Monthly Archives: April 2008

Staring at the ceiling

You are gone.
I’m so all alone.
Here’s what’s left of my happy home.

“She’ll be back”,
That’s what i said,
As i stare at the ceiling.

‘Cause i need you baby.
Oh, how i miss you baby.
‘Cause i need you baby.
Oh, how i miss you baby.

[RJD2, Hidden Track (from the album Deadringer)]

Noboribetsu-onsen / 登別温泉

From Muroran, Noboribetsu is an easy day trip, which is just as well as I didn’t fancy moving everything again so soon.
Noboribetsu is a great place – steaming pools of bubbling ooze and muck abound, the landscape looks martian at times with scorched earth and bizarre rock formations, they have a mini-geyser and one can even bathe their feet next to some small yet picturesque waterfalls in a naturally hot stream. Very pleasant. I buried my feet in the river bed, but the earth underneath was very hot indeed.

I was lucky to be there when I was according to one of the park guides as come May it’s swarming with people. I was, however, disappointed that I was there before the sakura (cherry blossom) arrived, as the valley is filled with 10,000 cherry trees. It would be a spectacular sight, even alongside the fugly concrete blocks which pass as hotels.

Unfortunately I had neglected to bring a hat or suntan lotion as the weather in Muroran had been cold and foggy, but Noboribetsu was seemingly above that in beautiful sunshine. The trail, whilst forested at times, was quite exposed at others, and I developed a headache and mild paranoia about sunburn. Luckily I escaped pretty much unscathed, although the headache persisted until I went to sleep. It would also have been helpful to have sunglasses, but I destroyed them in a particularly spectacular snowboarding crash when I was still landing on my face whenever I tried a 360.

Noboribetsu is also apparently the biggest onsen town in Japan. The particular onsen I visited has twenty different kinds of bath inside, which I thought was a bit over the top, but the scale of the place was certainly impressive. Sadly the atmosphere of tranquility was ruined somewhat by construction works going on inside the onsen. Yes, construction workers crashing and banging and walking amongst the naked folk. No discount offered. I at least paddled in all of the baths except the bubble bath, because it was a bubble bath, which is a bit gay really.

Dinner was a rip off in a crappy yakitori restaurant in Higashi-Muroran. Serves me right for diving into the first place I saw after deciding it was cold. No value in spontaneity eh. The town was, incidentally, still covered with freezing fog, which necessitated a warm jacket even though it had been sweltering in Noboribetsu. At least I felt less irate at having carried it around all day.

Muroran / 室蘭

Muroran is a town of around 110,000 people situated on a mini-peninsula about 2.5 hours South of Sapporo. I was attracted to the hostel there because the description said it was almost literally at the top of a cliff, and was only 10 minutes from the beach. What it didn’t mention (well actually it did, but I somehow managed to overlook that part of the description) was the fact that it’s around a twenty minute walk from the train station, up a steep hill, and rather difficult to find (a much politer way of phrasing my thoughts from the actual time). Again, I arrived early, but there was an internet connection in the lobby (albeit on a PC from the early 90s), so I amused myself with that for an hour until I heard sounds emerging from within the administrative hideaway. The hostel owner seemed slightly odd, but what can you expect from someone living alone atop a cliff? The hostel itself was quite dilapidated and the building resembled a weird boat/spaceship combo, though while the public facilities were crumbling, the rooms were nice.

After checking in, I went for a wander along the coastal path which, being fairly mountainous, was pretty hard work. But totally worth it – there were some stunning views along the coast, and it actually looked unspoiled. The shoreline did look quite inaccessible though, with almost sheer drops in places – the path followed the line of the bluff. I’ll try to upload photos soon. Looking back in the opposite direction, there was a line of factories belching out smoke, in complete contrast with the natural beauty. The city is very elongated too, as it nestles between the sea and mountains. I imagined somewhere like Rio de Janeiro must be vaguely similar.

Having taken in the views for a while, I set off down the hill to the station, where there was a fairly lengthy wait for the next train to the end of the line – Muroran proper. I debated walking to the next stop, but the walk looked entirely uninteresting, and given how long it took the previous day, I decided it was probably best just to wait for the next train. Looking around “town” didn’t take long, and again there were visible signs of decay – faded signs and peeling paint. There didn’t seem to be much going on to be honest, but I walked to the sea front and admired the setting sun behind the beachhead.

