We hopped out of the van on the isolated road and quickly geared up in gaiters and snowshoes. The sun was sinking fast, and we had just about an hour of daylight left to get one last trek in for the day. We headed off through a conifer forest to the stunning 100-meter-high frozen waterfall on the coast of the Sea of Othotsk. After swishing through the fresh powder, we paused in a clearing to watch several sika deer foraging for leaves. I pointed to the canister hanging from my host Yoshida’s belt. “Bear spray,” I whispered, knowingly. “Brown bears.” he replied quietly with a satisfied nod and hidden smile. We carried on, a little more alert now.
It was a moment plucked straight from my recent site visit to Hokkaido, Japan — a moment characteristic of the country’s northernmost island — yet many foreign travelers wouldn’t even be able to find this memorable destination on a map. The Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) aims to change with the upcoming AdventureWeek Japan, which is being held February 24-March 5, 2019.
Known for its distinctive pop culture, stunning cherry blossoms, and fresh seafood, Japan’s metropolitan centers are a beacon to international travelers. Outside these urban settings, however, the country is largely absent of foreigners. Having traveled extensively throughout Japan over the past several years, most recently for a week last month, I have experienced the incredible generosity and eagerness of touristic businesses ready to enthusiastically welcome new visitors to Japan.
“Around 80 percent of the visitors that come to Hokkaido are from mainly urban Japan, and international adventure enthusiasts are few, so far,” said Yuki Kunyia, senior consultant of JTB Research and Consulting, which has been working to develop adventure travel resources in Japan over the last few years. “With all the amazing adventure activities that are possible to do here, we think Hokkaido can become a prime destination for international adventure travelers.”
AdventureWeek Japan will introduce international buyers and media to Hokkaido, a popular escape from the city for Japanese in search of nature and snow sports. With its unique biodiversity, a wide array of winter sports, and a newly revitalized Ainu Indigenous culture, Hokkaido reveals a fresh perspective of Japan. Layering diverse components of Indigenous and traditional Japanese culture, Hokkaido is also a fusion of abundant wilderness and adventurous activities with refined cuisine, architecture, and artistic traditions. A guest can enjoy a day trekking among the drift ice then relax in a steaming sauna or hot spring bath before sitting down to a delectable meal. Whether preparing food, designing a communal space, or guiding a hike, I get the sense that the Japanese are proud of what they do and they put the utmost care into every aspect of an experience, which is truly an admirable element of the local culture.
Hokkaido has something for every type of visitor. Snow enthusiasts marvel at the thick and dry powder great for snowshoeing or skiing. With several world-renowned slopes, Hokkaido boasts both alpine and cross-country skiing for all levels of ability. The Shiretoko Peninsula, located in the northeast corner of the island, is home to the world’s premier sea ice drifts. Ranging from one to three meters in height, boulder-sized chunks of ice are driven by wind and tidal action onto the vast beaches, piling up natural mountains of ice in curious maze-like formations — perfect for trekking and fat-tire biking.
In eastern Hokkaido, Teshikaga is home to Lake Kussyaro, Japan’s largest caldera lake by surface area, and Mount Iwo, a common setting for movie shoots in need of an otherworldly, Mars-like landscape. Lake Akan sits in a volcanic basin with active Mount Oakan, looming on the shore. The geothermal activity provides plentiful spring water that has made the Akan area famous for its hot baths, and the rich minerals feed the rare, brilliantly colored marimo algae the lake is known for. Lake Akan, which is a rich trout fishery, provides a perfect playground for canoeing, especially among the colorful fall foliage.
This is also an ideal place to learn about the local Ainu Indigenous culture, especially its dance and art. I encountered a carving by well-known Ainu woodcarver Dr. Takeki Fujito, who was known for his precise handiwork and hailed from Akan. The .25-scale scene depicted a brown bear hunting salmon in a shallow stream carved from a single log — a piece that connected the Indigenous culture and animal life from my childhood home of Alaska with this culturally and naturally rich environment halfway around the world.
Hokkaido also feeds food enthusiasts’ appetites with gourmet ramen, wagyu beef, lamb barbecue and seafood sashimi or poke, made with locally sourced salmon — a personal favorite. The area is famous for its world-renowned Sapporo beer, and sake and whisky are also abundant. With shoes removed and seated on the floor on a clean, soft tatami mat one can enjoy an entire evening with friends roasting marinated lamb and veggies on a charcoal hibachi style grill. The food I experienced in Hokkaido is not only delicious and fresh to the table; it is as if I am eating art. The slow, do-it yourself method lends itself to great conversation and good laughter, dotted with the occasional kanpai toast of friendship.
Undoubtedly AdventureWeek participants will stumble upon similar moments during their February trip to a destination that, until recently, has remained a locals’ secret. They will have a chance to explore the Shiretoko Peninsula, Teshikaga, Lake Akan, and Kushiro, the native habitat of the endangered Japanese red-crowned crane. AdventureWeek Japan participants will also ride the high-speed party train to Sapporo (Hokkaido’s capital city) for the signature Marketplace networking event, where they will have one-on-one meetings will local suppliers to develop and expand adventure travel products.
Dense forests to natural coastal beachscapes and traditional Ainu art forms to highly polished modern Japanese customs — these are the details shaping Hokkaido’s serene yet vibrant adventurous character. Where the wild and rugged meet the refined, Hokkaido is an adventure destination that defies preconceptions and must be experienced to be fully appreciated.
Applications for AdventureWeek Japan are being accepted through January 7. Learn more and apply today.