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Hokkaido – Japan’s second largest and one of its northernmost islands – has long been synonymous with backcountry skiing. Boasting the perfect climate and powder conditions for the sport, millions of powder hounds descend on its most popular resorts each year.
However, the incredibly varied and diverse island also serves as the perfect outpost for all kinds of incredible ice climbing adventures! In fact, the island has long been considered to be the top spot for ice climbing in all of Japan.
Whether you are a dedicated ice climber or a skier/snowboarder looking for a different kind of winter activity, Takao Miyashita has got you covered.
This local IFMGA-certified mountain guide has been skiing on the island since he was three and climbing since he was six. There are few guides better suited or qualified to lead an ice climbing expedition here.
As he prepares for this year’s ice climbing season, which runs from January to March, Takao shared just a little bit of his in-depth knowledge about ice climbing in Hokkaido with Explore & Share.
Boasting a variety of unique and picturesque landscapes, Hokkaido is an incredibly scenic ice climbing locale. Complete with rugged mountains, wild peninsulas and incredible coastlines, there are plenty of great spots to see on the island.
Heading out on an ice climbing adventure is the perfect way to escape into the natural heart of this incredible island and enjoy all the natural splendor it has to offer.
Part of what makes Hokkaido one of the world’s top ice climbing destinations is the sheer number of great climbing opportunities all within close proximity. “You can climb more than three waterfalls in two days from Sapporo,” Takao says. “There are many waterfalls for a day trip from Sapporo. You can also climb short rope or top ropes in groups.”
There are also plenty of great opportunities for climbers of every different level. Plenty of short and simple ice falls are perfect for first-time climbers, while massive multi-pitch waterfalls make for the perfect challenge for more seasoned and experienced ice climbers.
Hokkaido’s remote nature (along with its incredibly popular ski resorts) generally mean that the island’s top ice climbing spots are empty during the week. Nothing spoils the ambiance of a place quite like a crowd of other climbers.
Be sure to schedule your climbs from Monday to Thursday and take full advantage of the empty and pristine ice falls and frozen waterfalls that await.
Sitting in the heart of Hokkaido, Daisetsuzan National Park is the largest national park in Japan and is home to mountains, valleys, rivers and waterfalls.
For beginner and intermediate ice climbers, the national park also boasts the Sounkyo Valley. Here, plenty of ice falls and frozen waterfalls await eager climbers.
The Ginga no taki (waterfall of the galaxy) is among the most popular options. The 120-metre high waterfall has four pitches and is perfectly attainable for beginner ice climbers with some previous rock climbing experience.
Another popular option for slightly more advanced climbers is the Kinshi no taki (waterfall of tinsel). This 100-metre high waterfall may be a bit shorter, but is much steeper. With three near-vertical pitches to climb up, making it the perfect challenge for an intermediate climber.
Home to Mount Yōtei as well as numerous calderas, mountains and lakes, the westerly Shikotsu-Tōya National Park is another excellent ice climbing destination in Hokkaido.
For those aiming to spend a single day climbing or a couple of days, there are plenty of great options awaiting in one of Japan’s most breathtakingly beautiful national parks.
The Jozankei ice falls are among the most popular in the park for beginners. At only 20 metres in height, the ice falls offer several routes, ranging from ones suited to beginners all the way to other, much more technical climbs. Regardless of the climb, the scenery is great and even with a little bit of extra elevation, the views get even better.
Also in the park is the Bifue waterfall. This 50-metre high frozen fall is perfect for intermediate climbers. Complete with three moderately challenging pitches, there is no better way to spend a day than challenging yourself with the climb before reaping the rewarding views from its summit.
Situated just north of Sapporo (the main city in Hokkaido), along the coastline of the Sea of Japan, Gokiburu boasts a collection of absolutely stunning ice falls.
While there are numerous different options from which to choose, heading up to this coastal town is the perfect day trip.
Advanced climbers will be at home on the massive icefalls on the cliffs surrounding the Gokiburu River. Getting up to the top of some of these massive pieces of ice presents an incredible physical and mental challenge.
However, the views out over the Sea of Japan from the top of these cliffs is simply incredible and serves as all the incentive necessary to propel you up to the top.
