Asahikawa, Japan: Snow Crystal Sanctuary

18 years ago, my friends, classmates, and I learned in our computer class that Hotmail was the most reliable email provider, so we signed up for our first Hotmail address. As middle school kids without a care about keeping a professional image back then, many of us didn’t use our real name as our email address. Instead, we came up with (what we thought would be) cool, cute, or even funny names. At that time, I thought it would be cool to make my Hotmail address related to what I am a fan of and also video game- or anime-esque, so my email started with “ice”. What a random story it is, but ice was and is still my most favorite element to this day.

When it comes to all things icy, snowflakes are among what I love the most. Although I am from a country without snowflakes at all, I am fascinated with how they are formed and how uniquely beautiful each one turns out. Snowflakes don’t last long, but thanks to artists and scientists who treasure their ephemeral beauty and environmental impacts, these little yet precious things can be preserved in different forms, namely in photos, illustrations, or even as a whole museum called Snow Crystal Museum in Asahikawa, Hokkaido.

As a city close to the great snowy mountains of Daisetsuzan National Park in the coldest and northernmost region of Japan, Asahikawa and its people have a special bond with snow. Snowflakes in the area are considered the most beautiful in Japan, the art of the nature. Several glaciologists study the snow that falls in the Daisetsuzan mountain range extensively and the snowflakes have also inspired many works of art. Although small in size, Snow Crystal Museum was where we could learn about and see quite a lot about snow and snowflakes.

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Asahidake, Japan: The Mountain Where Ainu Gods Play

At the heart of Hokkaido lies Daisetsuzan National Park or Japan’s biggest national park. It is home to over a dozen of mighty and high peaks and among them, Mount Asahidake stands unrivaled in Hokkaido when it comes to height and perhaps, beauty. Rising 2,290 meters, the mountain is actually an active volcano and it is poetically described by the indigenous Ainu people as the garden where gods play or “Kamuimintara” in the Ainu language.

The beauty of this godly playground is fortunately not off-limits to us mortals. It is even easy to access thanks to a combination of bus and ropeway that takes visitors up to the altitude of 1,600 meters. To explore it fully and hike to the top is another story though. “Daisetsuzan” actually means great snowy mountains and the national park lives up to its name, with Japan’s first and long-lasting snow that stays on Mount Asahidake from late-September until July. In addition to the short season for convenient visit, the weather on Mount Asahidake is very turbulent. It can change rapidly and even on a sunny day, there are possibilities that the way to the summit is shrouded in fog, rendering the hike inconvenient or even impossible.

With the goal of summiting it, I visited Hokkaido’s tallest mountain and volcano in August, which is its only month without snow (unless it is an unusually cold year). Although I was lucky that there was no snow, I was unlucky with the gloomy weather and the thick fog. Having to abandon my full-day hiking plan was a pity, but it turned into an opportunity to enjoy the shorter nature trail on Mount Asahidake at a more leisurely pace. Looking through the photos later made me realize the fog created interesting combination between the minimal sky and the maximal meadows, blurring the line between sparse and full. Moreover, the fog added the mystical air fitting for the link to Ainu gods.

A note to fellow Pokemon fans before we dive into the visuals: the mountain range of Daisetsuzan National Park has inspired one of the most significant locations in Pokemon Diamond/Pearl/Platinum, Mt. Coronet (Mt. Tengan in Japanese). Just like Mount Asahidake and its prominent status as the Roof of Hokkaido, Mt. Coronet rises at the center of Sinnoh and is the fictional region’s highest mountain as well. The eternal snow around the peak area is probably a tribute to the long winter in Daisetsuzan National Park. Although Mount Asahidake doesn’t have an ancient ruin at its peak like Spear Pillar at the very top of Mt. Coronet, it was designated as where the Legendary Pokemon Dialga, Palkia, and Giratina descended, possibly due to its celestial, sacred status in the Ainu religion.

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