Monthly Archives: April 2008

Death by trains: From Wakkanai to Mashu / 摩周

I woke up at 5.45 full of anticipation about the journey ahead.

The journey South was again very picturesque passing by mountains and rivers. Unfortunately it is not possible to travel directly along the North-East coast, as it is too remote. After passing through Asahikawa again, the train headed East on the North side of Daisetsuzan national park. Here, the scenery is marshy and open, with wide plains covering the lowland stretches to the coast. I had to change at Abishiro – a nothing looking town which is famous for housing the “Alcatraz of Japan” – a bleak, harsh place which I had little interest in visiting. The lakes just outside of Abishiro were nice to look at from the train window though.

Turning South into Akan national park I could see the snowy peaks of Shiretoko stretching off to the East. The area was recently designated a world heritage site, but again is closed until May, and the far reaches are very remote and only accessible by apparently hardcore hiking/climbing routes.

Twelve hours and around 300 miles later I finally arrived. I stayed in a farmhouse near Mashuu, and was their only guest. It was a large place with creaky floorboards, but somehow staved off any images of horror movie sets. One of the staff offered to take me to the lake in the morning, but laid down so many restrictions I almost felt bad about taking him up on it. But I did.

I ate a microwaved dinner in my room (and managed to explode a sesame dressing sachet over my face, shirt and trousers), and attempted to watch a Japanese game show whilst plotting my next move.


To get things moving, I’ve put up a few posts from the last few days. I will backfill the others as and when I complete them – trying to braindump so much in a short space of time is fairly exhausting!

Cape Soya / 宗谷岬

There is a lesson to be learned in putting faith in the word of the weather man. I awoke to find snow had dusted everything in white, and it was still coming down. If it was snowing now, I thought it might worsen during the day, so I set out for cape Soya anyway. And it was rather dull. Aside from the novelty, there is little to see or do, and there is not much to see either. Apparently on clear days you can see the Russian island of Sakhalin, but not in a blizzard. Ok, slight exaggeration, but couldn’t see much.

Whilst I was loitering in front of a monument thing, an old man came up and asked where I was from. We chatted for a short while, during which time he managed to slip in that his wife had died. I noticed the tour bus that I assumed he had come with was leaving, so I pointed this out to him, and off he went. I messed about trying to find some breakfast (to no avail), took some more pictures and went to the bus shelter to wait for the next (and first) bus home, and the same man was inside, so I felt a little bad about having packed him off when he didn’t need to go. In fact we were almost certainly on the same bus going there, but in my early morning haze I hadn’t taken any notice whatsoever.

We talked some more on the bus going home. He was from Fukuoka, his two daughters were both living in Canada, and he was travelling to some places in Japan alone. His next stop was Otaru.
“Have you been there before?”, I asked.
“Oh, yes, several years ago, before my wife died.”, he replied.
I couldn’t help but feel sad about this. For him to have mentioned it twice within twenty minutes of meeting me, I suppose she must be on his mind a lot. And I could empathise.

I was wary that I was sitting in a “priority seat” reserved for the elderly, the infirm and the pregnant, and when more geriatrics started boarding the bus I thought I’d better move, but I’m not sure how well I communicated that fact to the man. We didn’t speak again for the rest of the journey. When we got off the bus he made some indecipherable noise, and half gestured with his hand to follow him. Needing the toilet anyway, I followed into the bus terminal, wondering if I’d offended him somehow. But when I came back from the bathroom, he thrust Â¥3000 into my hand, and insisted that I take it. I was completely thrown by this, and attempted to politely refuse, insisting that I couldn’t take his money, but he was adamant that I did.
“Buy yourself lunch or something. I want to help you.”, he said.
I thanked him as politely as I could, and wandered out into the street, flummoxed.

I thought about why he’d done that for a good while, but couldn’t come up with a good answer. I felt bad for not having taken his address or anything, and as chance would have it I ran into him again as he was leaving the hot springs in town. I asked him if he could write his address for me, but he said, “oh no. That’s alright.” and waved me off as he walked away. I guess it was just the kindness of a stranger. He did give me his name though. It was Tony Honda. I wonder if I heard him right.

I had time to kill until I could check into my hotel, so I went to the hot springs, where I was mistaken for a Russian by a father of two. I shot them a wary glance, but couldn’t be bothered to correct them. I comforted myself with a choco-vanilla ice cream in the café.

The afternoon cleared up quite nicely, but it was still fricking cold. I was beginning to wonder if there was much point staying on in Hokkaido, as it is clearly the wrong “season” to be travelling here. All the tourist information pamphlets assure the reader that Hokkaido is beautiful in all four seasons. Yet April seems to be a nondescript stop-gap. A tourist hinterland.

