Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Is There Really Any Better Way To End The Month?

Nerf Herder, "Mr. Spock"

I love the fact that a band named after a line in "Star Wars" wrote a song about a "Star Trek" character.

Heck, I love the fact that there's a band out there that not only wrote a song about a "Star Trek" character, but went so far as to make a video for it.

I love that the red shirt gets it.

One last comment...tribbles.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

No Freaking WAY Did I Just See That!

So I'm at home, enjoying a pizza and watching some ridiculous Japanese TV show about how famous people use their money and how much a bank would loan them, and a commercial comes on.

First, there's a young woman sitting on her bed and saying to herself, "If only my breasts were a little bigger..."

Then, another woman comes on the screen and is looking at her face in a mirror. "If only I could open my eyes a little more..."

Then, another woman comes on, rubbing the bridge of her nose. "If only the bridge of my nose were a little higher..."

And I think to myself, "No way would they even DARE to go the way I think they're going..."

Then a voice-over comes on, saying, "If you could change yourself, maybe the world would change with you..."

And I think, "You wouldn't..."

And then four kanji appear on the screen. They read, "Sekai Heiwa", or "World Peace".

And then the business being advertised comes on the screen.

"Suzuki Plastic Surgery and Orthodontists"




Sunday, May 28, 2006

The American Who Went Up A Mountain and Came Down With A Brother-In-Law

...or, "My Weekend".

On Saturday morning (7:45 AM), I met up with my friend Shinya and cruised over to Tomakomai, making a quick stop for gas and for food.


Because I knew that the weather was going to be bad on Sunday and I wanted to get out and DO SOMETHING instead of just sitting in my house all weekend.

So what did we do?

We headed over to Mt. Tarumae, an active volcano right on the west end of Tomakomai.

I hadn't climbed a mountain since I made the trip up Mt. Kaimon in Kagoshima back in late October or early November of 2002. Three and a half years out of commission had me a little worried about my physical condition, but I'd always enjoyed climbing mountains, and with the large number of them around me up here in Hokkaido, I figured it might be a good time to get back into the mountain-climbing rhythm.

We turned off the main highway and followed the road out to the parking lot at the seventh stage of Mt. Tarumae. The only problem was that the road to the parking lot was closed off at the fifth stage point. Cars were just parked alongside the road. So I found an open area and parked my car there. Then it was out, into mountain climbing gear (which means I put on my hiking boots and tied a bandana on my head), and off up the path. Since there are wild bears all over the place in Hokkaido, I also brought my mountain climbing staff: a stick I picked up when I climbed Mt. Daisen back in August of 2000, right after I got here. It has a bell on it, a memento of that climb. It's always a good idea to let bears know that you're there.

So we headed up the road (2.5 km) to the seventh stage parking lot area. There was no real reason for the road to be closed off. There wasn't any snow or other kind of obstruction. They just don't open it up until mid-June. So we had a bit more of a climb ahead of us than I expected.

We got to the parking lot after a while (no idea of how long it took) and wrote our names down in the climbing log. It's there so that people know you're on the mountain, and know that you've come back down. We took a short break, and then started the REAL climb.

On the way up, we looked back behind us and saw Lake Shikotsu. It was a very cool view. Lake Shikotsu is said to be one of the clearest lakes in all of Japan. From where we stood, it looked blue.

The most annoying thing about climbing mountains in Japan is the stairs. That's right, stairs. The hiking paths are fixed up a bit so that they don't wash away. What they do to fix up the paths is make stairs, usually by nailing some small logs into the ground at various intervals. Unnatural intervals. Climbing stairs is bad enough, but when each stair is a different height than the one before it, your legs tend to wear out pretty quickly.

But on we plodded anyway.

Then we hit the snow.

Yep, end of May, but there's still snow on that mountain. Not a lot, but it was right on the path. So now we're dealing with uneven stairs and slick snow. Fortunately, the snowy part ended fairly quickly. And the stairs ended fairly quickly after that.

But both the stairs and snow had taken quite a bit out of me. Trudge, trudge, trudge, rest, trudge, trudge trudge, rest, trudge, trudge...It was pretty obvious I'd hit a wall.

We came around a big bend in the trail and suddenly the wall was gone. I was in the zone. It was all coming back. YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!! We made good time up the rest of the path to the outer rim of the mountain.

Mt. Tarumae is not only an active volcano; it's also a caldera. Whenever it went up last time, the whole top blew right off, leaving an outer rim and a crater inside. Since Mt. Tarumae has been a little on the active side lately, climbers are prohibited from hiking inside the crater. Heat, poisonous gases, that sort of thing. But the outer rim is okay, as long as you keep in mind that you need to get off the mountain as soon as you feel that you're in danger (there are signs that say that).

Here's how dangerous Mt. Tarumae is: if that lava dome goes, it will decimate Hokkaido's economy. First, it will take out the air travel routes. Mt. Tarumae is located close enough to New Chitose Airport, the major airport in Hokkaido, that an eruption will close it down. No other airport in Hokkaido will be able to handle the air traffic. Next, it will take out the sea travel routes. It's on the west end of Tomakomai, the major port in southern Hokkaido, and that port will get shut down with an eruption. Third, it will shut down the rail and road routes in southern Hokkaido. So if Mt. Tarumae goes, Hokkaido is, to put it politely, &%#$@&.

When we reached the outer rim, we had two options: go left, or go right. Going right would take us to East Peak, going left would take us around the rim to West Peak. These are the two highest points on the rim. I really wanted to climb up the lava dome in the middle of the crater, but what with the fact that I could possibly die by doing that, I decided not to.

First thing I did was to have Shinya snap this photo.

Pretty big lava dome there in the middle, eh?

