Japan City Guides: Ice Cave of Otaki 大滝百畳敷洞窟
Ice Cave of Otaki Hokkaido - the Greatest Relatively Unknown Tour within Japan
UPDATE: In the article below, I recommended a great tour of a natural site. Unfortunately, I have learned that recently many people are foregoing the tour to try and find the location themselves. Doing so is selfish and stupid behavior. Sustainable tourism is necessary to protect natural structures, ecosystems, and livelihoods. The cave mentioned below is on private property and the route there includes the private property of another person. People leaving their cars in bad locations on snowy and icy roads are causing problems. The local community wants visitors to experience the caves in a natural setting and they want to protect the cave, too, so the numbers are set to reasonable numbers. Tour guides are people who are trying to make ends meet while promoting the beauty and protection of nature. Do not make trouble by visiting the cave without joining one of the tours! If too many people visit by themselves, the cave may be closed to the public. Do not be responsible for this. Respect the rights of the locals! Encourage sustainable natural tourism!
Hokkaido, filled with wonders of nature across its vast open and mountainous spaces, is Japan's second largest island. Yet Hokkaido's natural spectacles are largely unknown around the world - even most people in Japan know little about Hokkaido and rarely visit anywhere other than the spots on the established tourist trail.
If you love nature and are willing to take go off the main routes, the island will blow your mind. A snowshoe tour to a pristine volcanic cave in Otaki, south-west Hokkaido, could become your favorite trip to a natural phenomenon.
Ootaki Outdoor Adventures
Fumi Sakai, the owner, operator, and main guide of Ootaki Outdoor Adventures drove us on curvy, ice-covered, narrow, and snow-banked roads that cross tiny Otaki Town until we could go no further.
A long wall of solid packed snow and ice was the end of the range of local snowplows. Thick snow tires pulled his sturdy van into a space dug out of deep snow next to a blue wooden home in the midst of snow-draped pines, raucous crows, and a large swath of silent flat whiteness.
We zipped our jackets all the way up, tightened our collars, donned our wool hats, and attached snowshoes to boots before walking across what looked like a desert of white sand. Our feet sank at least six inches into powder snow. Six feet down, our guide explained, cattle grazing land awaited spring. The field ended at the entrance to a forest of trees with white limbs and dark trunks.
Recent snows had covered up all tracks of previous passage. Without a guide, we might have wandered over the steep slopes and fallen down precipitous chasms. Instead, we trekked parallel to the edge of a ridge.
Through the gaps between forked branches holding pillows of snow, we could see waves of coconut-white-colored hills with no buildings in sight. Sakai stopped us for a short rest and a brief introduction to the area's history. Several generations ago, homesteaders from Yamagata Prefecture, which is known in Japan for its tough winters, had tried to settle in the hills we were looking at, but the travails - isolation, coldness, and large numbers of mosquitoes and bears - were overwhelming, so they had moved somewhere else.
Our next rest stop was also an educational experience. Our guide pointed out horizontal cuts in the side of a silver birch tree and asked if we could guess the cause of the scratches. I guessed that the scarred bark was the result of a bear marking its territory. My answer was partly correct.
Sakai, a friendly man, with a tall, thick, muscular body - built like a strong bear himself - showed us how a bear had grasped the tree in the soft snow for balance while pulling itself upright on its two back legs so that it could see over the ridge. We didn't see any bears, but we did hear the tock, tock, tock sounds of woodpeckers worrying trees.
Our trail moved into a small ravine, where a clean stream trickled downward, cutting itself a tunnel through the snow pack and coming up for air from time to time. We paused to enjoy the music of water, the visual symphony of light rays penetrating gaps in the forest, and the elegant yet simple undulating forms of snow shaped by wind and water along the stream bank.
Both calmed and enraptured by the natural spectacular, but also pulled by a desire to see the mysterious cave, I followed our guide up a narrow ravine. The dark craggy brownish rocky mouth of a cave, our destination, stood out from the almost brilliant whiteness of the snow-covered slope. Rows of irregularly arranged ice stalactites longer than my body descended like multiple fangs from just inside the upper cave lip.
Our guide and his assistant formed steps in the snow for us to ascend and enter the cave. "Amazing" is the only word I could use to sum up the impression. We walked carefully around the natural treasures that were growing upward and downward. Smooth rounded ice crystal stalagmites at various heights were growing toward the cave ceiling, and sharp pointed stalactites were descending. Some of them had met and were developing into thick translucent pillars.
Light from the near-noon soon was illuminating the cave and passing through the outer ice crystal formations. The ones in the back were bathed in a dim light. Our guide balanced a lit flashlight on one stalagmite. It glowed like an artistic glass lamp created by a master craftsman. We moved twenty-five yards toward the back of the cave and looked toward the open cave mouth. Light filtered and shone through approximately five thousand developing cone-like ice crystal sculptures that looked like magical beings from a fantasy movie.
Sakai and other locals have nicknamed the cave Nyoro Nyoro Cave because they imagine that the ice sculptures resemble characters from the Moomin books. Nyoro Nyoro is the Japanese word for those characters.
Our guide taught us how the ice creatures develop. Water seeps through minuscule cracks in the volcanic cave ceiling to fall drop by drop onto the cave floor whose temperatures between December and late March usually stay between minus 3 and minus 5 degrees Celsius, perfect conditions for Nyoro Nyoro. Drops that fall on rocks solidify. Each proceeding drop minutely increase the width and the height. Fluctuations in wind and temperature sculpt unique creature-like statues of ice.
We spent about an hour marveling at the cave interior until Sakai led us out, but before returning to the van, our guide had two surprises for us. First, he showed us a cut bear bone he had found nearby and showed how it had been cut to access the nutritious marrow. Local history recounts that the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido, hunted bears in the area and kept a religious shrine dedicated to bears within the cave.
The second surprise was that his assistant had shaped disposable tables, benches and tables from snow upon which we sat and enjoyed a forest picnic of Nyoro Nyoro shaped cookies, hot tea, brisk and friendly conversation. Then, with reluctance, we walked out through the forest toward our vehicles.
The cave and the parking area are on private property. The owners of each granted permission for Sakai to walk across their land with limited numbers of tourists. There were accidents and incidents with people leaving their cars where they shouldn't and getting lost in the woods.
Just eight years ago, local tourist officials decided to start official tours guided by qualified guides, and they asked Sakai to take on that duty. To safeguard the cave and to protect the natural atmosphere, tours are limited to twelve guests, and only two tours are guided per day during the coldest parts of the year.
Most tours average just six people because not many people know about this rare natural treasure. I heard about it by word of mouth, from an environmentalist who has lived in Hokkaido for over thirty years and who raved about the experience. If you want to go the cave, book a tour with Ootaki Outdoor Adventures. Do not enter the forest or cave by yourself. And leave only snowshoe prints behind.
Access - Getting to Otaki
Otaki, Hokkaido, is home to much natural beauty and many opportunities for nature and hot spring tourism. To reach this relatively unknown but gorgeous area, it takes a drive of less than two hours from Sapporo New Chitose Airport, the largest airport in Hokkaido, south of the prefectural capital of Sapporo.