See Hokkaido’s underwater life from beneath drift ice. // © 2017 Getty Images
Feature image (above): View the drift ice from shore or an icebreaker. // © 2017 Getty Images
Hokkaido may be the second largest of Japan’s four main islands, but with only 5 percent of the country’s population inhabiting the region, its unspoiled natural beauty has endured. The weather changes dramatically by season, attracting skiers to its powder-coated mountains during the winter, and hikers and cyclists to its national parks during the summer. With the island’s complex history and tribe of indigenous people, however, there is much more to discover in Hokkaido than just its enticing surface.
A tourism research consultant for JTB Tourism Research & Consulting Co. — the largest travel agency in Japan — and a frequent visitor to Hokkaido, Yuki Kuniya has a wealth of pastimes to suggest. His favorite activity, however, takes place underwater. Beginning in mid-February, the drift ice in the Hokkaido area moves closer to shore, and scuba divers can plunge below to find marine life and breathtaking views. Kuniya advises diving in the Rausu area of the Shiretoko peninsula in Hokkaido.
“You can see more drift ice and creatures in this area than any other place in Hokkaido,” he said. “The region is a haven for wildlife and natural scenery.”
Diving Tip: For professional ice-diving guidance and lessons, Kuniya recommends paying a visit to Katsunori Seki at Shiretoko Diving Kikaku.
Sunitta J. Hedau, founder of Kora Journeys, an independent affiliate of Frosch Travel, prefers seeing the island’s drift ice from above.
Her favorite way to see the ice is from onboard the Aurora icebreaker ship during winter. Otherwise, she recommends a visit to Okhotsk Ryu-hyo Museum, where 120 tons of real drift ice is on display at the Hands-on Drift Ice Activity Room, which is set to 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
To spot the drift ice from shore, Hedau suggests taking the Ryuhyo Norokko train, which has panoramic windows.
Culture Dose: Hedau also urges a visit to the Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples, which showcases the culture of the Ainu, Hokkaido’s indigenous people, and other groups in the northern region.
A chief experience officer for tour operator G Adventures, Kiyoe Narita is quite familiar with adventure destinations. But as a native of Hokkaido, her comprehensive knowledge of the island comes from more than just research.
Although her list of suggestions in the region is extensive, during the summer months, her favorite activities revolve around the water, including canoeing, sea kayaking and river rafting.
“The summers are cool and comfortable, with beautiful nature, flowers and mountains,” she said. “Hokkaido is away from the big cities, has lots of fresh air and is not too crowded.”
Fresh Eats: Narita highly recommends tasting Hokkaido’s fish, which she describes as fresher and cheaper than in any other region of Japan.