Just as the New Year has come around, so has dogsled season. Dogsledding is said to have originated in Mongolia upwards of 30,000 years ago. It was also evident in the Arctic Circle more than 4000 years ago. However, in Japan, one can only experience the joys of dogsledding within a limited time period – namely, December through March annually. At the time I participated, I took advantage of a tour operating in the eastern regions of Hokkaidō in the vicinity of Shirataki Village. Specifically, I participated in the Outrider / One Day Adventure Program. In this report, I will relate my personal experience of racing through the snowfields, with the sled dogs, upon an abundance of powdered snow. It is the ultimate ‘Hokkaidō’ winter experience.
From Asahikawa Station to Shirataki Station
In order to get to Shirataki Station, the designated gateway to our dogsled tour, you take the train from Asahikawa Station and allow approximately an hour and a half for the journey. In winter, because of the snow, it is much more convenient to hire a car. Asahikawa has its own airport which offers direct flights to Tokyo, Nagoya and Taipei. The city itself is bursting with tourist attractions including the Asahiyama Zoo, a museum dedicated to the Ainu people, Asakawa ramen, etc. etc. Therefore, it is highly recommended that you avail yourself of the opportunity to do some sightseeing. The day before our tour, I too, allowed myself a day for sightseeing and spent the night in lodgings near Asahikawa Station.
The trains themselves are convenient but services are fairly limited, so be careful not to miss out！
At 9.55 we arrived at Shirataki Station which was covered in pure-white snow. A representative worker of the Outrider Program, Mr. Murabayashi, helped us into his car and we headed for the dogsled site - approximately 10 minutes from the station.
It appears that the Outrider facility was once an elementary school building that has since closed down. The old schoolyard was snow-covered on all sides. We went inside, got warm and listened as our instructor, Ms. Kasahara, outlined the day’s schedule. Having donned our cold weather gear, all of which was provided by the facility, we went outside to learn how to handle the sleds！
How to ride a sled and command to remember
When riding a dogsled, there are some commands you need to remember. However, getting on the sled itself is easy. You simply grip the sled with both hands, start running forwards and bring each foot up onto the sled whilst it’s moving. The sled itself is substantially weighty, so there’s no risk of flipping it backwards as failed skateboard attempt.
The brake is at your feet. Once you’ve hit the brake and stopped the sled, don’t forget to fix the anchor in the ground.
Whilst operating the sled, there are commands that you use to instruct the dogs. These four commands are listed below. If you are too forceful when issuing these instructions, the dogs will shrink back and cower. On the other hand, if your instructions are ambiguous, the dogs will ignore them. Therefore, it’s best to issue your commands in a strong, clear voice.
|HIKE||You say this when you want to start moving your sled.|
|UP||You say this when you want to go uphill.|
|WHOA||You say this when you want to brake.|
|NO||You say this if the dog does something you don’t want it to do.|
After having been put into pairs to practice these actions, we finally came face to face with the dogs！
46 Sled Dogs
Actually, while we were practicing, our hearts were pounding with excitement because we could hear the sled dogs barking. We learned that the dogs’ living area was in the forest behind the school building.
The dogs are huskies, primarily Siberian and Alaskan huskies, and they have wolf blood running through their veins. Huskies are characterized both by their strong tolerance of cold temperatures and by their ability to work exceptionally well in groups. It is precisely because of their wolf blood that individual sled dogs can be raised to perform well in a team. Whereas the majority of ‘pet’ dog breeds develop a one on one, master/servant relationship with their owners, sled dogs regard ‘the team’ as more important. Because of this, they tend to have more impersonal relationships with other dogs alongside a larger number of humans.
According to Mr. Murabayashi, in places such as Alaska in North America, the performance of a dogsled team does not decline even when the sled driver (or musher) changes; the sled dogs are said to still perform at an exceptionally high ‘team’ level. For this reason, dog teams are often reassigned or alternated between mushers, something I would never imagine happening with pet dogs.