Later, at dinner, I talked with the restaurant owner. I asked about foreign visitors to Wakkanai, and he said, “A lot of Russians came a few years ago, but in the past couple of years, there haven’t been many at all.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing, do you think?”
He smiled wryly, “A good thing. The Russians are not good people!”
I laughed and told him I’d been mistaken for a Russian at the onsen, but he said I didn’t look Russian at all. And gave me some squid sashimi with fresh horseradish picked from the slopes of the local mountain, and a large glass of sake, gratis. Nice. I also asked him how he thought the East coast would be at this time of year. He laughed, and said, “cold.” Bah.

Shortly after, I found a wallet in the toilets. There was over Â¥40,000 (£200) inside. Being the honourable citizen that I am, I gave it over to the restaurant owner, who sought out the forgetful customer. The customer, clearly drunk, came over and praised me for being, “ii gaikokujin” (a good foreign person). The owner agreed. The customer was insistent on giving me a Â¥1000 reward, which again I tried to refuse, and again failed.

The next morning, I left Wakkanai as I’d arrived – under glorious sunshine. And with a slightly bitter taste in my mouth.

Rishiri / 利尻 / Rebun / 礼文

I woke to a very cold-looking scene outside. Grey as far as the eye could see, and wind rattling the windows. Given that it was 6am, I was strongly tempted to sack it off and go back to sleep, but then I thought I only had this one chance to go, as the weather forecast for tomorrow was even worse. So off I went.

I’m not sure that was a wise decision.

The ratio of boat size to sea swell was probably the least favourable I’d ever experienced. The boat was rocking like a beaten-up teenage hotrod at a drive-in movie theatre.

On stepping off the ferry my nostrils were filled with the unmistakable smell of sea and fish. My lodging’s owner’s husband (or maybe he was the owner, who knows) had travelled over with me to run some errand or other, but I promptly lost him right at the terminal entrance. One second he was there, the next he wasn’t. One of life’s mysteries.

Inside, there was no tourist office because it was out of season. There were no bike rentals. No scooter rentals either. I went to a car rental shop, no car rental because I don’t have international licence. I was shafted, basically.

Noticing my frown, the owner of the car rental shop decided that he would take me to the other side of the island in his car. Awesome.
He chatted to me as we drove – the conversation went something like this:
“Blah blah seagulls blah blah eggs blah blah blah blah blah.”
“Ah is that so?”
“Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.”
“Mmm… Why are there these barriers at the side of the road? Because of the wind?”
“Blah snow blah blah when it falls, it’s difficult to see.”
“I can believe that.”

I realised I’d come to the wrong place once I got out of the car. I had memorised the direction I needed to go in on the wrong island. %@&?.
I had said there were interesting looking stones at the place I wanted to go. He probably thought I was mad, because it was entirely normal. I was wondering why he’d asked me if we had volcanoes in England. Sigh..

Consulting the map, the places I had wanted to go to were probably within walking distance of the ferry terminal. I swore some more, and laughed at my ineptitude.

Since I was there, I walked around the wrong place’s park-type path thing. It was fully exposed to the wind, and bitterly cold. The wind was coming from the North-West, and penetrated flesh. The people in town probably thought, “What is this idiot doing here? Doesn’t he know the tourist season starts in mid-May?”
I was certainly wondering what I was doing there. In fact, I was beginning to wonder if there was any point travelling the rest of Hokkaido if I was going to encounter similar problems (closures, not idiocy). I already knew that the Shiretoko peninsula would be off-limits.

I walked through some people’s backyards and managed to get a few good pictures of the volcano (which could be seen from this side – one good thing since it was entirely shrouded in cloud from the port side) and fishing huts. Then I killed an hour walking between bus stops.
It was very cold.

The town looked as though it was decaying. There seemed to be little or no life, and buildings sloped to the sea, corroded from the salty air and harsh winds. I barely saw a soul out and about, although perhaps this was something to do with weather.

After surveying a variety of bus stops, I chose one with attached indoor shelter, which smelled of urine and rotting food. An old lady came to the same stop, she agreed (or rather asserted) that it was very cold. A senile looking old man was also tottering around. I think he’d wanted to share my shelter previously, but being a foreigner I was obviously very scary to him.

I took the bus halfway round the island to a place I *had* wanted to visit. It was full of geriatrics, who all got off at the same stop. At first I thought it was outside a hospital, and laughed at the notion that everyone was coming to get the pills doled out, but realised it was a hot spring.

I was planning to walk from the place of interest bus stop back to the ferry terminal, but I started to get worried when the bus kept going. And going. And dropped me in seemingly the middle of nowhere. Furthermore, I discovered my place of interest was 500m up a hill. And after walking the 500m, I discovered it was another 750m. And the path back to the terminal was marked as being 4km long. That’s over 7km worth of walking, and I couldn’t afford to miss the ferry. I cursed the lake, and the fact that the mountain couldn’t be seen, and the fact that I couldn’t use any form of transport other than my feet and a bus which runs four times a day. Initially I set off for the lake, but then decided that time-wise it was too risky, so I set off along the trail back to the ferry terminal. Soon, it was covered in deep snow and my feet were sinking. More cursing ensued. I decided that there was no way I was going to walk 4km in snow, so I headed back down to the main road and started walking in the direction of civilization, while the waves blasted against the sea wall. It was a little like an average English day at the seaside – slate-coloured sea, grey sky, howling Siberian wind and temperature hovering around 0ºC.

