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The Snow Fairy of Hokkaido is Winter's Sweetest Gift

A cafe in Hokkaido is a haven for bird watchers and photographers eager to catch a glimpse of the fluff-ball cuteness and cheeky antics of the snow fairy.

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The snow fairy of Hokkaido. (© Hokkaido Tourism Organization)

The snow fairy, a tiny bird native to Hokkaido, is one of the reasons why people flock to a cafe outside the city of Chitose in Hokkaido, even if they have little interest in birds. Not only is it the cafe's very own mascot, but the snow fairy is slowly becoming Hokkaido's unofficial prefectural bird.

The snow fairy is white, small, fluffy, immensely cute, and loved by bird enthusiasts and Hokkaido locals alike. Both groups come together at the Bird Watching Cafe to try to catch a glimpse of the adorable creature that looks like a tiny snowball. But spotting and photographing snow fairies can be tricky. 

Officially named "shima-enaga" in Japanese, the snow fairy is a subspecies of the long-tailed tit.

"They are tiny and they are also very shy," explains Aaron Kemp. The Australian native runs the cafe to cater specifically to bird observers and photographers. Located outside the city of Chitose in Hokkaido, his customers have a chance to get up close to the snow fairy and other birds. And if the shy bird doesn't show up, they can enjoy ice cream and other sweets as consolation. 

The signboard of the Bird Watching Cafe. (© Agnes Tandler)

An Adorable Cafe Mascot

The snow fairy can only be found on Japan's Northern Island of Hokkaido. Officially named "shima-enaga" in Japanese, it is a subspecies of the long-tailed tit. One of the smallest birds in Japan, it is only about 14 cm (5.5 in) long, with round eyes and a roundish fluffy body. 

It has recently become so popular that some have started to consider it a prefectural bird on par with the red-crowned crane. Shops in Hokkaido now sell a whole range of goods inspired by the snow fairy, from calendars to cakes and plush toys. There are Instagram accounts solely dedicated to the life and antics of the little fluff ball with wings. 

Long before the snow fairy went viral, the bird has been serving as the mascot of the Bird Watching Cafe. The building's windows open right onto a forest with the Chitose River running in the back — an ideal setting for bird watchers. It also features an exterior structure that serves as a permanent bird hide. 

The snow fairy is the Bird Watching Cafe's mascot. (© Agnes Tandler)

A Bird Watchers' Haven

Here photographers can sit all day and take photos undisturbed, their cameras and lenses hidden behind camouflage netting. During the busy season, the ten outdoor seats of the cafe fill up fast. People start lining up at 7 am, long before the cafe opens, just to grab a spot. Serious bird watchers do not just spend a couple of hours on their passion. "That's what you do hours and hours on end if you are that kind of photographer," explains Aaron. 

The photo gallery at the Bird Watching Cafe. (© Agnes Tandler)

He should know. It's just what Aaron's father-in-law does, the renowned nature photographer Tadashi Shimada. It was Shimada who came up with the idea for the cafe. Originally from Chiba prefecture, Shimada moved to Hokkaido many years ago to follow his passion for watching and photographing birds. 

Japan's Northern island is famous for its wildlife and unique birds such as the Steller's sea eagle, the red-crowned crane, the white-tailed eagle, and the Blakiston's fish-owl. Photographers usually brace the cold and snow of Hokkaido to get close to their desired targets. 

This can mean hours of sitting outside in hiding. Shimada's idea was to make the experience a bit more comfortable. The photographer began to look for a place in Hokkaido to set up his own photo gallery while also providing a place for fellow bird watchers. In 2014, he finally found the perfect location near Chitose, and the Bird Watching Cafe was born. 

Customers birdwatching and enjoying sweets at the Bird Watching Cafe. (© Agnes Tandler)

Tiny Bundles of Cuteness

Winter is the best time for bird watchers at the cafe. The presence of snow and scarcity of food outside in winter allows the cafe to attract birds by leaving food outside. Shimada had noticed some snow fairies further up from the cafe, so he left food to start bringing them closer. The first year there were some, and the next year there were more. Now the birds keep coming back each year, much to the delight of the customers. The hard work and dedication of Shimada and his family paid off. 

The snow fairy also takes center stage inside the Bird Watching Cafe. Popular in summer and winter alike is the snow fairy ice cream, a sweet blob of vanilla soft serve decorated with a chocolate cantucci biscuit that represents the bird's dark tail. Even the cappuccino is served with a cocoa powder illustration of a snow fairy and the cafe's wooden drink coaster has a tiny bird perched on its edge. 

Cappucino (© Agnes Tandler)
Snow fairy vanilla ice cream. (© Agnes Tandler)
Matcha latte (© Agnes Tandler)

Once a year, the best photographs taken at the cafe are nominated to be exhibited at Shimada's gallery. It is no surprise that photos of the snow fairy consistently earn the top prize in the competition. 

"In Japan, cute always wins," says Kemp. 


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Author: Agnes Tandler