North by far east

Only a few words can describe Hokkaido's frigid beauty and exquisiteness
North by far east

Some trips start with colossal bungles and mine was visa related. In Shanghai, the Japanese consulate takes five days to process visas. We were to leave in two. Frantic phone calls ensued a letter to the Consul General in Shanghai, rearranged travel dates. We made it to Hokkaido, Japan&rsquos northernmost island, by the skin of our teeth.

My husband and I settled into a three-hour train ride from Chitose Airport to Kushiro, rattling through the makings of a haiku. Snowbound hills with filigree trees, snowy woods with obsidian brooks that flashed and vanished. I felt like a thief, stealing east in the dying lilac light.

I reached for a 10-year-old conversation with an architect at a Hong Kong party who told me the Japanese have a word for the sound of feet shushing over tatami mats (&lsquomishi mishi&rsquo). He said, I think, that there was a word for the experience of sitting in a hot spring in a snowfall. He said the Japanese differentiate between sparkles a billion twinkling stars or the moon reflected off waves or dappled light through trees (&lsquokira kira&rsquo) is entirely different from the shine of a polished surface or a diamond (&lsquopika pika&rsquo). The rest of the exchange eluded me like a marble on a tilted floor.

A painless switch at Kushiro put us on a local two-carriage line north to our destination, Kawayu Onsen, a hamlet in the Akan National Park. The village sits between two lakes and next to a volcano, Mt Iou. For the last few minutes of the journey, we stood with our bags by the train driver, watching him flick switches and push levers. Headlights lit up a few metres of snow banks and narrow, rushing rails.

Kawayu&rsquos minimal train station has tree trunks for pillars. We stood on the iced-over sidewalk, rubbing our hands. A large wall thermometer read -80C. The night was silent as stone and Orion&rsquos Belt shone sharp. My husband got into the phone booth to call the hotel and, eventually, a smiling and bowing youth wearing nothing particularly warm came to pick us up.

The indigenous Ainu, who populated Hokkaido widely before the Japanese took over, believe that every natural creation has a kamui or divine spirit. In the daylight, Mt Lou rose snow-capped against a cerulean sky blowing a huff of steam shaped like a clenched fist that hung in the still air.

In Kawayu, heated underground waters bubble to the earth&rsquos surface all over the town for convenient bathing or foot dipping. Late at night, keeping our eyes firmly on the iced over single main road, we went hunting for diamond dust (&ldquodiamond-o dust-o&rdquo), one of Kawayu&rsquos claims to fame. When temperatures drop to -200C, the rising hot spring steam freezes into ice droplets and in the right light they resemble a shower of diamonds. Since it was a piffling, inadequate -80C, Kawayu folk had rigged a rubber balloon with swinging net pockets of dry ice. A uniformed worker gave the balloon string a tug which freed shards of ice and they came floating down over a neon spotlight in &lsquoS&rsquo-shaped curtains looking exactly like diamond dust or a queue of benign Ainu wraiths, kira kira and pika pika all at the same time.

The next morning, we were the only guests in a snowed-in, mixed gender outdoor onsen. We crossed the open pathway from the hotel in nothing but our yukata (cotton robes) and clattery geta (wooden slippers) into the sub-zero morning. We shed even those at a sparse changing room and stepped naked and barefoot through ankle-deep snow &mdash  which makes the same burring crunch without shoes. Snow had piled high on the surrounding rocks. The water was so hot it didn&rsquot matter. I tipped my head back to take in the magic of this pool ringed by a forest, tree branches latticed with ice, the grey of clouds dotted now with falling snow. Through all this muffled, shredded pewter and pearl, high above floated the dark outlines of five birds, possibly whooper swans. The air filled with faint honking cries and then the landscape reverted to silence, steam and the smell of sulphur.

In a taxi we bumped over fresh-fallen snow to a spot called Sunayu on the shores of nearby lake Kussharo. Here, heavy ivory whooper swans gather by the lake&rsquos wind-whipped steel-grey waves to feed. There must have been about 70 birds, quizzical and unafraid of humans, belonging to that spot completely as though they had emerged from the snow fully-formed. The mountains lifted in the background, snow-clad and etched with the bare bones of trees. The birds&rsquo beaks had a splash of spilled-paint yellow, the only dab of colour in that congealed, argentate canvas.

