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.