Category Archives: Hokkaido

At Sapporo Shin Chitose Airport

11 August 2013

The common perception that Japan is an expensive country to visit presently seems like a myth, at least at the airport. Just look at the purchasing power of some of the tourists from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

I am amazed by the shopping mall in Sapporo’s airport with its array of reknown Hokkaido produce: quite apart from the usual candies and confectionery, there are dairy produce (milk, cheese, yoghurt), perfect-looking (a bit eerily so…) melons, seafood such as ginormous crabs, scallops, hokke, sea urchin, shrimps, oysters… you name it. I am promised that the seafood can be specially packed for home-flying tourists.

Truth be told, I have had enough seafood on this trip to last the whole year. And I probably won’t be going anywhere near the Japanese variant of soya sauce for at least a month… I would have preferred to pick up a couple of bottles of umeshu. Unfortunately I discovered the liquor shop too late! I had already checked in my bag.

15 hours in Sapporo

Finally I got to Sapporo city and the riotous bit of Hokkaido. Checked into a youth hostel – again, it has a shared bathroom with a steaming hot bath. I don’t mind the shared bathroom concept really, especially after a whole week of cultural and aquatic immersion. But this “bathtime is until XXXXhr” thing is too restrictive. I call it the “bath curfew”.

Decided to spend a night in Sapporo so as not to risk missing my flight. But after looking at the train schedule in Asahikawa yesterday, there are actually a lot of direct trains from Asahikawa to Sapporo’s Shin Chitose Airport which takes only about 2 hours. So really there is no absolute necessity to stay over in Sapporo to make your way to the airport unless you want to visit the city. Anyway here I am. With such little time, there’s little I could do. The most important thing that struck me was the bicycle commuting culture. Back home, I want to commute on my bike too! But the traffic in the city is scary…

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Whoever says that Japanese people are a compliant lot should see this: right outside the bike parking lot is a heap of bicycles parked illegally, and right in front of the sign that says no parking.

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Back in the dorm, it felt like a sauna. I swear the ventilation is actually a heater rather than cool air-conditioning. Yet my dorm mates are all sound asleep. I tossed aside the fluffy duvet. I’d rather sleep in my tent outdoors…

What could I do in Sapporo in this short amount of time? I could wake up at 5am again to explore. What would be opened at that time? Perhaps the fish market. Walked about 3km to look for Nijo fish market, which is nothing more than a tourist attraction; nowhere else have I been to on this trip has anyone ever asked me whether I was from Singapore or Malaysia. I usually get mistaken as someone from Chiu-gokku or Corea/Kan-koku. Except here. These guys are good.

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Walked around. There is very little to do so early in the morning.

In an alley not far from the fish market was a restaurant that at 6 in the MORNING, had a number of people QUEUING outside it. Curious, I also went in.

This was my breakfast.

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A Japanese man sat down at the bar seat next to me with a magazine in his hand. His magazine was flipped to a page that featured this restaurant. I have seen a number of these foodie-trail type of magazines on this Hokkaido trip.

I have some mixed feelings about Japanese cuisine. No doubt a lot of the food I had eaten on this trip is delicious, with a decided emphasis on fresh ingredients. The presentation, in the humblest of eateries, is immaculate if not refined. But the cuisine, even though broad in range, is simple in taste. The South-East Asian in me rather misses the complex flavours of food in Malaysia and Singapore.

Wandered into an old government building. I didn’t have much company except for some mallards and gulls.

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This is the pretty tree-lined campus of Hokkaido University.

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Wanted to check out the library and museum but it was still too early in the morning and nothing was opened to visitors yet.

Water lilies. Love them.

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And then off I was to the airport.

Abashiri-Lake Kussharo-Teshikaga-Mt Sulphur-Lake Akan-Daisetsuzan National Park

Went back to Abashiri to return the car that we had been using for the past 2-3 days. Picked up another car that would eventually be returned at Asahikawa.