I met a Niseko acquaintance for dinner in Higashi-Muroran (East Muroran), which seems to be the modern centre of the city. Her and her friend were 45mins late, but it was nice to eat with people rather than alone (previous night in Ikeda notwithstanding), and as she had a car I was spared the walk back up the hill, making it home in time for curfew(!) at 10pm. I hate curfews and generally avoid them like a certain Asian nation avoids accession of human rights, but in a place like this I supposed it was okay given that there wasn’t much reason to be out later than ten anyway…

Mashu-ko / 摩周湖 / Kawayu-onsen / 川湯温泉 / Kushiro / 釧路

Mashu lake was still frozen, but the view of the lake and mountains in the opposite direction were great from the lookout point. It would have been nice to visit the other lookout points, but the road was still closed for winter, and previously-mentioned restrictions on my ride meant that I took the easy option and decided to get a lift to the station rather than have to walk/hitchhike with my stupidly heavy bag.

My driver and I worked out (or rather he told me) that I could go to nearby Kawayu-onsen and check out a volcano and maybe a hot spring over there before heading down to Kushiro. It sounded like a good plan, so off I went, but not before using the free internet service in Mashu station for a while – a surprising and welcome find.

My lonely planet guide stated that one could walk a picturesque 4km path from the station to the town, which passed by the volcano on the way. I envisaged putting my bag in a locker at the station and heading out on foot, but the station turned out to be an unmanned shack without even as much as a ticket office (well, there was one, but it was very closed). Fearing a repeat of Rishiri, I asked the driver of the only bus outside the station if he was going to town. He was, so I hopped on, figuring I could leave my bags somewhere in town and walk out and back.

My bag was too big to fit in the lockers at the bus station, so I left it in the dutiful care of the bus station staff (in the middle of the floor in the waiting room) and set out. I hiked along the road out of town, figuring that it was the quickest and easiest way. The wind was biting, but it was clear and sunny so just on the right side of tolerably cold. The air in the whole town smelled of sulphur, which was belching out of vents from the local volcano – Iou-zan. I took a couple of pictures from the road and spotted a path which appeared to lead closer. I walked a little way along it, and my shoes were soon covered in sludgy pyroclastic mud. Yum. A little further along and the path disappeared underwater where snow was melting onto waterlogged ground. Not fancying a swim, I turned back and thought I would follow the path into the village. There was an amount of snow covering this route too, but it looked passable. Unfortunately, the surface was also sitting on top of a miniature lake which wasn’t immediately visible, and I got a shoe full of freezing water, so I carefully retraced my steps over the mud and walked back along the road.

I stopped by a foot onsen on my route through the town, which was free for use by any passers-by, and bought fried rice for lunch at the only restaurant which looked open. It was ok, but not a patch on the previous day’s version in Wakkanai. They must do something to the food there..

The scenery South of Akan was similar to the plains North of Akan, but this gave way to marshland – Kushiro Shitsugen National Park is the largest wetlands in Japan (perhaps because they concreted over their other large wetlands). The tourism website harped on about the wetlands a lot, but I figured I’d probably seen enough from the train (which again was a pleasant journey from a scenery point of view).

On arrival I realised I’d sent the wrong email to my phone and hence had no idea what the name of my hotel was. But as chance would have it, wandering in the vague direction of the map in my head and picking the nicest looking hotel (pickings were slim) worked out fine.

I had come to Kushiro as a stop off between travelling to Nemuro – the Easternmost point of Hokkaido (and Japan) – and subsequently Ikeda, a farming town some distance to the West which is renowned for wine-making. However, given the non-event that was Soya and the fact that my guide book said the main attraction of Nemuro was the view over some disputed islands which Russia is misbehaving over (who would have thought), in conjunction with the fact that the weather was grey with snow showers forecast, and that it was a 2.5 hour train followed by 50 minute bus ride (with associated extortionate tourist price tag) away meant that I decided to head to Ikeda directly instead. So really, I needn’t have come to Kushiro at all and could have gone straight to Ikeda. Oh well. Seeing as I was there, I went out for a wander around.

I walked probably around 8km, all the way down the main straight street to the sea and back again via the main part of town. Kushiro is a miserable looking town with a fantastically ugly skyline. One might call it the Gloucester of Hokkaido, but that’s probably a touch unkind. Anyhow there didn’t seem to be much going on, and the South side of town was sad and slightly dilapidated.

Kushiro is reputedly the birthplace of Robata-yaki – food grilled on a barbeque type thing. After walking past every restaurant in town at least five times (I wish I was joking), I finally plumped for one that I thought was serving robata, because I could only read two of the three characters. I was in luck.

