It was an uneventful journey, although it felt strange to be on such a long ferry trip (18hours) for an internal journey, and not having to show any ID etc to get onboard. The ferry was utterly empty, with maybe 30 passengers on a boat designed for 800, and i got a free upgrade to a real bed (although oddly enough, nobody else seemed to)
You would probably have thought that if you are going to spending 18 hours essentially alone on a ferry, that you may take the opportunity to read up on where you were going, and come up with some kind of idea as to where to go when you arrive. But of course, i didn`t.
So mostly by default, and partly by luck, the first place i went was Toya-ko. And i loved it. Near the south coast of Hokkaido, it`s a volcanic lake surrounded by mountains, and wonderfully picturesque. Out of season, there was nobody around, so it didn`t feel overly touristy, so i had the place to myself, to a point.
The best thing about Toya-ko are Showa Shin-zan and Usu-zan, which luckily enough where close to where i was staying. Usu-Zan is a volcano which definitely still rates on the active scale, with several erruptions in the last century, and the latest barely 5 years ago. Yet, in true Japanese style, they had quickly rebuilt the tourist facilities and cable car, and it was once again open for business. I walked as far as i could, and then got the cable car up to the top. Not only was it a strangely glorious day, but the view was sure as heck worth it, despite my dissapointment at not being able to walk the whole way.
And despite the fact that virtually all of the Japanese tourists barely stayed up for 15 mins to have their pictures taken before returning to ground, it`s possible to walk a good way around the crater, and just gaze at the constant steam and occassional strange noise eminating from this very much living hunk of rock. You rarely get the chance to walk around live volcanoes, and particularly here away from the tourist groups, it was a strangely spirtual experience. And just thinking about the sheer power of the lump of rock makes you realise just how insignificant i really am.
Barely a few hundred yards away however, is the much more impressive Usu-zan. It`s impressive mostly for it`s life story. In 1943, it was just a flat vegetable field. Potatoes, i belive. By 1945 it was a 402metre high lump of rock, which to this day constantly steams, hisses and grumbles without ever having done anything more except make the locals wonder what the heck it`s going to do next. Yet, in less than 2 years, the ground raised almost 400metres, which is impressive in any book.
Showa Shin-zan, and from the top of the neighbouring Usu-zan volcano
But the thing i love most of all is that not only is it still owned by the postmaster who owned the field before, but when it first started errupting and growing in 1943, the Japanese governmet actually requested that the postmaster keep the whole thing quiet (so it wasn`t taken as a bad omen in the war), but even better, that he find a way to hide the magma/volcanic glare of the neighbouring Usu-zan so it couldn`t be used by enemy aircraft to pinpoint their location. Yes, the government really did ask a single citizen to cover over and hide a volcano. And i just love that idea!
Spent some time wandering along the Lake, and around town. It was a great and wonderful stary sky (not quite up to Baikal standards, but close enough), and something which I am an absolute sucker for. And it was that night that I discovered that Japanese are really scary drivers. Walking along in the dark, with a torch waving in front of you, not a single driver seemed to see me until about 5metres away, causing several late jumps into ditches (i was well prepared), and actually being hit by one van who didn`t even realise he`d just broadsided me.
Public safetly announcement - don`t ever walk around in the Japanese country side with using army spotlights. And whilst I`m at it, if anybody can explain why the heck EVERY SINGLE DAMNED Japanese person reverses backwards about a metre before turning around to see what`s behind them, please, please let me know. I`ve come close to being hit on a couple of dozen occassions, and twice on avoided it by thumping hard on rear windscreens as they came towards me. And I`m somebody that tends to be quite aware of my surroundings and is always looking around at what might happen, so i can see that there is somebody in the car and am prepared in cae they do start to move (a legacy of being a cyclist in the UK, where you normally have to assume that you have a large target painted on your front which all car drivers naturally aim for). It seems that the entire country is unable to grasp the basic concept of looking behind you before you start to reverse.
I then hitched my way in 4 rides (the last involving a long wait)over the lovely Nakayama pass through Shikotsu-Toya National Park to Otaru, a port on the northern side of the stragely West of Hokkaido, West of Sapporo, in the first of a long string of generally very old, smilie and very friendly, but, shall we say, a tad on the erratic side driving wise, old ladies who stopped to pick me up over my time on the island. I went to Otaru mainly because people raved about a section of canal there with old buildings, and how amazing it is lit by gas lamps at dusk. I got there not long before dusk, and headed straight out that way. And could barely stop laughing. This amazing canal was an entire 300metres long (in total) and this `special` part barely 100m. And whilst it did back onto some warehouses (Ooooh), and was lit by gas lighting, they didn`t mention the main road with electric lighting which ran alongside it, thus kind of negating much of the intended effect. It was pleasant enough, but not exactly a highlight i would suggest to be added to any world tour...
