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August 22, 2005

Adventures in Japan's far north

Hokkaido is Japan's northern island. I went with my colleague Kaz, who was making his third trip to the eastern part of the island. He mapped out an amazing itinerary that even wickedly bad weather could not detract from.

The main event was to see Shiretoko National Park, which was made a UNESCO world heritage site on 14 July, but we also visited some of the sites in central Hokkaido. By the way, in the Ainu language Shiretoko translates as "land's end" or "the end of the world". Coming from Tokyo, it certainly seemed appropriate.

This is also the "land of summer tour groups" - all the hotels are relatively the same: Japanese room with dinner and breakfast included, karaoke bar in the basement, and game room. Some were better than others, as you will see.

We had a typical Japanese holiday - except that we drove ourselves (actually Kaz drove as I do not have a Japanese license) instead of using a tour bus. For me, that meant two baths a day and only Japanese food. It was great.

Hokkaido - Day one (Thursday 18 August 2005)
After an uneventful plane flight, we arrived in Asahikawa. It looks like France to me…rolling hills, lavender, strange buildings. More importantly, it is cool…20-23 degress, no humidity. AWESOME

Kaz is an old hand at this part of the world so we went off and checked out a few places before going to our ryokan.
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We stayed in Biei (sounds like BA, as in the crap airline) and it is so beautiful here that the TV and commercial people come up here to film. One of the side effects is a tourism offshoot, which I will call the CM site. First off, the guide book had a number of places it recommends on the fact that a popular ‘80s TV show called Kitano Kuni (North Country) was shot there. We also went to “mild seven hills”, which is not planted with tobacco, as one might think, but edamame. That is the picture on the right, and I bet you could feed all of Ginza from this field!
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The hotel is nice (notice the downgrade from ryokan). The set dinner was very good, which helps, and the rotenburo (outside bath) was great. The inside bath leaves something to be desired, looking more like a prison bath than anything else (no drop the soap jokes please). There is also a fantastically cool omiyage shop, including melons (Y5,000), potatoes, onions, salmon (Y5,000) and crab (Y11,000) that you can send pre-packaged back home. I opted for the Hokkaido Milk Caramel candy (Y200), but was seriously tempted to send my assistant a crab (she asked for one…honest!...but I am cheap and did not send one).

The entertainment facilities are also worth mentioning – game room, ramen shop and “snack bar”, which was like some sort of Tokyo hostess bar/karaoke lounge, without any people in it. There was a Y1,000 cover charge, but drinks were Y300 each…so we still saved money.

The next day was the real start of the trip – for one, it was the longest drive of the trip at 200 miles – so we had an early night (1030pm).

Oh, forgot to mention – no Internet, which is why it is only now that you are reading this.

Hokkaido - Day two (Friday 19 August 2005)
Yikes! I was up at 530am. Must be the fresh country air. Or I am not used to all the quiet? We had a long drive, so we started early. After a quick breakfast (with bad coffee), we jumped in the car to start what would be 300km of driving.

s 053.jpg First up on the agenda was a photo museum, Takushinkan. Not quite what one would expect for a staring point, but the photographer Shinzo Maeda was an absolute genius with the lens and a local - the combination produce some fantastically nice pictures. After that, we popped over to a coffee shop and finally got the proper cup we had wanted at breakfast. Not worth mentioning except for the weird food they served and the great t-shirts they sold.

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Our first "nature" experience was to be Daisetsuzen (Big Snow Mountain), but when we got there it was starting to rain and there was little chance to see anything from the top. So we decided to press on. At the time, we did not realise this would become a theme of the trip, but it was one of the few times we let bad weather stand in our way. The tourist trap, I mean gift shops, at the bottom were nice anyway.

We headed off to Naitai Bokujo (dairy farm) for what is supposed to be a great view of the southeastern part of the island. s 059.jpg
As you can see, we were foiled again. Even worse, they had downgraded the food menu, so we had to settle for frankfurters and potato dumplings. We did eventually find a roadside ramen shop - this is when we discovered that a Hokkaido team had reached the semifinals of the annual high school baseball tournament (Koshien). We watched the start of the game, but soon more pressing matters, like outrunning the storm, took precendence.

We did our first hiking at Lake Onnetoh...there is a relatively easy 3km course that takes you to a waterfall. I snapped a few photos and we moved on to the end of the day's journey: Akanko Spa.

