A destination can be forgiven almost anything if its cuisine is tasty enough. Any unattractiveness, any blandness can be overlooked, should a place set your tastebuds on fire.
Never has this been clearer than right now, as I munch my way through dinner at Aburiya restaurant in Kushiro, eastern Hokkaido's biggest city, and the launch pad for our eight-day snowshoeing tour across the eastern side of the island.
Outside, icicles hang from doorways and the streets are banked by snow. But in here, with our legs folded under the sunken banquet table, it's warm. Fresh abalone and fatty salmon sashimi slides down the throat, followed by sweet, fat pieces of Hokkaido's famous king crab. Pickled mackerel is gobbled with locally grown rice, and even the eyebrow-raising deep-fried cod sperm (known locally as shirako) is delicious.
My initial misgivings about this industrial port town – the icy downtown streets of which I had gingerly wandered this afternoon and found nothing much but office blocks, many abandoned, and smoke-belching factories – fall into the background as I realise that seafood takes centre stage here.
Hokkaido, Japan's most northerly and largest main island, is renowned for having seafood that's better, fresher and cheaper than anywhere else in the country. It's pulled from the cold, plankton-rich currents flowing through the Pacific Ocean. And since Kushiro is Japan's second largest producer of fish, its port is a bit of a wonderland for those wanting to sample regional specialties, including king crab, fat salmon, squid and sea urchin.
A visit, then, to Washo fish market is in order the following afternoon. As we enter the 60-year-old market, our Walk Japan guide sniffs the air. "See? No fish smell, because it's all so fresh." He's right. We wander past stalls lined with immaculately-stacked bright red king crabs and their hairy orange cousins, pieces of eye-wateringly expensive fat salmon sashimi and dried ribbons of kombu seaweed. Our bellies rumble.
Within minutes we've ordered a crab and are crunching through its flesh-filled legs at one of the market's communal tables.
Kushiro isn't just a haven for seafood enthusiasts. Beyond the town lies the 183 square-kilometre Kushiro Shitsugen National Park. Registered under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands, the park holds Japan's biggest wetland, Kushiro Mire, which provides a protected habitat for wildlife including Hokkaido's famed tancho, or red-crowned crane. A recognised symbol of longevity and good fortune throughout east Asia, this majestic migratory bird has been classified as critically endangered and is the focus of conservation projects in Japan.
We head out to visit the cranes the following morning, expecting to see two or three, if we're lucky. But we arrive at the white blank of a field to find dozens awaiting us. Some are wiggling their elegant bustles and lifting their bills to trumpet a shrill cry; others are flaring their wings and arching their backs in an effort to get some space as they feast on the winter feed laid down for them by farmers.
It's intoxicating, our first taste of Hokkaido's famed wildlife, and enough to make us forget our numb toes for a while. We're told we won't find many temples or shrines in Hokkaido, but we're beginning to understand that here, you go outside to worship.
The afternoon brings our first snowshoeing adventure. We strap the racket-like contraptions onto our boots and head up a snow-crusted hill. From the top, we're treated to sprawling views over Kushiro Mire. The land below – etched with the silvery line of a river, flecked with birch trees, willows and the golden kitayoshi reeds where the cranes hide their eggs – fills us with anticipatory excitement.
So our adventure across Japan's last frontier begins.
Nina Karnikowski travelled as a guest of Walk Japan.
ANA flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Tokyo. A 90-minute connecting flight gets you to Hokkaido. See ana.co.jp.
Walk Japan specialises in expert-led small group tours across Japan. The fully guided eight-day Hokkaido Snow Tour, exploring eastern Hokkaido in winter, starts from $5707 a person. See walkjapan.com.
FIVE OTHER THINGS TO DO AROUND KUSHIRO
1. AKAN LAKE BOAT TOUR
One of the most picturesque caldera lakes in Japan, Akan Lake is renowned for its marimo, a rare algae that forms into green balls. In winter there's ice fishing, skating and snowmobiling; in summer boat rides across the crystalline waters. It's 90 minutes from Kushiro.
2. KUSHIRO ART MUSEUM
This small museum houses paintings, sculptures and photography from Kushiro and nearby Nemuro, with special exhibitions on Japanese and overseas art, as well as concerts and workshops. kushiro-artmu.jp
3. MOUNT OAKAN HIKING
It takes three hours to reach the summit of this volcanic mountain, but it's worth it. For the views, and for the primeval forests of spruce, fir and birch trees you'll pass en route. Best in summer (June to October).
4. KUSHIRO SUNSET
Kushiro is renowned for its supremely pretty sunsets. You can catch them from Nusamai Bridge, after a late seafood lunch at Fishermen's Wharf Moo – a market, restaurants, shops and arboretum all in one.
5. AINU KOTAN
This small Ainu village teaches visitors about the history and culture of Hokkaido's indigenous people, and sells Ainu handicrafts.