One weekend a year in January, a grand steam locomotive makes the journey south from Kawayu to Kushiro, through the two national parks. Thereafter, it only runs in February and that too, starting halfway south at Shibecha. So it was something of an event, confirmed by the hubbub around its arrival at our tiny train station. The Hokkaido Broadcasting Corporation, bundled against the cold, clustered at the edge of the platform, cameras ready on tripods. When the locomotive came, it carried a whole old era in its chugging wake. It arrived with flash and bluster, its jet-black nooks and crannies snow-filled, snorting and huffing like a horse post-race. The press rushed forward, little children were held up for pictures. Somebody took a picture of us, smiling against the steam. All through its return journey, the train was greeted with waves and camera flashes. People had waited all along the way, crouching in snow to get the perfect angle.

Inside, the carriage was as snug as a living room with glowing light fixtures, a paper crane attached to the ceiling and a pot-bellied coal stove with a rack to roast squid on. Two local women tore flattened squid into strips, dipped it into mayonnaise and offered us some. It&rsquos not unpleasant, if you like chewing on salty rubber bathmats. I felt obliged to munch heroically, right until the stop at Shibecha when they got off and I could toss the lot.

The train runs through the Kushiro Shitsugen National Park, through areas favoured by the rare, Japanese red-crowned crane that has been saved from extinction. My state of gentle

They were clustered in a snowed-in meadow, twig-legged and aristocratic, with black tails and heads, white necks, somehow aware of their own distinction. Two of them leapt into the air and flapped away over the trees. The moment lasted a breath but the sighting of the birds was piercing and unforgettable. Easy to see why the Ainu call them the deities of the marsh.

Further on, we saw deer bounding through the trees, their pelt thick with winter growth. A river runs parallel to the tracks and we glued our noses to the window, watching its inky waters appear and disappear through the snow and trees, like a wild animal itself. There must be a Japanese word for leaving an ethereal landscape, the feeling that elsewhere, faraway eons have passed unheeded.

Sapporo felt prosaic after all that. To be fair, it is a gracious city, laid out in orderly grids, lined at times with gingko trees and famous for its ramen noodles and fresh seafood. At the Nijo fish market, there were whole, ice-encrusted salmon, local fatty hokke or atka mackerel, clams, roe everywhere, in slabs and in jars and, most of all, king crabs, neatly bunched and tied and stacked in crates of ice. The city&rsquos chefs had probably swooped and snatched the best of the catch early that morning. But we squeezed into an eatery called Donburi and ordered maguro don, slices of raw tuna so fresh it practically flopped over on its bed of rice and nori. The benizake don, lightly grilled salmon over rice, was also delicious. But the highlight was the grilled king crab. We prised delicate flesh out of two claws. The meat&rsquos sweetish, faintly nutty flavour was enhanced with a smoky hint from the just-grilled carapace.

Chitose Airport, a half-hour train ride south of Sapporo, has an exuberant collection of restaurants on the third floor. At Sapporo Ramen, which feels as lively as any street stall, we ordered noodles with chopped scallions, bean sprouts and bamboo shoots in a hearty miso broth, topped with a tent of pork strips. I enlivened it with a dollop of the supplied garlic and &lsquoseven-flavour&rsquo pepper powder and washed it all down with Hokkaido beer.

By now I was clinging to each day like a branch in a flooded river. From the airport, we caught a shuttle to Rusutsu, a jewel of a ski town that features three interconnected mountains Isola, the highest at 994m, East Mountain and West Mountain. They rose invitingly before our eyes and we spent a flawless day riding up the gondolas, flitting down luxurious, long runs with names like &lsquoHeavenly View&rsquo. Easy transfers between the mountains, no waits at the lifts, no crowds, fresh snow. On the ski lifts, dangling skis, I counted animal tracks below us. Around us, moody mountain weather ensured a different feel each time. Light mist, then bright skies and clear views of snowed-in valleys, followed by a sudden flurry, all in the same hour. At the lodge, the Australian and Canadian ski instructors raved about the place, the powdery snow, the facilities.

There must be a word too, in Japanese, for the feeling of receiving a treat just when you think it&rsquos all over. So it was on the bus ride from Rusutsu back to the airport, a 1.5hr winding journey through heart-stopping mountain vistas. Tiny wooden cranes and foxes dangled from the bus&rsquos rear view mirror. Under scrubbed, shining skies we rounded a corner and for long moments hugged the shores of Shikotsu Lake, a translucent, aquamarine blue, ringed with snowy hills, seen through a tracery of trees &mdash and apparently rarely seen at all due to fog. The island shows itself, but only when the gods will it. I hunted for the word to describe our Hokkaido holiday and found it easily perfection.

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