Walking was quickly getting boring, though I took comfort from the fact that the road signs said it was only a paltry 2km walk. I debated hitchhiking, but couldn’t hear the cars coming due to crashing sea and wind, and the fact that my hat covered my ears, and anyway it was too cold to hang around, so I ended up walking the whole way.

I got back with over an hour to spare. I could have gone to the fricking lake.

I do not get cold easily, but I was chilled to the bone. After taking refuge in a ramen restaurant, I warmed my hands on a hot can(!) of coffee from a vending machine in the ferry terminal, and pledged to return directly to Wakkanai – there was only a 15 minute wait between ferries at Rebun. I had had enough. And I had already spent Â¥7000 on my misadventure.

The inside of the ferry was nice and warm, and forgetting the cold as we approached Rebun I thought, “I only have to stay for an hour and forty-five minutes, that’s not so long, I might as well get off and have a look round”. Plus everyone else was getting off, and I felt like a spoilsport for staying on.

I stepped out of the terminal and an ice blast nearly blew my hat off. It would have flown away were it not for my cat-like grabbing reflex. There were sheer hills (if there can be such a thing) in front of me, and the scene looked decidedly bleak. So I thought to hell with it, and got back on the boat. The wisest decision of the day so far.

I tried to make peace with the island by taking pictures from the ferry as it pulled out of port. My hands quickly became numb, and I thought of snappy titles for pictures such as, “Rebun, the island that looks beautiful, and probably is, if you come in the right season”. It does look pretty, but summer would definitely be preferable.

Coming back the sea was even rougher. Sometimes when I looked out of the windows on the lower deck all I could see was sea because the boat was tilted over so much, often followed by a huge plume of sea-spray off the bow as it dipped into the water. If my Mum was there she would have been petrified, but I thought it was quite fun.

When I got home I was confronted by the old lady who runs the place at which I was staying about the amount of laundry I’d given her to do (I’d asked if they had a coin laundry machine so I could wash some clothes). The previous evening she’d said it would be free, but now she was demanding Â¥2000 for the trouble! I was somewhat shocked, but gave it over without too much questioning, and then went to sulk in my room about the fact that I didn’t bash her down. Perhaps she was looking for a way to recoup the discount she’d given me on the room (Â¥1000 over two nights). But what the hell? Tidy profit for her. I was peeved.

I ate dinner at a yakiniku (meat barbeque) restaurant and got free spicy, raw octopus for being a foreigner who spoke Japanese like a three-year old. Result. I also attempted to speak to a sixty (or more) year-old barman at a different place, but often got lost in the detail. Still, I think he thought it was fun given the warmth of his goodbyes, or maybe he was just glad I was going. He gave me his card and urged me to drop by again the next time I was in town.

Tomorrow I will attempt to outrun the weather to the Northernmost tip of Japan – cape Soya. Apparently it could snow in the afternoon. I hope the trains will be running for my ridiculous 12 hour corner-to-corner journey the morning after.

Wakkanai / 稚内

Heading further North the ground was covered in snow. I was thinking that maybe my heavy winter coat had reached the end of its usefulness as the sun was beaming down again in Asahikawa, but perhaps I was wrong. I passed through Nayoro. For some reason the name strikes a chord with me – perhaps it’s deja-vu of sorts. Or maybe it’s just a cute name for a town. A friend had previously mentioned that Nayoro has the *real* best snow in Japan. The mountain looks small, but I felt a pang of disappointment about not being able to see the season out, in Niseko or otherwise.

The train journey was beautifully scenic, passing alongside undeveloped mountainsides and wide alpine rivers. Further along I missed a fantastic photo opportunity as the red sun was poised over the volcano in the sea that is the island of Rishiri. It looked like the fires of mount doom. Afterwards, the train climbed over barren hills covered in what I guessed was bamboo grass. The landscape was like a Japanese equivalent of Bodmin moor. I wonder why they built a town up here, so far away from everything. Predictably the answer was fishing. In this case kelp.

In the evening I followed the old lady of my establishment’s advice and went to a restaurant near to my accommodation. The welcome I received wasn’t the friendliest, I have to say, but the proprietress warmed somewhat when I explained that I’d been given a recommendation to come here from another local. Despite the frosty reception, the saury I ate was the best I’ve ever tasted – so fresh! And the meal set was only 900 yen. So, all in all not too bad. Came home and tried to make a plan for tomorrow. It involves getting up at 6am. Eurgh.