This was a pretty cool place, actually. Lake Akan was formed by the eruption of a volcano. It sounds cool until you see where the volcano is still venting. In fact, we visited this site down the street from our hotel where there is boiling mud and a sign warning you that you will boil yourself in the lake if you walk in there.
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Our hotel was a bit creepy, with a dodgy nightclub act in the basement bar (Y2,000 cover charge) and a Venus Fort-like lobby ceiling. But our room had a great view and there was an outside bath (rotenburo) on the roof that was pretty relaxing. We skipped the dodgy show and had a beer in the lobby while watching all the women shop in the souvenir store. I guess we looked pretty creepy ourselves sitting there drinking while wearing our yukata. Oh, I forgot to mention, we were the only ones who thought that was acceptable behavior for a Friday night. Asleep by 10pm...

Hokkaido - Day three (Saturday 20 August 2005)
This is when I first realised that Kaz had a problem. For some reason, where ever he goes in Hokkaido rain and fog follow. We managed to visit one viewpoint 10km from our hotel and have some sun, but that was the last we saw of it for the rest of the trip. s 083.jpg

Kaz said our first stop would be lovely Mashuko. When we got there, this is what I saw. That is when he told me that there was a popular song in Japan in the 70s or 80s called Kiri-no-Mashuko (foggy Mashuko). I can see why. That should have been a downer, but one of the highlights of the trip was next in the agenda: Sulphur Mountain (Iozan). This was such a vast change from what I expected! Yes, that is sulphur...the smell aside, it was great. For some reason, everyone there seemed to be having a great time, including me. We took a few pictures. That is Kaz with some boiling eggs (that is not where the smell comes from, but there were some savvy entrepreneurs there selling them anyway). Iozan also rates highly because they were selling Tantakatan shochu in the gift shop.
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We went next to Lake Kussharo to see the sand onsen (more beach-side volcanic activity...no thanks!) and the Ainu museum. The old man at the museum said he would take my picture in an authentic Ainu outfit. Considering how ridiculous I look in a yukata, I declined his offer.

The rain/fog was getting depressing and it did not improve at all as we headed to Shiretoko. By the time we reached Utoro (gateway to Shiretoko), it was nearly impossible to see more than a hundred metres. I was not so excited.

But then came the best part of the trip: Kamuiwaka Falls. I could never explain how cool this was (but I will try). First...it is so foggy we could barely find the parking lot we need to take the bus. Then we had to travel 40 minutes by bus to get there. But it is all worth it because the water from Kamuiwaka Falls is from a hot spring. And you climb up the waterfall to get to a bath. These are the pictures...it was still foggy, so it was very surreal.
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That finished off a pretty full day and we headed off to Rausu on the south coast of Shiretoko. We stayed at the Marumi Ryokan. It did not look like much, but it is an absolutely cool place. s 125.jpg
The dinner was excellent – one giant crab, one smaller one and a wide range of fresh seafood. I had whale sashimi for the first time, which is good for the entertainment value, but it was not really tasty. We shared a table with two older women – it looked like a mother and her daughter-in-law. The mother was an expert with crab and got us sorted. We ran into them a few more times touring ther next day- they were very nice and it made it seem liek a school holiday (except that my conversation was limited to "oh, hi, nice to see you again".

The inn is like a dormitory – there is not much to the rooms, for example. And the outside bath was not what you would get at a fancy place in one of the more travelled areas, but it was right over the beach (where they dry out the seaweed). It was absolutely relaxing and the best place we stayed on the trip. I hope I have the chance to visit again. If you ever go to Shiretoko, you really should stay here for a night.

We finished dinner by 8pm and there was not much else to do. We sat In the lobby with a few beers for awhile - the owner stopped by and chatted with Kaz for a bit, but I could only sip my beer and stare at the wall (that bad Japanese language issue again). Later, we walked up the street, which was completely empty. But it was only 17-18 degrees, which was awesome. Kaz was asleep by 9pm, but I stayed up for another hour reading and drinking a beer in the lobby. I was in bed by 10pm - not exactly the weekend schedule I am used to.

SIDE NOTE: The Hokkaido team won at Koshien for the second year in a row, which is very rare. That is all that everyone was talking about today. Good for them, and good for us that we were there when it happened.

I will write up the last day and a half later...stay tuned

Posted by Kirk on August 22, 2005 06:39 PM