Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Ten Thousand Kilo Mark

I bought my car back in March, and today, on my way out to Tomakomai to meet up with Minami (the girl from the Japaharinet show), my car hit the 10000 kilometer mark.

Even after being in the States for an entire month, I'm still on my 20,000 kilometers a year pace.

Living in Hokkaido makes that easy.

I met Minami at Tomakomai Station, and then we drove out to a restaurant that serves kiritanpo stew, a delicacy from Akita Prefecture. Why is there a restaurant in Tomakomai serving Akita delicacies?

Your guess is as good as mine.

But it was dang good.

After dinner, I drove Minami to Tomakomai Port so she could catch her ferry down to Hachinohe and go and see Japaharinet's show in Morioka the following day.

Fan dedication is a beautiful thing.

And then I drove home.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Mashike - The Town Of Increasing Hair

So a couple of weeks ago, I got a phone call from fellow train geek Scott about a train trip he had planned.

"Dustin, there's a steam locomotive out on the Rumoi Line that will be making its last run of the year. Mo and I are thinking of going. You want to come along?"

Hmm...let me check my schedule...no hot dates, so...

"I'm there!"

After Scott did some checking on tickets, he found out that it was all sold out for that weekend, but he still thought going up and snapping some photos would be fun.

Ahh, what the hell, I thought. I'll drive.

So Friday night after work, we took off for Takikawa. Scott has a friend there who agreed to let us crash at his place. Good deal.

We took the low roads the whole way. I didn't want to pay the highway tolls, plus taking the highway would make the trip a bit longer (distance-wise, if not time-wise). We were making pretty good time, and although it was kind of late, I wanted to wait until we got to Takikawa before we ate.

My passengers had other ideas.

"We're hungry."

"Ummm, so?"

"So let's stop and eat something."

One problem. I have no idea where there is a place to eat around here. But, as is usually the case with me and good food (scroll down until you find the food pictures), luck was on my side.

We were in a town called Bibai at the time, and we had just stopped at a light when a sign caught my attention. I turned around to the passengers and said...

"Do you trust me?"

They said yes, so I turned off the main road and drove around until I found...

Bibai Yatai Village. Yatais are outdoor food stands, and this place was packed with them. We went in and were met by Watanabe-san, the guy in charge of the area. He took us to a stand and got us hooked up with lots of good eatins, some of which he even threw in for free. Nice guy. I had such a good time that I bought a shirt, and then he threw in a couple more for Scott and Mo. Absolutely cool place. I hope I can get back out there again sometime.

Then it was off to Takikawa and over to Scott's friend's place to spend the night. He wasn't there, but we crashed there anyway.

Next morning, we headed over to Takikawa Station and caught the train to Fukagawa Station, where we would transfer over to a train on the Rumoi Line. People were lined up on the opposite platform with cameras and what-not, plus there were a whole lot of train geeks getting onto the train we were on.

Apparently, this weekend was going to be the last time a steam locomotive ran on the Rumoi Line.

Mo and I got on the train, while Scott went off snapping photos.

Here's one he snapped of us.

After a bit of waiting, we were off.

This is a REALLY great shot that Scott took.

I was planning on riding ahead to Mashike, but Scott and Mo wanted to get out at Ebishima Station to get some photos of the locomotive as it came up the line. We were surprised to see most everyone getting off the train, until we realized that it was the stop they wanted and not the stop we thought it was.

Rabid train fans disembark in packs on their way to take photos galore.

Here's a shot Scott took of the SL coming up the line. The man is quite good.

So I stayed on the train and enjoyed the ride into Rumoi. When we got there, I figured that a train on in to Mashike would be waiting at the station. Nope. So I head out into the lobby to figure out when the next train out there leaves. I couldn't figure out the dang schedule, so I asked one of the station workers.

"The next train out is the SL Suzuran. You can catch it in an hour and a half."

Huh? I thought it was sold out.

"From Rumoi to Mashike, anyone can ride it. You don't need to pay for a reserved seat. Just get on."

Heh. I get to brag to Scott and Mo now.

So I walked around town a bit, snapping some photos and taking in the elegance that is Rumoi (snicker). Then I headed back to the station and got set up with a decent spot to get a photo of the train as it pulled in.