In other words, the sled dogs regard us human mushers as members of the same team. We break into a run together at the start of our sled journey; we race down from the tops of hills together, etc. It is important to be aware of this dynamic because it plays a vital role in maintaining the motivation of the dogs.
Lunch at a Hand-Built Yurt
Having greeted the dogs, it’s time for lunch before we depart into the forest. A wooden door, upon which is written “Wild Heaven”, leads inside to a yurt. As a matter of fact, this yurt was constructed by Mr. Murabayashi’s own hand.
Mr. Murabayashi entered the dogsled business 30 years ago. As the popularity of huskies increased in Japan, so did the number of dogsled conventions being held in various parts of Hokkaidō. Mr. Murabayashi, a canoe builder by trade, was henceforth flooded with requests to build dogsleds in-country. It was as a result of this that Mr. Murabayashi himself started dogsledding and, some years ago, he began offering authentic dogsled tours. In summer, he works in this rich natural environment as a canoe builder, in winter as a musher. According to Mr. Murabayashi, the people in North America take a break from using canoes during the winter months because dogsleds and skis are more fun. “When I think of it now, it was probably only natural for me to start dogsledding” he says.
The venison bolognaise (made using the meat of deer hunted in the local area) is divine – as is the soft and flaky pumpkin！
Mr. Murabayashi got his start in the canoe trade in his twenties, via a chance encounter with a book about Native American canoes. He then embarked on a transcontinental, 3 month trip of North America from the state of Maine to the state of Oregon. Whilst there, he learnt an array of traditional techniques from local canoe builders and, upon returning home to Hokkaidō, started building his own canoes. At that time, the majority of canoes in Japan were used solely in competitions - hardly any were kept for leisure purposes.
Come Now, to the Large Snow Fields of Shirataki！
First, an overall check is done of my dog sled team. And then, whilst talking to the dogs I apply the harness – bonding via the all-important physical contact.
The minute I issue the command ‘Hike！’ the dogs start running as one. They dash through the snow and head for the forest. It is snowing on and off.
Prior to reaching the woods, the wind is strong at times. However, upon entering the woods, all wind abruptly stops. The evergreen pine trees, covered in a blanket of snow, make me feel warm despite the cold.
We go up and down, down and up the hills. When on the ascent, I push the sled together with the dogs. When going downhill, our speed builds up considerably; it’s best to get a good handle on the brake so as not to go too fast.
When we take a break, I fix the sled to the ground and hang out with the dogs. Having raced up the hill paths with them, I now appreciate how exhausting it is and am suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude for their efforts. ‘Thank-you for all your hard work！” I say to the dogs. I wonder if they feel the cold but they seem not to be bothered by it at all. There appears to be no reason to worry. Upon inspecting their paws, I notice that they are covered in fine hairs which act as a barrier against water and snow. The dogs seem somewhat thin and the instructor, Ms. Kasahara, explains why. Apparently, because they do not pull the sleds in summer, they naturally lose muscle mass. However, once the dogsled season begins they accumulate muscle and put on weight.
It is from now on that the dogsled season begins in earnest, so I wish the dogs ‘happy running’.
Leaving 2 sled tracks and dog paw prints engraved upon the forest floor, we embark on a 20km round trip across the beautiful mountain fields. Upon returning from the forest we free the dogs of their harnesses, watch them retreat to their individual quarters, and the tour is over.
So as to be in time for the long-distance bus to Asahikawa Station, Mr. Murabayashi picks you up and drops you off.
You can only enjoy dogsledding across the snow fields during this particular season. So, if you want to take your fill of a Hokkaidō winter, you absolutely must take part in the Outrider / One Day Adventure Program！
Outrider / One Day Adventure Program
Length of Program 11:00～16:00
Cost 19,980 yen (this includes tour participation fee, lunch, transport from the closest station, transport to the closest bus, gear rental)
Other As per regulations, all participants must either be fourth year elementary school students or older.
A Special Experience Just For Winter – Sledding across Large Snow Fields on a Dogsled Tour: Image Gallery