I’d been working in Niseko for two months when my friend and housemate Ed bought a car. Niseko is a ski town with a huge second-hand market for almost anything, particularly in winter. So when a local farmer approached Ed with an offer for his almost prehistoric Toyota for only ¥50,000 (about $500), we jumped at the chance. The caveat was that the car was tiny, cramped, could only play CDs and didn’t have the best heating.
While a road trip is a classic method of exploring places like Hokkaido, you can undertake the same journey I did by using the JR line from Sapporo, the Furano line from Asahikawa or the highway buses that run out from both these cities.
A few hours after our 6 a.m. departure, we’d made it past the big smoke of Sapporo and were driving through open farmland. We climbed up from the plains and into the mountains as Sir Eric Clapton, the featured artist on the only CD the car was equipped with, serenaded our path forward. The roads were winding and slippery, yet as we rounded the next bend, our scenic route proved well worth it.
It’s impossible to say where the shore starts and Lake Katsurazawa ends as even the ice is blanketed under meters of snow. It gives the appearance of a perfectly flat plain that eventually rises to meet the half-engulfed trunks of the towering pine trees surrounding it.
As the sun flashed through the valley, catching on the icicles that hang from the branches, we knew that this natural beauty was what we had come here looking for. Enthused and refreshed, we made our way out of the hills and into Furano.
Trouble at a Furano CD Shop
Furano is one of the more out-of-the-way ski towns in Hokkaido and is cheaper than Niseko. It’s built at the bottom of a valley and is surrounded by chairlifts. Definitely a spot for more experienced skiers.
We pulled into town and immediately entered the local chain electronics store, searching for CDs. Not expecting much, we were delighted to find an enormous western music section. I found almost every Radiohead album and was giddy at the prospect of listening to A Moon Shaped Pool (2016) in the crystalline forests of Hokkaido.
When we brought our overflowing arms to the cash register, we were regretfully informed that these CDs were only available for rent. We were, however, directed to the Western section for buying CDs. Unfortunately, the only options were Justin Bieber or One Direction. Clapton would have to do.
We stop at a creek to find reception (service can be spotty in the Hokkaido countryside) and I spot something. The water was a deep, turquoise blue. The two of us jumped back into the car and followed the water upstream, where we found our goal: The Biei Blue Lake—completely frozen over.
Covered by a thin sheet of ice, Lake Biei was utterly underwhelming. Disappointed at this development and frustrated by our lack of prior research, we made for the nearby town of Shirogane onsen.
Biei may have been a bust, but Shirogane was not. A collection of hotels placed on top of natural fonts of hot spring water, we picked a hotel at random and asked to use their outdoor onsen.
Next to a frozen-over waterfall, where drips of water whistled down the frozen flow and into a gently babbling brook, I experienced my first onsen in Japan. Sitting in a pool of opaque, tea-colored water, I gazed at a frost-covered tree line and watched as the snow fell onto the water.
If you’re ever close to Asahikawa, I cannot stress enough how important it is you get to Shirogane, particularly in winter. Pick a hotel, any hotel. They all feature outdoor onsens, have breathtaking views, and will give you the perfect winter onsen experience.
If you’re traveling without a car, it’s easiest to get to Shirogane Onsen from Asahikawa. It’s a relatively short trip on the Furano line to Biei, and you can then catch a direct bus there. There are also buses from Shirogane to The Blue Lake so that you can knock out two birds with one stone.
Refreshed and a little consoled, we drove into Asahikawa without further incident. Ed boldly asked our hostel receptionist where he recommended dining. He simply pointed down an alleyway towards a dimly lit restaurant. Inside we were welcomed by the amused cries of the townspeople, unused to seeing foreigners in their local bar.
We sat down, and immediately, a waiter placed a charcoal grill, plates of chicken and onion, and two large Sapporo Classics in front of us. We freely spoke in broken Japanese with the welcoming locals and a young couple on their first date next to us. We delightedly watched a variety show together with them, shared drinks and ordered many, many more rounds.
Despite our failure to see Biei’s luminescent blue waters in person, we were buzzing with excitement at our shared experience on our trip back. We agreed decidedly that a tired and corny adage was fitting. The destination was the journey.
Suppose you’re always looking for adventure, amazing onsens and gorgeous natural scenery. In that case, I highly suggest you head to Asahikawa and use the stellar bus networks that cart tourists out to all these fantastic hotspots.
Keen for your own Hokkaido adventure? Let us know of any places you think would make a perfect addition to a road trip or bus itinerary.