We headed left towards West Peak. There was a shrine along the trail that I wanted to check out. When we got there, I was a little surprised, because there was a big rock wall shielding the entrance and a big concrete roof over the shrine. It looked more like a bunker than a shrine.

Shinya and I found a flat area and sat down for lunch. Rice balls. I'm a big fan of onigiri (rice balls). They're light, they make for a quick meal, and they taste darn good at the top of a mountain. We just sat there, eating our lunch, listening to the breeze, and looking out on the ocean. Magnificent.

On our way over to the shrine, we saw why people are prohibited from climbing down into the crater (not that there's anyone there to stop you). Two gas vents surrounded by very bright yellow colored rock. Sulfur. And lots of it. Yipes.

Nasty looking vents there. I was hoping that Mt. Yotei would show up a little more clearly in this photo, because it was a beautiful sight to see off in the distance. It's very faint, but if you look just off to the left of the lava dome, you might be able to see it.

So after we finished off our lunch, we decided to head back to East Peak, instead of making the full climb around the rim of the crater. The trail to West Peak looked a little too steep for my taste, or for my legs. And it's a good thing we made that decision.

We made the climb back to East Peak fairly quickly. At the top, we were hit by a ridiculously strong wind. We had seen no sign that the wind was going to be that strong up there. You could lean into the wind and not fall over. It was just ridiculous to even think of spending more time up there, so we turned around and headed back down the mountain.

After I got this shot, of course.

With my climb of Mt. Tarumae, I have now climbed at least on mountain on each of the four main Japanese islands. Mt. Kaimon in Kyushu, Mt. Ishizuchi in Shikoku, Mt. Daisen, Mt. Haguro and Mt. Tateyama in Honshu, and Mt. Tarumae in Hokkaido. Bu-YAH!

After we climbed back down, and made the ridiculously long walk back to the car, we drove over to the hot springs on the east end of Lake Shikotsu. The water was hot, and really nice on my sore legs. There are three separate hot springs around the lake, so I think I'll be heading out that way again.

As far as the "...And Came Down With A Brother-In-Law" part of the title goes, my sister got married on May 27th. One day's difference if you want to nitpick (dang International Date Line), but I like to think that I climbed Mt. Tarumae partially in honor of my sister's wedding.

My sister and her husband, Mark, got married in Boise at my Uncle Steve and Aunt Barbara's house. The ceremony was nice, although from what I hear, it rained a lot. See, I didn't go. Some good brother I turned out to be.

Here's Andrea and Mark with our Grandma Nelson.

Here are the two proud families.

Funny thing about rain and weddings: it's supposed to be good luck if it rains on your wedding day. If that's true, then Andrea and Mark have good luck coming out of their ears! Take that, Alanis Morissette!

Congratulations, Andrea and Mark. Much happiness to you both.

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Big Catch-Up

So after Golden Week, I spent the better part of the following week recovering from the trip.

"Tired" was the theme of that week, although I did go out and pick up something nice for Mom for Mother's Day...

...I just haven't sent it to her yet.

Seamus and I were planning on cruising up to Sapporo to check out a Japanese movie, but he came down with tonsillitis, and I came down with empty-walletitis. I did hang out with our friend Risa and her sister while they were in town for some family stuff. Ramen and karaoke. Oh yeah.

The first part of the next week (5/15-5/21) was taken up with work. The latter half was more dedicated to play. Thursday and Friday, the kyudo team was in Tomakomai for a tournament. I had to go out to Tomakomai on Thursday to fill out some visa renewal paperwork, and I swung by the tournament afterwards. Friday, I drove out early with the kyudo instructor and watched the whole tournament. Seamus, who had finally recovered from his tonsillitis, was also out in Tomakomai that day to change his visa status, so he came over and watched some of the action, too. After grabbing a late lunch with the instructor and Hiroshi, we caught a showing of "The Producers". Very, very funny stuff. It was a little sad seeing Ferris Bueller as a neurotic, slightly overweight accountant, but it was still pretty funny. Then it was off to the airport to pick up his parents, who flew in from Montana to do some biking around Hokkaido. I offered to pick them up, but there was no way to fit bikes, suitcases and parents in the same car. After some searching, we found a hotel in the airport that let us leave the bikes there for the night. Then I drove everyone back to Date.

Saturday, Seamus and I swung by the airport and picked up the bikes and then headed off to Sapporo to catch another movie, "Tachiguishi Retsuden". This was the same movie we ended up canceling on the week before. The movie defies my poor ability for explanation, especially since I'm not sure how much of the story I grasped, so check out the link and click on "more" in the "User Comments" section. One quick comment about the bikes. The boxes were so big that Seamus and I had top scoot our seats pretty far forward just to get them in the car. It made getting in and out of the car, plus driving, a bit of an interesting experience. We had to take stretch breaks all the way back to Date.

Sunday, I relaxed at home, catching a few extra z's. In the evening, I met up with Seamus and his folks, grabbed some dinner, and caught a showing of "The Da Vinci Code". Having read the book before seeing the movie took a lot of the suspense out of the film, but Ian McKellen was brilliant, and the film was pretty faithful to the book, with a few interesting visual effects thrown in here and there.

This week (5/22-5/26) was another hectic one. Monday, I joined John and Katie from Pure Water Hill High at a party for some student teachers at their school, one of whom was the older sister of a student who graduated from Starfish High back in March. Good for a laugh. I don't know if going to that party was the cause, but I was really worn out after work on Tuesday, and felt pretty lousy. I went to bed and woke up one minute after I was supposed be at work. Bad way to start a Wednesday. I made it through the day, cruised home, went to bed at five thirty and woke up thirteen hours later. Yeesh. Thursday was a karaoke night with some of the other teachers in town, followed by a pillaging of Seamus's apartment on Friday. He was moving out the next day, and he said I could plunder whatever I wanted from his place. I came back home with a couch, some blank CDs, spices, incense, books, and a coffee pot. Good deal. I also swung by Katie's place on the way back from Date to catch some of her Japanese food party. Fun stuff, although I was pretty full from the ramen meal Seamus, his folks and I had before I plundered his place.

