Among the places in Japan where, over the years, my trusty old backpack and I have poked about in Japan — from the southern tip of Okinawa Island, to the far-flung Ogasawaras 1,000-km south of Tokyo, and to Wakkanai and Rishiri Island in northern Hokkaido — very high on my list of top 10 destinations would be eastern Hokkaido in February or March.
At this time of year, anywhere north and east of Kushiro City, eastern Hokkaido’s commercial center, is unforgiving, hostile, even. It’s at its worst, weather-wise, with frequent blizzards, below freezing temperatures and bone-numbing winds blowing directly down from Siberia.
Even so, I’ve never refused a chance to go there and take in its breathtaking winter scenery: mountains, forests and farmland cloaked in deep snow, sea-ice forced onto the shore of Abashiri Bay by wind and tide, abundant wildlife, many hot springs, and of course, all that delicious seafood.
This part of the country was first introduced to me by The Japan Times’ wildlife columnist Mark Brazil several years ago, and I remember my first trips with him to the fishing port of Rausu (three hours by car northeast of Kushiro) on the frigid Shiretoko Peninsula. There, in howling winds and blowing snow, we watched the fishing fleet return to the harbor laden to the masthead with tons of fat, oily pollack.
We stood on the bridge over the Sashirui River under moonless predawn skies in -15 C temperatures, and watched the dark shapes of eagles blot out the stars when they flew out to the pack ice in the Nemuro Channel. There, they waited for the fishing fleet to come and raise the nets, and, when fish offal was discarded, they feasted like kings on their own tables of ice.
We ate steaming bowls of ramen and tasted the fine seafood that the region offers in abundance: crab, sea urchin, salmon eggs and the freshest sashimi.
At the end of a cold day of watching nature, Mark introduced me to the pleasures of Kumanoyu, his “secret” rotenburo (outdoor hot spring) nestled among snowdrifts and trees above Rausu.
To this day, Kumanoyu is the hottest rotenburo that I have ever been in, and it is nothing less than an endurance test to sink into the hot waters.
For me — and everyone else, I imagine (local fishermen excepted) — the immersion rate is literally centimeter by centimeter of body part per every few minutes; none of this throwing a basin or two of hot water over yourself before quickly jumping in.
This water is probably in the mid-40 C range, the kind that, when you are finally driven from the depths, you are as pink as a well-cooked lobster, and with all the heat emanating from deep within your body, you can sit around and chit-chat in the subzero cold for half an hour or more.
One of Rausu’s major attractions during the late winter is sea ice, vast volumes of which are disgorged from the Amur River, which forms part of the border between China and Russia. It hits east Hokkaido in early January, slowly drifting south.
Large amounts build up in Abashiri Bay, and from there it eventually overflows and spills into the narrow Nemuro Channel which separates the Shiretoko Peninsula and the Russian-held island of Kunashiri.
The spectacle of sea-ice has become a major tourist attraction, and from Abashiri the Aurora sightseeing boat sails out into the ice to give tourists a closeup of this wonder of nature.
From Rausu, too, short boat trips — including the sunrise cruise, which leaves the harbor at five in the morning — are possible, and one enterprising company is even offering the thrill of diving under the sea-ice.
An added attraction at Rausu is the opportunity to get up close and personal with the eagles — at their closest, they are something like two meters away. Other wildlife that you might see includes seals, and if you are really lucky, you might even encounter a huge Steller’s sea lion or a small, furry sea otter.
Another organism linked to the sea ice is the kurione (sea angel). This transparent 3-cm long shell-less mollusk is, as its name suggests, angelic, floating vertically under the sea ice with “wings” rapidly moving to maintain balance.
Sometimes, at some of the tourist centers in the area, a few of these live creatures are on show in glass jars or small aquariums, and under ultraviolet light their inner organs glow bright pink.
Also in eastern Hokkaido and situated a few kilometers east of Nemuro City — a place whose only claim to fame is that it has street signs written three ways (in Japanese, Russian and romaji), is Hokkaido’s easternmost tip, Nosappu Misaki. This cape overlooks the Habomai Islands that have been occupied by the Russians since the closing days of World War II.
On a blustery February day this headland is about as windswept as can be and what few hardy souls come to brave the elements are either bird-watchers — strange fellows who pop up anywhere from desert to ice cap — or visitors to the 90-meter-tall peace tower that affords a commanding view of islands and chunks of ice bobbing about in the frigid sea.
Less hard work than climbing up the steps of this tower are the hot waters at Yoroushi Onsen.
About a half-hour drive through farming country west of Naka-Shibetsu, this very friendly and welcoming resort boasts another very Japanese experience that is not to be missed.
Inside the onsen at the Hotel Dai-Ichi the sweet smell of hinoki wood lingers in the humid air and outside, the rotenburo is the place to be to drink a cup of sake when snow is falling.
Another attraction at the Dai-Ichi is the sumptuous buffet — both Western and Japanese — at breakfast where, through the large panorama windows that overlook the river, you can watch the comings and goings of the birds as they, too, gobble down their own breakfasts on the bird feeders outside: woodpeckers, jays, tits and bulbuls all line up outside and provide much entertainment.
It’s confirmation that if you want to experience back-country Japan — with its panoramic scenery and cuisine — eastern Hokkaido is a place like no other.