Other options are also available for less technically able ice climbers, which offer the chance to learn new skills while making similarly stunning ascents.
Sitting just a bit farther north up the coast from Gokiburu, Ofuyu offers plenty of other incredible ice climbing opportunities with views out over the sea.
With a variety of different possibilities, the town is the perfect spot for a day of ice climbing and boasts plentiful opportunities for ice climbers of every level.
There are four main ice falls in the town. Sitting right on the coast, with unbeatable views out to sea, Ofuyukawano Falls is perhaps the most popular attraction. Complete with several pitches, well suited for intermediate climbers, this 40-metre frozen waterfall is the crown jewel of Ofuyu ice falls.
Situated on the southern tip of Hokkaido, Mount Raiden is an out of the way ice climbing destination that presents a worthy challenge for seasoned ice climbing enthusiasts.
In order to enjoy all of the available climbing and make the most of this remote and unique spot in Hokkaido, most guides recommend climbing in two days.
The first one is generally spent on the Runze II (number two gully). Here climbers will spend the day heading up the incredible steep and challenging two-pitch, 40-metre ice fall. The views from the top are quite rewarding, but knowing you’ve mastered one of the toughest ice falls in Japan is a reward in and of itself as well.
The second day is spent on either Runze I or Runze IV. These both are about 100 metres in height with two pitches of equally steep and challenging climbing. After the trip, a quick dip in the natural hot springs soothes the muscles and relaxes the body after an intense ascent.
As with any other specialized outdoor sport, a successful ice climbing trip requires bringing along the correct gear. Depending on the guide with whom you go, some of this equipment may be included while other pieces may need to be rented.
Here’s a list of the technical gear, you’ll likely need on your next Hokkaido ice climbing expedition:
Along with bringing all the correct equipment (all of which can easily be rented in Hokkaido), it is also imperative to make sure you are physically and mentally ready for the trip on which you are heading.
Ice climbing requires plenty of upper body strength as well as core strength and endurance. Making sure that you are in the proper physical condition prior to your trip will enhance your enjoyment and keep you safer.
Regardless of your skill level, Takao can find the perfect climbing spot for you. In order to enjoy the most basic ice climbing routes, all you need is some previous outdoor rock climbing experience.
Hokkaido sits about 600 kilometers north of the capital and can be reached most easily by air or rail.
For those flying directly into Tokyo, there are plenty of connecting flights from Narita International Airport (NRT) and Haneda International Airport (HND) to New Chitose Airport (CTS), the main one in Hokkaido. The flight is quite short and taking the connection is best for those who do not have much time to spare.
However, for travelers with a bit more time to spare, taking the famed Japanese bullet train is another great way to get to Hokkaido, while seeing some of the country’s diverse scenery en route.
From Tokyo, travelers will take the JR Tohoku/Hokkaido Shinkansen from Tokyo’s main rail station to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto (about four hours) and transfer to the Hokuto limited express to Sapporo (about 3.5 hours).
Once travelers have arrived to Hokkaido, local trains are the easiest way to get around the island. In fact, Takao recommends traveling by train to all of his clients, arranging most of his meeting points for ice climbing trips at local rail stations before providing transport from the closest rail hub to the start of the trip.
Since Hokkaido is such a special destination and located a bit off the beaten path, it makes sense to experience as much of the incredible island as possible on your next trip. After heading out to one or more of the top ice climbing spots, take some time to try out the other various wintertime activities.
Hokkaido is world-famous for its deep and dry powder, which makes it a particularly popular destination for backcountry skiers. Takao, along with being your expert ice climbing guide, can also show you some of the island’s top skiing spots.
For those looking for a bit less adrenaline pumping action and planning to take in some of the scenery, snowshoeing is another popular pastime in Hokkaido.
However, if you would rather keep up with the climbing, then trying out some basic winter mountaineering may be of interest to you. Combine some ice climbing knowledge with other mountain climbing skills and head up to one of the island’s various peaks too. Takao can also show you some of the best spots for this great sport as well.
Regardless of whether you plan on sticking to the ice climbing or trying various other great sports, Hokkaido is the place to head this winter! With the season just about to begin, it’s never too early to start planning your next trip here.
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