I recently finished leading the Winter Highlights tour of Hokkaido. This spectacular tour features snow monkeys in Nagano, ice sculptures in Sapporo and maiko-spotting in Kyoto. Those highlights get coverage elsewhere. So I have chosen to write about a tour day in eastern Hokkaido, one of the lesser known parts of Japan, yet one full of incredible encounters.
Our lodgings were in the small inland village of Tsurui, on the edge of the Kushiro marshland national park. We woke at 6am with the outside temperature at minus 20. Unaware of the cold outside, we were cocooned inside heated, wood-panelled bedrooms at the welcoming Woody Lodge. Our early rise was for a 6:30am appointment with Ando-san, an expert on local wildlife and photography.
Ando-san, a proud owner of all the latest Swarovski and Nikon equipment, took us to some great spots to see tancho. Tancho are rare red-crowned cranes that somehow survive -20 standing naked in the warmest parts of the river. On his secret viewing spot above the river, Ando-san lent us his scope for close-ups of the tancho.
-20 was not as much of a problem as I expected. None of our group suffered badly: there was no biting wind to chill our bones and everybody was well-prepared for arctic conditions. Yet the thought of parting with even one of my 8 layers of clothing terrified me. How the native Ainu survived winters up here without central heating, kairo heatpads and tight-knit long johns I`ll never know.
After seeing the tancho we returned to Woody lodge where the chef, a local girl and former New York resident, had prepared our breakfast. Her time living overseas was not wasted, as well as speaking excellent English, she is an excellent cook, making us a superb breakfast. Her Mum`s homemade champagne-flavoured apple jam is worth getting up at anytime for.
After breakfast our kind, jovial bus driver took us back to Ando-san at the bird sanctuary. Tancho`s flew over our heads, landed twenty metres in front of us, then graciously danced for us. Actually, Ando-san informed us, they were dancing for each other, an annual - kotoshi mo yoroshiku - please be nice to me this year dance.
We had plenty of time in the sanctuary for close-up photography before heading for a drive in the marshlands. On the way, a kita kitsune, northern fox posed for photographs by the side of the road. We then said goodbye to Ando-san, and headed further east, deeper into the snow-coated wilderness.
After tempura and soba noodle lunch, we rode along the narrow Notsuke peninsula, a diversion recommended by Ando-san. Looking out the bus window, eagles and northern foxes appeared in front of the dark, forbidding waves of the Okhotsk Sea with the snow-capped peaks of Kunashiri, the disputed Russian-held islands looming beyond.
Our final destination was Rausu, a small fishing port on the Shiretoko peninsula world heritage site. Only the coast road in Rausu stays open in winter, the inland road gets cut off by heavy snowfall. This remote peninsula really felt like the exposed edge of Japan.
Actually not all of the valley road is closed, the snow is ploughed for 1km, up as far as Kumanoyu, the Bear Bath. The Bear Bath, a 10 minute trudge up from our hotel, has two rotenburo, outdoor hot spring baths, one for men and one for women. Free to enter, the bath, changing rooms and walkways are all maintained by locals, members of the Rausu Onsen Appreciation Society.
I will never have a bath like it. Wearing hiking boots to trek through snow in the darkness, then shedding all 8 layers in a rickety wooden shed before stepping cautiously over icy concrete to get in a bath so hot I regretted not bringing a cup and teabag.
The intense heat quickly warmed me up, then slowly started to cook me. For a while I took a masochistic pleasure in seeing how long I could last, then I feared the smell of burning flesh.
Kumanoyu is notoriously hot, the man working at the hotel reception had warned me about it when he lent me a torch. Perhaps it is called the Bear Bath because bears are the only animals hardy enough to tolerate it. Eventually I had to plunge the cold water hose in to lower the temperature.
“Nurui! Nurui! (It`s cold! It`s cold!),” a couple of locals who got in after me squealed out. Cold? Putting the cold water hose in for a few seconds may have taken the temperature down – but surely no more than half a degree. I regretted not observing them closer, surely no human could ever complain of cold sitting in that bath, perhaps they were bears tired of the annual tedium of hibernation.