Hokkaido for the Snow and Cranes

Old Feb 14th, 2020, 09:35 AM
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Hokkaido for the Snow and Cranes

My husband, as usual, hadn't used all his vacation for the year and was in the "use it or lose it" situation, so I was once again in the position of arranging a 1-week trip early in the year (it turns out his additional plans didn't work out, so I am not looking for 1-week plan for February or early March and yes, it is February 14. Trying to think of a city we haven't visited that would be good this time of year.). Last time we went to Tucson/south Arizona and Quebec before that. This time I wanted to find an event or activity to experience, so I chose a winter festival. I saw some disparaging remarks about last year's Quebec winter carnival and Harbin, China was difficult and seemed limited to just the ice festival (as is turns out with the coronavirus, it was good it was eliminated from choices). So, I settled on Hokkaido, a part of Japan we had not visited, that offered several festivals plus birds for our nature fix, transport via train, and relatively easy flights.

With concerns about coronavirus growing, we did buy a box of face masks before they disappeared from store shelves plus packed the disinfectant wipes and hand cleaners, but otherwise just kept abreast of the news. We also packed long underwear, my serious winter boots that I only wear every few years, our old down jacket liners, water/windproof outer pants, hats, and insufficient gloves (I can never find gloves that keep my hands warm. The Northface Goretex rated for Coldest were insufficient.) My husband's hiking boots with wool socks were no match for the cold if standing still for half an hour waiting for a projection light show. We weren't the only ones packing ourselves into the warming huts or taking a break in the underground passages in Sapporo.

We were impressed with our first snow festival snow and ice sculptures. Sapporo's Odori Park didn't look very large, but once we walked the entire length looking at both the large commercially sponsored snow sculptures, the many smaller community group sculptures, the international competitors, the food stands, the ice skating rink, and the snowboard demo area, we were properly impressed. The scale and detail of the carvings were amazing. We visited both early day when it was quiet with sunshine and again after dark when it was crowded and well below freezing cold. The international competitors were working our first visit and I liked seeing the models next to the incomplete sculptures. We returned at the end of the trip to see the finished sculptures and the results of the judging. It was a friendly crowd and they employ a one-way pedestrian system to keep the people moving. Unfortunately, due to my husband's lack of warm enough footwear and his decision to wear few layers for our night visit, we didn't get to see all the projection lighting shows on the major sculptures. I didn't see a schedule anywhere for the light shows, so we just stopped when we saw a crowd forming at the large sculptures. Unfortunately one crowd was forming at 5:50pm and the live Ainu entertainment didn't start until 6:30pm, then speakers (we bailed for the warming tent), then 5-minute light projection show. My husband was not impressed. We caught just part of one more major show before he wanted to call it a night. Although he offered to sit in the underground (like many others) and defrost while I returned to try to catch additional light shows, I decided it was one of those times to take care of spouse instead of indulge in entertainment, so we walked through the underground back to hotel for an early (warm) bed.

We also visited the Susukino area for the ice sculptures in the center of the boulevard at night and again day. Daytime was better for seeing the sculptures without the glare of building lights shining through but the street was open for traffic. After dark, the street was closed to traffic and we could get closer to the sculptures. One area is designed for play so you can sit in the ice race car, go down kiddie ice slides, etc. There were ice bars if one wanted to imbibe. The ice sculpting competition was underway when we visited at night (very interesting with the chain saws, drills, and careful lifting to assemble pieces) and judging taking place when we visited the next morning. We didn't return and I can't seem to find the judging results online.

We rode up the TV tower for day and evening views. I would skip this if intention is view of the snow sculpture in Odori Park, but nice for aerial view of city during the day. They opened it to walk down if you like walking down multiple stories outside in below freezing temperatures.

The underground passageway was a godsend to keep warm and avoid icy sidewalks. Auroratown and Poletown sections are full of shops and restaurants, but not so many on the stretch from the train station to Odori Park. We stayed near the train station for convenience and that worked well for us. I saw recommendations to stay in Susukino for the restaurants and entertainment, but it looks too bright and noisy for us.
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Old Feb 14th, 2020, 12:02 PM
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Rail travel

We wanted to do more than just visit the snow festival, so we planned to travel by rail to Kushiro, then Abashiri, then Asahikawa, then Sapporo and maybe Otaru, so a circle to see the countryside and some other activities.
I compared cost of tickets versus pass and a 5-day Hokkaido pass cost similar to the tickets plus reservations. We chose the convenience of the pass, ordered online from Japan Experience in California, received our vouchers within a couple of days and exchanged them at the Sapporo train station Information Center where we also made a couple of reservations. Using the pass was easy--obtaining reservations at information/ticket desks, showing pass at manned gate entering/leaving, and putting the reservation card in the slot on the back of the seat in front of us. Some trains weren't crowded so a reservation wasn't necessary for a seat, but others were pretty full and it was nice to know we just had to find the hanging sign for where to stand to enter our numbered car. The single car local train from Kushiro to Abashiri was no reservations.

