I travelled to Hokkaido from December 23rd to 31st last year. Hokkaido has for years been a dream destination but had been missed for various reasons. The appeal was purely the beauty of nature and the touch of romance from the crudeness of a frontier island. However, going there in the cold winter with a ten-year old for only nine days meant that I had to put aside my adventurous self a bit in order for both of us to enjoy. I therefore made the goal of the trip simple and clear - snow and cranes.
I have loved snow all my life, but had lived in places without it for almost 20 years before I moved back to Beijing a year ago, where one also experiences a lot less and lighter snows these days. "End of December is a very good time to go to Hokkaido", a Japan Airlines girl told me, "it is not yet too cold but there are lots of snows!".
It turned out that 7 out of the 9 days we were there, we had snow falls and the temperature ranged at a manageable level from -4 centigrade (high) to -10 centigrade (low). The little one who came with me had his first snow experience and was completely thrilled. He would bury himself in the high pile of snow like others do with sand on the beach. Playing snow around all by himself, he accompanied me during my hour-long sunrise photo sessions without any complaints. The hearty laughters we had together when a gust of wind blew me into a pile of snow and he had to grab the road side lamp pole in order not to fall in the snow storm were really unforgettable. Most of the time though, snow was a quiet, gentle magician that covered everything with a beautiful and romantic veil soundlessly.
I planned an easy route with the train as the primary mode of transportation and obtained the Hokkaido Rail Passes before leaving Beijing. We went from New Chitose Airport to Noboribetsu, part of Shikotsu-Toya National Park with easy access to spectacular volcanic landscapes and soothing onsens, then further down to Hakodate, a seaside city in the south which was the first to open its port to foreign trade in Japan and boasts one of the most attractive night views in the world. We then made it to the lovely town of Otaru and wandered along its famous canal and the main street lined on both sides with traditional Japanese houses which are now shops of music boxes, glass wares and chocolates. Sapporo was 30 minutes away from Otaru, we went east from there to Kushiro mainly to see the Japanese red-crowned cranes.
The best reward for me during the trip, in addition to spending undistracted time with a loved one, was the strikingly surreal and other-worldly views of cranes resting far away in the misty water shrouded by the orange light of sunrise in a world of snow white. The sun light shone through the fog over the surface of the water and left a mysterious touch of beauty. Simply wonderful to the eyes of a Chinese who cherished the special symbolic meaning of cranes from the Taoist ideal of rising from the earthly worries and pursuits and escaping to the pure and undisturbed land a few skies above. Occasionally, a few cranes would fly off the water and pass just overhead when I realized they were really gigantic birds.
Travelling by public transportation in Japan is a pleasure. Everything works precisely. However, one should be well aware of the schedule. Missing a train or bus might mean a few hours' waiting if one is heading to a less busy destination. People in Hokkaido look very different from the powdery women and suited men in Kyoto or Tokyo by wearing frontier expressions and outfits that keep them protected from the harsh weather. They are friendly and genuin and look seriously reliable in anything they do. In a bit more upscale restaurants and hotels, I was again impressed by how refined the way of living and behaving is to the degree, for example, that I felt uneasy in the presence of an elderly lady in her kimono serving us dinner. She was just unreasonably gentle and reserved.
I didn't meet any western travellers outside Sapporo and didn't have real sight of tourists in Kushiro. There are quite some visitors from Hong Kong and Taiwan in Hakodate and Otaru. I'm not sure whether language barrier is an issue, because most Japanese here don't speak English at all. Knowledge of Chinese language definitely helped, because the two languages share a lot of common characters. As I start to like Japan as a travel destination and a cultural interest, I think it's time to pick up some Japanese.
Practical Tips for Crane Viewing:
I've visited all three locations recommended by the Lonely Planet or on the Internet for crane viewing: Akan International Crane Centre, Tsuruimidai, and Otowa Bashi. The views from Otowa Bashi at sunrise is the most breathtaking but one has to arrange private transportation. There are buses to both the Crane Center and Tsuruimidai from Kushiro Station, each taking about an hour's ride. Due to the infrequent bus schedule and short days in end December (sunset at around 4pm), it's not possible to visit both by public transportation in one day. I prefer the Crane Center if I have to choose only one to visit, for its better facilities, broader landscape and more cranes.