It’s been raining since the car climbed into the mountains towards the viewing point of Lake Kussharo. Added to that, it’s misty. At the Bihoro Pass viewing point, we COULD NOT SEE A THING. I had a deja vu moment – it reminds me of a trip eons ago to Croatia’s Pletvice national park in the middle of a cold December. I still have a photo of the thick mist (rather than the supposedly very beautiful lakes) to remind me of that gaffe. That’s a story for another day.

Meanwhile, driving down those winding roads in the mist and rain was tricky. Thankfully nothing happened. As the car descended, the mist at lower heights cleared and we caught a glimpse of Lake Kussharo and the island Naka-jima in the middle.

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Unfortunately, no such luck for Lake Mashu which is reportedly the most beautiful lake in Japan. Again, it was too misty to see anything. [Days later I met a girl who was there just a few days before us – apparently it was clear and bright with two rainbows when she visited. Ah! Even the most beautiful places in the world can only be admired when it’s visible.]

Passed by yet another lake. This one looks very popular with Japanese holiday makers. Tents are set up with grills – more yaki. There’s even a thermal spring right by the lake.

Continued on the road. Reached Mount Sulphur – that’s my literal translation of its name. You can’t miss it even if you can’t smell the sulphur from a kilometre away: it’s a gaseous balding mountain with streaks of bright yellow, standing out oddly from the surrounding lush undulating mountains.

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The earth is restless.

Car buddy says he’s hungry. Turned into a standalone restaurant parked with a lot of cars in Teshikaga (弟子屈). Little did we know, we stumbled upon a famous ramen shop that’s named after the town. It was full house. Waited for a while for bar seats. A bowl of hot noodles topped with crab meat (800 yen) is the perfect comfort food on a rainy day.

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Finally we reached Lake Akan. I wasn’t really expecting to see a Shangri-La perched on the lake shore. Yet as touristy as the little town feels, there were very few people walking on the streets. Perhaps because of the rain. I couldn’t camp here as much as I wished to – quite apart from the fact that my tent is a bit battered (more parts broke over the past couple of days although not major), it is not completely water-proof. Checked into an inn with tatami rooms.

There isn’t really much to do in this town. Went to the so-called Ainu village, which is mainly an array of shops selling souvenirs. At the lobby of the cultural theatre there are some displays of embroidery which were mildly interesting. There is very little information of the anthropology of the Ainu people here, at least not in a language I could understand.

Went back to the inn, washed up and had a very long dinner. It was simple home-cooked food but there is a lot of variety and the portions are big. They kept bringing in more dishes.

After dinner we went to check out a photography exhibition. The photos were taken by an amateur photographer who lives around Lake Akan. The subjects revolve around the animals, plants and scenery of Lake Akan. Some of the photos are really good, and it prompted me into thinking how art exhibitions should place more focus on integration with, and be reflective of, the local community and its native surroundings, in contrast to importing famous pieces for temporary exhibitions.

However on this trip to Lake Akan, we were to see NONE of the animals that this man photographed.  Not even a woodpecker.

You see, the rain continued the whole night. It was like a never ending affair. Although the skies cleared up a bit the next morning, it wasn’t the best of days. No sunny rays and cheery blue skies. Still, we had to take the obligatory cruise around the lake.

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Saw some marimo – the cute moss balls that Lake Akan is famous for – in the visitor centre. Now instead of looking at it in an aquarium, wouldn’t it be cool if visitors could snorkel in the lake?

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That’s all Lake Akan was for me.

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Sitting ducks. At Lake Akan.

I learned from car buddy about a movie that was filmed in Lake Akan. Maybe I will watch that film. Kind of like watching Master & Commander after a trip to the Galapagos perhaps?

Drove towards Daisetsuzan National Park via a small road and through this wonderful tree-lined stretch. I am still trying to recall the route number because this single lane road is an interesting departure from the usual national highways. Came upon this road courtesy of car buddy’s direction.

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As we approach Daisetsuzan National Park, the skies are still overcast. Nonetheless there are beautiful stretches.

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I’m bombarding readers with more photos of forests – can’t get enough of these sub-alpine forests.

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Here’s Mikuni Pass.

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Took a 2000 yen gamble on a gondola then a ski lift… just to be thoroughly drenched in the rain. Zero luck in even catching a glimpse of Mount Asahi, the tallest peak of Hokkaido. We kidded ourselves that the misty rainy weather is just another side of the many beautiful rugged faces of Hokkaido.