Which is what I did. My cell phone takes some pretty good photos.

Then I got on the train and rode out to Mashike. It was crowded, but interesting, and I picked up a few souvenirs while I was there. Looking out the train window, you could see train chasers following along in their cars and snapping photos or videotaping. That kinda thing is dangerous. There was a huge crowd waving at us from an overpass just before we pulled into Mashike Station, too.

Mashike Station.

A quick note about the town of Mashike. The name originally comes from an Ainu word meaning "The Place of Many Seagulls", but when the name was given kanji characters to represent the sounds, they used the character masu, meaning "to increase", and ke, meaning "hair". So if you look at the kanji characters, Mashike means "to increase hair". Needless to say, it's a popular town for folks with a little less on top than they'd like.

There were some tents set up in the station parking lot, and a lot of the passengers from the train had gathered in that area. I went over to see what the commotion was about.

Hey, free shrimp! Mashike is famous for amaebi ("pink shrimp" or "northern shrimp"), and there was a plate full of fresh amaebi for the tasting. I snagged a couple, peeled them, dipped them in soy sauce and ate 'em.

Oh my.

Fresh stuff is the best.

Kunimare, the local sake brewery, was giving out free drinks as well. So life was very good, and I hadn't even left the station yet.

I had some time to kill before Scott and Mo showed up, so I went walking around town. I stopped by Kunimare and sampled their wares, so I managed to be fairly well lit up by the time Scott and Mo arrived. No big deal, I figured. We WERE taking the train, after all.

After they got into town, we went inside the station to have some soba noodles.

Gotta love soba.

After lunch, I took Scott and Mo over to the Kunimare brewery, bragging about my trip on the SL. A little envy was there, but I suggested dropping them off in Rumoi the next day and letting them catch the train on in to Mashike the next day.

Here's the brewery. It's the northernmost sake brewery in Japan.

I bought some gifts for some friends in Izumo and sent them off, and then Scott and I tried on the official Kunimare work uniform.

I look like I could do this job.

We toured the facilities and learned a bit about sake brewing in the process. Afterwards, we headed over to Shokanbetsu River, where we had been told that a lot of salmon were swimming upstream.

We had been told correctly. Damn.

After a bit more cruising around town and seeing the sights (the hundred-year-old elementary school, Mashike Itsukushima Shrine, etc.) we headed back to the station, where I made a slight request to the Gods of Increasing Hair.

"Gimme back my hair. Gimme back my hair. Pleeeeeeease?"

We caught an evening train back up the line and saw a gorgeous sunset on the way up the coast. Scott snapped this photo of me as I watched the nighttime scenery go by.

The man's got talent, that's for sure.

We got back into Takikawa and sampled the local cuisine, a lamb meat on rice meal known as "Genghis Khan-don". Why Genghis Khan? I fear this is a mystery that may never be solved.

Back to Scott's friends place, where a roaring party was going on in the lot in front of the apartment. Somebody's going-away party or something. I didn't really care for it, so I headed inside. After a while Scott's friend showed up. Nice guy. Really cool of hime to let us crash at his place.

The next day, we headed out in the Kiddmobile and snapped lots of photos along the way, especially of some of the old station buildings along the line. At one station, we got this photo:

The sign says "No Bicycle Parking Here". Heh.

I dropped Scott and Mo off in Rumoi and headed on to Mashike, where I sampled some more of the shrimp and sake from the day before, mostly because the people running the stands remembered me and called me over.


After the train came in, I went and sat in the engineer's seat while Scott got this shot.

I'm creating an image of Johnny Cash in my mind right here.

Back into Rumoi for some ramen, which was excellent, and then off into the hills.

And when I say into the hills, I mean "into the hills". As in, "will we be able to get back out of these hills, or will we end up in the Japanese version of 'Deliverance'?"

"I'm gonna make you squeal like a buta. Boo-hee, boo-hee!"


Fortunately, no inbred Japanese hillbillies found us. Train fanatics with lots of cameras found us, though. The sight of everyone set up on the hill overlooking the tracks was kinda creepy.

We waited. I set up in one area, while Scott set up in another.

Then we heard it. The whistle, echoing up the valley.

That's quite the sound. I'd never heard that before. It felt like I'd stepped back in time a century or so.

