On a high in Hokkaido

We venture way, way out to Japan's north island in hopes of crossing a few more quintessentially Japanese experiences off our to-do list

Skiing with a view of Mt Yotei

Skiing with a view of Mt Yotei

Preparing dinner at Takinoya

Preparing dinner at Takinoya

You can climb into the Soviet-Era Mir space station in Tomakomai

You can climb into the Soviet-Era Mir space station in Tomakomai

The Happy Pony Show at The Northern Horse Park

The Happy Pony Show at The Northern Horse Park

Peak season in Niseko

It’s a long way from the glitz and gleam of Tokyo and other big cities on the Japanese mainland to the north island of Hokkaido. In fact, it’s 90 minutes by plane from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.

As you might expect, it’s a vastly different place from the rest of the country, ripe with the promise of an off-the-grid adventure. Famous for fresh produce and dairy products, Hokkaido appeals to those looking to live life at a gentler pace. The hired car driver who picks us up at New Chitose airport had lived in New York City for years before he returned to his homeland and settled down in Hokkaido because “it’s nice and quiet here, closer to nature.”

Indeed, we end up driving for hours amid rolling hills covered in forests of Japanese maple and silver birch trees. In the fading days of autumn, some of these trees burn rusty red or bright yellow, while others stand with branches bare as bones. En route to the ski destination of Niseko, our first stop, we skip Hokkaido’s largest city, Sapporo, and drive around mountains, into tunnels and over bridges. Seldom do we see another car. We’re definitely a long way from the big city.

Although tourist brochures list a slew of activities you can enjoy in the summer months — from trekking up Mount Yotei, also known as “Mini Fuji”, to trail biking and river rafting — it’s the winter months in Niseko that are truly enchanting.

If Boracay boasts endlessly of its powder-fine white sand, Niseko’s pride is in the quality of its snow: light, fluffy and so legendary it’s been called “champagne powder”. From mid-November to early March, it falls steadily and blankets Mount Annapuri, where most of the skiing happens. During this time, the quiet village below is transformed into a busy, cosmopolitan hub of ski enthusiasts from around the world looking to test their mettle on the slopes.

In the world of skiing, our guide tells us, Niseko is right up there with Canada’s Whistler and Colorado’s Vale. “It’s absolutely world-class,” says Greg, a South African who has called Niseko home for the past five years. In the time he’s lived in Niseko, he’s witnessed a town-wide boom, from restaurants to real estate. As we drive along the sleepy streets (it’s still autumn, after all) he points out the new establishments that are set to open this year when the ski resorts do. In a few weeks, tourists will start pouring in and tons of snow will start falling. “If you’re lucky, you might see early snow,” he tells us. We wake up the next morning to sleet, a gray sky and a landscape covered in white. It’s the first snowfall of the season. We got really lucky.

Onsen in Noboribetsu

We make our way by train from Niseko, past a number of rural villages, to Noboribetsu, also known as “Onsen Town ”, to try out the traditional baths. Noboribetsu is not very big, but it has at least 30 onsen, many of them attached to hotels, plus a number of boiling hot springs thick with the smell of sulfur. A 30ft statue of a two-horned devil, the town mascot, welcomes us to town.

Bathing in an onsen is a ritual for many Japanese, who believe in the health benefits — to both the body and mind — of soaking in mineral-rich, high-temperature waters. Onsen also function as public baths where you’re required to bathe in the nude, except perhaps for a small towel on your head, so they’re not the ideal places to go if you have body-image issues. Shed your self-consciousness along with your clothes; our guide assures us the locals will not look, nor will they care.

And so we head off to Takinoya, one of Noboribetsu’s best-known onsen, just off the town’s main shopping street of Gokuraku-dori. There are a few nods to modernity (high-speed internet is everywhere), but Takinoya is traditional in spirit. A stay at this ryokan (Japanese inn) is an immersive experience.

