Excitement mounts on my bus filled with fellow outdoor adventurers from around the globe as we follow the Shiretoko National Highway north to the Shiretoko Peninsula on the eastern shore of Hokkaido, Japan’s most northerly island. Hugging the shore for miles, the empty highway offers views of drift ice as far as the eye can see. It’s particularly beautiful in the soft glow of a setting sun over the Sea of Okhotsk, a name that conjures up exotic images of bearded, vodka swilling Russians.

Watching the sun set over the drift ice on the Shiretoko Peninsula

Watching the sun set over the drift ice on the Shiretoko Peninsula

Drift ice is a foreign concept to me, a landlocked Albertan. It turns out it’s nothing more than frozen river water that gets its start in life on the Amur River (the world’s 10th longest river) that forms the natural border between China and Russia. As the temperature drops over the winter, a drift icefield forms and follows the currents showing up 1,000 kilometres later on the eastern side of Hokkaido in late January through to the end of March.  It brings with it a lot of plankton which sets the stage for some interesting nature viewing opportunities. Interestingly the drift ice you see in Hokkaido is at its southern limit in the northern hemisphere.

Watching the sun set over the drift ice on the Shiretoko Peninsula

Great swaths of drift ice accessible via a short walk from our hotel

A view across the drift ice to our hotel on the Shiretoko Peninsula

A view across the drift ice to our hotel on the Shiretoko Peninsula

On Hokkaido, drift ice is primarily seen in three locations – Abashiri, Monbetsu and Shiretoko-Utoro/Rausu where we are heading. The ice gets shoved up onto shore, onto beaches and against cliffs – so it’s quite accessible in places. From our hotel, the fabulous Kitakobushi Shiretoko Hotel & Resort, the ice is but a short walk away. However, one shouldn’t be heading out willy-nilly onto it without being fully prepared – as in dressed from top to bottom in a dry suit in case the ice gives way.

Drift ice seen from the highway

Drift ice seen from the highway

After breakfast on our first morning on the peninsula I make a jaunt out to an area where large chunks of rock making up a UNESCO site are surrounded by ice. I spy a red fox heading out onto the ice and ravens galore – but I’m a three hour drive and a one hour boat ride away from seeing the hundreds of Steller’s Sea eagles that visit the sea ice.  

Looking back towards Oronkoiwa Rock on the Shiretoko Peninsula

Looking back towards Oronkoiwa Rock

Red fox on the drift ice on the Shiretoko Peninsula

I saw more red foxes in a couple of days than I have seen in years

The guided drift ice experience

Later that day I’m one of the lucky ones that gets the full guided drift ice experience. There are several companies offering a walk – and a swim in the freezing waters. If there’s one thing you should do on Hokkaido this is it (though skiing is unbelievable too!) Jessica Roberts, a Seattle based tour designer remarks “that’s it’s the best experience of the week with a high fun factor.” And Claire Peters a Boulder based tour designer “laments the fact that she chose the biking on drift ice experience over the walk” – and as she said “it’s not that I didn’t have fun but the swim in the water is one of those truly memorable experiences.” There’s something surreal about seeing the contrast of beautiful white ice in an infinite number of shapes and sizes against a backdrop of the blue open water of the sea.

Getting onto the drift ice for the first time in Hokkaido, Japan

Getting onto the drift ice for the first time

Getting dressed for drift ice walking is as close to an aerobic activity as you’ll get on this outing. Its hard work pulling on the thick rubber boots attached to a neoprene drysuit. Beware – the only thing that doesn’t get insulated is your hands. While you wear gloves I can guarantee cold hands if you enter the water.

Once everyone is suited up we walk across the ice following the instructions of our guide and avoiding dark ice where we might step through. While we were warned off of bringing a camera in case we fell in, I’d recommend it as the images you’ll capture are spectacular. We don’t walk far- perhaps 600 metres – but then we spend a half an hour getting into the water and floating. I also enjoy watching a couple of groups that were offered a little more free rein than we were. They’d jump on the ice until they crashed through, often getting fully submerged and coming up sputtering and laughing.

Being warned of dark ice danger on drift ice

Being warned of the dangers of dark ice where it’s easier to fall in

Walking out to the swimming holes in Hokkaido

Walking out to the swimming holes

Testing the winter waters in the Sea of Okhotsk

Me testing out the frigid waters – and you know this is actually a lot of fun

Watching a group jump on the ice in the hopes of breaking through and falling in

Watching a group jump on the ice in the hopes of breaking through and falling in

After about an hour out on the ice, simply taking in the beauty along with the swim we retrace our steps. While the drift ice walking experience isn’t a long one it sure is a memorable one!

The Coastal Kitchen Experience

While not part of the drift ice experience I do have to mention the memorable open-air lunch put on by Coastal Kitchen overlooking the drift ice. What a way to enjoy a sunny, bluebird day

Lunch with a view

Lunch with a view

Trip planning in Hokkaido

If you’re planning a visit to Hokkaido getting the details of your travel arrangements organized can be a tad tough. While I was in Japan I met Yuki Homma – a long time director of Hokkaido Treasure Island. In fact one of the participants on our trip has worked with her for over 10 years so she would be a good resource for trip planning – including the drift ice walking experience.

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

Drift ice walking off the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido

A huge thank you to the Adventure Travel Trade Association and and all their partners on the ground in Hokkaido, Japan for hosting my stay. All thoughts are truly my own and the experience was one that will stick with me forever.

Leigh McAdam

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta
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