Then there's the smoke cloud. You can see it before you see the train. It's the sign saying, "Here I come. Get ready."

Then you could see it, off in the distance.

Not my camera, but I took this photo.

Then the train turned off to the left and came around in a big curve, right near where we were.

The clicks of dozens of different shutters. The puffing of the smoke. The wheels on the track.

Another shot I took. Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.

Then the train was gone, and everyone was packing up their stuff. We headed back down to my car, and as we did, the clouds that had been threatening to dump on us finally did. We drove back on the same route we came in on, stopping in Mikasa for some damn fine ice cream, and then headed on home.

It was an excellent experience, one I'm glad I had the chance to take part it.

Thanks, Scott.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Roamin' The Countryside

Today I decided to get off my still-jet-lagged butt and get out and see something before I turned into a pile of mush.

So I hopped in my car and headed west along the coast, all the way over to Oshamanbe. On my way into the center of town, I passed through Asahihama, a place where I had stopped and taken some photos last year.

There was a train station in Asahihama, but JR Hokkaido closed it down last fall because of the lack of riders. I was aware of said closure.

But imagine my shock when what had last year looked like this...

...had now become this.

Same thing here. Last year? This.

This year? This.

It was kind of sad to see.

But the waves in Eruption Bay were very beautiful to see, and you could see Toyoura, Date, and Muroran off in the distance.

I headed into town to grab some lunch. Oshamanbe is famous for its crabs, and there is a nationally famous boxed lunch (ekiben) with crab meat and rice you can get at the station there. I was hungry, so I stopped in and picked one up.

I'm not really sure why it's nationally famous. It was a bit bland, really. I like Tottori Station's crab sushi boxed lunch better. The best thing about it, besides the fact that it tastes pretty damn good, is that the box is shaped like a crab!

Moving on...

I debated heading south toward Hakodate, but it was already in the afternoon, so I decided to head north instead. I followed Rt. 5 and snapped some photos of old run-down trains stations along the way...

...like Warabitai Station. Taking photos out in the middle of nowhere can be a bit of an adventure, especially if you leave your car running. These things that look like a cross between horseflies and wasps tend to surround your car. I never saw the things in Shimane, but as you head further north in Japan, they tend to swarm around cars (when the engine is left running). With a little careful timing and a lot of luck, you can get back in your car without letting one in. Ugh, those things are nasty. (shudders)

A recommendation from my partner-in-crime, Jack, sent me off toward a hot spring in Niseko. After a bit of adventure (see also: My sorry ass got lost.) which had me going over a small mountain pass into the next town over, I finally found it.

Carp River Hot Springs.

It has the feeling of an old-style Japanese inn. The bath looks run-down, but the water is excellent. The open-air bath is absolutely fantastic. There's a waterfall you can look at as you bathe, which led to the bath being called The Waterfall-Gazing Bath. (Check out some pictures here.)

One weird thing about this place, though; there's a door into the hillside next to the parking lot.

Creepy stuff.

After the bath, I got back on the road. After a little bit of driving, I saw this.

Mt. Yotei. Man, that's a pretty mountain.

I cruised through Jack's old stomping grounds of Kyogoku Town and grabbed a drink of water at Fukidashi Park before heading home. Jack always talks about how great the water there is, but now I finally understand what he was talking about. The water is great, plus it's just shooting out of the hillside. This is not some little dribbling stream; this is a waterfall of pure, fresh water.

And then I drove home. Here's hoping this trip will help me get back into the swing of things.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Sixteen Men On A Dead Man's Chest...

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

Or two, as in this case.

There's a distillery down in Okinawa that makes rum.

One of the major crops grown in Okinawa is sugar cane, and although awamori is the more well-known booze to come out of Okinawa, sugar cane is really all you need to make rum.

I found out about this company when I read an in-flight magazine, and decided to order some rum from them.

The bottles came today. Yay!

The red one is rum made from the normal distilling process, which means that it uses sugar processed from the cane. The green one is rum made through a much rarer process, namely that the cane is squeezed to get liquid sugar out, and that liquid is used to make rum.

I think the green bottle's rum tastes a little better, but they both make good rum-and-cokes.

Shiver me timbers and make 'em walk the plank.