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Winter Wonderland of Northern Japan

A winter wonderland filled with dancing Tancho Cranes and majestic Whooper Swans

Tancho Cranes and Whooper (or Hooper) Swans annually migrate from upper Siberia in Russia to the relatively less harsh winters of eastern Hokkaido Island of northern Japan. Watch as these cranes do their love dances in the snow and feel free to join the swans in the thermal spring waters of the lake. When bird spotting in the deep freeze gets too tiring, soak in one of the many romantic outdoor natural thermal springs while your surroundings get covered in snow.

End the day with Japanese cuisine around the fire place, and sleep on your tatami mat after sipping on a cup of green tea. Sounds good? It is! Lets go JAPAN!

winter hapanThe starting point to enjoying this journey to Japan’s northern wonderland is a JR (Japan Rail) Pass purchased before you arrive in Japan. This pass is only available to foreign visitors and must be purchased prior to landing in Japan. While a 7-day (or 14-day) pass is not cheap, you will find that the pass is paid within 2 or 3 days of travel on local fares. Trains (and buses) are very expensive in Japan. Japan Rail has most of the country covered and the pass includes all the fastest bullet trains (except the super-fast Nozomi Shinkansen).
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The Tohoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線?) goes north to connect Tokyo with Aomori in Aomori Prefecture on a route of 674 km, making it Japan’s longest Shinkansen line. From here get on a regular train which goes under the sea to Hokkaido Island. Hokkaido is Japan’s northern most large island which forms the head of the dragon-shaped Japan.
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Note that Hokkaido’s very first Shinkansen train will start operation in 2016 Spring, connecting northern Honshu island (Shin-Aomori station) with the city of Hakodate on the southern tip of Hokkaido island (Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto). The Shinkansen route will eventually extend further into Hokkaido (likely up to the city of Sapporo), making high speed rail traffic between Honshu and Hokkaido possible.
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Japan

One of Japan’s Shinkansen trains

The Red-Crowned Crane (or Japanese Tancho Crane) is found around the marshes north of the town of Kushiro on eastern Hokkaido Island. Hokkaido is Japan’s northern most large island which forms the head of the dragon-shaped Japan. In the spring and summer these cranes breed in Russia’s Siberia region but wisely spend their winters around the Kushiro marshes where the cold is less severe than back in Siberia. .

There are a few places to see them: The International Crane Centre, about 60 minutes by bus north of the Kushiro JR station, is one of the best places to get close to them. Here, on a good day, you will find about 100 or more cranes, often accompanied by Whooper Swans. If you have your camera with you, you will compete with Japanese photographers (and rarely a foreigner) who tirelessly point their massive Nikon and Canon telephoto lenses at the birds.

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Tancho cranes at Akan International Crane Center, Kushiro, Hokkaido, Japan

 
Whooper Swans are in their hundreds on the warmer waters of Lake Kussharo, about an hour north of Kushiro.  From the little village of Kawayu Onsen (with lots of thermal activity and hot springs) it is about 15 km by road to the lake where the swans congregate in two spots (Ikenoyu and Kotan).  Both places have very hot spring water flowing into the frozen waters of the lake so feel free to soak in the water with the swans. While the swans are not particularly welcoming, they won’t bite! Do spend a day or three in the little village of Kawayu Onsen.

You will come across some Ainu people. They are the original native inhabitants of Hokkaido and live in a few villages concentrated around the lake.

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Hooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus), Kussharo lake near Kawayu Onsen, north eastern Hokkaido, Japan

Enjoy several indoors and outdoor onsen (hot springs), and numerous ashiyu (foot onsen) around the village.

About 4 km outside Kawayu is the Iozan thermal area in the nearby hills. Witness some very active vents but walk cat-foot wherever you step. The steam is extremely hot around the yellow sulphur mount vents! .

Hokkaido Island is blessed with several natural hot springs areas. Probably the most famous are those around Noberibetsu and Lake Toya around the active volcano of Usu. The best time to enjoy these outdoor hot springs are in winter when your surroundings are covered in snow while you snuggle up in the nice hot waters.

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Mount Usu-zan, Noboribetsu, Hokkaido, Japan

While in most places males are separated from females, several onsens offer mixed bathing areas – just bring along your fig leaf (which is a small white towel to cover your privates when outside the water, and rest it on your head when inside the water to keep your head warm). Follow the Japanese ritual to carefully wash your entire body before entering the pool and wear your yukata (and not your kimono which is worn outside the house) to and from the baths.

Leave your swimsuit at home as its not custom in Japan to wear any swimwear in the hot springs.

While not on Hokkaido Island, but in northern Honshu Island in the eastern Akita Prefecture, Globerovers highly recommends the Tsurunoyu Onsen. This very romantic and cosy ryokan (guesthouse) with onsen is secludedly located in a valley near Lake Tazawako – a crater lake and also the deepest lake in Japan. A washitsu room (Japanese style) with tatami mat goes for over ¥9,500 per person (about US$100), which is not cheap, but a very worthy indulgence to a tired traveller.

Rotenburo at Tsurunoyu Hotel in the Nyuto Onsen area of Tohoku, situated in the deep mountain area of Tazawa Kogen plateau, Akita prefecture.

Rotenburo at Tsurunoyu Hotel in the Nyuto Onsen area of Tohoku, situated in the deep mountain area of Tazawa Kogen plateau, Akita prefecture.

Also in northern Honchu Island near Yamagata, is the lovely little village of Zao Onsen. Flanked by high ski slopes, this onsen offers several smallish hot springs, of which some are outside along a stream flowing down the mountain.

Be here in the middle of winter and you will be surrounded by a snowy winter wonderland. Don’t miss the Juhyo (snow-covered trees that look like monsters) at the very top of the ski slopes. Again, be here in January and you will be in the deep freeze with the most amazing sights of snow-covered trees you have never seen anywhere else.

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Outdoor hot springs at Zao Onsen, Yamagata, Japan


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Juhyou frosted fir trees. Zao Onsen, Yamagata, Japan


Mount Komagatake and Lake Tazawako, Akita, Tohoku, Honchu, Japan

Mount Komagatake and Lake Tazawako, Akita, Tohoku, Honchu, Japan


Statue Of Princess Tatsuko at Lake Tazawako In Akita Prefecture Japan

Statue Of Princess Tatsuko at Lake Tazawako In Akita Prefecture Japan


Tsurunoyu Onsen, Nyoto hot spring village, Akita

Tsurunoyu Onsen, Nyoto hot spring village, Akita


Tsurunoyu Onsen, Nyoto hot spring village, Akita

Tsurunoyu Onsen, Nyoto hot spring village, Akita

 
When done with Hokkaido, head for southern Japan – most notably the islands of Kyushu, Shikoku and Miyajima.

NORTHERN JAPAN TRAVELLERS TIPS

As we all know, Japan is expensive and during high season accommodation at any price may not be available. Most accommodation in Japan is easily secured by phone or online with no requirement of a deposit.

While a rental car offers more freedom, the good public transportation across Japan makes a rental car just a luxury you can live without.

A JR pass will save you a lot of money so make sure to purchase it before arriving in Japan.


 Read more about Japan and other fascinating destinations in the Globerovers Magazine Issue 1, July 2013.