Of Snows and Hot Baths

In the middle of Daisetsuzan National Park, nestled in narrow scenic gorge flanked by cliffs,

abundant hot springs, powerful waterfalls,

and fantastic rock formation is a full-scale mountain resort town called Sounkyo.

It has become quite touristy because it is an excellent base for trekking and skiing around the National Park.

From late January to the end of March, the town hosts (you guessed it) the Sounkyo Ice Waterfall Festival (Sounkyo Onsen Hyoubaku Matsuri).

The highlight of this festival is the frozen waterfalls along with the man-made, multi-story high structures that have a maze like tunnels running through them, all built around the Ishikari River.

Snow domes and ice sculptures likewise scatter around the compound.

Heated quarters with warm drinks and food here.

And even if logic tells you to stay indoors due to the severe cold weather, make sure to be there at night


The Ishikari River runs through the festival.

or miss out on the spectacular lights that illuminate the whole place come sundown. On weekends, you’ll be lucky to witness fireworks too.

Us in an ice bar display

The best way to end the evening is to thaw off at one of the many hot springs found in town. At the Sounkyo Kanko Hotel, we went for the spacious outdoor bath at the back of the hotel. Crazy it may seem, but because this open-air bath is unisex, it was wonderful to be sharing this experience with the hubby. Getting ourselves to walk the short distance from the dressing room to the pool in skimpy clothes provided by the hotel was unimaginable, but once in the hot bath, it was nirvana. This being the last stretch of our Hokkaido winter holiday, it seemingly melted away all the frozen kinks in our body, accumulated over the past days.

Ahh… Always a good experience, this bathing in the snow.

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Happy Feet At Asahiyama Zoo

Credits: Solid Brown paper and Guess What Tag by Splendid Finn You are awesome kit; Bow, Ribbon Cluster, Staples, Saving Memories word art by Sus Design

Mumble, the penguin character in that animated film, Happy Feet, that cannot sing but tap danced his way to Gloria’s heart. Yes, that same Mumble charmed its way into my heart too.

So the whole reason I was in Asahikawa was to be up close to the likes of Mumble. All these chubby birds had to do was waddle past us, and it made my day.

An icon of winter at the Asahiyama Zoo, the 30-minute Penguin Walk is designed to keep them fit and healthy during the cold months as they hardly get enough exercise by staying indoors especially during winter. They are known to walk as far as 1 kilometer a day towards the sea in a group to catch fish.

A close relative and very similar in looks to Emperor Penguins – what Mumble is – the King Penguins are 2nd only to the Emperor in size. To distinguish, the latter’s orange feathers on the side of their head are colorful and brighter than that of their cousins. Their beaks are also the longest of the whole family of penguins. Though they are known to be the best divers and swim incredibly fast, they, however, saunter on land and are known to slide on their bellies to help them maneuver through the ice and snow.

To survive the severely frigid climate, they are equipped with several unique layers of scale-like feathers to protect them from icy winds and offer a waterproof coat. They also store large amounts of fat that insulate their bodies while also serving as a long-lasting energy source.

What’s interesting is that wild penguins follow the paths between the mountains and during the walk, they were not trained to walk the path, but because they see people like mountains, they automatically follow the path that the people make.

If you happen to be in Hokkaido during the winter, make sure to make your way to Asahiyama Zoo to get a glimpse of these cute chubby birds. It will be worth your while.

Asahikawa

Hokkaido’s second largest city is a good base for those exploring the nearby Daisetsu mountain range and the picturesque Biei-Furano. But because we were there in the dead of winter and we don’t ski, we had other things in mind. We were there for the 58th Asahikawa Winter Festival, its zoo, and ramen.

The Asahikawa Fuyu Matsui

Also known as the Asahikawa Winter Festival, it is an enjoyable fusion of lights, music,


A popular stall to warm the body and soul.

ice and snow sculptures, fireworks, kids activities, and food found in 2 venues.

While it may not have the scale of Sapporo’s festival, it can boast of having the largest snow sculpture in the world in the way of its stage, where all performances are held. The massive sculpture can be found overlooking the Ishikari at the Tokiwa Park near the Asahibashi bridge, where the opening and closing ceremonies are held. To build its main snow sculpture for the festival, the town enlisted the help of their country’s Self Defense Force.

Aside from the Asahibashi site, the Heiwa Dori showcases the ice sculpture competition, where teams from all over the world compete for the best ice sculpture.

Asahiyama Zoo

If truth be told, the videos of the penguin parade were enough to get me to Asahikawa. More of them on my next post because not only does the zoo boast of the Penguins, it is a zoological garden that allows visitors to see the animals from various angles.

Highlights include a glass tunnel through the penguin pool that allows the birds to be seen underwater, many arctic animals such as polar bears, seals and a lot more.

Asahikawa Eats

And of course, a visit to this part of Hokkaido will never be complete without enjoying a bowl of its famous ramen. You’ll find this all over Asahikawa, but we had ours at the Ramen Village on our way back to town from the zoo.

It was a perfect cap to the freezing day at the zoo.

And the freezing weather shouldn’t stop you from enjoying this melon flavored soft served ice cream.

Asahikawa is beautiful during the winter providing an excellent base to bask in all things winter. You will not be disappointed.

Sapporo Snow Festival

On our way to our accommodation from the airport, our cab drove through Susukino to reveal a row of illuminated ice sculpture.  That was our prelude to the Yuki Matsui, internationally known as Sapporo’s Snow Festival.  For seven days every February, Japan’s largest winter event is turned into a winter wonderland of snow stations and ice sculptures.

From a few snow statues created by high school students on its main site, Odori Park in 1950, the festival is now an event visited by millions.  Packed with people walking the slippery path that spans the 1.5km Odori Park showcasing spectacular snow and ice sculptures of different size and shapes from local and international participants.

 

We came across humongous structures such as the Arc de Triumph sculpture and the Taipei Guest House.

 

Some serve as a stage for concerts and other performances.

This giant Cup Noodle that double as a slide is a favorite,

Star War characters R2D2, C3PO and Darth Vader and other cartoon characters make up the fun stuff.

Meanwhile, I am drawn to the smell and the sizzle of beef being grilled on an open barbecue pit, even if we just came from lunch.

Not to be left out are the food stalls of various kinds.  A piece of advice to future attendees, skip lunch that day and head straight to the park.

The row of illuminated ice sculptures that I saw the night before is less dramatic in daylight.

Packed with bars, restaurants, pachinko and red light establishments, Susukino really comes alive upon sundown and so does its displays found on its main street.  We weaved through the sculptures into Ramen Alley for lunch.

The alley has 17 old style ramen shops to choose from.  In a shop randomly selected to fit all 7 of us, we slurped down a bowl of noodles in miso broth topped with seaweed, spring onions, char sou pork, hard-boiled egg, corn and a slice of butter—unique ingredients that make Sapporo’s Ramen worth a try.

The third venue is a multipurpose dome where a variety of events take place inside.  Outside the dome is where the fun is.  Large snow slides and a snow rafting area is set up for the merriment of people of all ages.  Sadly, as the venue is a little away from the city center and is only open until 6 pm.

Useful Info:

Odori Park:  Odori-nishi 1-chome to 12-chome, Chuo-ku

Susukino Venue: Ekimae-dori from Minami 4-Jo to Minami 7-Jo, Chou-ku

Tsudome: Sapporo Sports Facility “Tsudome” Sakaemachi 885-1, Higashi-ku