For all the hype, this doesn`t quite live up to it...
Steam Powered clock in Otaru
Having said that, the city itself wasn`t unpleasant to just wander around, and the canal did at least give me another perspective onto the wonders of the Japanese tourism world.
From there i headed into Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, and at almost 2million people, Japans fifth largest city. Founded less than 150 years ago, the entire city (like many on the island) was designed and laid out by American planners, meaning it is a true grid system with everything is numbered by blocks instead of addressed. Being a non-flyer, and hence not having ever been to the US or other similarly influenced cities, this was my first large scale experiemce of a grid city. And i must admit, whilst i do like Sapporo and the feel it has there, the grid system i struggled a tad with. Because it`s all blocks, there are few natural landmarks which mean`t i found orientation trickier than i probably should have (doing it by visual orientation alone, instead of using the block names), and in addition, the sheer number of traffic lights and amount of time needed to cross the city - because your always waiting at more damned lights - was slightly irritating.
The Sapporo TV Tower, the cities most famous and obvious landmark
Odori, the central boulevard which divides North and South
The most interesting thing i found about Sapporo was, entirely unlike anywhere else i`d seen in Japan, there was virtually no temples or shrines at all. In fact, i didn`t see a single one in 3 days of wandering at random, although i`m sure that a couple must exist somewhere. I also liked the fact that where the subway comes out in the suburbs, above ground, and then above the roads on a kind of viaduct, it is STILL fully enclosed. Why you need to have a roof on it to make it a tunnel, i`m not sure. It`s not as if there has never been a successful fixed-rail transport system open to the elements ever in the world or anything.
Parking Quad bikes outside the shopping centre whilst you get your groceries. A new idea for me, especially in a big city in summer
And i also had to work VERY hard not to get married. I think i`ve possibly mentioned that in Roppongi one night the previous week, i had got talking to a random girl. Just friendly talking, with no intention of anything else. It transpired that she was from Sapporo and shortly returning up here, and on discovering that i was shortly heading to Hokkaido, she said to let her know when i got to Sapporo and she would happily show me around and i could crash at her place. Great stuff!
Until that is, she met me off the train. Being met was no problem, it was more the fact that it was kind of how I imagine somebody greeting their husband at the dock after they have just safely returned home after 5 years at war, during which she hasn`t seen you, and your child has been born. Holy cow. This girl was nuts. I could have probably coped with (very) warm and friendly welcome if she hadn`t then immediately dragged me off to jewellers shops. And after pointing out a few which had been rejected, at the third one i was pulled inside and introduced to a very enthusiastic jeweller who produced our - already paid for - engagment rings (!) and wanted to measure my finger to make sure it was the right band size.
Off topic for a minute - Aldo, Matt and Slobo. I`ve no idea if you were involved in this one in the slightest (and my gut reaction says no) and if it`s another attempt to marry me off for whatever the heck reason you keep trying (if anybody knows what the exact terms of THAT bet are, and is prepared to annonymously spill them, please do. Two incredibly well planned fake weddings and a couple of otehrs stopped early, have started to make me wonder what on earth is at stake on this one), but if it was, i`m impressed at how you managed this one. I didn`t even know where i was going, let alone told you lot, so if you go to Kiki, fair do`s. I`ve said it before and I will again, but you guys are damned good at this, and unnervingly so. It doesn`t feel like your normal style, but it wouldn`t really surprise me. But having said that, neither would it surprise me if Kiki is just a randomly screwed up and desperate Japanese chick. Apparently 28 and not married is cause for desperation in this country.
Back on topic - I somehow managed to steer that one aside with non commital "needing to think about it" nonsense, and also cr*p about being "tired" and left the shop without rings (or a Rich shaped hole in the wall where i`d ran) where upon i tried to get my bearings a bit and work out what the heck is going on. I`ve been in the city less than an hour and with somebody i`ve known a week and seen for barely 2 hours, and i`m already having to avoid marriage. Why me?!
Kiki suggested that we should go and get something to eat and talk a bit. I figured there was no harm there, and i may get chance to discover what was going on (and if it really is another one of Aldo`s patented wedding bets), so accepted. And it would have been fine if i hadn`t been taken to a private room in a restaurant where 17 of her family and close friends were waiting to celebrate our wedding the following day.
The Japanese are an interesting group of people, but it`s worth taking more care than normal around them, as things seem to be able to spiral very quickly on utterly insignificant comments, whatever the heck i said.
