Hokkaido’s hidden gems

View from The Chapel on the Water in Tomamu, Hokkaido. — TODAY pic
View from The Chapel on the Water in Tomamu, Hokkaido. — TODAY pic

HOKKAIDO, May 18 — I sat at Bar Icewood, cradling a cheery mocktail with orange juice and grenadine. I would not ordinarily be found at a bar on a Friday afternoon, but since the bar was situated in the middle of the Ice Village at Tomamu, about a two-hour drive from Sapporo in Hokkaido, and was built almost entirely of ice, I decided to make an exception.

I stepped out of the bar to explore the rest of the ice village, clutching my glass — made of ice, of course — in a gloved hand. Temperatures in this part of Japan sometimes dip to -20°C in the winter — perfect conditions for a village where visitors can stay at an ice hotel, skate on an ice rink, try a “Northern Stew” at an ice diner with furnishings made of ice, and roast large marshmallows over the fire at the Snow Marshmallow Factory.

Ice Village at Hoshino Resorts Tomamu — which is partnering Club Med to open Club Med Tomamu Hokkaido in December — is just one of Hokkaido’s many hidden gems. When it comes to travelling to Hokkaido in the winter, most people think only of visiting Sapporo for its ramen alley or the Sapporo Beer Factory Museum, or the picturesque Otaru Canal nearby. But Japan’s northernmost prefecture has a lot more to offer.

The Unkai (Japanese for ‘Sea of Clouds’) Terrace, near the centre of Hokkaido, offers spectacular views of the Tomamu mountain resort area from an elevation of 1,088m. The terrace is so named because on some mornings in the summer, visitors can catch incredible views of a magnificent sea of clouds rolling over the surrounding peaks.

The Chapel on the Water, designed by famous Japanese architect Tadao Ando and built in 1988, is one of the region’s most popular sights and wedding venues. Glass windows are removed from the minimalist chapel during the spring, summer and autumn seasons so it opens out directly to a serene pool of water, surrounded by trees.

A woman alpine skiing at Club Med Sahoro Hokkaido. — Handout via TODAY
A woman alpine skiing at Club Med Sahoro Hokkaido. — Handout via TODAY

But since we were at the tail-end of winter when I visited, I sat on a bench for a few minutes, enjoying the enchanting view of the snow and the reddish-orange hues of the sunset.

Hokkaido is also renowned for its many winter sports activities; chief among these is skiing. While Niseko, with its constant snowfall and deep, powdery snow, remains the most popular ski destination in Hokkaido and the rest of Japan, the prefecture boasts many other ski resort areas with excellent slopes for beginners and experts alike.

I spent two mornings skiing at Club Med Sahoro, which offers 21 ski slopes of varying levels. Since Club Med’s all-inclusive holiday package includes ski passes and lessons — including, among other things, accommodation, meals and kids’ activities — I joined a class headed by one of the resort’s 50 ski instructors to practise my parallel turns, but later left to do a few runs on my own.

Before my trip to Hokkaido, I had always found skiing to be an exercise in maintaining one’s balance while speeding down a slippery slope in inexplicably cumbersome gear, as well as in dodging pesky five-year-olds who feel the need to remind me that I will never ski as well as they do, especially at popular resorts around the world where the wait for the ski lift can take up to 45 minutes. But the fact that the slopes at Mount Sahoro are shared by only two resorts — Club Med and the neighbouring Sahoro resort — meant that there were only a few groups of people on the slopes at any one time, and virtually zero waiting time for the ski lift.

For the first time in a long time, I found that I could focus on actually enjoying the experience, without having to worry about being in anyone’s way.

Snowboarders and skiers at Club Med Sahoro Hokkaido. — TODAY pic
Snowboarders and skiers at Club Med Sahoro Hokkaido. — TODAY pic

Happily, children and teenagers from the ages of four to 17 also partook in their own skiing and snowboarding lessons under Club Med’s Mini Club and Junior Club, included in the resort’s holiday package, separate from the adults. (For an extra fee, two to four-year-olds can join the Petit Club for activities such as painting, song and dance sessions, and outdoor games.) Ski lessons for children typically start with a quick snowball fight, and the youngsters can take their time learning the basics of skiing, such as how to stop and turn, on their own mini slopes before joining the adults.

But if there is anything I like better than skiing, it is the après-ski.

Because Club Med Sahoro is located at the foot of the ski slopes, the resort offers ski-in ski-out access, which means guests only have to walk out the door to reach the slopes, and back in again to access their rooms, the cafeteria, and other hotel amenities.

I spent my afternoons relaxing in the spa, taking a quick dip in the outdoor tub, and lounging in the ofuro (Japanese bath) within the resort, but my favourite après-ski activity was, without a doubt, dinner time.

Mealtimes at Club Med Sahoro tend to be festive affairs, featuring everything from fresh sashimi, sushi, fish, pan-fried scallops, raclette cheese and Hokkaido rice to an impressive selection of fruit, pies, yogurt, bread pudding, pear and apricot crumble, and my absolute favourite — rich, creamy Hokkaido soft serve. The ski instructors even got together to surprise us one night by skiing down a slope with enormous sparklers in their hands.

Children learn how to ski at Club Med Sahoro Hokkaido. — Handout via TODAY
Children learn how to ski at Club Med Sahoro Hokkaido. — Handout via TODAY

The day before I left Hokkaido, I put my boots, skis and sunglasses back on, took the chairlift, and went up Mount Sahoro alone for a few final runs. It was lunchtime, and the mountains were quite literally empty.

Everything was still except for the chairlifts, which were in operation, and the flakes of snow that fell out of the sky and floated gently to the ground.

I skied down the slopes for the last time, turning left and right, left and right, alternating between making large and small turns, feeling the wind and the snow and the cold, cold air against the bare skin on my face, relishing the adrenaline of being always just at the brink of conquering nature, or perhaps being conquered by nature.

And for the first time in a long time, I felt free. — TODAY

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