I am growing accustomed to the looks of surprise and trepidation that grace (or contort) people’s faces whenever I walk into a place that is unwaveringly Japanese, but oftentimes the tension disappears when I throw out an order for a pint of beer. And this place was to be no different. Although subsequently one of the waitresses started jabbering away at me as if I understood every word, and I got involved, after we’d discussed Scottish golf courses at some length, in a debate on Japanese politics with an old and senior-looking salaryman – dangerous at the best of times, even when speaking the same language. I think he eventually got in a huff because I said I liked Koizumi and the changes he’d brought, and the increasingly worldly attitude of the Japanese youth. I think he was averse to Koizumi primarily because he’d made it more expensive for old people to get medicine, but even if true perhaps he was unaware that years of bureaucratic abuse have necessitated the levying of such charges. Anyhow, he and his colleague gave me some edible, albeit not that enjoyable, giant snail-type things to eat, which I felt obliged to finish, and later a glass of whisky, which I drank in silence. After our debate, the salaryman turned back to his colleague, who asked, “did he understand the conversation?”, to which he replied, “perfectly.”. Ha, I don’t think so – neither the language or his thinking.

Anyway the food was average, the bill expensive, the company difficult and the city ugly. I wouldn’t rush back.

Ikeda / 池田

I arrived in Ikeda around lunchtime and thought I would drop my bags at the hostel before venturing out. It turned out to be quite a way from the town itself, which I was partially aware of due to the fact that I was advised to go to the next local train stop and walk from there, which I duly did. On arrival at the hostel there was a sign on the door saying, “open from 2.30”. It was 1.15, so I scrawled a brief note and dumped my bags in the porch.

Since the train services in areas such as this run about once every hour, I decided to walk back to Ikeda. It didn’t look far on my abstract map with no scale. I asked an old lady who I passed in the street how many kilometers it was back to Ikeda station. She chuckled and said, “a fair amount”. Undeterred, I continued, and around an hour later I was back where I started two hours earlier. A splendid use of time.

There weren’t a huge amount of tourist attractions to check out, and first I headed to “Wine-jo” – wine temple. The “castle” that it was housed in was a horrific concrete monstrosity. It reminded me of Bowser’s castle in the Super Mario Bros video games. Except less thunder and lightning etc.

The tour took all of about five minutes to complete, and was completely devoid of English. I did pick up an English pamphlet (which the signs specifically instructed me to get from a specific place), but it was broad-brush almost to the point of block colouring. One of the main reasons for going, in fairness, was to visit the “tasting corner”, but I was rather disappointed that they only had one wine available, a white no less, and as I was the only one sampling it, I felt a little bad about having more than one cup. Yes, cup. From a mini paper cup dispenser. Still, it was novel, and free.

After defeating the evil turtle and gaining an extra life and an invisibility cloak, I set off in search of “Happiness Dairy” for some home made ice cream. The walk felt a little like being in the American heartlands, as I was surrounded by fields interlaced with roads in giant grids. It was around a 2km walk, and my legs were complaining having already walked from the hostel to town, from the town up a hill to the wine castle, and now here. Everyone else who was in the place had come by car. Cheaters. I can’t say I noticed much different about the ice cream from your standard shop-bought ice cream, but their monthly special – strawberry something – I could only read half of the writing – was yummy.

On the way back to the station I stopped off in a small park where a young couple shot past me on a bicycle – a boy driving and a girl in school uniform sitting sideways on the back. Seemingly a fairly standard transportation technique in Japan. Still, they looked like they were having fun. A lady was sitting by a stream writing something, and I perched on a rock near a pond and read for a while in the sunshine.

The owner of the hostel was a very nice guy and after his wife had prepared a feast we ate together and talked about travel and his life. He had been a chemistry student at a university in Kyoto – his home town – but said he was more interested in travelling than studying and would come to Hokkaido to motorcycle around the island in his holidays. Afterwards, he worked in a factory in Kyoto for five years and then a different factory near Sapporo for two years, but then packed it in, travelled for a while with his wife, and opened the hostel in Ikeda. From what I gathered the hostel was only busy for about four months each year, so I’m not sure what they did for cash the rest of the time, but every year they spent around a month travelling, so I guess they must be doing alright somehow. He also told me he’d given me the [Hostelling International] members’ price, which essentially meant he’d given me my meals (dinner and breakfast the next morning – also a feast) for free. Splendid.