Category Archives: Japan 2008

Days of neglect

After a shockingly long time, I’ve posted ONE (yes, one) more entry from my travelogue thus far. It’s not really polished, but hey.

I have been feeling slightly guilty about neglecting updates recently, especially as it seems slightly more people are interested in reading about what I’m up to this time compared with Canada, where I wrote a lot more, ha.

Anyway… for now I am staying in Tokyo and taking a Japanese language course until the end of August. After that, I will probably stick around for an extra two or three weeks as I am also taking a corporate finance course from UCLA extension, and the final exam for that needs to be done by the 10th September. Probably easier to do it while I’m still stationary rather than on the road, though writing university applications for next year is going to prove interesting whilst travelling again, hmm..

The place where I live right now is seven minutes from Shibuya by train, and the rent is 2/3 the price of my place in Balham. The Japanese prime minister’s house is actually just down the road. Well, one of his houses, and apparently his favourite, but who knows! A policeman is permanently stationed outside the building in a mini-police box. This makes the location very easy to find for any would-be ne’er-do-wells. I feel sorry for the policeman who has to man the post, as it’s not the most exciting quiet residential street to be standing around in for hours at a time.

I recently acquired a mamachari (old woman style shopping bike resplendent with basket) from my friends Akemi and Matthieu, which means that in theory I can cycle to school every day, and most places around this side of town. This was a brilliant money-saving idea (although my train fare to Shibuya only costs 75p [for the sake of comparison, the equivalent London fare would be £2.40]), BUT (parents – look away now) I rode to school once and not only was I ridiculously hot by the time I got there, the roads were SCARY. For the most part you can ride along the pavement, but at points it gets too narrow so people dodge out into the road. Into oncoming traffic. On a three-lane road. Hmm. This would also be fine if my back tire wasn’t on the point of perishing completely, which causes a slight wobble with each turn of the back wheel :) still, what can be expected of a freebie?? And it’s pretty damn sexy.

I’m enjoying the language course, and think I am making some progress. My classmates are all Asian, and most of them are probably advantaged in that they can either read and write the Chinese characters (Taiwanese), or understand the grammar structure (Korean). Still, forces me to try hard to keep up. To start with the workload was fairly intense, but it seems to have calmed a little. Though am very wary that might be due to greater slacking off..! Which will bite me very soon when I have to take a test on the entire text book/course content up to this point in a couple of weeks’ time. Eek.

There have been a number of people passing through Tokyo in the past week or so that I know from home. Right now Gurpal is here, and I met up with Jeremy, Rena and Abs in the past week too. It’s great to have some familiar faces around to hang out with. Of course I have met some cool people here too, but old friends are old friends.

Anyway, my current plan is to be here ’til mid-September, then travel through the rest of Japan and around SE Asia, returning to England in mid-December. Plans, as always, subject to spontaneous changes!

Will try to write something more interesting next time round..! For now, I’m sure everyone will be relieved to hear that for the most part I am feeling a lot better about life these days :)

Asahidake Onsen / 旭岳温泉 (09/04/08)

Heading back through Biei I realise that the landscape is quite unjapanese. the rolling hills look like a alpine meadow, but in japan everything is rugged or flat with little in between. the picture is quaint, and in summer it is rumoured to be a beautiful place. in fact, it seems that the whole of hokkaido bypasses spring somewhat, despite the proclamation of four seasons. the snow here lasts a long time, and it may be may or june until its gone. this is fine, but some places are closed through the middle of april, I suppose because it’s low season, and a lot of the activities here are based around hiking, which is a little problematic if everything is under a metre or two of snow still (literally), especially when one is supposed to be resting an injury. (shminjury).

I set off for Asahidake by bus, after another trip to the exceedingly helpful asahikawa tourist office. still no time to visit the otokoyama sake museum – wondering if I’ll ever make it..

[en route]
A frozen lake behind a dam looks like salt plains. At Tenninkyo rock pillars are arranged like sentries above the highway. Perhaps it was hewn from the rock, but I doubt it, for at the end of the valley near Tenninkyo is a beautiful waterfall that I would have loved to see but can’t afford the time for. Again would be good to have a car…
For the second or third time today, my eyes fill with tears. I wish my angel were beside me, I turn and open my mouth to speak to no-one. We were to do this trip together sometime, though perhaps in the reverse direction.
I wonder what the point is in my travelling. What am I looking for? What do I expect to find? Since our re-contact, or perhaps repeated disappearance, sad thoughts come more often.
Or maybe it’s that I’ve severed my anchor. Every day a new place, new people. I have become a nomad; a wanderer. A ronin (or yubokumin?).
I am heavy and light. Made of stone but also of water. I know where I’m going, but why, or how I get there, or what the destination is, I question.
I carry a sadness that is new to me. Or rather a sense of loss, of lament. It is a heavy burden, but one that is inescapable. It is part of me, and wherever I am, it will be there too.

arrived in asahidake around 4pm. After making smalltalk with my roommate for the night (a fellow englishman, who would have thought) I go to check out the onsen.

compared with the previous day’s baths, it’s like comparing a public swimming pool with a top-notch private health club. dead flies floating on the surface of the rotemburo, a feed pipe which looked suspiciously like it was coming from a mains water supply, and the plink plink of decay in the inside bath. Feeling a mite disappointed, I cut my visit short and headed out to take some pictures of the surroundings. it was just before sunset, and again I got some good shots of the dying sun as it melted into the skyline. a fellow enthusiast was out with his large SLR and we exchanged nods and smiles.

Dinner was a stunningly early 6pm. I envisaged heading out to one of the other, more famous onsens after dinner, but was brutally shot down by everywhere closing to visitors after 6pm – some as early as 3pm. WTF is that all about? Is this or is this not a famous resort? After that myself and Andy (aforementioned roommate, and as far as I could tell the only other visitor to arrive that day) cracked open some beers and, after waiting for the sizeable dinner to digest, headed back out to the onsen. Either the pool surface had been swept, or ignorance was bliss (devoid of outside lighting), and we managed to tolerate the outdoor bath under silver birch and a starlit sky for over three hours, by which point the breeze had been thoroughly shot, and each of us had made semi-naked trips back through the hostel to buy more beer from the vending machine (the most expensive vending machine yet – bastards). As much as it’s great to travel alone and immerse oneself in a different language (perhaps too grandiose a term for my activities), it was good to speak with another native. Especially to find out about experiences while living here, perceptions of the people, and other common topics.

The next morning I woke impressively early (7.40am) and after breakfast headed up in the cable car to near the peak of Mt. Asahidake. There was a rather irritating family in the cable car with me, one of whom seemed to be a Chinese-Japanese mother of one who was dressed in full white tracksuit with orange stripes down the side. Tasteful. I was anticipating having a quick look around at the top, taking a few pictures and coming back down again, but some steaming outlets in the mountain crater piqued my interest, so I ended up hiking across deep snow to have a look. Despite getting wet shoes, wet socks, wet trouser-legs and dropping my camera in the snow, I made it there and back reasonably quickly, and smiled wryly when a snowboarder passed me looking quizzically at my footwear.

Back at the hostel I chatted briefly (or rather was chatted to briefly) about how amazing the Asahidake backcountry is, how I was only staying such a short time, and how they were looking forward to me coming back again.

By the way the picture which is currently gracing this blog is from Asahidake at sunset. Beautiful.

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.