Monday, May 15, 2006

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.)


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