After much planning (there’s a lot to see and it’s expensive, so we wanted to maximise our time), we decided to begin our Japanese fortnight in the north of the country, on the island of Hokkaido.
The main reason was the winter festivals in and around Sapporo, the largest city on the island. The downside was visiting in the coldest month of the year where temperatures can reach -13C. But almost as soon as we’d arrived (from 33C humid Kuala Lumpur, after two days of eating and going to cinema), we knew it was the right decision.
I’d never been to Japan before but Becki had twelve years ago and loved it, so I was really excited to arrive in a brand new country (and very different culture). Things started extremely well with breakfast of a delicious bowl of soba noodles and some tempura in the airport. We then headed to our hotel in Sapporo, and passed people prepping (AKA chainsawing) the intricate ice sculptures for the festival which launched the following day.
Our hotel room was minuscule (it was described as a single room but for two people) but it had everything you needed, including my first encounter with a Japanese toilet.
These are things of beauty, no matter whether the toilet is in your hotel, a restaurant or in a train station they are all super fancy. Would you like a warm bum? Press a button to heat the seat. Worried about the audio of your ablutions? Disguise with some flushing sounds. Don’t fancy wiping? There’s a spray for that. Too busy to turn on the tap? No worries, it happens automatically when you flush. Amazing, I want one in our house in London.
That evening we headed to the nearby city of Otaru for the snow lantern festival where people had built amazing structures with the white stuff and then lit them beautifully with candles. The canal area also featured some old icy buildings which looked like they were stuck in time. It was stunning.
The next day the Sapporo Snow Festival officially began so we spent time (after a quick trip to the local beer museum) admiring the massive snow and ice sculptures (which were impressive in scale but a little bit tacky) and visiting a children’s snow park where I enjoyed tubing down a slope (with kids).
We really wanted to see some rural snowy scenery so headed a few hours northeast to the ski resort of Furano. Becki booked us a cosy hostel with friendly owners where a home-cooked Japanese breakfast and dinner was included in the price.
Not being skiers, we decided to try our hand at snowmobiling (after a quick warm up on a children’s sled course).
After a cursory safety briefing from a guide who spoke little English but smiled a lot, we jumped on board. First off we had 15 minutes of practice in a large flat area which should have been fairly safe. Except, after taking a corner too fast I managed to overturn the vehicle. Thankfully, no harm was done to us so we jumped back on and took it (a little) more slowly.
Soon we moved on to the ‘track’ through beautiful deep snowy countryside alongside hills, streams and forests. We spent about an hour weaving and going up and down (and trying to stay warm). It was starkly beautiful with the deepest, whitest, softest snow I had ever seen.
A brilliant start to Japan.
Next up: Tokyo