The Igloo Village of Shikaribetsu
Our first day in the beautiful island of Hokkaido. I was excited and looking forward to spending my next week surrounded by snow. Coming from a land where temperatures frequently touch 50° Centigrade, it is like a fantasy coming to Hokkaido in winter.
It was going to be a long day. We were heading to the city of Kushiro, almost 300 km away. On the way, we had planned to take a break at Obihiro, and visit the phantom village on Lake Shikaribetsu.
Phantom?? because nobody actually lives in that village. Shikaribetsuko Kotan (然別湖コタン) is a winter event held from late January to late March at Lake Shikaribetsu, located in the northwestern part of Obihiro. When the lake freezes in winter, the people from the nearby village build igloos on the lake using ice. The kotan (village) exists only during the winter months and melts away with the onset of spring.
Sapporo to Lake Shikaribetsu
We had already purchased our special JR passes the day before, that were valid for unlimited travel in Hokkaido for the next 7 consecutive days. This 7 day JR Pass costs ¥26000 and can be bought at the JR ticket counter at Chitose Airport itself.
We left the warm comforts of our hotel at 7 am and walked down to the Nakajimakoen park. In daylight, the park looked lovely, covered in snow. The snow had tapered down from last night and it was relatively easier to walk. Curiously, even though I was surrounded by snow almost 3 ft high, it didn’t feel very cold.
Inside the park, an underground passage directly goes up to the Nakajimakoen Station. From there its just a couple of stops to Sapporo Station.
At the station, we had a light breakfast. Sapporo Station is huge. There are dedicated rows of shops for clothes, food and other stuffs. We caught the 8.45 am Super Ozora train to Obihiro. For the next 2 hours, I was treated to some breathtaking scenery as the train chugged along the white landscape. I have never seen so much snow in my life. It was like the color green had been banished from the lands.
How to get to lake Shikaribetsu – Fusui Bus
We reached Obihiro at 10.40 am. At the station, we went directly to the tourist information center to obtain local bus schedules for Lake Shikaribetsu. The lady at the help desk informed us, one was leaving within 15 minutes at 11 o’clock. We literally ran to the bus stand since the bus intervals were far apart and it takes almost 3 hours to reach the lake. The bus was about half full and mostly filled with locals. It was a pleasant surprise that the ride to Lake Shikaribetsu is absolutely free.
As we drove across the city, I realized it had been snowing heavily for some time. The sidewalks were covered in huge mounds of snow. The roads had been swept of ice but they were still wet and cold steam was rising from the surface. After a while we left behind the little town of Shikaoi at the foot of the mountain and entered the forested area of Daisetsu National Park.
The history of the phantom village of Lake Shikaribetsu goes back to 1980, when local residents began building igloos on top of the frozen lake for fun near the Shikaribetsu Kohan Onsen resort. They continued this yearly activity and now people from all over Japan come to see the ice village during winter.
We reached the lake at 1.45 pm. Though the distance from Obihiro is only 60 km, the driver took his time as the bus goes through some sharp curves and snow-covered roads. Even in these tough terrain, it feels great to see the buses and trains are so particular with time. One can plan everything from before and trust these guys to do their job.
The bus dropped us off in front of Hotel Fusui. The driver informed us to collect the free ride back ticket at the reception of the hotel.
The Hotel Fusui is located right on the edge of Lake Shikaribetsu. We obtained our return tickets and left our luggage at the reception. We were hungry so we went into the restaurant on the ground floor. The restaurant seating is cleverly arranged so the guests can eat with the lovely view of the lake. We ordered a local delicacy – the Dolly Varden trout, that are found in the Lake Shikaribetsu.
The food at the hotel was good. It was rather pleasant sitting by the window in the soft sun, overlooking the huge, frozen lake. From time to time, clouds would pass by casting a shadow on the lake.
Beside the restaurant, a souvenir shop was selling some artifacts. I made a mental note to come back before catching the bus back to Obihiro.
After lunch we walked over to the lake. The place is very serene and peaceful. Far away, on the slopes of Mt. Higashi-Nupukaushi-Nupur, the spruce forests were draped in snow. In Ainu language, the name of the lake means “Lake of the Sky.” At At 810 meters, Shikaribetsu has the distinction of being the highest altitude lake in Hokkaido.
Lake Shikaribetsu Igloo Village
The construction of the ice village begins in January, when the ice above the lake reaches a thickness of about 15 centimeters. Local villagers and volunteers from across Hokkaido assemble and work for about three weeks to create this amazing village. One can also stay overnight in the igloos. Although the temperatures can get as low as minus 20 or 30 degrees at night and not a very wise choice, I might say. Apart from the scattered igloos, the village also features an ice cafe cum bar, an open-air bath, and even a chapel – made entirely of ice.
The village looked very picturesque from the Hotel. As we walked down to the village, the first ice structure we came across was the ice bar. We didn’t bother to go inside as neither of us was thirsty for a drink. A few steps ahead we passed a miniature snow maze.
Once in the village, we spent some time admiring the igloos in this remote Hokkaido village.
I kind of took a liking to this one 🙂
The bigger ones can be used as a night stay if you desire so.
Some of the bigger ones had seating arrangements made from blocks of ice.
On the left one can find the popular open air hot spring. The hot tub is installed in the water during spring. Once the lake freezes, the tub is no more visible and with the surrounding snow and ice, it appears as though visitors are bathing in ice. What more can one ask for while bathing in warm spring water, surrounded by snow, mountains, and fresh air. A Japanese family was taking a bath. We didn’t disturb them and walked towards the white chapel on the far edge of the village.
The chapel looked like just another igloo from outside. But the inside was beautifully done. It must take great effort to build something so spectacular just out of ice. While the design of the intricately detailed chapel changes each year, the results are always no less than spectacular. Many real ceremonies are also held here each year at the chapel.
After investigating the village we wandered off to the far right where a gentleman was offering snowmobile rides. Those looking for a taste of adventure can ride the snowmobile along a pre-designed course over the lake for ¥1000. Since neither of us had any experience of handling a snowmobile, the guide drove us across the lake. The guided tour costs ¥2000. In spite of the helmets, one can feel the bite of the freezing wind as we rode across the huge lake.
After the cross-lake ride, we roamed around as we still had some time before our 4.10 pm ride back to Obihiro. We walked along a make-shift path in the snow, beyond the village, following the footstep of visitors before us. The farther we walked, the more I realized, the vastness of the lake. With not a soul around, walking over the frozen lake is very refreshing. At some places we would be almost knee-deep in the snow. I had always wanted to make some butterfly impressions in the snow. Perfect time to make some 🙂
At about 3 pm it had begun to snow again over the mountains and we could no longer make out the summit in the heavy snowfall. The snowfall was advancing towards us, fast and within a few minutes the flakes were falling on us. It had started to feel bitterly cold, so we headed back to the refuge of the hotel.
Back at the hotel, we collected our luggage and relaxed on the couch in the lounge. The storm had subsided when the bus arrived at 4 pm. We immediately boarded the bus and were on our way back to Obihiro.
It was almost 6 pm by the time we reach Obihiro Station. We caught the Super Ozora at 7 pm for Kushiro. It was going to be another hour and half on the train. We reached Kushiro late at 8.32 pm. The Kushiro Prince hotel was a couple of blocks away and we walked to it. The roads were deserted. People in these parts sure shut down early.
We were tired from all the walking, so we had a quick dinner and went to bed. Tomorrow we go on a tour of Akan National Park arranged by Akan bus.