6 Winter Experiences in Hokkaido You Won’t Find Anywhere Else

6 Winter Experiences in Hokkaido You Won’t Find Anywhere Else

These natural phenomena exist only in Hokkaido's unique climate!

Japan plays host to a myriad of seasonal delights throughout the year, but you haven’t experienced a true Japanese winter until you’ve explored the hidden jewels of Hokkaido, its northernmost island.

Far from the crowds that inhabit the main island and popular skiing and snowboarding resorts, you’ll fall in love with the untouched, snowy landscapes of the mountainous countryside. Not to mention, the unique geography and climate of Hokkaido inspires one-of-a-kind natural phenomena that you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the world − even Japan.

Read on for six truly exceptional winter experiences, from divine columns of sparkling sunlight, to flowers made of ice petals!

1. Marvel at the changing colours of Jewelry Ice

Image credit: WOW! Japan

The quaint town of Toyokoro hides a secret treasure that washes up only on its shores at the height of winter: Jewelry Ice. Unlike opaque drift ice, jewelry ice has a crystalline transparency that allows the pieces to gleam and glitter in the winter light. It’s an extremely rare natural occurrence, with other clear ice existing only in Alaskan and Chilean glaciers!

Image credit: Good! Hokkaido!

The jewelry ice is actually birthed in the nearby Tokachi River, which freezes at the lowest temperatures of winter to form clear, pure ice sheets. Tides cause blocks to break off and wash into the Pacific Ocean, before smoothening them to form ice pebbles that get washed ashore onto Otsu Beach.

Image credit: nyanordiska

The beauty of this natural phenomenon is best observed at sunrise, when the ice crystals take on the changing hues of morning light. If you arrive just before dawn, you’ll have a moment to savour the serene atmosphere and witness steam fog drifting across the shoreline. The ice pebbles take on a dark navy before sunrise, evolving to ruby red, citrine, golden yellow, and finally diamond white − all within an hour. It’s a truly magical experience!

Address: Otsu Beach, Otsu Motomachi, Toyokoro Town, Hokkaido

Access: 45 min by car from Tokachi Obihiro Airport to Toyokoro Town

Operating hours: 24 hrs. Visit from mid-Jan to late Feb.

Price: Free

Website

2. Have your breath taken away by frost flowers blooming

Blooms in spring are beautiful, but the frost flowers that blossom over Lake Akan in the winter have an entirely different kind of ephemeral beauty. These miraculous flowers form when vapour crystallises over frozen lakes in still air, forming layers of feather-like crystal fronds.

Image credit: Hokkaido Lab

So delicate that a single warm breath will melt them, the frost flowers require very specific climatic conditions to bloom. The smooth surface of the volcanic lakes, intensely cold temperatures and windless mornings at Lake Akan provide the perfect environment for the development of these remarkable ‘flowers’.

Image credit: Hokkaido Lab

A picturesque backdrop surrounds the lake, with volcanic mountains such as Mt. Meakan still venting hot fumes, forests of Yezo spruce and Sakhalin fir, and fields of powder-white snow. A guided walking tour over the frozen surface of the lake is probably the best way to observe the frost flowers up close − but remember to hold your breath!

Address: Lake Akan-ko, Akan Mashu National Park, Kushiro-shi, Hokkaido

Access: 90 min by car from Kushiro

Operating hours: Visit in the morning, Dec − early Mar.

Price: Free

Website

3. Search for mystical sun pillars in the frosty countryside

Video credit: Shinji Kawamura

Occasionally the subject of reported UFO sightings, a sun pillar is a rare phenomenon that occurs only in the coldest of winters, such as those experienced in Hokkaido. They resemble a vertical pillar of light stretching from the heavens down to the earth, with a mystical glowing aura and the glitter of ‘diamond dust’.

It might seem like an encounter with a glimpse of divine intervention, but sun pillars are atmospheric occurrences that are completely natural. Tiny ice crystals smaller than snowflakes, also known as ‘diamond dust’, form and float suspended in breezeless air. On a clear day, they reflect light through their hexagonal crystalline structures to create the optical effect of a pillar of light.

Image credit: Shikisai-no-oka (cropped)

Only when a highly specific combination of natural elements are present do sun pillars occur, requiring frigid temperatures, sunny conditions, and motionless air to form. To maximise your chances of finding one, visit the areas surrounding Biei Town, Nayoro City, and Lake Mashu. In any event, you’ll be treated to stunning wintry landscapes covered with fine diamond dust.

Address: Various

Operating hours: Jan − Feb. Sunrise and sunset offer the best chances of seeing sun pillars.

Website

4. Barge through thick drift ice on an icebreaker cruise

Image credit: Satoru Kobayashi

If you’re not making a journey to Antarctica or the Arctic anytime soon, the Sea of Okhotsk off the northern coast of Hokkaido is perhaps the only other place in the world to witness drifting sea ice (known locally as ryu-hyo).