And that pretty much covers the goings-on of the past few weeks.

Tomorrow, I climb a mountain.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Golden Week Day 7

Golden Week Trip Day 7 - Sunday, May 7th, 2006




I need to learn to hold back a bit at these Zazen Boys parties. Of course, it doesn't help when the music promoter hands me a beer mug that's as large as my head and says "This Bud's for you."


So Yuka and I check out of our hotel and cruise around looking for something to eat. We swing by a Mosburger, where I have a milkshake. That's about all that will sit well in my stomach.

It helped...a bit.

Then it was over to Obihiro Station for some souvenir shopping, me for the office and Yuka for whoever. After that, we headed over to Rokkatei, a nationally famous candy shop that's based out of Obihiro. I had some coffee, which helped some more, plus it had the added bonus of being free. Yuka bought some candy, and we were off again.

We filled up the gas tank and headed west toward Nissho Pass. We made a stop at a big supermarket along the highway. Yuka wanted to send some Hokkaido stuff home, so we followed the advice that the Shiretoko youth hostel owner gave us: if you're looking for good things to send to friends, shop where the locals do. So that's exactly what we did. And Yuka came away a few yen poorer, but with a lot of good Hokkaido eatins in the mail to her family in Tokyo.

Yuka said she wanted to spend the night in Sapporo, so the plan was to drive her to Sapporo and then head home. So we hit the road again, cruising over Nissho Pass and continuing on the Sekisho Forest Highway toward Sapporo. We made a quick lunch stop in Hidaka, where I had some soba noodles (still going easy on the stomach). After taking a bit of a break from the road, we were off once again.

We drove through Yubari City, following the Sekisho Train Line which runs from Sapporo to Obihiro. I noticed something odd and pulled off the road into a small parking area near the tracks. It was the former location of Kaede Station.

I remembered reading on Yahoo Japan about how this station was getting closed down in late 2003 or early 2004. It was a spur off the main (Sekisho) line to a small local area located right along the highway near some apartments. It had one train a day, one arrival, one departure, and that was all. If you click on the link, you can see what it looked like when the station was in operation. When I got there, the tracks were still there, but everything else was gone. No station building, no signs, no nothing. The only real evidence that the station had been there was a bus stop sign that said "Kaede Station". When I get my last roll of film from the trip developed, I'll post a photo or two.

The area was actually a little creepy, what with a boarded up staircase to the station and bars blocking off the tracks, plus an abandoned Forestry Service building on the hill above the station.

After I got finished snapping photos, I went back to the car and we continued on to Sapporo. As we got closer and closer to the city, traffic started increasing. No major traffic jams, but a lot more cars than we'd seen all week. The original plan was to drive Yuka all the way to Sapporo Station, but the further into the center of the city we got, the worse the traffic got, and I didn't really want to deal with nasty traffic on my way home. Yuka was nice enough to let me drop her off at a subway station so that I didn't have to deal with Sapporo Golden Week Return Rush Traffic Nastiness. Thanks, Yuka!

So we unloaded her stuff and said our farewells, and then I hit the road for home. A brief stop in Tomakomai for groceries and coffee, and then it was on the way to Muroran.

One hour later, I pulled into my apartment parking area. I was home after one week on the road...

...and 1516 kilometers.

Unpack, relax, and hit the sack. Back to the grind. But one hell of a fun road trip. Where to next year? That's a question for another day.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Golden Week Day 6

Golden Week Trip Day 6 - Saturday, May 6th, 2006

Up and at 'em once again. Two days left of the Golden Week journey and I wanted to make the most of them.

First down to the hotel bath to have a little soak before breakfast. Then Yuka joined me over in the dining area to enjoy a very delicious hotel breakfast. Then we brought our stuff out to the car, checked out, and headed off for another look around town.

We headed down to Lake Akan first to get a look at it during the daytime. We were surprised to see that there was still a lot of ice floating around in the lake, not enough to cause the cruise boats any problems, but enough to surprise us that we didn't see it the night before.

We took a little walk around part of the lake (my feet still hurt, but the pain was starting to ease off a bit). We found an outlet for some of the natural hot water that kept this spa town going. Actually, we smelled it before we found it, as there was a nose-hair-singeing smell of sulfur coming up from the pool. Hoo-wee. It was pretty cool, though, what with the bubbling and the odor. It looked like a big witches' pot. We followed the path from there down to the lake, where you could see where the water from the hot pool was flowing in. The hot water flowing into the lake had melted off most of the surrounding ice, which made for a beautiful sight of Mt. Oakan reflecting in the lake.

After that, we stopped by an ashi-yu, a hot water pool to soak your feet in. It helped my feet. A lot.

We walked back through the market, which had been eerily deserted the night before. It was a little more lively in the daylight. One other thing I should mention about this town is that the lake that it takes is name from is famous for marimo (translation: "moss balls"). So almost every store was selling jars with these little moss balls in them. Plus you had "Moss Ball Hot Springs", "Moss Ball Avenue", "The Moss Ball Superstore"...even "moss ball ice cream" (although I pray to everything that I hold holy that they didn't actually put moss balls in it...yeck).