Once through the gates, the concession area and tracks in Sapporo were absolutely freezing--colder than outside somehow. One station we had to climb up stairs with our bags to cross over tracks. The train to/from airport was subway style benches on sides to pack in people and bags (maybe not all cars or trains?). The other trains had reversible seats. The little local looked like one could just push the back over making the front of the seat the back and vice versa. On a limited express train as we were arriving at a station, the announcement said the train would reverse direction and we should reverse the seats. As the train stopped, everyone got up and either got off or used a foot lever from the aisle to release the seat and swiveled the entire seat/back assembly to face the other way. The community effort transformed the car in less than one minute.

The reserved limited express cars we rode had a luggage rack at one end of car. An unreserved limited car had no luggage rack, but we were able to stow our bags behind last seats. Some had to keep their bags or put overhead.

No food/drink service or vending machines on any of the trains we rode.

Recorded announcements were in Japanese, English, and Chinese. Live announcements about delays etc. were only in Japanese. Station signs in English and Japanese and stations were lettered/numbered.

If we had a reservation, the conductor just checked the reservation card. If no reservation, we showed our passes.

Part of the local from Kushiro to Abashiri was a lovely ride over the mountains and through the woods in the snow. All the Japanese and foreign tourists took turns going to the front by the driver to take photos out the front window--white impressions in the snow for tracks that were occasionally broken by wooden trestles over icy streams. It was getting dark as we reached the stretch along the sea, but we could make out the waves hitting the snow covered beach.

In addition to the scenery, we saw deer, fox, ducks, and swans along the routes. Lots of animal tracks across fields of snow.

At one station, the announcement said passengers had 3 minutes if they wanted to get off and get refreshments from the vending machine on the platform. Someone did it. I didn't trust my knowledge of Japanese coins to quickly figure out purchase, price, and proper coins.

One early morning as getting seated for a 4-hour ride, I discovered I had left/lost my water bottle. My husband had purchased coffee on the platform through the door of the refreshment stand, so I asked him to dash over and buy me a bottle of water. He says he pointed to the Avian bottles, asked for water in English, and was met with a confused look by the clerk. A man came up behind her with a clear bottle, thrust it into her hand to give to my husband, which she did, took his money and made change. My husband dashed back to the train and we started off with his cup of coffee and my bottle of sake! We will never know why the man thought my husband wanted to buy a bottle of sake for the train at 7am, but my husband did his best to live up to the man's expectations.

Last edited by Kay2; Feb 14th, 2020 at 12:10 PM. Reason: addition
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Old Feb 17th, 2020, 07:31 PM
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Red crowned cranes

We stayed in Kushiro to take a half day trip to see the red crowned cranes in Tsurui village. I searched the options to see the cranes quite a bit before the trip. There is a tourist bus day trip in Japanese that makes several stops. There are limited public buses one could use to get to the village or to the International Crane Center and back, but would require local walking around the village to reach the sites--which could be cold, snowy, and tricky to find in February. I found a site, Hokkaido Experience, that listed a few tour guides and also taxi companies that would arrange a Japanese speaking driver for half day. Luckily, I chose R/Ujihara, an English speaking guide who offered a half day trip for a reasonable price. I signed up and received a confirmation from HE that included Mr. Ujihara's email address. A few days later I emailed him to inquire if he received my request, could he offer the tour at the hour we wanted rather than standard advertised, etc. He promptly replied yes to all. The day before the tour he emailed us to confirm again.

Mr. Ujihara picked us up on time, spoke good English, was delightful company, and shared his spotting scope with us. We went to the Otawa river bridge to look at the roosting (in the river and on sand bars) cranes at 9am. Not much happening. He said they were cold, so sleeping in. I was surprised, thinking they would be up at dawn and be flying over to the 9am feeding (I had confirmed feeding time via email with the conservation center ranger). We saw a few take off. We also saw a fox trot down the riverbank without bothering the cranes. Two martens were swimming, but I could only see the v in the water. Also a few ducks. After freezing on the bridge awhile, we drove to the Tsurui Ito Tancho Sanctuary where 3 cranes (a family) were feeding. We patiently stood in the cold until eventually groups of cranes arrived, then started interacting, dancing, charging, mating, and eating. Within an hour about 50 cranes were in the field in front of us (not really close). Our guide offered to take us to the other feeding place, but I said we were happy (may have been more or fewer at the other site). He agreed that this was the better site. There is also a conservation center, but we did not go inside. Eventually we headed back to the bridge where we once again saw occasional groups take flight, but many birds were happy to stay in the river even at 11am. Talked with a nice couple from France/Switzerland who are avid birders who were in Japan just to see the birds and just briefly passed through the Sapporo Snow Festival. We saw a few more birds in the fields, but it was time then to head back to Kushiro for lunch and the afternoon train.

