The first thing I notice about Hokkaido's celebrated red-crowned cranes is what wonderful bowers they are. Holding wings the colour of snow open to the sky, they bow their slender necks, flashing their crimson caps in all their inflamed glory. With an elegant sweep, the wings splice back down through the air and the cranes are upright once more, stalking through the snow on lanky black legs.
There is an undeniable poetry to this bowing. At the turn of the 20th century these cranes were believed to be extinct, until 20 were discovered in this now-protected area of eastern Hokkaido's Kushiro marsh in 1924. Thanks to local feeding programs that help the cranes survive brutal winters, the Japanese crane population has risen to 900 today – over a third of the global population of 2600. So these bows, as I see it, are victory bows. Well, either that or they're part of their wild courtship dances as Takuya Ugajin, our guide on this eight-day Walk Japan tour of Japan's most northerly island in the heart of winter, suggests.
Either way, we are grateful for this close look at the dozens of endangered cranes concentrated in the fields before us. The very cranes our group of eight have all seen before depicted in Japanese paintings, in tiny paper birds festooned on temples and shrines, and on everything from kimono to the tail fins of Japanese jets. As we press against the wooden rail, bewitched by the arching backs, flaring wings and shrill trumpeting, I can't help but think this is the ideal introduction to Hokkaido. For while Japan's thinly peopled last frontier – the country's second largest island with just 5 per cent of the population – lacks the temples, Zen gardens and ancient architecture of the rest of Japan, it is famed for its untouched wilderness and abundant natural beauty.
The following morning we clatter along on a single carriage train through snow-dusted forests, the train tooting its horn sporadically to warn passing sika deer of our approach. We step off at a tiny white wooden station, and spend the next half hour hiking to the remote fishing village of Ochiishi in Nemuro city. When we arrive at the port we board a fishing boat and head out into the coastal waters to observe sea birds, including the yellow-beaked Steller's sea eagle and duck-like Spectacled Guillemot, which bird-watchers flock from around the world to see during Hokkaido's winter. There's no doubt the birds are impressive but the wind is razor cold. We dare not remove our gloves either to snap photos of them or the craggy volcanic islands we pass, or to get a proper look through our binoculars. Instead we huddle on the bench seats, zip our jackets closed around our numb faces, and agree that this experience is probably best left to hard-core birders.
Thankfully we have delicious bento boxes, filled with world-famous Hokkaido seafood fresh from the island's plankton-rich waters, waiting for us once we arrive back at port. Complete with steaming miso soup and green tea, it's enough to get us excited about heading back out into the frozen landscape for the afternoon. We pull on our snowshoes (short, racket-type devices that strap onto your boots) and begin our hike through a nearby red pine forest. Soon we emerge at the dramatic cliffs of Ochiishi Cape, nicknamed the Scotland of Japan, where a red-and-white lighthouse overlooks the wild Pacific Ocean. We crunch along in our snowshoes as the setting sun casts a golden glow over the cape. It's like a vision. And, like a vision, it quickly vanishes as we head back into the forest to beat dusk, and frosty feet, to our van.
Frosty feet are front of mind again the next morning, as we step onto Furen frozen lake to meet a pair of ice fishermen. The husband and wife are on their knees in rubber overalls before a long, narrow slit in the thick ice, hauling a net out of the brackish water with rubber-gloved hands. A large pile of seaweed sits beside them and as they continue pulling the net up, a few handfuls of fish are added to the pile, which Ugajin tells us they will sell at the local market. We watch them sort their catch, discarding what they don't want onto the ice, then bid them farewell to hike further out onto the lake. Looking back, I see white-tailed and Steller's sea eagles swooping down from the sky to retrieve the fishermen's cast-offs, and can't help but be touched by this gentle display of symbiosis.
From ice, we make the natural transition to ice-cream. Since Hokkaido is Japan's biggest producer of milk, soft-serve machines have graced almost every store and cafe we've entered thus far, and it was only a matter of time before they got the best of us. We take the velvety deliciousness with us on our 90-minute van ride through the very pastures it was produced in, to the location of our afternoon snowshoe led by a local dairy farmer called Mr Chosoji. Following a snow-covered trail that Mr Chosoji built himself, we hike through rolling fields laced with deer tracks, then ascend Mount Moan-yama, reaching the top just as the apricot sun is kissing the horizon. Mr Chosoji tells us that come spring, the hills below will be covered with lush green grasses and cattle once more. But I can't imagine them looking any more beautiful than they do now, snow-covered and dusted with delicate auburn larch trees, like something from an ancient Japanese woodblock print.
By the time we get back to the van it's minus 5 degrees outside, and we count down the minutes until we arrive at tonight's accommodation, Yoroushi Onsen. Japan is famous for these natural hot springs and Hokkaido has some of the country's most impressive, with mineral-rich spring water flowing down from the volcanic mountains. I immediately change into the yukata cotton kimono I find folded in my room and shuffle to the bathhouse. After rinsing off I sink into the outdoor bath, the 40-degree mineral-rich water soothing my muscles under the moist light of the moon. Light snow drifts through the rising steam and settles on my shoulders, quickly melting on my warm skin. As I listen to the river rushing by below, keeping an ear out for the call of the endangered Blakiston's fish-owl, the largest owl in the world that's said to live by this river, a sense of deep calm falls over me.