Empty chairs amidst the rain and mist.

Mostly empty chairs amidst the rain and mist.

Left the mountainous national park and drove into Asahikawa in the late afternoon. And for the first time today, the sun broke triumphantly through the pregnant clouds!

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The sight was resplendent. What a fitting end to a road trip.

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Guess what the arrows are for? On route 39 in the direction of Asahikawa.

Returned the car in Asahikawa. I hopped on to the train to Sapporo, drinking in the glorious sunset and the low hanging clouds meeting the mountainous landscape, feeling a bit wistful that my very short holiday is coming to an end.

I finally understood all the fuss about Hokkaido. It’s official. I love Hokkaido.

Shiretoko National Park

Shiretoko National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the north-eastern part of Hokkaido. There’s really nothing much to do here except, oh, be surrounded by lush forests and overdosing on fresh air. Shiretoko’s most popular spot – 5 Lakes of Shiretoko (Shiretoko Goko) – is a wetland and a walk in the park, literally & figuratively. Car buddy was disappointed that there was no bear in sight; I was secretly relieved. I did hope to see a woodpecker or two but no such luck. The cloudy day blocked most of the views of the surrounding mountains.

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Cicada. At Shiretoko Goko.

An interesting thing that I did manage to see was a notice about the Shiretoko 100m2 Movement: to prevent rampant development on former farming land, the Town of Shari began seeking donations across the country to preserve the land from industrialisation and restore the land to its original natural state, with the slogan “Help buy a dream in Shiretoko!” It was also the first national trust in Japan. What a charming effort.

Is there any part of your natural habitat which you would like to preserve for future generations?

Land that is part of the Shiretoko 100m2 project. At Shiretoko National Park.

Land that is part of the Shiretoko 100m2 project. At Shiretoko National Park.

Drove along the Shiretoko Pass to the eastern part of the peninsula.

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Somewhere along the Pass there was an outdoor hot spring. Or two. One of which is known as 熊の湯 which just sounds like ‘bear soup’ to me. Or is it ‘soup for bears’? Spent a bit of time hanging out amongst lush foliage. The sound of the running stream blends in harmony with the forest.

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The Rausu side of the peninsula sits by the coast and is inhabited by local fishermen. Had a chiraishi bowl (rice topped with fish sashimi,sweet shrimp and roe) for lunch.

Further up north along the eastern coast at Aidomari (湘泊) there is, yet another, outdoor hot spring, but it’s partially sheltered for privacy, It’s free and sits right next to the north Pacific Ocean. I am thoroughly enjoying this hot-spring-hacking business and couldn’t wait to get in. The water was very hot, but a lady helpfully told me about the tap with usual temperature water.

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The onsen is situated right by the sea.

Here’s a tip, remember to bring a towel whenever you travel around Japan. You never know when you might find a chance to take a hot bath which can be sheer BLISS.

In the distance were supposed to be some islets (near the cluster of Kuril islands) which Japan is disputing with Russia. Low hanging clouds in the skies made it impossible to see. Passed by another outdoor hot spring in Seseki ( 瀬石溫泉), also by the coast. It looks unappealing.

Passed by a mini golf lawn that seems to be popular with senior citizens. There is a camp site nearby. And a show farm with some prized produce. I like nightshades and zucchinis.

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Went to an onsen spa (500yen) in the evening, that’s just right next to the campsite. Yet another one with an outdoor onsen! It’s on top of a hill that looks out to the sea of Okhotsk. Glimmers of the setting sun fell through the trees. I soaked contentedly to the sounds of flying gulls.

View from the campsite at Utoro. The onsen is right next to the campsite.

View from the campsite at Utoro. The onsen is next to the campsite.

The next morning, I woke up in my little tent feeling refreshed. I was about to have my breakfast when this family joined me.

"Stop licking me, Ma. There's a funny-lookin' lady staring at us."

“Stop licking me, Ma. There’s a funny-lookin’ lady staring at us.”

