Travel | Kateigaho International Japan Edition

Daisetsuzan: Life in the icy white forest

Winter lasts most of the year in Daisetsuzan, the high mountain range that stretches across the center of Hokkaido. The first flurries of snow arrive in September, and the final thaw doesn’t come till the following June. Yet some animals live successfully and apparently quite happily in this frozen worldWinter has come to Daisetsuzan.

It’s only October, but the once-dazzling autumn foliage has all dropped from the trees. As cold air moves in from Siberia, the scene changes dramatically. Fresh snow settles first on the mountain peaks, then advances inexorably down the slopes until it reaches the bottom and the entire landscape has turned white. Day after day the vast forests are blanketed with sparkling ice crystals. Soon, all signs of human encroachment have disappeared from the high ridges, now the domain of no one but the wind.

Boasting several of the island’s highest peaks, the Daisetsuzan range is known as the “roof” of Hokkaido. It extends over an area of some 230,000 hectares, about the same size as all of Kanagawa Prefecture. Daisetsuzan was declared a national park 80 years ago, in 1934.

When a winter coat comes in handy: A male Ezo deer covered in snow. Coming face to face with one of Daisetsuzan's yearlong residents makes you wonder who has it better — them or us. | KENJI ITO
When a winter coat comes in handy: A male Ezo deer covered in snow. Coming face to face with one of Daisetsuzan’s yearlong residents makes you wonder who has it better — them or us. | KENJI ITO

The highest peak is Mount Asahi, 2,290 meters above sea level. For the most part the topography is gentler than on the highest summits of Honshu to the south, which rise to more than 3,000 meters. But here in the far north the tree line is much lower, yielding to a high-altitude zone of tundra where alpine flora reign in a unique natural environment.

As the source of the bountiful Ishikari River, the Daisetsuzan range is revered by the region’s indigenous Ainu people, who call it Kamui Min-tara — the garden of the gods.

A foxy perspective: As the sunlight filters softly through the trees, an Ezo red fox perks up its ears and sniffs the air for interesting scents. How does this landscape appear to the vulpine eye, do you suppose? | KENJI ITO
A foxy perspective: As the sunlight filters softly through the trees, an Ezo red fox perks up its ears and sniffs the air for interesting scents. How does this landscape appear to the vulpine eye, do you suppose? | KENJI ITO

It’s early morning and a blizzard has just cleared. The temperature is minus 25 degrees Celsius, so cold that your breath freezes and frost forms on your eyelashes. The snow is waist-deep, so skis must be fitted with nonslip devices. Even then, every step requires caution.

The biggest snowdrifts are as much as 5 meters deep. When the sun begins to shine through the trees, it casts a greenish light on the ground below, giving the white blanket a coral-like hue and fostering the illusion that you are traversing an ocean of snow.

Kya, kya, kya! A high-pitched cry suddenly echoes in the treetops as a Hokkaido red squirrel leaps from a branch, shaking fresh snow down onto the forest floor. As though responding to a signal, the snow piled high on the surrounding branches also begins to fall in one frozen shower after another, forming a curtain of crystalline light as the cascading flakes catch the sun.

Stand still for a moment and you can feel your hands and feet turning numb. They seem to be on the verge of freezing — and yet you can’t take your eyes off the tiny animals scampering about in the woods. Leaving the trees for open fields of snow, you’ll see the tracks of mountain hares, rhythmic evidence of their hopping gait where they passed by just a short while ago.

Life thrives in this snowy realm all year round. Perhaps most astonishing of all is the fact that January and February, Daisetsuzan’s coldest time of year, are the months when brown bears snuggled away in their winter lairs give birth to their cubs.

Kenji Ito contributed the text and photos for this article.