It's a calm I need to evoke when, 24 hours later, I'm being lashed by minus 20 degree winds sweeping across from Siberia as I hike up Mount Mokoto. Half an hour earlier as we set off I had, at Ugajin's request, removed my jewellery. "It will get so cold the metal will burn your skin," he had said, and I had thought he was exaggerating. Now that we're halfway up the mountain though, with the snow whipping my face and encrusting my scarf and sunglasses, I make a mental note to thank him for the advice – once my mouth has thawed and I can speak again, that is. For now, I'm capable only of clomping one snowshoe in front of the other through Hokkaido's exceptionally powdery snow, avoiding the odd backcountry skier flying past and focusing on that onsen-invoked serenity until we reach the top. When we do, it's worth every numb finger and toe. Over green tea and freshly made mochi (sweet red bean-filled rice cakes) we take in panoramic views over Kussharo Lake, the largest calderic lake in Japan that's ringed by volcanic hills and fed by hot springs. Over its clear, unfrozen waters, Ugajin points out our next destination: the thin finger of wild Shiretoko Peninsula, known by Hokkaido's indigenous Ainu people as "the end of the Earth".
Our drive to Shiretoko takes us via Mount Iozan, an active volcano that was once mined for sulphur. We've stopped to get more of that delicious ice-cream from the nearby visitor centre, but I find the columns of steam wafting over the mountains irresistible. I tramp across the snow, blocking out the intense eggy scent of sulphur to get as close as possible. Watching the steam belch from the rough rock vents, coloured neon yellow from the sulphur, is hypnotising. I click my camera shutter over and over, in a futile attempt to capture what simply cannot be captured.
People travel to Hokkaido from all over the world during winter to watch the ice floes drift down from Siberia; it's the most southerly point in the world where you can see them. We stop at a viewpoint to gaze over their empty expanse, covering the Sea of Okhotsk and stretching towards the Russian-controlled Sakhalin island, as the sun sets over the Shiretoko Peninsula. Suddenly a Jaffa-coloured fox streaks across the ice, and we chatter in astonishment about the ability of warm-blooded life to survive out in this great white nothingness.
But warm-blooded life does survive here and lots of it, too, as we discover the following morning on our final snowshoeing adventure inside the 38,000 hectare UNESCO-protected Shiretoko National Park, which covers most of the peninsula. Our local guide takes us through the snow-blanketed fir forest and past five frozen lakes linked by a necklace of walkways. He points out woodpeckers tapping at 300-year-old oaks, fox holes dug into the powdery snow, and tree trunks cross-hatched with claw marks from brown bears currently hibernating nearby. "Let me know if anyone sees a fairy," jokes Ugajin as we walk, but there's no denying the magic of this Narnia-like landscape.
We exit the forest and find ourselves on sheer cliffs of black volcanic rock overlooking the ice floes. A black-and-white lighthouse stands sentinel, surrounded by sika deer and hooded by the steely grey sky, with the Furepe Waterfall bursting from the cliffs below. I bow my head and resist the urge to fall to my knees, in praise of the simple beauty found here at the end of the Earth.
ANA flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Tokyo. A 90-minute connecting flight gets you to Hokkaido. See ana.co.jp
Walk Japan specialise in expert-led small group tours across Japan. The fully guided eight-day Hokkaido Snow Tour, exploring eastern Hokkaido in winter, starts from $5707 per person. See walkjapan.com
Nina Karnikowski travelled courtesy of Walk Japan
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN HOKKAIDO
SEE SAPPORO'S SNOW FESTIVAL
This annual week-long festival, held each February in Hokkaido's largest city, celebrates all things snow and ice – including ice sculptures the size of buildings, light shows, ice bars, snow slides and more. See snowfes.com
MEET BROWN BEARS
Get up close and personal with Hokkaido's brown bears at Sahoro Resort's Bear Mountain in central Hokkaido, where you can observe their reserve's resident bears from a walkway or an armoured bus. See sahoro.co.jp
DRINK BEER IN SAPPORO
Sapporo is the oldest beer in Japan, and it would be remiss of you not to try some while you're in Hokkaido. The Sapporo Beer Museum runs free guided tours covering the history and brewing of beer in Hokkaido and, for a small fee, all the beer you can taste in 30 minutes. See zsapporoholdings.jp
GET TO KNOW THE AINU
Most of Japan's remaining 24,000 indigenous Ainu population is concentrated in Hokkaido. Learn about their culture and traditions in Ainu museums like Poroto Kotan in Shiraoi, western Hokkaido. See ainu-museum.or.jp
Hokkaido is renowned for its remarkably powdery snow, and the Winter Olympic town of Furano is one of Japan's best cross-country and downhill ski spots. See snowfurano.com
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