A walk to the other side of town brought us to the Ainu district (Ainu Kotan). We took a look around at some of the shops in the area that sold various Ainu handmade crafts (lots of woodworking) and then stopped over at an Ainu lifestyle museum, followed by a viewing of a traditional Ainu dance performance. The dances were pretty cool. There was one that was a plate-tossing dance, where the two women dancing would toss a plate back and forth trying to fake the other person out and get them to drop it. The person who drops the plate is the loser. Since we were sitting pretty close to the front, Yuka got called up to toss the plate, and she did it like a pro. I was so proud. There was another dance (a really easy one) that called for audience participation, so we both headed up on stage with a few other people from the audience and danced. Lots of walking around in a big circle while moving your arms back and forth. I've never been a good dancer, so my powers of description in this field area little lacking. The last dance of the performance was a LOT of fun to watch. It was a representation of the wind blowing in the trees, sometimes slowly, sometimes fiercely. The dancers (all women) let down their long black hair and swung their heads back and forth, waving their hair over their heads. The dance had a strange rhythm to it, and you could really picture trees swaying. Very cool.

After that, it was time to leave Lake Akan behind us and head off toward Obihiro. We walked back to the car and set off. I wanted to drive around the lake a bit, but I couldn't find the road, so we decided to just continue on. We crossed over into Ashoro Town and drove to a lake that is supposed to change colors depending on the season, the amount of light, the temperature...apparently it's a very mysterious lake. I use words like "supposed to" and "apparently" because said lake was frozen over. We did get a really good look at Mt. Meakan (the "me" meaning "female", as opposed to the "o" meaning "male" in Mt. Oakan) though, so I guess it was worth it.

We continued down the highway in toward central Ashoro, until I saw a log cabin restaurant and pulled in to the parking lot. See, Yuka had told me that her goal once we crossed into the Tokachi region (Obihiro and its surroundings) was that she wanted to have Tokachi milk, Tokachi ice cream, and Tokachi cheese. Mmmm, dairy. I'm all for a good glass o' milk, and the place we found looked like the real deal (the sign out front that said "Fresh Milk" also helped), so we headed inside.

I opened the main door to head inside and was hit with a smell that I hadn't smelled for many a year. The entryway smelled just like Helen's place out in Blackfoot or Bannock or Chubbuck or Buckskin (okay Mom and Dad, I need your help on this one). Walking into that restaurant was exactly like walking in to her house out there in the mountains. I half expected to see a wood fire with a kettle on it and a jar of lemon drops on the counter. Eerie, but in a very good way. It actually freaked me out a bit. I guess this is another stop we have to make when you get over here to visit, eh guys?

I ordered a glass of milk and a slice of apple pie. Yuka got the milk and a slice of cheesecake. Very. Very. Good. Add the ambiance of sitting in a log cabin/restaurant with a great view of the mountains in the distance, and I found my new happy place. The couple that ran the place were both really friendly as well. Great stuff.

But we couldn't stay long, as Obihiro was waiting, so we paid our bill and headed out again. A pit stop and a fuel break in Ashoro, then back on the road to Obihiro. Why the rush to get there? Well, there was a concert that night that I wanted to see, but I also wanted to introduce Yuka to the butadon goodness of Marumatsu Shokudo. I also wanted to reintroduce my stomach to the butadon goodness of Marumatsu Shokudo. So I was a man on a mission.

Just outside of Obihiro, we ran into a big traffic jam. We had been really lucky during our trip to not have to deal with much traffic, but what with only two days left in Golden Week, I figured our luck had finally run out, and we were hitting the "U-Turn Rush". This is when everybody turns around and goes back home from their various vacation spots, leading to 50-mile-long traffic jams outside of Tokyo and Osaka. Just nasty. I just assumed that we were hitting the Obihiro version.

Not so.

As we drove on, we noticed that everyone was pulling into the right lane. Hmmm. As we went through an intersection, we saw the cause of all the delay. A NASTY traffic jam. A sports car had slammed into a minivan and actually driven UNDER it. The minivan was tilted to one side and the sports car's front window, heck, most of the front of the car, was demolished.

The lesson, as always, is that Hokkaido drivers scare me.

Once we passed the wreck, the traffic cleared back up and it was smooth driving all the way to Marumatsu Shokudo. We went in, and the owner laughed when she saw me. "Welcome back! So you made it okay, huh?"
"Yeah, thanks. This is my friend Yuka from Tokyo. Two butadon, please."
"Coming right up."

Delicious, as always. Plus she made miso soup for us. Plus she gave us some fresh bamboo shoots and some other mountain vegetable. Very tasty. She showed us her collections of guestbooks, which she started in 2000. She's got quite a memory, as she whipped through them and showed us some of the more interesting customers she's had visit her place, from lady bikers to aspiring shogi champions to crazy foreigners. I love that place.

We had our picture taken and signed her guestbook before heading off to find the night's lodgings. Our hotel was very close to the station, and actually pretty close to the location of the concert that night. The artist? Zazen Boys. Awww yeah.

So we checked in and after relaxing for a few minutes, we headed out to see what Obihiro was all about. We found the Tokachi Beer building and went in for a brew before the show. We sat next to a window that looked out across the street to...a strip bar. Obihiro...The classiest city around. After finishing off our beers, we headed over to Obihiro Rest, the location of the night's show. Just as we got there, Mukai-san (Zazen Boys vocalist) came walking out of the club. We talked for a few, then I went over to buy a couple of CDs at the souvenir stand. After a while, everyone lined up and the doors were opened. I picked a spot in the back, because although I wanted to jump in the middle of the crowd and rock out, my feet wouldn't take the punishment. The show kicked off, and was rocking as always, but there was a bit more of a groove to this show, as Zazen Boys added some keyboards and groovy rhythms to their sound. They played "This is NORANEKO", which is my favorite song off of their latest album, so I was happy. All in all, very good stuff.

After the show, Yuka and I went back to our hotel to get changed. I got an e-mail from the manager and we cruised over to join the after-show party. Much beer and mutton was consumed. I met a concert promoter who is involved with setting up a lot of shows in the area. The members of the band got into a rather heated argument about what the nature of the band was, and what it meant to "be professional". It was impressive to see Mukai-san cruise over and defuse the situation.

