Japan: Snow Monkeys and Winter Cranes

Wildlife and Cultural Adventure in a Wintery World

Trip Level

The trip is rated 2, easy to moderate, according to our trip grading system. Although not physically demanding, the trip will yield greater rewards if you are in good physical condition and able to stay on your feet for 6-7 hours per day. Please remember, we will be sleeping on futons and eating at floor level, so it is important that you are able to sit down on and get up off the floor without much difficulty.

We will be walking on a possibly snowy pathway for about a mile each way to see the snow monkeys. Warm, waterproof boots are necessary for this, plus warm, waterproof jackets, gloves, and hats for our time in Hokkaido. Our day at the Sapporo Snow Festival is spent walking on possibly snowy or icy boulevards during the day as well as in the evening. We spend our time at Kushiro visiting crane sanctuaries, with some outdoor walking as well as a boat trip on an open raft on our trip through the marsh. Our time at Lake Akan includes an evening visit to the frozen lake festivities, again walking on icy, snowy roads. Though our days should see temperatures in the mid-30s, it can be quite cold in Hokkaido in the winter, with temperatures dropping to below freezing and even possibly to zero Fahrenheit. We travel by train and charter bus, so layers work well.

Though not physically difficult in terms of hiking, this trip can be challenging in other ways. The possibly very cold weather (and possibility of rain instead of snow) can make things uncomfortable for those who are not dressed properly, and the weather can even cause us to change our plans. A flexible nature and readiness to absorb and enjoy the culture are necessary for enjoyment of this trip, but the rewards are many!

We will have a mix of free time and group time, providing the opportunity for independent exploration. Our breakfasts and most dinners are eaten together and we have the time to share our experiences and new discoveries over these meals.

Accommodations
Japan is a blend of the traditional and modern, and our trip encompasses this unique mixture. We will stay at traditional ryokans as well as Japanese-style hotels. The quiet world of the ryokan is a venerable cultural institution—a way to experience a simple, timeless way of life. After being warmly welcomed, we trade our street shoes for slippers. Once inside, we remove our slippers as we step onto the finely woven tatami mats covering our sleeping room floors. Our rooms are spacious and pleasant with low tables and comfortable futon mattresses with quilts and blankets. Some of our rooms will have attached toilets; at other times, we share the “down the hall” facilities. Although a few ryokans have baths in the rooms, most have an ofuro (a Japanese-style bath). Note: Single travelers will share accommodations at the ryokans.

Normally, a fresh cotton yukata (robe) is provided for each guest. These light kimonos can be worn anywhere in and around the ryokan and we often wear them to meals (make sure to wear the left side over the right). For many of our breakfasts and dinners, beautifully presented meals are served as we sit on the floor at low tables on our tatami mats. Please note that many of the meals at ryokans are already set menus.

Japanese Bathing
In Japan, bathing is a time honored tradition, a relaxing daily event. While staying in our ryokans, we will bathe as the Japanese do—using the ofuro system. In separate men and women’s sides, the custom is to wash and rinse before entering the ofuro, a large tub of hot water where we can sit back with legs extended, submerged to the neck (this trip is not for the very modest!). Early Shinto was a religion of cleanliness and purification. Ritualistic bathing began during this time and has been perfected over the centuries. Either as a divine imperative or a luxury, bathing in Japan has always been regarded as more than a hygienic chore. The ofuro is the perfect way to finish a hectic day of travel. After a relaxing bath, we gather for the evening meal.

Japanese Cuisine
A highlight of any visit to Japan is its superb cuisine defined by fresh ingredients and artful presentation. We will have ample opportunity to sample both familiar and new dishes. We will sample many types of Japanese food, and usually the first “bite” is with our eyes, the presentation being a tantalizing array of fresh fish, beef, vegetables, tofu, miso soup and, of course, rice, all served on individual plates and bowls of exquisite sizes, patterns, and proportions. We eat with chopsticks and are usually seated at low tables on the floor. During our stay at ryokans, a set menu is offered for dinner. At some ryokans, you may choose between a Japanese breakfast of fish, rice, miso soup, tofu, vegetables, pickled condiments and tea, or a western breakfast consisting of eggs, toast, salad, and coffee. Many places, however, offer only Japanese food.

Keep in mind that Japanese food is very different from what we are used to, and with the limited availability of American foods, your food intake will be a big part of the Japanese adventure. Please note that gluten-free cuisine will not be available, as Japanese food is often prepared with soy sauce and miso as a dressing, a paste, or a seasoning.

You will have all lunches and some dinners on your own, allowing you ample opportunity to sample the endless variety of Japanese food. When we are traveling, we may try an obento (box lunch), and we sample the snack foods of Japan and/or get a bowl of udon, ramen, or soba (noodles) at one of the local spots. Napkins are not used except at western-style restaurants; bring your own handkerchief.

Given our locations, and true in most of Japan, choices of foods are not given. If you have dietary restrictions or allergies please check with us before booking. Our typical dinner hour is 7:00 pm, although we may eat earlier to accommodate early rising days. Most accommodations offer chairs and tables for meals, although in your traditional rooms and for one or two dinners, we will be sitting on the floor. Japanese rooms have comfortable futons at floor level for sleeping. There may not be a chair or raised table in the room.

Weather

We could experience snowy or even blizzard conditions during the course of this journey, which may alter our plans. Be prepared with cold weather clothing and good warm snow boots with adequate tread for walking. Of course, bring an additional pair of shoes to change into for our hotel dinners. Slippers are provided at our inns. A daypack is useful for our day trips, as well as to carry and shed or add layers on our bus days. We carry our own bags through the stations, airports, and on and off the trains and buses. You must be able to handle your own luggage with ease.

Choosing the Right Trip

We work hard to help you choose the right trip for you, paying attention to your individual interests, abilities, and needs. If you have questions about the level of comfort or any of the activities described in this itinerary, please contact us.

References

We are proud to have an exceptionally high rate of repeat travelers. For more information, we would be happy to put you in touch with a client who has traveled with us.