After a few days in the big city, (staying a hostel, trying to avoid Kiki and not really sure what was going on) i got myself a 5day Hokkaido rail pass, and went out to try and see some of the island. I had already had to scale back my ambitious ideas considerably, as i have realised that otherwise i will still be in Japan in 6 months time, which at this time i can`t really afford, and in addition, much of the things i want to see are outdoorsey, and not the same in a Hokkaido winter. Plus it might be a dangerous place to stay. I have no immediate plans to get married yet again.
I headed first to Erimo Misaki, the cape in the extreme South East of the island via a tiny train along the coast for several hours, a bus and some hitching. It`s a true `end of the world` type place, and i loved it. Amazingly, the weather was holding, although i didn`t manage to see any of the famed Kuril Seals which congregate at the cape, and the wind tunnel (obvious really, as it`s famed for being the windiest place in Japan) built into the cliffs was shut because it was out of season. I had fancied trying to stand in the wind tunnel, but sadly had no choice.
Nothing out there now until America
Not a road sign that you tend to come acroos that regularly on a commute to Aylesbury or Kristianstad...
That evening, i had the most extraordinary stroke of luck, of a kind which restored my faith in the Japanese entirely, and in Hokkaido was in no way unusual. After trying on 2 occassions to check in to an open hostel with no staff, and me kind of waiing like a lemon, a car pulls up, and a smilie Japanese lady waves at me to leave my stuff and get in. As i`m already at the hostel, it`s a tiny village miles from anywhere, i couldn`t work out exactly where we were going, but figured i had nothing to loose. A few minutes later as we pulled up alongside a grim looking set off locked garages, I was pondering if this was indeed a correct outlook. Was i about to be robbed, tied up in a garage or thrown off the cliff? Or maybe all 3. But no, one of the garges opened, and revealed a group of 10 or so Japanese, happily BBQing away inside, a huge variety of meats, veg, and fresh (still alive in cases) seafood.
The saw a gaijin, all cheered and i was literally dragged in to this garage, and force fed the most amazing food, quantities of draft beer (from several kegs, all of which eventuially got emptied - one guest was an Asahi salesman) and Hokkaido whiskey, whose existence i hadn`t even known about, but was very creditable, and courtesy of the liquor store owner, also present! It was a fantastic evening, more so for being unexpected, and despite being given probably 50gbp worth of food and drink (Hokkaido crab in particular is an expensive delicacy), they refused any kind of payment. The most amazing people, despite only one speaking more than 10 words of English!
Some of the most amazingly hspitable people i`ve come across this trip, BBQing in a garage at the end of the world
The following morning, after only just being able to pay for the hostel (she tried hard not to accept), i tried to hitch north to Hiro`o and Obihiro. Hokkaido is dead easy to hitch around, but one thing that is needed when hitching is cars. I was passed by 4 in 90mins, one of which pulled into a field 200m ahead anyway, and another who gave me a lift for about 3km until he too turned into a field. I ended up walking all but that 3km of the 11km or so to the next village, in surprisingly decent weather and despite slight annoyance at no cars, very pleasently, although having said that, signs like...
... this one aren`t the most comforting when you are utterly alone in the middle of nowhere with no humans anywhere nearby, especially coming up to hibernation time with the bears out actively foraging. At the next village, i tried to hitch out again, but despite lots of vehicles moving around, none left the village and all were in the middle of collecting newly dried seaweed or taking seaweed to hang or lay out to dry.
After another 90mins or so, i gave up and caught one of only 3 buses a day up the coast to Hiro`o, along a barely used coastal road which was virtually entirely being redirected through tunnels and under cliff stregnthening work (to combat rock falls due to the high winds etc). Admirable, yes, but it must have cost them an absolute fortune (some of the tunnels were 7 or 8 km long) with no chance of ever recouping even a small fraction from it.
Had spent much longer getting to Hiro`o and the rail line at Obihiro than expected, so headed straight through Kushiri and Tora in Akan Nat Park (where i`d planned to stop), and spent the night in a bus shelter not entirely dissimilar to this one...
... which had doors, a bench, lights that could be turned off, a water tap and even toilets. Not a bad place to spend the night at all, especially for free. And even more impressive as a structure when you consider atht it is in the middle of fields/woods, miles from anywhere and only gets 2 buses a day anyway! An interesting night, although it took a slight twist when (scarily) one of the side windows was ripped straight out by the wind, and, still flying, dissppeared a few hundred metres down the road, and never to be seen again. Oddly, it was the far window, so i was still protected from the wind and weather by the remaining window, but it did prevent me sleeping too much or deeply in case of further, urm, house improvements occured!
It was around that time - and i guess the same night - that the rain god Kevin and Solene had been camping in nearby Shiretoko. After a couple of hours of a horrible rain and wind storm, with their tent was flapping a tad more than it probably should, and the one next to them had a pole snapped by the wind, they gave up and went and paid for a cabin instead. I theorise - its a stretch, but a fairly decent and reasoned one - that it is this change of plan, and knocking down of the tent that calmed the weather and stopped the bus stop being blown away from over me. Thanks guys!