Once that party was over, Yuka, Mori-san (the manager) and I cruised over to another bar for another drink. Mine pretty much finished me off. But the party (and the show) was fun, and I made it back to the hotel in one piece, and slept like a freaking log, so it was all okay.

Golden Week Day 5

Golden Week Trip Day 5 - Friday, May 5th, 2006

So I woke up at five.

Unfortunately, the "let's go watch the sunrise" plan didn't work out for three reasons.

1) The sun had come up at 4:25, not "sometime after five" like one of the hostel staff told me.

2) It was cloudy and raining outside, and...

3) Tamayo and Yuka never showed. I waited for a while, because I figured they would at least tell me if they weren't going to go. But when they hadn't showed by 6, I went back to bed...

...and was woken up again by the morning broadcast of "Today, the weather is bad, so unfortunately we have to cancel the kayaking trip."

Wow. It looks like we lucked out the day before.

So I got dressed and went downstairs for breakfast. I ran into Tamayo and Yuka there, and asked them what the heck happened that morning. "Well, the weather was bad, so we went back to bed." Fair enough, but it would have been nice to be told, especially since I was the one who was expected to drive. Whatever.

Another simple breakfast, followed by packing up my stuff and meeting Tamayo and Yuka downstairs afterwards. Tamayo was planning on spending another couple of days in the area, but not at the youth hostel. So, Yuka and I offered to give her a ride into Utoro to let her drop off her bags and then on in to Shari so she could do some shopping.

But first we had to check out and set out for the Five Lakes of Shiretoko (even though the trails were only cleared for two of them).

Departing from Iwaobetsu Youth Hostel.

We hit the road for the Five Lakes.

And somewhere along the way Tamayo snapped this photo from the backseat.

On the way out to the Five Lakes, we came across a couple of abandoned houses. I'm guessing that years of snowfall on top of the houses led to their current conditions.

If you click on this photo, you can see the mixture of mud and straw that was used as a plaster in this house. That makes it a pretty old house. Apparently this area was home to a couple of failed dairy farms, long before it was designated a Natural World Heritage Site.

After snapping a couple of photos, it was on out to the lakes. We pulled into the fairly crowded parking lot, found (more like "got directed to") a space, and hit the trail.

The area was really beautiful, although it would have been a little better if the skies had been clear. It would have been nice to see the mountains a little more clearly. As it was, they kind of blended into the sky.

The naming system for the lakes is REALLY simple. This is "Lake Number 1".

On the way to Lake Number Two, we saw some crows feeding on a deer carcass off in the trees. If you look closely, you can see it. It was kind of cool to see, because it gave you a real feeling of being right in the middle of nature.

I just like how this tree root (or is it still the trunk?) splits over this rock.

Lake Number 2 was still mostly frozen May. The path off to Lake Numbers 3, 4, & 5 was blocked off from the May. The hike bothered my still sore feet, but hey, the two lakes we saw were nice.

We worked our way back around to the parking lot, and took in the view from the Lake Number One viewing platform. You could see all the way out to the Sea of Okhotsk from there.

Here's a photo of me being me and Yuka being Yuka at the viewing platform.

As we were heading back to the car, we passed a lot of tour groups and saw a lot more tour buses pulling into the parking lot. Oh yeah, it started raining too. We gave thanks to our fabulous luck so far. The weather hadn't been great, but we'd been the only group so far that had been able to go sea kayaking, and we were able to tour two of the five Shiretoko Lakes without running into huge crowds or getting wet. We missed the morning rush and beat the lunchtime rush. Lucky!

So from there, we headed back to Utoro, where Tamayo dropped off her stuff at the hotel where she was going to be staying that night. From there we headed toward Shari, making sure we stopped and checked out a couple of waterfalls on our way in.

This is San-Dan Falls, or the Three Level Falls. This was nice, but didn't prepare us at all for the next waterfall we were going to visit.

This one. OshinKoshin Falls. One of the eight great Shiretoko sights. I'm not sure what the other seven are, but from what the sign said, this is one of the eight. And I agree with it's qualifications as a "great sight". This was a pretty cool waterfall. Plus, it had the added bonus of having...

...a big orange tabby, that looked like a fatter version of my old cat, Tigger.

Check out the jowls on this guy. He was almost more popular than the waterfall.

Then it was on in to Shari, and since it was lunchtime, we swung by a ramen shop for lunch.

My ramen meal. This ain't your daddy's cup noodle.

The ramen was decent, but the pot stickers we ordered along with the ramen left a lot to be desired. Ah well, you win some, you lose some.

After lunch, we filled up the car with gas and dropped Tamayo off at a local supermarket. The owner of the youth hostel we stayed at recommended that instead of going to an expensive souvenir shop, we should shop where the locals shop for things to ship off to friends and family. Sound advice, and Tamayo chose to follow it.

Then Yuka and I hit the road for Shibetsu, a town on the Pacific Coast side of Hokkaido at the base of the Shiretoko Peninsula. We went here for a couple of reasons. One was to see Kunashiri Island, one of the four islands in the disputed Northern Territories. Russia has 'em, Japan wants 'em. And there's a big argument about which country has the right to them. I could honestly care less, as long as this dispute doesn't escalate into a war. I just though it would be cool to look out across the ocean and see another country.

The other reason was to see an old train bridge from an old abandoned line (the Konpoku Line) that was going to connect Shari with Shibetsu. One of the other guests at the youth hostel (Higano from Gunma) showed me some photos, and I figured it was worth seeing.

So we were driving along in the rain, when all of a sudden, there the bridge was. That's really what it was like. The bridge is huge, and really obvious, but if you aren't paying attention, I have no doubt that it would be easy to miss.