Also read: Staying at a traditional Japanese ryokan in Kyoto

The four-story hotel is built around a garden and every room has its own balcony where you can sit and admire the trees, a meditative activity the Japanese are prone to engage in when the seasons change. Mr Suga, the hotel’s CEO, greets us with a deep bow and tells us that just a week ago, all the trees were at their most colorful, displaying vibrant hues from red and orange to purple and yellow.

After slipping out of our shoes in the lobby, we pad around tatami-lined hallways in socks. The suites are spacious and divided by Japanese screens and, true to the traditional ryokan, each has its own ceremonial tearoom. Guests enjoy the option of having a kaiseki (multi-course dinner) served in their room by a kimono-clad attendant. Small, beautifully presented dishes made with seasonal ingredients are typically served in sequence, but you can choose to have them brought in all at once.

Takinoya’s main attractions, however, are its baths: from a radon spring bath and a sulfur spring bath to an outdoor salt spring for men and a ferric spring for women. I approach the indoor bath as if I’m wearing blinders, focused only on the business at hand: shower with warm water, starting with the hands and feet, while seated on a wooden stool. After that, I quick-step to the milky bath where, as advised, I slowly sink into the hot water. It’s not a good idea to stay in the hot bath for too long (it affects your blood pressure); a little over a minute for each dip is ideal. Once submerged up to my collarbone, I gaze out the large glass window, watch the trees shed more of their rust-colored leaves and mentally count to 100. It just doesn’t get more Zen than this.

The different worlds in Shiraoi and Tomakomai

From Noboribetsu, we make our way by car along the Pacific coast highway en route to the city of Tomakomai, stopping briefly for a dose of folk history at the Ainu Museum in the town of Shiraoi.

The Ainu are an indigenous people who once populated the northern extremes of the Japanese mainland, Hokkaido and parts of Russia, just across the Sea of Japan. Their history dates back thousands of years, but time and circumstances — such as the annexation of Hokkaido in 1869 during the Meiji era — threatened the Ainu way of life and in the years that followed, pushed them to the brink of extinction.

Over a century later, in 1984, the Ainu were recognized as a valuable cultural asset and the museum was set up as part of efforts to preserve what remained of their heritage. Visitors can walk through the settlement of thatch and bamboo houses and imagine what life was like for the Ainu hundreds of years ago. Traditionally hunter-gatherers, they survived on farming, salmon fishing, and deer and bear hunting. The artifacts on display in the main museum building — hunting and cooking implements made of wood and stone, woven robes with distinctive square patterns, footwear made of salmon skin, and birth and burial paraphernalia — also show how Ainu society evolved over time and through trade with other groups from different islands. But the highlight of the museum tour is the performances in the small auditorium, which demonstrate the Ainu’s spiritual affinity with nature. Men and women dressed in Ainu garb sing songs about the bear, both their main source of sustenance and their god. Another particular dance tells the story of a mother crow teaching her young how to fly.

We then trade in the traditional for a glimpse of what was once cutting edge. It seems a bit odd that a spare Soviet-era Mir spacecraft (the world’s first space station, which was launched by the Soviet Union in 1986 and orbited the earth for 15 years) is the highlight of the Tomakomai Science Museum in the industrial port city of Tomakomai, population 174,000. Then again, it’s just the sort of quirky thing you’d expect of an island where nearly every town has a bizarre official mascot like the skiing potato of Kutchan, near Niseko, and the devil of Noboribetsu.

A Japanese construction company purchased the post-Space Race relic from Russia in 1990, then donated it to Tomakomai eight years later. Now it takes up the better part of the museum and visitors can climb in to get a sense of what it was like onboard. The elderly museum keeper only speaks Japanese but all the information you need about the spacecraft is printed on a two-sheet handout in English, complete with illustrations of a cute cosmonaut.

From the museum, we’re whisked off to another unlikely attraction in Tomakomai. The Northern Horse Park is a horse-breeding farm and recreational destination with pony-jumping shows for kids, carriage rides and tours of the stables. A restaurant and café on the premises serves up fresh salads and entrées along with spectacular views of its gardens. Something about the entire area brings to mind the big, open spaces and rolling hills of the horse-breeding areas of the United States, except that everyone who works here is Japanese.

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Smile magazine.

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