A Winter Experience – Horseback Riding in Hokkaido
A trip to Hokkaido in winter usually entails a lot of playing in the snow, feasting on fresh (and cheaper) seafood and enjoying onsen, but have you ever ridden a horse in the snow?
It was a truly magical and unique experience, and I encourage everyone to add this to your itinerary when planning your next trip. But of course, we should by now be mature enough to know that fairy tales are fictitious and every beautiful experience has to first be accompanied by a lot of fuss, planning, confusion and unease. I shall now be the lab rat who lived to tell you about this unique winter experience.
On the night of Christmas eve, we were all gathered in my hotel room, eating a rare Pablo cheesecake (come on, you HAVE to know about this) accompanied by a bottle of cheap ¥2000 sake, while anxiously waiting for snow to finally fall. Who doesn’t wish for a white Christmas, right? But alas, great expectation = greater disappointment. Either the weather forecast lied, or we were just really unlucky. It was a snow-less Christmas eve. We were still hopeful at 1am, but we had to be up early the next day so we dragged our dejected selves to sleep. That night, before I closed my eyes, I wished with all my might for a snow-capped view from my window the next morning.
On Christmas day, it snowed. No actually, it was a blizzard. “Well, you wished for a white Christmas, and your wish came true, but this is kinda…”, I got that the entire day. Sorry guys, my fault. My wish came true tenfold and I kind of regretted wishing with too much might.
Anyway, the horse ranch, Haruka Horse Ranch (春香ホースランチ) is located 10 minutes (drive) away from Zenibako Station, which is 20 minutes away from Otaru and Sapporo Stations by JR train. It’s impossible to walk to the ranch (at least in winter), so the easiest way would be to take a taxi from the station. It’s about a 10- minute drive (costing around ¥1000) … And to be honest, the ride was quite scary. A lot of swerving and skidding, and somewhere along the way, roads were covered by tyre-deep snow and the driver couldn’t take us up all the way. Oh , did I mention that the ranch was up on a mountain? We were asked, very apologetically, to drop off about 1km away from the ranch and walk up by ourselves. Our hearts sank. To trudge up the mountains in this blizzard, when the snow was so deep? Well, we had no choice but to do that. The thing is, when you travel with the right company, even the most dreadful of news can turn out to be a fun experience. Do you know how tempting it is to jump into the pile of fresh, white snow? That’s exactly what we did. We jumped right in and made a fool (and a few snow angels) of ourselves.
We were greeted by two beautiful dogs – Muuta the Golden Retriever and Raiya the Shiba Inu – at the entrance of the log cabin. Such friendly, loving dogs those two were. We felt really welcomed by them as they jumped on us and licked us. The trek up the mountain was already worth it. While warming ourselves up by the wood-burning stove (so cool) and sipping hot tea, the ranch owner recited some rules in a lot of Japanese and some broken English. My attention was on the dogs the whole time. We then got dressed in piles of outerwear and waited for our turn on the horses.
They have quite a collection of horses… Around 10, I think? I was introduced to Hopper, a very young horse whom I was going to ride on.It took a few minutes to get acquainted with him so that he would like me enough to not kill me while riding. Dying in the cold is one thing. Dying in the cold, up in the mountains while being trampled on by a horse would probably make headlines.
So while Ranch Owner-san helped me up the horse, I heard him quietly mumbling about how the horse was too big for me, so I asked if there was a pony I could ride on instead. He laughed and said he didn’t have any. At this point, I was really worried that the horse being too big would mean that I might be easily flung off or something. Please be good, Hopper.
After all of us got on our horses, we started our 90-minute ride. The first 5 minutes were filled with worry and trepidation but after that… Wow, it was such a precious experience. As Hopper slowly trudged through the snow, I could feel every bone and muscle movement of my body. It was all so calming and serene until Hopper suddenly stopped… Because the horse in front of us decided to take a poop. And then one by one they started pooping and farting and my fruitful experience became a “ fartful” one. The view was okay – since the snow was so heavy – but being surrounded by an all-white forest was just… It felt like I was in a dream. We stopped by a river where the horses took a break and hydrated themselves, and then the worst thing happened. HOPPER IS A LAZY HORSE. He refused to move! I kept kicking and kicking (don’t worry, it’s not abuse), but he just wouldn’t budge. We decided to wait for His Royal Highness instead of forcing him so that took us about 5 minutes. Maybe Hopper didn’t like me much… Or maybe I was too heavy. Tch.
Horses are like humans. I say that because, like us, they do not like working. When we were nearing the ranch, they suddenly decided to pick up speed so that they could go back to their stables to eat and rest.
Hopper and I bonded during the 90-minute ride. I was so sad when I had to get off him, but the time was up, and the warm log cabin and dogs were calling for me.
The very kind and hospitable ranch owners decided to drive us to the station because no taxi was willing to come up the mountain. The Japanese really do provide top-notch service.
So… It was quite a Christmas. Even better than when I was at Shirakawa-go in 2014. I’d love to do this again in Spring, when cherry blossoms are in full bloom. That, I think, will be quite breathtaking.
Hokkaido is not just about onsen, seafood, skiing and snow – it is so much more than that. There’s even dog-sledding and penguin walks. Try out Haruka Horse Ranch the next time you’re there! Details below:
Haruka Horse Ranch (春香ホースランチ)
Address: 397 Harukacho, Otaru 047-0265, Hokkaido
(The course we took was a 90-minute ‘River on Trekking’ course, costing around ¥9720 (incl. tax) per person. It is advisable to reserve as early as possible.)
How to get there:
From Sapporo Station
- Take JR Semi Rapid Ishikari Liner or JR Semi Rapid Ishikari Liner bound for OTARU (19 min, ¥360 – Free for JR Pass holders), and alight at Zenibako Station.
- Take a taxi to Haruka Horse Ranch (10min, ~¥1000).
The Bunka Team