That's me in front of the bridge.

It was a LOT bigger than I expected it to be, and it was actually a pretty impressive sight. Although part of it was demolished to make way for the very highway that Yuka and I were driving on, the town had chosen to preserve the rest of it as a cultural artifact for the town. Pretty cool stuff.

There were a lot of these "flowers" in bloom all throughout the area. They're called fukinoto in Japanese, and apparently they are known as "butterbur flower stalks" in English. Doesn't mean much to me, but Yuka was talking about picking some, taking them back to Tokyo and making a tempura dish with them. Whatever works. Mmm, weed tempura. Yum.

We continued on our way between Mt. Shari and Mt. Unabetsu, passing through an incredibly foggy area that had Yuka and I humming the "Twilight Zone" theme song and me doing my best Rod Serling impersonation. It was a pretty weird area to drive through. Finally, we came out into Shibetsu Town, but the skies were cloudy and Kunashiri Island was nowhere to be seen. There were a lot of "Return the Northern Territories!" billboards though. So many, in fact, that I started yelling, "Yeah! Give 'em back!" each time I saw one. Am I an insensitive jerk? Maybe. But it was just TOO funny after a while. We actually stopped in the Northern Territories Museum that was in Shibetsu, because I thought it would be a laugh. I also needed to use the facilities pretty badly.

Basically, the "museum" was a building dedicated to supporting Japan's claims to the four islands. I didn't pay attention that much, because the whole thing struck me as sort of silly (especially since the dispute is REALLY over the fishing rights that come with owning the islands more than ownership of the islands themselves). Although you see just how close Hokkaido came to becoming Japan's version of East and West Germany. The Soviets were this close to invading Hokkaido proper at the end of WWII.

After taking a look and having a bit of a laugh, we headed back inland toward Lake Mashu, a caldera lake that is supposed to be very beautiful. On our way there, we came across a billboard that demanded the return of the English.

I hate to be this blunt, but WE don't have control of those islands. Wouldn't it be better to write that message in, oh, I don't know, Russian?

The guy who showed me those bridge pictures that set me on this course also gave me another piece of advice. "If you're heading to Lake Mashu, go to the opposite side of the lake from where most people go. I guarantee you that the view is gorgeous and it won't be crowded there." So that's where we were headed.

While we were driving along, I spotted an animal crossing the road (Thanks, Mom!). It was a fox. It crossed the road about halfway, forcing me to slow down, then it turned toward us and went to the passenger side of the car. And looked at Yuka as if it was expecting some food. Apparently, somebody's been feeding that boy. Smart fox, though, to stop the driver and then go to the side of the car where it would most likely be given food. Shame on the feeders, kudos to the fox's brains.

No food for the fox, though. We continued on to Ura-Mashu (the back side of Lake Mashu), and when we pulled in to the parking lot, I knew that Higano had been right in at least one thing; there weren't many people there at all. After making a short climb up to the viewing platform, we looked out on the lake.

Again, it seemed that luck was on our side. Lake Mashu is famous for not only being very beautiful, but also being very hard to see. Apparently, the lake is frequently hidden by a fog cover, leading it to have the nickname of "Lake Mashu, the Lake of Fog." But not so this day. Very clear, very, VERY beautiful.

After spending a few minutes taking in the awesome scenery, we headed back to the car and hit the road again. We drove around to the other side of Lake Mashu and up the hill to get a good view of it, because why shouldn't we? We drove up the road to the lake viewpoint, and once we reached it, not only did we get a gorgeous view of the lake, but we also got a gorgeous view of THIS.

This is known in Japanese as an unkai, or a "sea of clouds". You're up above the low-lying cloud cover, and it really does look like a sea of clouds, especially with the tips of hills poking up through the clouds like islands. Add the brilliant sunset, and Yuka and I were once again thanking our wondrous luck on our trip. We continued on the road and JUST beat it being closing off. Again, luck was on our side, because most of the people who visited Lake Mashu that day probably didn't get a decent view of it, and I'm sure there weren't a lot of people who got to see the unkai that we did.

We continued on into central Teshikaga Town, and just before we turned off to head toward Lake Akan (our lodging location for the night), I noticed a sign for a soba noodle restaurant called, of all things, "Izumo". You can't imagine how happy I was. Izumo in the middle of nowhere Hokkaido? Very cool.

I had to get a picture, but we held off from eating there. We had to get over to Lake Akan.

So it was back on the road heading west. We went over a small mountain pass, and saw this great view at twilight.

Mt. Oakan (Mr. Akan - the "o" is the kanji for "male") at sunset. A sight off of a postcard. Again, just fantastic.

Then it was on down into the valley to Lake Akan Hot Springs and our hotel. We checked in, brought our stuff up to our room, and headed out into town to look for something to eat.

Even though it was Golden Week, the big vacationing season in Japan, the majority of shops around our hotel were closed. It bordered on the bizarre. We walked down to the lake to take a look, and then headed over to the other side of the hot springs area, looking for a place to eat. After a lot of searching, and a lot of pain in my feet (which were getting better, just not a whole lot better), we finally picked a little bar to eat at and went in. The food was tasty, the service was friendly, and the drinks were good. Just what we needed. Then it was back to the hotel for a hop in the hotel baths, which took water directly from the source (and even better, actually sent hot spring water up to each of the rooms).

And then to bed.

(Of course, in the Future Imperfect version of this trip, I would have already watched X3 at LEAST three times and been so overwhelmed by it that I wouldn't be able to write anything. Unfortunately, we don't live in an Imperfect World. My bad, Rocksaw. Life has gotten in the way of my updating this here blog.)

