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Postcards from Japan - The great Hokkaido outdoors, with Neil Hartmann


Jozankei-based photographer, film-maker and director, Neil Hartmann

Best known for its winter credentials, Hokkaido, Japan’s most northern island, couldn’t be any more different from California where Neil was born but it is where he has called home for the last 30 years ever since landing a gig as a DJ at a local radio station in Sapporo! From photography and film-making pursuits to running an ice-cream shop at the heart of Jozankei Onsen, Hokkaido’s largest hot spring town, we chat to Neil about his first impressions of Japan, his creative process, and his top Hokkaido must-do’s and eat’s! 

Hi Neil, thanks for joining us today! To start us off, please tell us a bit about yourself.  
Hi I am Neil Hartmann, born in San Diego, California in 1972!  I was raised in many countries around the world by rather nomadic parents and I ended up making my home and family in Hokkaido, Japan!  I have been based here since 1991.  My first love and passion was filmmaking and I came to Japan with the dream of working in TV or film, but through a lucky chance, I auditioned for a job as a DJ at the local radio station in Sapporo and got the job!  I learned to be a good DJ for about 7 years before transitioning to photography, filmmaking, and video production.  Today I am based in Jozankei Onsen with my wife and three daughters.  Jozankei is a small hot springs village on the outskirts of Sapporo and surrounded by mountains and in the winter a lot of snow, which is perfect because my other passion is snowboarding and winter sports!    

The Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort area in Hokkaido on the edge of autumn and winter

You moved to Hokkaido in 1991 because you had family connections in Sapporo, right? We’d love to hear more about the story behind that move.
My parents had made friends with a Japanese family when we lived in Bangkok (another story) and our first trip to Sapporo, Japan was to visit them and experience the country.  My parents were very open to traveling and the great experiences that come with seeing the world firsthand.  We ended up staying in Sapporo for about 8 months on that first visit!  It was a life-changing experience for sure.
What were your impressions of Japan and its culture before the move and how have they changed after? 
As a young American growing up in the late ’70s and early ’80s most of my images of Japan were from movies and TV shows featuring Ninja and Samurai etc.!  At that time in America, there was much less knowledge of Japan and most of Asia was considered to be one big country!  LOL!  Of course, it was an eye-opening experience for me and after I returned to the USA I spent a lot of time telling all my friends about Japan in great detail!

The gondola lift at Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort in January this year 

What does a day-in-life of Neil Hartmann look like?
Pretty busy!  Ha ha!  I try to get up early and spend about 1 hour working on Yoga and breathing exercises before getting ready for work.  Since I do a wide variety of projects and work each day is very different.  Some days I am helping at our Soft Ice Cream specialty shop Locale-JZK, some days I am out with my camera working on photo or video productions.  Somedays I am locked inside my video editing studio staring at my computer!  
How would you describe your creative process?
I try to be very flexible with both the on-site creative work like taking pictures, directing, or shooting video.  Many of my video projects involve some physical activity like snowboarding or mountain biking, rafting, etc.,  So I am always working to be safe and enjoy the activity portion of the work.  Thanks to the camera work I am regularly put into interesting situations and that is a great bonus.  So I take a lot of creative inspiration from being outdoors and taking part in those activities.

Neil snowboarding down the slopes of Rusutsu Resort, Hokkaido

Is there a particular project that you’ve worked on so far that sticks out for you as being the most impactful and why?
I spent several years working for the town of Uchiko in Ehime prefecture producing promotion videos and photos.  After 30 years of living and working in Hokkaido, it was really enjoyable to see a new side of Japan on Shikoku island.  The rich heritage and culture there really captured my imagination and inspired my work there.  The deep history of the architecture, the kindness of the people, and the beauty of the mountain wilderness were all very impressive! The videos I helped produce there are some of my favorite works.
What are your top recommended things to do in Hokkaido during the off-season?
I don’t know if there is an “off-season” in Hokkaido!  There is so much going on all the time it is hard to take a break!  I guess winter is my “main” season and it is a long season which I enjoy very much!  The summertime is great for exploring the rivers and lakes with my canoe and kayak.  I have started doing this more and more over the last ten years.  The lakes near my house here in Jozankei are very clear and beautiful and it is so cool and calming to paddle around!  Hokkaido is not famous for its sandy beaches, but there are actually some really beautiful spots with great sand and super clean water!  So I would say that my favorite thing to do in the summer is play in the water!

Jozankei Onsen, Hokkaido, in all the colours of autumn foliage. 

Are there any local specialties that you think every traveller should not leave Hokkaido without trying?
I recently tried Sake Kasu ice cream in the city of Kutchan!  That was very good.  It is a vanilla ice cream with the Sake Kasu, which is particles that are left over from the production of rice wine (Nihonshu)  This gives the ice cream a nice hint of rice wine without the alcohol!  I thought that was really tasty.  There are so many great local foods and products around Hokkaido.  Almost every village and town will have some kind of specialty.  I think the best way to find delicious food or drink is to ask the locals!  A gas station or a convenience store staff member will always be happy to tell you what they think is the best local delicacy!

The Asaridake area near the Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort at the peak of winter

Where else in Japan would you recommend to those looking to enjoy Japan’s great outdoors?
I think mountain trekking in Hokkaido has been underrated and unknown and deserves more visitors.  The trails and scenery are absolutely great, there are mountain huts and the community of mountain-loving people is a really special bunch here in Japan!  In Hokkaido, the highest mountains are only slightly over 2000 meters high, thanks to the northern latitude the temperature and the wildlife and fauna are equal to what you would experience at 3000 meters in Honshu island.  This makes for a much more gentle trekking experience here in Hokkaido!  Make sure to bring your hiking boots and a backpack when you visit!
And lastly, what’s next for you?
Bigger, Better, and more of the same!  I have no plans to make drastic changes as I am enjoying this life we have created here in Hokkaido, but I do hope to share it with a large and large audience world wide.  Through my videos on YouTube and my photos on Instagram and in magazines, I hope to connect with more travel and Japan lovers and provide a fun window into the world of northern Japan!  I also hope to expand our soft-serve ice cream shop throughout Japan!
Thank you for talking with us!


To see more of Neil's stunning work and stay up-to-late on his latest projects, be sure to check out his Instagram or YouTube channel!

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