Shikaribetsu Kotan: A Village of Snow and Ice! Activities and Sights
An ice village located in the middle of a frozen lake, surrounded by pristine nature, and complete with a hot tub and bar–it sounds like a fantasy, but it's real! This is Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan.
One of the mainstays of Hokkaido's ice festival circuit, and an event quite different from celebrations like the Sapporo Snow Festival, the Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan is a celebration of Hokkaido's winter held annually from late January to mid-March.
The word kotan is the Ainu term for 'village', and Lake Shikaribestu Kotan is, as the name suggests, a village built on the lake's frozen surface. Running for just over two months a year, it's a special and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to embrace the true beauty of Hokkaido in winter and, of course, have a lot of fun doing so. From night walks, igloo accommodations, high-speed snowmobiles, and open-air baths over ice, here's a guide to the one and only Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan Ice Village.
The Background of Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan
The first incarnation of Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan was in 1980. The local people created it as a way to do some 'good' and find something fun in the region's freezing, below-minus temperatures. Since then, the event has grown organically year by year, attracting people from all over Japan.
These days, around 40,000 tourists make their way to Lake Shikaribetsu to see the 'phantom village' that disappears in the warmer months and enjoy various attractions.
The 2022 event marks "the 41st time this event has been held," explains Mr. Ishikawa, the deputy executive chairman of Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan. "Every year, the Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan Executive Committee (Nature Center, Hotel Fusui, Shikaoi Town, volunteers come from all over Japan to help build the igloo village."
What have been the biggest challenges over the past four decades? Well, according to Ishikawa-san, it’s the lack of building materials. "The past few years, in which snowfall has been slow and scarce because winters have become warmer, have been the most difficult."
Lake Shikaribetsu, the lake on which the event is held, is a freshwater lake and the highest lake in Hokkaido, sitting at 804 meters above sea level. Not too small by any means, it's about 13.8 kilometers in perimeter and 98.5 meters deep. It's also the only natural lake in the Daisetsuzan National Park.
Six Recommended Activities at Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan
Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan is not just an ice village, in fact, it could be considered more of an ice-wonderland or ice amusement park. Within the village, the organizers of Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan have incorporated novel ways to enjoy the lake's endless ice supply in some pretty unique ways, from outdoor exploration to drinking, sleeping, and even hot-tubbing.
As an expert, Ishikawa-san's tips are "take a relaxing soak in the open-air bath on the ice in the daytime, clink glasses of ice at the ice bar, and relax. Or take an early morning walk in the forest (snowshoeing), enjoy snowmobiles, cross-country skiing, and other activities unique to our snow country, and spend an active day with a full course of an outdoor bath on the ice, ice bar, and night watching. Personally, I enjoy the forest at dawn with an early morning forest walk (snowshoeing)."
Below we introduce some of the activities that you shouldn’t miss out on at Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan.
1. A Walk Through the Village
The ice village itself is a fascinating showcase of landscaping and creativity. Many of the buildings you’ll see in the village have been built using ice blocks made by solidifying the snow that has fallen on Lake Shikaribetsu with the water of the lake.
Spend some time strolling through the village, taking in the sights and snapping some photos in front of the impressive ice sculptures! Be sure to dress extra, extra warmly, though, as the sub-freezing temperatures are no joke!
2. Learn More About the Village at the Geo-Igloo
If you do make it all the way here to admire the ice village, it's worthwhile to put aside some time to learn more about the deeper connection between the earth and people at the geo-igloo.
Lake Shikaribetsu is located in Shikaoi Town, and is a certified "Tokachi Shikaoi Geopark" by the Japan Geopark Network. The Geo-park display showcases information outlining the nature and types of ice states you'll find around this area, so it's well worth a visit to better appreciate the landscape.
3. Enjoying Drinks at the Ice Bar and Admiring the Ice Chapel
Arguably the centerpiece of the event and definitely the key social destination, the ice bar and ice chapel are marvels of ice engineering and an excellent place to enjoy a drink in some pretty unforgettable surroundings.
Everything here is made of ice, the tables, shelves, bar and even the glasses! The bar is open to staying and non-staying guests and offers a range of drinks, both alcoholic and not, including original cocktails. You can even cut a block of ice for your very own glass (*this workshop is not being held currently)!
The bar and chapel also occasionally host events, in this one of the most atmospheric bars you'll probably ever have the chance to visit.
4. Staying Overnight in an Igloo! The Ice Lodge
If you're not afraid to rug up and embrace the cold after dark, then try staying at one of the most unique accommodation options in all of Hokkaido, the Ice Lodge. One of the benefits of staying at the Ice Lodge is that you'll be able to walk through the village at night.
If you're worried about the comfort of staying in an igloo, don't be, as Ishikawa-san explains; "The igloo is made of snow blocks, which provide excellent insulation and soundproofing. It's surprisingly comfortable due to its quietness, the mysterious sound of the ice as it expands and contracts with the temperature, the pale blue light that filters through the ice walls at dawn is spectacular."
Guests are equipped with everything you'll need for a comfortable stay.
5. Riding a Snowmobile or Snow Rafting on the Frozen Lake Shikaribetsu
Picture courtesy of Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan
For the thrill-seekers, there's always the option of seeing the lake and its stunning surroundings from a whole new perspective, and by that we mean on the back of a snowmobile.
Picture courtesy of Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan
The snowmobiles run a one-kilometer lap specially built on the lake to offer guests excellent sightseeing (2000 yen/2 laps per person). Alternatively, if you don't want to drive yourself, there's also the 'raft boat' option, which like a water raft boat, you can hop on the back of and be driven around at some pretty high – but safe – speeds! This is open to both staying and non-staying guests too.
6. Open-air Bath and Foot Bath in the Ice!
A hot tub in the middle of a frozen lake? How does that even work? While we still can't quite figure out its logistics, what we can say is that it's a fun way to warm up. The open-air bath and footbath are pumped with hot spring water carried by pipeline from a natural source within the Lake Shikaribetsu grounds.
Also, if you're shy, don't worry because guests are allowed to wear bathing suits if they wish. Soak away all your body chills while soaking up the stunning surroundings; there's nothing better!
Lake Shikaribetsu in the Green Season
Photo by Pixta
If you're in Hokkaido for the warmer months, then be sure to add Lake Shikaribetsu to your must-visit list because the area in its 'green season is nothing short of spectacular! The area, which is also known as the Shikaribetsu Recreation Forest, is home to a huge variety of outdoor attractions, including birdwatching, canoeing on the crystal clear waters of the lake, river watching, pleasure boat cruising, zip-lining, hiking, and more!
Photo by Pixta
There's also a campground nearby, and of course the ryokan and onsen facilities, so even when the phantom village no longer stands, the opportunity for fun and adventure is endless.
How to Get to Shikaribetsu Kotan
If you have a license and are confident driving in the snow, car parking is on-site. However, getting there by local bus may be the best way to go about it for most visitors. There's a bus that travels between the bus terminal of Obihiro Station and Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan. It departs regularly – every hour or so – and takes about an hour and 40 minutes, offering some pretty beautiful scenery along the way.
Main image by Pixta