I had reluctantly decided that i would have to drop Shiretoko, newly made a UNESCO World heritage site, bears and all, and also Daisetzun Nat Park, Hokkaido`s largest, due to lack of time and lack of a car or bike to get around. I will return, with camping gear to do it preoperly one summer, or at least i hope i will. And it could easily be tagged on to my Baikal-BAM-Sakhalin trip. Hmmmm. I did however, get to see Mashu-ko, a small lake with lava island in the middle surrounded by an erie kind of mist, and viewed from near vertical 300m high plus cliffs. The water is also scarily blue and transparent, with allegedly a 35m transparency depth, one of the deepest visible depths in the world. Depressingly and annoying, i have no photos of it, because my batteries dies that morning without me having any spares. They`d only been in 2 days. Grrrr. Stupid 100yen shop batteries.
Headed via the Abashiri, the picturesque Sekihoku line and the islands second city of Asakihawa onto a night train to Wakkanai, at the Northern most tip of Hokkaido, and hence fulfiling another long term and obscure goal (namely, to vist Wakkanai). On a clear day, you can see Russia`s Sakhalin island, and it was here that i was originally expecting to arrive in Japan, by ferry from Sakhalin, before, as previously noted, time got the better of me, and Sakhalin had to be reluctantly dropped.
Left Wakkanai almost immediately on the 2.5hr boat ride to Rebun-to, one of two small islands off the NW coast, in the middle of nowhere. Watched in amusement as everybody else (200 odd) on the ferry decended off onto tour buses for world wind tour of the island before heading to the second of the islands, Rebun-to barely 4 hours later. I spent a chunk of a day on each, just wandering and wishing i had more time and the weather was better, as it was too cold and wet to do lots of hiking. I resumed my relationship with the birds on Rebun, by being cr*pped on by no fewer than 5 birds (there`s a feck of allot of seaguls and crows on the island), and also became tourist attraction and photograph #1 for loads of Japanese, when on my way to catch the (extremely choppy) ferry to Rishiri i was caught in the most amazing vertical rain storm. On arrival at the terminal, i just stood there laughing and looking like a severely drowned rat, stripping off my clothes - within reason - and wringing them out (enough water to float the Queen Mary), and having to pose for several pictures with assorted old Japanes folks and me wringing out my socks. I don`t know if it was because i was white or wet or both, but i still found it a bit odd, if also quite funny.
Japanese tourists being just that, and decending onto coaches following people with raised umbrellas for a worldwind tour of the island, plus some of the scenery and start of the changing colours of the leaves (a huge deal in Japan, especially Hokkaido where people come in their droves to see the colours) on Rebun-to (middle) and Rishiri-to (bottom)
Spent a few hours in Wakkanai between arriving back and getting the night train to Sapporo, during which i singularly failed to find somewhere warm and welcoming to sit and dry off and have some noodles, although did climb to the peak to look out over the black world.
From Sapporo, headed round about via Biei and Furano (two more well sited places just aching to be used as a base to explore Daisetzun, which i couldn`t) to Muroran on the south coast, where i did not alot except wander at random and relax in the care of my wonderful English host, Jude. I hadn`t realised just how much i missed British company and their humour/outlook on life whilst on this trip. Got conned into going bowling again (almost as bad as in Chelyabinsk), climbed a couple of times to Cape World, another end of the world type place, but one with some interesting maps - professional curiosity, of course.
In fairness, would anybody really miss South America and Honshu etc, if they were moved to the antarctic... And (bottom) it`s actually a phone box
Predictably, also met up with my stalkers Kevin and Solene for maybe the 5th time randomly whilst in Japan, when they also came to stay at Jude`s, had some amazing sushi and talked to some Korean navel officers in Japan on training (no, no idea, either).
With assorted Gaijin after bowling, and then with my great host Jude and stalkers Kevin and Solene at Judes place
The scenic view of Muroran, not excatly a great tourist mecca, but still a good place to just relax
Also spent a couple of hours one afternoon looking out over the cape pondering the futility of it all, after hearing the sad news that Zak Carr had been killed aged 30 after being hit by a car in Norfolk. I`m not a stranger to death, but hearing that somebody i had raced with and against (normally not very well, as he was a Junior when i wa a Juvenile racer, and he was damned good) had died in training hit me quite hard. An international, holder of several national records and recently working as a pilot for the Olympic disabled team as well as being a damned good bloke, always with encouragment for us youngsters, even when blasting past at a stupendous rate of knots. A sad loss indeed.
And something that immediately makes you realise that you need to enjoy life whilst you can, because you don`t know when it will be taken from you.