Golden Week Day 4

Golden Week Trip Day 4 - Thursday, May 4th, 2006

"Good morning, everyone. It's just after 7, and I wanted to announce to all of the people who plan on taking part in the sea kayaking program today that it looks like we should be able to go. The ocean is still a little rough, and a little rain is falling, but we'll take everyone over to the kayak center and make a final decision there. We leave at 8:30 sharp."

Aah, that lovely thing known as the morning announcement. I enjoy staying in youth hostels over here, but that morning announcement is something I could do without.

But as it was, I was awake, and it was time to get up and get ready to face the day.

I was thrilled with the fact that my feet weren't hurting, until I went downstairs to get breakfast and realized that my feet were just getting started.

This was starting to concern me a bit. I tried to figure out what could be causing this feet pain. Gout? Good Lord, I hope not. Well, if it's not gout, then...

Wait a sec.

I was running on train tracks two days ago.

The arches of my feet were coming down flat on those railroad ties, and my heels and toes weren't touching anything but air.

That's gotta be it.

Leave it to me to screw up the rest of my vacation on the first full day of it. This pain made me grumpy. Not a good situation to be in, although it helped me to realize the definition of the word "excrutiating". Is that a good thing?

I met Yuka downstairs for breakfast. What was available was pretty tasty, if a bit on the simple side. No problem there. Then 8:30 rolled around and the sea kayaking group loaded into a van and headed to the kayak center.

Where we were told that while the sea was basically okay, it was still a little too cold and a little too rough for our guide to be comfortable with us going out there. After a bit of debate, it was decided that we would all meet back at the kayak center at 1 PM.

Quick note about the Sea of Okhotsk:

If you take a look at this map (click to enlarge), it's pretty easy to see, but the Sea of Okhotsk is basically a big lake. This means that the waters are relatively calm, for sea water. Which means that waves and rough water are normally not a concern. Unfortunately, it was a little too rough to go out in the morning. So crossing our fingers, we all loaded back on the van and went back to the youth hostel.

When we got back there, most of the people in the group had cars and ideas of where to go. One person, a lady from Tokyo named Tamayo, was without transportation. Let's just say that waiting for a bus out there would be a sketchy proposition, mostly because there aren't that many buses that make it all the way out to the youth hostel. So Yuka and I offered Tamayo a ride in the Kiddmobile. She gladly accepted, and we headed off.

Normally, there are a lot of places to see in Shiretoko. The Five Lakes. The Hot Falls at Kamuiwakka. The various peaks along the peninsula. The Shiretoko Pass. Normally.

This, however, was a most abnormal time. Snowfall had blocked the pass, which also meant climbing mountains wouldn't be a good idea. Snow was blocking the trails around three of the Five Lakes. The road out to Kamuiwakka Falls was closed, due to (you guessed it!) snow. What to do?

We debated whether to go to see the two lakes we could see, or hike out to see Furepe Falls, also known as "The Maiden's Tears". We decided on the hike. My feet screamed at me.

So we drove out to the Shiretoko Nature Center, parked, and hit the trail out to the falls. It was smooth going at first, and then we came upon the snow. Snow that was packed down from a long winter of people hiking on it. Snow that was more ice than snow in places because of the melting and freezing that had been going on. Snow that I was used to, but my fellow travelers were not.

I had two long months of practice walking on snow JUST LIKE THAT (when Wasabi-kun was out of commission), so I knew how to walk on it without falling on my rump. Yuka and Tamayo had a hard time keeping up. I laughed at them (trying desperately to favor my aching feet all the while).

On the way out there, we noticed something that had been mentioned to us by the youth hostel director at the previous night's meeting.

"Keep an eye out for the kumazasa (bamboo grass) while you walk around tomorrow. Look at how tall it is. You'll notice that it's taller in some places than in others. The height of the kumazasa will indicate how deep the snow pack was in that area. Kumazasa survives really well when it's insulated by snow during the winter, but any part of it that is above the snow will die off over the winter."
And while I don't have a good photo to show you, the further we hiked, the taller the kumazasa got. It just goes to show that there's a lot of stuff for you to see out in nature, if you just know where to look.

And while we were looking, we saw A LOT of deer, and they weren't scared of us at all.

This one was working REALLY hard at eating that tree bark. Didn't want to miss a single piece of it. Deer really go to town on tree bark. Wow.

Not scared at all.

We saw the Utoro Lighthouse out on the cliff near the falls...

...and here are Yuka, Tamayo, and I out at Furepe Falls (aka The Maiden's Tears).

Thanks to Tamayo for this photo. Click on it and look between Tamayo and Yuka. You can see some faint streams of water. That's The Maiden's Tears.

We finished up at the Shiretoko Nature Center around 11, and decided to head into Utoro proper to get some lunch before heading out to sea.

We drove around first, trying to find a good place to grab some food, but we eventually ended up parking the car and walking around. The area around Utoro Port was so crowded with people that it was hard to get around. My feet were dying on me, but I grimaced and bore it like a pro, hobbling along all the way. Most of the places we went to were ridiculously expensive. The food looked good, but not THAT good.

Until we found a restaurant that was offering a King Crab leg tempura rice bowl. Pricey, but too damn good-looking to pass up. We went in, sat down, tried to order, waited a bit, tried to order again, got frustrated, and were finally able to order. It was a tad busy there.

It was just after 12, and we had to be back at the kayak center at one. No problem.

Ten minutes pass...

Twenty minutes pass...

Thirty minutes pass...

Forty minutes later, our meal arrived, brought to us by a woman far to old to be wearing the miniskirt she had on.


It was as good as it looks, but I had to ferociously devour it so I could hobble back to the car and get us all out to the kayak center. I pulled into the parking lot at 1 PM sharp.

We went in and most everyone was there. The word was official: the kayak trip would go off as planned. YES!

