My first and only winter trip to Hokkaido was in January 2012, 10 months after the destructive earthquake and tsunami that had turned life upside down for Japan residents.
Now travellers were finally returning to Japan and I had been given to chance to lead a tour around the far northern island of Hokkaido.
I was very excited about the trip; and to an equal degree terrified about being cold. Hokkaido, like Siberia or the far north of Scotland, has notoriously cold winters. Cherry blossoms don’t bloom until May and it starts snowing in October.
Hokkaido is a unique environment. Long seperated from Honshu by the Blakiston line, the flora, fauna, landscape, climate and culture are all distinct from the rest of Japan.
Most significantly for me, the bears are browner, bigger and much much scarier. On a previous summer visit cycling around the island I had sung like a maniac in broken Japanese to scare them away.
A winter trip though would be a different proposition altogether with no bike and no bears (who were hopefully hibernating) to worry about.
Historically, Hokkaido is also different from Honshu and beyond. Once the home of the ancient independent Ainu culture, Hokkaido later became a frontier and colony of the modern Japanese state. It is now a bit of a tourist playground full of onsen resorts, ski slopes, and trekking routes as well as offering dishes such as grilled mutton, lavender ice-cream, and curry soup .
The week long trip turned out to be unforgettable, and thanks to air-conditioning, very cosy. The most outstanding memories are of the bizarre ice sculptures at the Snow Festival in Sapporo, the dancing red-crowned cranes in Kushiro, and the Steller sea eagles off the remote Shiretoko peninsula (where bears are friendly with fisherman).
I hope I can go back someday.