Hokkaido, the northernmost main island of Japan, is a white wonderland during February’s snow festival. Picture: DIANE DE BEER
Hokkaido, the northernmost main island of Japan, is a white wonderland during February’s snow festival. Picture: DIANE DE BEER

What I probably love most about travelling in Japan is that it is simultaneously foreign and familiar. It’s immediately clear that the Japanese have a different culture, they speak a different language and use a writing system that many foreigners can’t read and yet there’s an unmistakable and comfortable familiarity.

While you might think that you could lose your way in such a strange land, there’s much that you know and recognise to keep you in a very happy place.

What should have had me worried when I was invited by the Japan External Trade Organisation, a nonprofit parastatal, for a brief visit to their northernmost main island, Hokkaido, in February, was the weather.

At the back of my mind I could hear someone saying that February is not a good time to go as it is the coldest month in that neck of the woods. And a further notice from the hosts about the climate in Asahikawa and Sapporo, the two cities we were visiting, should have been ample warning.

The average was about -6.5°C, with the minimum touching -12°C. Suitable clothing was suggested, as one of the reasons we were traveling all this way at this specific time was for the annual Japanese snow festivals, celebrated all over Hokkaido but specifically in these two cities.

Snow hasn’t really been part of my vocabulary, but the spectacle of a world clad in white, the texture like powder, the fact that snow isn’t wet until it melts, a cold that leaves you breathless, all of that is part of an other-worldly experience.

The snow festival itself in both cities is about snow and ice sculptures — gigantic in some instances —  depicting scenes or characters from Star Wars, which seems to be a popular theme, or anything Disney and some of Japan’s favourite mascots such as Hello Kitty.

The festivals usually run early in February, and both cities attract more than a million people from the rest of the country, as well as foreign visitors. The area offers fantastic skiing, ice-skating, sledding and snow rafting, as well as the wondrous winter canvas with a landscape completely covered in snow.

We had a few bus rides from one city to the next and watching what seems like a silent world go by is stunning. As a child of Africa, I certainly don’t want to live in that extreme weather — we were in Sapporo on the coldest day in history — but I can appreciate the spectacle.

Hokkaido is a fascinating island because, among other things, it is a breadbasket for Japan. It has nearly a quarter of Japan’s arable land and is a leader in the production of many agricultural products. Coastal areas are also rich sources of seafood ranging from shrimp, salmon, sea urchin and scallops, to sweet snow crab and tuna. The variety is awesome and reflected in the restaurants.

Hokkaido also has a sizeable timber industry, hence their focus during a part of our visit on furniture factories. An entry into this world was slightly puzzling as they don’t export to Africa but I was intrigued by the work ethics and the relationships between employers and employees. It also proved the familiar adage that the Japanese are constantly striving for perfection. There’s a reason for everything and it’s all about the final results.

We visited the factory Takumi Kohgei, with the owner, Yoshihiko Kuwabara, sharing his philosophy, which he says is what Hokkaido is all about. Most of the factories and this one in particular are not big operations and perhaps that is why the attention and care heaped on the workers is so impressive.

From the design of this particular factory, which looks more like a high-tech home, to the humidity and temperature control on the factory floor — with some of the workers not even wearing the ubiquitous mask because the dust from the wood was immediately removed by huge extractor pipes — the whole concern is impressive with the end result, the furniture, unique.

It is a clever combination of their past and a modern sensibility with possibly a nod to the 1950s, and their interior accessories are extraordinary. Forty crafts people dedicate themselves to making detailed furniture from indigenous wood and the machines are used only as support.

There is a huge difference between visiting Hokkaido in autumn or winter and making the journey there in spring or summer. These would be completely different holidays, each with its specific attractions. Before I left on the trip, someone sent me a link to Sapporo and there were some amazing art spots to visit, but I realised when there that it is impossible in winter.

One is a fantastic sculpture park by artist Isamu Noguchi in Sapporo, as well as a cemetery by the amazing architect Tadao Ando that includes a pool of water and a pathway that leads up to a circular structure accessed via a tunnel. He is famous for his entrances to his buildings and this one with a circular structure with 15,000 lavender plants along the roof certainly seems worth a return visit.

So are the hiking trails and the natural wonders of this island, which was hit by a devastating earthquake in 2018. They are desperate to revive tourism but considering what they have to offer, it’s not a tough ask.

We had an onsen (hot spring) in our Asahikawa hotel that provided an astonishing way each night to recover all the energy the weather had tapped during the day. The island is especially famous for its range of outdoor onsens, which would also deliver on the complete experience of the Japanese ritual so popular among its people.

From participating in meals at the local ramen shop to sharing an onsen, it’s a way to get to know the Japanese people, which in itself is special. In the fast life and daily grind nowadays, especially in Japan where they struggle with an overdeveloped work ethic, mixing with the people when they find time to relax is the best chance for social interaction.

Having been to the country twice in the past five months, what has become clear is that you need that first trip to discover what you want to do and see in this complex yet fascinating country. So if you are off on your first outing, do as much preparation as possible. Find out as much as you can about everything you want to do before you go. It will all contribute to an incredible journey.

• De Beer travelled to Hokkaido as a guest of the Japan External Trade Organisation (Jetro)