I travelled to the beautiful island of Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, in February 2019 for a 2-week trip. I was going to be travelling with my friend Ulana Switucha. We had travelled together in Japan in 2017 and I knew I’d have an amazing experience with her because she speaks some Japanese and knows Japan well. We rented an SUV and travelled from Sapporo in the west to Lake Kussharo and Lake Akan in the east, going north to Haboro and stopping in Biei along the way. We hoped to photograph mostly minimalist scenes and we weren’t disappointed. Hokkaido is one of the snowiest places in the world and that snow blanket made for some wonderful minimalist images.
After flying into and spending the night in Chitose, we headed west to photograph the beautiful rocks at Ebisu. It was a lovely first day of the trip and it ended nicely with a dinner of conveyer-belt sushi in Otaru.
Day Two was quite an adventure. We had a 5am start (with a bit of fresh snow which had fallen overnight to dust off the car) to get to Ebisu for our second shoot there. Once the light got harsh, we headed into Sapporo because we needed to replace Ulana’s ND filter. We then drove north for over five hours through, first, a winter wonderland and, then, near white-out conditions and I got my first crack at driving on the wrong side of the road in a snow storm.
Day 3 was a real mixed bag, weather-wise. What started out as a blue sky day quickly turned into snow storms and, then just as quickly back to blue skies. We photographed the beautiful torii gate at the Konpira shrine twice and waded through often knee-high snow to do it. Lunch was at a local, small-town place with an odd 70s vibe and great Japanese curry.
Our second visit to Konpira gave us beautiful skies but bitter winds and cold.
Day 4 in Hokkaido was much colder we’d been experienced so far (though Hokkaido doesn’t get as cold as, say, the Prairies in Canada) and we also had a strong and bitter wind. It was a bit of a struggle shooting and a challenge for frozen fingers to put on and take off filters but we shot along the west coast before stopping for a sushi lunch and heading inland to Biei. At first we drove through a beautiful scenery, but the weather soon turned stormy (close to white-out conditions again) and a drive that should have taken 2 hours took closer to 5 hours.
Day 5 was our first full day in Biei and we took advantage by shooting all day (except for a break for a lovely lunch). We enjoyed balmy -2 temps with barely any wind and everything from sun to snowstorms.
We shot all of Day 6 in Biei. We started off with a gorgeous wintery drive out to the Blue Pond, breakfast and then, when the conditions got good, went out shooting for the rest of the day. After a full day of shooting, it was lovely to end up the evening with hot onsen bath.
Day 7 in Hokkaido was a really good day. We finally got the conditions we were hoping for in Biei - snowfall - and we made the best of it by shooting all day. What a joy!
A long, exciting and exhausting day was followed, as it had been since we arrived in Biei, by an onsen bath. During our time in Biei we stayed in onsen town (a town built around a hot spring) called Shirogane, at an onsen ryokan (a hot springs hotel). There is a full ritual to bathing in an onsen so thank goodness I had Ulana to explain all the intricacies and etiquette to me. At first, I was a little nervous, in part by the naked communal bathing, but even more so being worried about making a mistake, but after a few days I felt like a pro and loved my onsen bath every evening. The bath the evening of Day 7 was particularly special because it was snowing. What a quiet, peaceful and magical moment to be in the hot water with snow falling from the night sky. The images of our onsen below are taken from the hotel website. Photographing in the onsen is discouraged for the obvious reason that everyone in there is naked. : )
Day 8 was mostly a driving day, as we moved from Biei in the centre of Hokkaido to Lake Kussharo in the east. We travelled through some gorgeous mountain scenery (often in blowing snow as you'll see in the video). We had a delicious sushi dinner at wonderfully cozy and atmospheric place run by an older couple and capped off the long and tiring day with a relaxing outdoor onsen under the almost-full moon.
Day 9 started very early with some beautiful low-lying fog over Lake Kussharo which left many trees with a wonderful coating of ice. We shot a series of sites we'd scouted online (as we did everyday) but there were some lovely serendipitous finds, too. The last place we shot was a little shinto shrine, and nearby was an outdoor onsen, used by locals. When we got there there were people in it, so we were loathe to photograph, but Ulana struck up a conversation with one man and we heard about how locals like to go there after work and how it is probably the nicest open onsen on the lake. Both of us were tempted to get in but, alas, we had no towels with us. We ended our day at a local izakaya (a bar where you can order a series of small dishes and snacks). It was a very cool place with jazz playing and lots of animated conversation going on around us once it started to get busy.
On Day 10 we had a good early morning shoot around Lake Kussharo before breakfast and checking out of the hotel. The rest of the day, though, was a bit of a bust as we scoured back roads for shooting opportunities and didn’t find much. The fact that this surprised me made me realize how lucky we had generally been with sites and shooting conditions. That night we checked into our last hotel on the road - a real splurge, the gorgeous La Vista Akangawa near Lake Akan. We had agreed to treat ourselves to something special those last two nights, and this place didn’t disappoint. From the absolutely beautiful communal onsen (see pics below) to the 3 private onsens to the personal onsen in our room to the 9-course kaiseki meal each night, it was a wonderful indulgence to end our trip.
Day 11 started off with a beautiful breakfast at our osen hotel overlooking the Akan River. We then drove south the Tsurui-Ito Tancho Bird Sanctuary to photograph the Red-crowned Cranes but it quickly became obvious to me that I am not a wildlife photographer. No matter, it was still lovely to see them. We drove more back roads looking for interesting shots, but when the sun and blue sky came, we gave up on photography and returned to our hotel. We indulged ourselves with an afternoon off, private onsen baths, dinner and ice creams provided for after-onsen cool down.
On Day 12 we drove back to Chitose. It was another blue sky day so we chose to linger at our onsen hotel for a lovely breakfast and a last bath, and then most of the day was taken up with the long drive back to Chitose. After returning the car, we had a wonderful dinner at a recommended izakaya
From adventures in winter driving to amazing onsens, to wonderful meals, and great photographic opportunities: despite a few mishaps along the way, this was a great trip. Thanks, especially to Ulana - a wonderful guide to Japan and travel companion. Below are some pictures of our solid-as-a-rock rental car, whom we christened Hiro. He got us through thick and thin.