We were given our dry suits to put on. This was a bit more complicated than it appeared at first. Right leg, then left leg, pull the suit up to your waist, cinch it off, put the shoes on over the suit foot area, squeeze the air out of the leg area, right arm, left arm, pull the suit over your head and stick your head through the hole provided, roll the rubber neck area down inside the suit, zip up to complete the seal, then pull on the area around your neck and squat down, forcing out any extra air. And voila, you're a cast member of the movie "Armageddon".


If only the suits had been orange, and I had a space helmet to carry in the crook of my arm, I coulda pulled it off too.

Then we all loaded back into the van and went down to the launch point. We hauled out the kayaks and practiced how to get in and out of them without tipping the darn things over. Leg, then butt, then other leg. If you do one leg, and then the other, and THEN try to sit down...let's just say that the Sea of Okhotsk is VERY COLD in May and it wouldn't be a wise thing to do. When you get out, same thing. Leg, then butt, then the other leg. We also adjusted the feet rests in the front and the rudder steering pedals in the back, depending on where we were sitting. People with experience kayaking or guys in a guy/girl pair were told to sit in the back and steer the kayak.

We also had to practice rowing. We were shown how to hold the oars and the best way to row. Not too deep, not too sharp of an angle. We had to work together and row on the same side of the kayak at the same time, so our guide had us practice rowing using a sound-off system. "1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2..." 1 being right, 2 being left.

Once everybody got a feel for the kayaks and was comfortable with what we needed to do, we put the kayaks in the water. Oh my, that was some cold water. Then we got in our kayaks and started out.

First, we had a little more practice steering, reversing, and stopping the kayaks. Then we started following the coastline out to The Maiden's Tears and The Man's Tears.

Here's Yuka and I in our kayak. Thanks to Tamayo for the photo.

A few minutes out, we saw a mother bear and her cub foraging for food on the hillside. Our guide told us that in the ten or so years he's been doing this kayak tour, he's never seen a bear that close.

Thanks to Tamayo for this photo too. Click on it to enlarge it, and then look in the top half of the photo. For as far away as we were, the photo turned out pretty well.

We kayaked out to The Man's Tears waterfall, but apparently he didn't feel like crying that day, because there wasn't much water coming down off of the cliff. Then we turned around and headed back, making a stop by The Maiden's Tears. It was an interesting change of perspective to see the falls and the cliffs from the bottom.
We kayaked on back along the coastline, stopping again to take another look at the two bears on the hillside, and then we headed back to our launch point and dry land.

Not to brag, but during the kayak tour I did the best job of keeping the kayak on course out of everyone there (except the guide).

We saw lots of ocean birds and those two bears. We saw a gorgeous coastline. We were able to listen to the sound of the waves, instead of having it all drowned out by the announcements and the engine on a motorized tour boat. It was also done under our own power, which made the trip feel a little more personal. You're out there on the sea, and you have to take responsibility for your actions and not mess with Mother Nature. It struck an interesting balance between awe and fear.

Then it was back to the kayak center (after putting away the kayaks, of course), where we washed off our dry suits and changed out of them. The tour guide went over to the onsen building, which was next door to the kayak center, and struck a deal with the owners for those of us who participated in the kayak trip to be able to take a bath there for a little cheaper than the regular price. I'm told the outdoor bath had a great view. I can't ever tell because if I wear my glasses, everything fogs up and I can't see. If I don't wear my glasses, my eyesight is so bad that I can't see. So I have to take their word for it. The bath itself was good, though, and it felt good on my poor feet (which were feeling better because I hadn't been walking on them for a while).

I had an interesting conversation with one of the other tour members at the onsen. He and his wife were from Hiroshima (just south of Shimane...YAY!), and they were headed for Abashiri that night. I recommended the sushi restaurant Yuka and I visited two nights before. Good sushi, good service, and one heck of a sushi chef. I don't know whether they went or not, but I'd like to think they did.

Yuka, Tamayo, and I saw them off, then hopped in the car and started to head back to the youth hostel. But first, we had to stop and take a few pictures of this.


Then we swung into town for some beer and snacks, then hit the road.

On our way back to the youth hostel, there was a big tour bus stopped off to the side of the road. I wondered what the commotion was, and then I saw it.

A bear. Running off into the trees. Wow. I wish I'd had my camera out. It was pretty close to where we were. Fortunately, we were on a bridge and there was no way the bear was going to get up there.

The two ladies I was with were really surprised that I'd spotted it. I'd been quick on spotting animals all day long. "Why are you so good at that?", they asked. There's only one answer...I was trained by my mom.

Any time we ever go on a family trip, Mom's always saying, "Oh! Look over there at that deer!" Or, "See that elk? There!" Or "Look at those mountain goats over there!" You have to be careful, or you could give yourself whiplash. But I have a bit of the eye for spotting animals that Mom has, and she's trained me for years, so I bragged a bit about Mom to them.

I guess growing up in an area that actually has animals helps too. I'm guessing there's a serious lack of deer sightings in downtown Tokyo.

So I guess what I want to say here is, "Thanks, Mom."

A nice view of Mt. Raus we saw on the way back to the youth hostel.

We arrived back at the youth hostel in time for dinner. There were two options for dinner: the curry and rice all-you-can-eat, or the ikura-don all-you-can-eat. Ikura-don is Japanese for "fish bait rice bowl".

Actually, it's salmon roe, which is considered to be a Hokkaido delicacy, but one that I've never really taken a liking to. But, I figured, what the heck, I'm here, might as well go for it. So I ate the bait.

And, Lord help me, it was good. So good that I piled the eggs on, and even went back for seconds.

I paid for it later, but it was really good.

Then Yuka, Tamayo, and I had some other snacks and some beers, participated in the evening meeting, went out and did a little stargazing, made a promise to get up early and watch the sunrise, and then went off to our separate rooms to get some well-earned sleep.