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These deers are actually very common around here. But it feels special to see them first thing in the morning.

The fact that I had a deer burger yesterday was not lost on me.

From Abashiri to Shari to Shiretoko National Park (知床国立公园)

Took the morning train from Asahikawa to Abashiri. Met up with new-found car buddy as planned. We managed to finalise all the car arrangements in Abashiri and start driving to Shiretoko National Park.

The scenery along the way from Shari to Utoro feels like the Black Forest meets pastoral land meets the Mediterranean coast.

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Found a camp site to stay the night in Utoro for 400 yen.

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This is the view of Utoro from Cape Puyuni.

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Car buddy had booked a hostel in Iwaobetsu which is situated in a dramatic gorge; words and photos simply can’t justify this heap of wilderness.

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On hindsight I should have just camped here and get potable water from the hostel.

Rishiri-to – Wakkanai – Asahikawa (旭川)

Left Rishiri Island for Wakkanai on the first ferry.

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After what seemed like an epic high in Rebun & Rishiri islands, I hopped on to a one-carriage train in Wakkanai that was departing in 3 minutes. Little did I know that this is a local train. It’s old school – no aircon, just fans – but looks well-maintained.

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Single carriage local train. At Wakkanai station, the northern most train station of Japan.

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The railway track runs through lush greenscape.

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The local train stops at little-known obscure stations southwards that reminds me of the smaller KTM stations in Peninsula Malaysia.

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Arrived at Asahikawa to some rain showers. Made plans with a new friend to meet at Abashiri to share a car the next day.

Thinking that it wouldn’t be difficult to find accommodation since I was travelling solo, I arrived at Asahikawa with no accommodation booking. I was in for a surprise. I probably walked to 10 different hotels and invariably each receptionist gave me the crossed-arms sign – the hotels were all booked out! Is there a trade conference going on in the city or something? I wondered if, worse comes to worst, I could live like a hobo and camp overnight along the shopping streets.

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Finally after more than an hour, I managed to find a business hotel. It isn’t expensive and the room is huge and has ample amenities. There are TWO doors leading to the room, with a separate area to leave your shoes and change into slippers. This whole changing-into-another-pair-of-slippers culture in Japan is beginning to sink in. Still, the hotel is a tad strange for my taste. And being a business hotel it reeks of cigarette smoke. Also, can you indulge the Japan newbie if she says this is the first time she has seen a Karaoke set in a hotel room?

I did not see a single other female guest in this hotel. I wondered a bit.

By the time I had set down my bag it was already 6-ish and the rain began to pour again. Retired to some smooth espresso-based coffee in an understatedly stylish cafe.

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Wandered into a pachinko parlour. The noise is deafening.

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Popped into an izakaya.

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Had a beer, some hotate sashimi (raw scallops) and then attacked a tower of fresh oysters steamed with sake. The oysters are DELICIOUS. I have no regrets ordering it even though the portion is for at least two. It was a quiet night with some baseball on TV. The proprietors seemed really friendly. I wish I can speak Japanese.

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The next morning, I woke up early again for a quick walk around the city. “Chatted” with some good-natured seniors who were amused to see a gaijin like me by myself early in the morning. Again, I wished I could speak Japanese. Spotted a golden-coloured koi (carp)! In my head, I invented an auspicious sign.

Then at 6.30am sharp, in a broad ground in the park, everyone stopped and moved in synchronisation to the music. And I mean EVERYONE, young and old. Except me. I felt left out, and decided to join in too. This is the closest thing to a flash mob I have experienced.

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Sunrise over pines, Rishiri Island

6 August 2013

My alarm clock was set to 3.50am. I had hoped to catch sunrise in the land of the rising sun.

Alas, the sun came up slightly to the east of the sea horizon of which I had a view. All I got was sunrise over the pine forest.

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But it felt really good to be the first one up while the rest of the campers snoozed. I took a short walk and then sat for about an hour enjoying the quiet serenity surrounded by the beautiful forest and basking in the golden hues.

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At 7am, the melody of “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music rang through the island. It seems so fitting.

Then the noisy ravens woke up and started squawking again. And then the energetic kids in the  tent next door too woke up…