Senmo Trip "White Winter Fantasy"

“Winter is a season of recovery and rest,” wrote Paul Theroux, travel writer and novelist. But for Hokkaido, it is only just waking up. Once the snow has covered its vastness, the drift ice arrives, bringing along with it wildlife guests and natural marvels you will rarely glimpse elsewhere. As for the people, it’s time to celebrate. Winter festivals, night illuminations and snow sports mean winter is one of Hokkaido’s busiest seasons, despite the chilly temperatures.

But that doesn’t mean you won’t find warmth and tranquility during your travel. For example, if you are journeying through the heart of Hokkaido at the heart of winter, you may find yourself on the Senmo Main Line, one of the many scenic train rides that Japan has to offer. Its name can’t be any more obvious, the Senmo Main line (釧網本線) is a 166.2-kilometer rail line connecting Abashiri (網走) and Kushiro (釧路), traversing through some of the most picturesque (and coldest) parts of Hokkaido, from the Sea of Okhotsk to the Kushiro marshlands.

If you are departing from Abashiri, you will be first welcomed by its station sign, which is unusual in that it reads vertically, not horizontally – this was to ensure that prisoners returning home after completing their term at the nearby Abashiri Prison would not deviate from their paths but remain “upright.” From Abashiri, the train takes you along the coastline of the Sea of Okhotsk, allowing a magnificent view of the drift ice from your window. If you’re sorry to leave it behind so soon, do make a quick stop at Kitahama, a charming, unmanned station where you can enjoy an open view of the sea and the rail on its viewing platform. Inside its nostalgic, wooden building, you’ll also find notes left behind by fellow travelers who’ve experienced the Senmo before you.

Then it’s time to depart the sea, and continue down through between Lake Kussharo, the largest crater lake in Japan, and Lake Mashu, which is one of the clearest lakes in the world. But before the lakes greet you, don’t be startled by steam coming from the mountains to your left. It’s only a sign that you’re approaching the famous Kawayu Onsen, which sources its waters 100% from Mt. Io, an active volcano that you’re witnessing now. If you set out in the morning, you should find yourself here just in time for lunch and a nice midday onsen treat. Make sure to remove any jewelry before entering the waters however, because the waters are highly acidic due to its sulfuric content.

After Kawayu Onsen, your next stop is the mysterious Lake Mashu. The lake is mysterious, because its water level is always constant albeit it being a caldera lake, and mysterious because its deep blue is almost always obscured by dense fog. But don’t be too discouraged if the lake decided to hide its sapphire gem on your visit – legend has it that for those who are able to glimpse the lake’s surface beneath the mist, their marriage will come much later in life.

From Lake Mashu, the train continues on through some of the most scenic spots of the snow country, and onto the Kushiro Marsh, which is the largest marshland in Japan. The Kushiro Marsh is also where wild tancho (red-crowned cranes) flock to in vast numbers to roost, making it the only place where you can spot these magnificent birds in the wild. In Japan, the cranes are revered as a symbol of fidelity because the birds mate for life. Stop by at the Kayanuma station, also known as the station where the tancho come to visit, and you may be there to witness and left astounded by their courtship rituals.

A short ride from the Kayanuma station should then take you to your final destination, Kushiro, just as the sun sets. The darkness has set in, curtaining the scenery from your view, to let you know that the journey on the Senmo has come to an end before the stationmaster does. It doesn’t mean the journey was strenuously long – the winter days are short in Hokkaido, perhaps for the romantic illuminations that come alive at night.
Once you get off the train, it’s time to discover how Hokkaido waking up at night. But the journey on the Senmo has already told you that even in winter, and even after the recent earthquake, Hokkaido is still genki.

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