Image credit: JNTO

Join an ice-crushing boat cruise for the best views of this spectacular sight! Standing on the deck of a powerful arctic vessel piercing through thick ice is an awe-inspiring, multisensory experience – you’ll be able to hear and feel the crushing of thick chunks of ice when the ship powers through.

You can board an icebreaker cruise from the ports of Abashiri and Monbetsu, which also has drift ice festivals and facilities such as museums and 360° immersive observatories for a richer experience.

Alternatively, for a closer look, you might want to embark on a walking tour of the drift ice, or try ice diving for a peek under the surface. Whichever you pick, keep an eye out for wintry wildlife such as Steller’s sea eagles, harp seals, and the delicate clione (also known as sea angels)!

Aurora Icebreaker (Abarashi)

Address: Minami 3, Higashi 4-5-1, Abashiri city, Hokkaido

Access: Direct buses run from bus terminals of Memanbetsu Airport and JR Abashiri Station.

Operating hours: Ship tours generally run from mid-Jan to late Mar. Departure times vary.

Price: Approx. ¥3,300 adults, ¥1,650 elementary school students.

Website

Garinko-go II Icebreaker (Monbetsu)

Address: Kaiyokoen 1, Mombetsu city, Hokkaido

Access: 12 min by bus from Memanbetsu Airport

Operating hours: Ship tours generally run from mid-Jan to late Mar. Departure times vary.

Price: Approx. ¥3,000 adults, ¥1,500 elementary school students.

Website

Ryuhyo Ice Walk

Address: Shiretoko National Park

Access: 2 hours and 10 min by bus from Memanbetsu Airport

Operating hours: Ship tours generally run from Feb to Mar.

Departure times: 6.30am, 9.30am, 1pm, 3.15pm

Price: Approx. ¥5,100 adults, ¥2,600 Child.

Website

5. Ride on a dog sled through white snowfields

Who isn’t a dog lover these days? The Alaskan Huskies fronting the dog-sledding experiences in Hokkaido are not only fluffy and friendly, you’ll also witness their raw strength and athleticism as a team of these canines pull your sled through backcountry trails.

Dog sledding, also known as ‘mushing’, is no casual sleigh ride. Before the ride, you’ll have to build rapport with the team of huskies, and the sledding operator will conduct a short training session on how to drive the dog sled. But let’s be honest, we don’t need an excuse to make friends with these good boys!

Image credit: Hokkaido Experience

You’ll feel the unrestrained power of these strong creatures as they tug on the reins in your hands and race through powder-white forests and snow-topped fields. It’s a fun-filled, exciting experience you’ll never forget!

Address: Mainly in Furano, Tokachi, and Eastern Hokkaido.

Operating hours: Generally available Jan − Mar.

Price: Ranges from approx ¥9,000 to ¥20,000 per person, for a half-day session.

Website

6. Explore Japan’s only village made entirely of ice and snow

Image credit: maxpixel

For most of the year, Lake Shikaribetsu draws in visitors as the highest lake in Hokkaido, with an elevation of around 800m. But every winter, the ‘phantom village’ of Kotan appears atop the lake’s thick ice near Shikaoi town − or rather, it’s built over the course of a month – to much fanfare.

Image credit: Shikaoi

Amongst the various igloos made solely of ice, visitors can find an Ice Bar serving up beverages in ice glasses, complete with ice tables and ice chairs. Just next door, the Ice Chapel holds wedding ceremonies in the midst of soft candlelight, and the Ice Hall features live music performances. You could even sleep overnight on an ice bed at the Ice Hotel, and enjoy the amazing stargazing opportunities here!

The centrepiece of the festival might be the Ice Onsen, the world’s only open-air hot spring in the ice. The bath’s free-flowing carbonated spring water from Shikaribetsu Onsen will certainly be a warm welcome in the freezing temperatures outdoors!

Address: Kotan, Lake Shikaribetsu, Daisetsuzan National Park, Kato District, Hokkaido.

Access: Shuttle bus available from Obihiro station (1h).

Operating hours: Varies annually. Generally from late Jan − early March.

Price: Free admission, free parking, free access to Ice Onsen.

Website

Winter is coming, and you’ve never seen it as it is in Hokkaido. Add these six experiences to your winter bucket list!

To find out more about winter experiences in Hokkaido, visit the Hokkaido Tourism Organization’s website and Facebook page.


Brought to you by Hokkaido Tourism Organization.

About Author

Ashley Tan
Ashley Tan

Ashley is a lover of black coffee and sunny mornings. When she takes a break from perfecting her sun salutations and sprinting through TV marathons, she's dreaming of her next adventures: exploring old cities on cobbled pavements, dipping her toes into sparkling waves, and watching the sunset from above the clouds.

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