#WhereHasWinterTakenYou: Into the Woods on Snowshoes…
Have you ever been somewhere so beautiful it looked surreal? Have you ever seen a place with only two predominant colours – white and brown, but seemingly the most colourful place you’ve ever seen? Have you ever experienced something so far from your ordinary that it felt almost like a dream? That’s how it was for our family last winter, when we put on our snowshoes and walked into the woods…
(Do check out our short video at the end of the blog)
For our winter holiday last December, our family traveled to Niseko, located on the beautiful island of Hokkaido, which is also the northern-most island of Japan. Although most of our time there was spent snowboarding, we also made time for a snowshoeing tour. That morning, although the sun was nowhere to be found, we were extremely lucky that it wasn’t dark and windy. It had been snowing hard all week, but that morning, the snowfall was light and a welcome companion during our hike around the western foot of Mount Yotei towards the frozen, half-moon lake known as Lake Hangetsu.
Lake Hangetsu is a crater lake surrounded by a thick primeval forest. The trees around it, according to the Niseko Tourism website have been designated national natural monuments. ‘Hangetsu’, which literally means half-moon in English, is a lake the shape of a crescent moon. It is located in Shikotsu-Toya National Park which encompasses several lakes, forests, and volcanoes including Mount Yotei.
At 9 in the morning, we were picked up from our rented apartment by a van with our two guides, Peter from Poland, and his trainee, Juan from Argentina. We drove for about 20 minutes to the starting point of our hiking trail, right by the wooden signage of ‘Shikotsu Toya National Park’. Also at the start of the trail was this public toilet, so pretty it looked more like a chapel.
The trail was covered in fresh, soft, and in many areas, knee-high, snow. There were times when we were not sure what we were stepping on and how deep it would be. There were some fallen trees across our paths that we had to climb over and two where we had to crawl under. Closer to the lake was a short but steep descent, where we had to slide down on our bums because for us adults it’s the safest and most efficient way, and for the kids, because it’s the most fun way to go down.
After walking for about 45 minutes to an hour, we saw what looked like a half-moon-shaped lake. We did not immediately recognize it because it was shrouded in fog. It was all white, frozen, and hidden by the tall trees that surround it. It wasn’t a big lake but its crescent shape was obvious amidst the fog.
The snowfall was dense as the lake drew near but it couldn’t conceal the beauty ahead of us. If ever, it only added mystery. Peter told us not to go far out into the lake. He said it’s still early winter and the ice would be unstable.
And so just at the edge of the lake, we stood not for a very long time but long enough to see what’s around us, to feel, and be grateful for the extraordinary experience.
Peter, Juan and our family hiked back to the starting point of our trail, where the pretty toilet was and where the van was parked. We had a bit of time before we had to head back to Hanazono for our afternoon snowboarding lesson, and so we did what we had to do – make snow angels! And pose for family pictures. 🙂
Here’s a short video of our snowshoeing. Hope you’ll enjoy watching! Do read our tips at the bottom if you plan on snowshoeing in Niseko.
As promised, here are the details of our tour and some tips for you:
- Instead of the usual snowshoeing tour that is available from many tour providers, we did the photography tour by Niseko Photography and Guiding. It is a private tour where the guide is also a professional photographer.
- The usual snowshoeing tour is about JPY24,000 for 2.5 hours. The photography tour is JPY45,000. Is the premium worth it? Definitely for our family and for such a fascinating location. With somebody else taking our pictures, our family can just focus on enjoying every moment of the hike. The pictures, in original size, will be sent to you online. You can post them on your social pages or print them the old-fashioned way. Peter and Juan took gorgeous stolen shots and they are my favourite.
- You can have a photographer or a videographer, or both for an additional cost. Visit their website, click here.
- Expect a real hike, we walked up and down the trail, crawled and climbed, too. We were already sweating during the first 10 minutes. So you’ll want your base layer garment to be able to wick moisture easily when you sweat. The mid/outer layers should be able to insulate your body heat because the moment you stop walking and if you’re base is wet, you’ll feel really cold and you may not enjoy the rest of the walk.
- The usual tours are more informative than the photography tour, so choose your priority.
- We found the 2.5-hour tour, which included the van ride, a bit short. But it is ideal if you have small children, like Joaquin. On a sunny winter day, a 3 or 4-hour tour would be the best.
- We think it is best to do the tour early in the morning. It feels great to be the first ones to step on fresh, powdery snow.
- If you are alone, join a group tour. The forest is isolated, you’d feel more comfortable if with a group. It’ll be more fun, too.
- Overall, we highly recommend a photography tour if it’s your family’s first time. If we would be lucky again to have this experience in the future, we would then do the usual tour so that we can learn more about the trail, the lake, the forest and it’s dwellers. xoxo