Great Escape: Exploring the ice floes and empty roads of northeastern Hokkaido

Great Escape: Exploring the ice floes and empty roads of northeastern Hokkaido

It’s -11C on a February afternoon and my road trip along the northeastern corner of Japan’s vast Hokkaido island has led me to the small coastal town of Utoro. On the edge of the remote Shiretoku Peninsula and the entryway to the UNESCO-protected Shiretoku National Park, this isolated stretch is known in the local Ainu language as ‘the end of the world’. In front of me lies the Sea of Okhotsk, completely frozen over. Huge pieces of drift ice are caught in the grip of the frozen water. It almost feels like I can walk across to Russia, located somewhere over this stretch of seemingly solidified sea.

During wintertime, these waters are almost impossible to navigate through because of huge ice floes drifting in from Siberia. Most international tourists fly from Tokyo to Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido Prefecture, to reach the western ski resort of Niseko. But I’ve come here to escape the crowds. At Sapporo I transfer to the regional Memanbetsu Airport, somewhere in the more remote and unknown parts of eastern Hokkaido.


Typically, the only Western travellers to venture this far are birdwatchers looking for the red-crowned cranes who gather elegantly in the marshlands of Kushiro. I want to admire my surroundings more generally. As I travel through eastern Hokkaido, it so frequently feels as though I’ve stepped into a Japanese painting of a wintery landscape, a kakemono calligraphy drawing of valleys carpeted in pure, white snow; endless forests where bears still roam; frozen lakes where swans and cranes parade in the soft midwinter light; and small, dimly lit towns where you can retreat and reheat thanks to heart-warming onsen.

In Utoro one morning, a short guy dressed like a penguin waves and gestures for me to join him on the frozen sea. In my baggy drysuit, I walk, in true penguin style, on the slippery drift ice and wander away from the shore onto the Sea of Okhotsk, supplier of possibly the world’s best king crab and more seafood delights like wonderful wild salmon.

From my perch on the frozen bay, I try to visualise how the pure water from the Amur river in Russia transforms into huge pieces of ice when meeting these shallow waters, where fierce winds coming from Siberia freeze everything and everyone. The Japanese call it ryūhyō and the drift ice forms around the end of February and disappears completely around mid-April. Japanese tourists like to wander around on the drift ice, sometimes doing an ice-plunge with protected suits. They might see white-tailed eagles, gliding over the frozen water, while they’re there.

Stopping for coffee at one of the region’s simple cafés CREDIT: DAVID DE VLEESCHAUWER

The good thing about feeling cold in Japan is that there’s always a toasty hot spring around the corner. In the evening I bed down in Utoro’s aptly named Shiretoko Grand Hotel Kita Kobushi. If you want to experience true Japan, there are intimate and luxurious ryokans but staying in a grand, Japanese-style hotel and feeling the dynamics of local people on holiday is also quite an experience. Again in the hotel there are plenty of onsen with views over the ice-cold sea, as well as warm sake and steaming hot-pot dishes with freshly caught seafood. Afterwards there’s karaoke. I enjoy all that’s on offer, and then sleep like a baby in my snug, futon-style bed in a super-warm tatami-mat bedroom.

From the drift ice near the national park and lakes of the Shiretoku Peninsula it is a short, easy drive to the dense woods near the town of Nemuro. Wearing snowshoes, I walk with a guide deep into a silent forest bordered by high cliffs and a steel-grey ocean. There’s deer, eagles and foxes. The brown bears that inhabit this region should be fast asleep during this time of the year, but there’s always a chance of an early bird. Armed with a whistle and bear spray, my guide leads me through the forest, stopping now and then to admire the views. It is peaceful and beautiful, so it seems discordant when at the end of the tour we suddenly find ourselves in a warm and cosy visitors’ centre where souvenirs like fluffy gloves fashioned to look like bear claws are sold alongside hot matcha tea.

Superb seafood is found throughout the region CREDIT: DAVID DE VLEESCHAUWER

During winter Hokkaido is completely snowed under, but I’m told that when spring arrives it transforms into a lush and fertile paradise. The prefecture’s dairy farms supply the rest of Japan with fresh milk for ice cream, while in late June the fields surrounding the towns of Furano and Biei are carpeted in lavender — I’m told it feels like being in Provence. But that’s hard to believe when the landscape is still sheathed in its winter cloak; to convince me that Hokkaido sparkles in every season, my guide arranges a stop at Attoko-Ito, a dairy farm that produces the prefecture’s best ice cream. I try a huge cone, freshly made, pure-white, soft and creamy. It resembles the icy landscapes of this remote part of Hokkaido.

Over the following days I proceed through this isolated landscape without seeing a single other Western tourist. Travelling from Utoro to another coastal town of Nemuro, I pass by Lake Furenko, where couples take selfies while swans in the background waddle on the frozen water, an immense brackish lake that is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Eagles, kites and some 300 other kinds of wild birds can be seen here, but again there are only Japanese travellers.

Hokkaido’s winter colours CREDIT: DAVID DE VLEESCHAUWER

The highlight of my visit to the frozen northeast of Japan is without doubt the Crane Sanctuary Tsurui and Itô Town in Kushiro-Shitsugen National Park, which lies almost 100 kilometres — about 90 minutes’ drive — to the east of Lake Furenko. This is the fairy-tale place where over 200 red-crowned cranes gather in the snow. The birds were hunted almost to extinction but in recent decades have recovered significantly. The birds mate for life; at the sanctuary, an army of paparazzi-style photographers line up to snap the perfect photo of two cranes performing a graceful courtship dance. This sanctuary is located in the biggest marshland in Japan and is known by every committed birdwatcher in the world.

In true Japanese style, we end the day in Akan, a small town filled with shops, izakayas and hotels with onsen near Lake Akan, also called the happiness lake. The town and lake lie near Akan National Park, about 90 minutes from the Tsurui Crane Sanctuary. A string of hotels sits along the edge of this now-flooded caldera-type volcanic crater. The little town of Ainu Kotan is significant because it is a stronghold for Ainu culture. The Ainu people are the indigenous inhabitants of Hokkaido and are seen as the first people of Japan. But the most recent estimates suggest Hokkaido’s Ainu population stands at just 25,000 people, and it was only in 2005 that the Ainu finally gained recognition from parliament as indigenous people with a “distinct language, religion and culture”.


While wandering through the snowy, slippery streets of Akan, I hear the sound of Ainu music coming from the small concert hall. The infectious tribal sounds of the tonkori, a plucked string instrument, and the mukkuri, a jaw harp, drift through the icy air. I can also decipher spirited voices imitating animal cries, bird songs and insect sounds. It sounds magical, distinctive and ethereal; it fits perfectly with my last evening in this snowed-in, remote corner of remarkable Hokkaido.

Getting there

ANA flies from London to Tokyo Haneda, with return fares starting from £580 (economy class) £1,397 (business class); and £2,094 (business class). ANA offers daily flights from Tokyo Haneda to Kushiro, with return fares starting from £140. , from where there are daily flights to Kushiro in Hokkaido.
Ampersand Travel can arrange self-drive trips or guided tours through Hokkaido throughout the year.

Journalist Debbie Pappyn and photographer David De Vleeschauwer venture tirelessly to the most beautiful corners of the world. Having already visited over 100 countries, they regularly write about their adventures for Telegraph Luxury and other publications internationally. The couple’s own, award-winning website Classe Touriste is a visual chronicle of those global adventures.