. As appealing as a sweaty survival adventure in deep snow might sound, there is no need to paddle through the stuff unprepared: after putting on a magical item called snowshoes you are all set to go. Wander, taking in the views of the Five Lakes of Shiretoko and head into the enchanting white landscape towards the Furepe Falls. The winter scenery in this special spot by the sea is truly breathtaking. These interesting waterfalls seem to appear out of nothing. With mountains in the background, the waterfall sprays down steep cliffs right into the Sea of Okhotsk full of drift ice. Actually, that is where you will be heading tomorrow.
Once in a lifetime experience: drift ice walking
Today will be a very special day. You will get to descend to the Sea of Okhotsk and experience the drift ice first hand. Every year, around 1000 kilometers away from Hokkaido, on the border between China and Russia, there is a mass of ice made of seawater that gets thinned by the natural forces of the Amur River.
Gigantic pieces of ice start to drift slowly south, and around February they have traveled a 1000 kilometer journey and hit the shores of East Hokkaido and slowly melt away. This is the southernmost place in the Northern Hemisphere where drift ice can be experienced.
Ice fishing with a Japanese twist
Have you ever fished on a frozen lake? Today’s program will be a nice mix of nature and culture. Smelt – “wakasagi” in Japanese – is still fished using a traditional method in wintertime Hokkaido by making a hole in the ice. There will be a tent that protects you from the harsh wind, but you can also explore and take in the scenery for a change of pace. Fishing can take some fortitude, but there is a reward for those who wait. The smelt you catch can be made into nice and warm “tempura” right before your eyes. Tempura is a Japanese dish that is made by battering and deep frying, in this case, seafood. In the evening it is time for some seasonal festivities: check out the Sounkyo Onsen Ice Fall Festival for ice and snow installations and enchanting music and dance performances.
Hokkaido culture before heading to the airport
Before saying goodbyes to this northern island, you can take a peek its rich culture. An interesting glass blowing workshop using recycled glass is one recommendation for those who love to work with their hands.
If the journey stimulated your interest in the deeper layers of Hokkaido, there is also the Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples, where one can learn about the culture, traditions and contemporary life of people of the northern, subarctic regions. This is an excellent place to familiarize yourself with the Ainu culture of Hokkaido and during the same visit you also learn about the societies and ways of living from the First Nations people of northern Canada, the Inuit, the Sami of Northern Europe and the Siberian peoples among others.
7 Nights Accommodation
7 Breakfasts / 0 Lunches / 5 Dinners
8 Days Jumbo Taxi with English speaking Driver
*2-3pax Toyota Alphard with Local English speaking Driver
Parking, Fuel and Highway Fees
Taxes (10% Consumption Tax)
*Prices are in JPY（Japanese yen）, per person, based on double occupancy.