If you are in the area, I strongly recommend Mr. HideKazu Ujihara for birding, snowshoeing, and canoeing in summer. I'm sure he would guide for other activities and destinations in the area. He moved there 20 years ago to work in the outdoors. His email is R[アール]氏原英和 <[email protected]> . He doesn't have a Tripadvisor entry, but he has a facebook page if you want to see more about him.

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Old Feb 17th, 2020, 07:37 PM
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My first attempt to upload photos on Fodors

Ice sculpture contest working overnight

Street of ice sculptures

Snow sculpture competition

Polish palace built with snow
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Old Feb 18th, 2020, 04:25 AM
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Thanks for sharing your Hokkaido travel experiences.
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Old Feb 18th, 2020, 05:33 AM
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No drift ice

Our circuit around Hokkaido by rail took us to Abashiri where one can board the Aurora for a one-hour trip to see drift ice that comes down from Siberia. We weren't sure how interesting this would be, but it was along our route, so why not contribute to the local economy that unfortunately is once again planning to return to whaling.

The Aurora's website has an English information page, but the online reservations can only be accessed via the Japanese page. Using Google translate, one can understand the reservation form; however the date we wanted was blacked out online. So, I telephoned the company and eventually got someone who spoke English who took my reservation and gave me a reservation number. Unfortunately, it has been a warm winter with temperatures above freezing in Hokkaido before our arrival, only 50% of average snowfall, and slow progress of drift ice down to the coast. The Aurora facebook page gives drift ice updates. The day before our reservation, I telephoned again to check if any problems with the planned voyage. The trip was going ahead, but no drift ice, so just a ride around the harbor and perhaps up the coast. We debated back and forth--we are going to be there anyway; it is going to be boring; it doesn't cost much; we could get an early start on to our next destination. By the time we took the slow local scenic train through the woods and along the shore (it was dark by 4:30pm), we decided an early start onward the next day was preferable to a short boat ride and arrival at Asahikawa at dark. So we went early to the train station to change our reservation and telephoned the Aurora from the train to cancel our reservation.

When we were in the airport 2 days later, the news on the TV monitor was that the drift ice had arrived! Such is the unpredictability of nature.

view from front of train - there are tracks somewhere under the snow
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Old Feb 18th, 2020, 05:51 AM
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My husband preferred the small Asahikawa festival to Sapporo.

We walked along the main street from the train station past the open ice skating rink, observing the ice sculpture competition (individual and team) in full operation. Kind of fun seeing an ice arm sticking up from the ground waiting for assembly and comparing the posted plan to the work in progress. We followed the snowmen lining the streets and paths through the park and to the main site at the river. The park contained free activities such as mini golf. Looked like fun, but didn't interest my husband. The main site had a ramp down lined with snowmen. The focal point was a large snow sculpture stage featuring the mascot and the upcoming Olympics. At 7pm there was a short music performance and then projection lighting on the snow sculpture. No crowd -- very different from Sapporo. Before the light show there were free and paid activities. Free included kiddie and adult ice slides--the large bun x 2 slide (about 2 story slides made of ice blocks on which they give you a plastic shopping bag with rope handles to use as a sled), put on hard hat and clip to ride up in a platform for view, decorate a snowman with felt, snow maze. Plenty of food stands and a heated tent for eating and warming.There was also a display of flower arrangements frozen in blocks of ice.

We utilized the free shuttle bus to/from the train station so that we only walked once in each direction for our daylight/night visits to the site.

Also convenient that the train station is attached to a mall with grocery and food court plus a JR Inn.

newly decorated snowmen - free activity
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Old Feb 18th, 2020, 06:18 AM
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We tried out a variety of Japanese budget chain hotels this trip--JR Inn, Toyoko, Route Inn, Mystays.
I'm sure they vary by location, but we liked the JR best and the Toyoko least.

The JR Inn has a pillow selection in lobby at check in. I picked a foam pillow to take to my room instead of the standard buckwheat. The twin room was large and functional. The common area was large and functional.

The Mystays rooms in same hotel varied tremendously. Check the square footage and decide what you can manage. Our standard twin room was large and functional. The standard queen room was tiny with bed pushed up to wall and unusable desk. Common area was OK.

The Route Inn twin room was small with tiny bathroom. Common area minimal.

The Toyoko hallway was unheated (temperatures below freezing) with gap under room door. The standard twin room was tiny with tiny bathroom. Common area nonexistent.

Overall, rooms in these budget chains were small (twin larger than double/queen) and bathrooms tiny. I was careful to avoid semi-double or any variation of compact double room--these have a large twin/small double bed that only a small couple would enjoy. I chose twin for larger square footage. Bathrooms configurations varied among the hotels, but online photos were accurate. All provided some type of slippers and either pajamas or robes. Some saved space by eliminating closet and just had hangars on hooks. Most had refrigerators and kettles, but no microwave. All had hairdryer in room. TV with Japanese channels. Most had windows that opened. Default seemed to be a buckwheat pillow or some combo of buckwheat and foam. Nonsmoking rooms were truly nonsmoking.
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