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Shimonoseki to Matsue
I'd anticipated possible difficulties in re-entering Japan on July 24th, since my working visa had expired on the day of my departure for Korea, but getting in with a Temporary Visitor stamp in my passport proved not to be a problem. (Maybe it helped that I'd taken the precaution of getting the airline to fax me a copy of my flight itinerary back to the UK, and was able to show this and explain my situation in Japanese to the immigration officials.) I'd been hoping to get away from Shimonoseki quite early but had to wait until the TiS office in the station opened at 10am before I could exchange my Japan Rail Pass voucher for the actual pass. (You can exchange them in advance, but only when you're already in possession of the appropriate visa, so I couldn't have exchanged it before leaving for Korea.)
My late departure from Shimonoseki meant that I only had about three hours to spend in Hagi, a nice town with castle ruins, quite a few samurai houses and other feudal-period buildings, well-known pottery, and what looked like a pretty good beach too. It would have been nice to have a full day there. I rented a bike from the depot by the station (the lady in the tourist information office got me a discount - 3 hours for the price of 2) and used it to trundle round as many of the attractions as I had time for.
A shrine in the castle park in Hagi.
From Hagi I went on to Matsue-shi, where I was staying the night with an ALT called Hannah. There were some magnificent coastal views from the train on the way there. Hannah picked me up at the station, and after freshening up at her place we went out to catch the tail end of a local festival. Bumped into several other ALTs including Hannah's friend Seun, who earlier had been helping with one of the mikoshi.
Coastal views from the train.
Hannah (my host), and Seun helping herself to a souvenir of the festival.
The following morning I went sightseeing in Matsue, taking in the Lafcadio Hearn Museum (Hearn was a writer who settled in Japan in the late 19th century; he was either Irish or British, or possibly American, depending on who wrote the blurb you're reading); the "buke yashiki" samurai house a few doors down; a big souvenir shop with all kinds of prefectural specialities; and the castle, one of Japan's few remaining originals. It's about the same age as Hikone's and the main keep is considerably more impressive, but it's only an Important Cultural Property, whereas Hikone-jo is a National Treasure. I have no idea why this is; apparently Matsue-jo was designated a National Treasure at one point but was later demoted.
The samurai house, and Matsue Castle.
If I'd had the time I would have liked to fit in a visit to Izumo Taisha (Grand Shrine) too, but unfortunately that wasn't possible.
Tottori to Hikone
After lunch I left for Tottori, where I had two objectives: to see the sand dunes and find somewhere to sleep for the night. The tourist information office booked me into the cheapest place in town (a minshuku-style hotel for ¥4000), and after dumping my bags there I took a bus out to the dunes, which were well worth the effort. Going there fairly late in the day was good too, because all the coach parties had already left so there weren't too many people around.
The sand dunes at Tottori.
The next morning it was on to Amanohashidate, considered one of Japan's Three Most Scenic Views. Amanohashidate means "Bridge to Heaven", and it's actually a 4km long sandbar which turns a bay into a saltwater lake. There are only a couple of breaks in the sandbar, at the end closest to the station, and these are spanned by bridges (one of which rotates to let boats pass). Had to take a non-JR line to get there.
I rented a bike for two hours and cycled across the "bridge", then walked up the hill to the viewpoint at Kasamatsu-koen. Most people take the funicular railway or the cable car, but if you go up to the left there's a flight of steps leading up to the same place. I think the climb took about twenty minutes. You're supposed to get the best view by bending over and viewing the "bridge" upside-down between your legs, so of course I had to do the obligatory tourist thing, but personally I thought it didn't add much.
Amanohashidate: taking in the view in the approved manner; a view of the "bridge" without me in the way; and fugu on sale at one of the souvenir shops.
Next stop was Nishi Maizuru, where I had an hour or two to kill between trains. Probably a nice enough place to live, but didn't seem very interesting to visit. I had been planning to meander back to Hikone via Wakasa Bay and Tsuruga, but I decided that the coastal scenery there wasn't going to be any better than I'd already seen, so I took the shorter route back via Kyoto instead. Stayed at Amy's.
International Bird Man Rally
July 27th was Day One of the two-day Tori Ningen (Bird Man) Rally, where teams from all over Japan (and apparently beyond too, though I didn't see any evidence of that) bring their home-made aircraft to Hikone's Matsubara Beach and compete to see who can remain airborne for the longest. I had to catch my train to go to Hokkaido, but Amy, Akio and I managed to see a couple of the flight attempts beforehand. Most of the teams seemed to be from technical universities. There are three classes: gliders, man-powered aircraft, and - new this year - helicopters. I found out later, when I saw the event on TV, that the ones I'd seen were two of the helicopters, and one of them managed to win the class by lasting 6-point-something seconds before it hit the water. (With the other two classes the objective was to cover as much distance as possible; the best gliders managed a few hundred metres and the longest man-powered flight went about 4km, if I remember rightly.) It took a long time to prepare each aircraft for its flight, but it was worth going along for a short time.
The Bird Man contest: one of the gliders; Amy and Akio with the launchpad behind them; the winning helicopter in flight. (The big pink balloon belonged to the next competitor, the "Pink Panther".)
At 3pm I caught the shinkansen to Tokyo, then another shinkansen to Morioka, an express from there to Aomori, and finally (with a tight connection) an express sleeper to Sapporo. Arriving in Sapporo around 7am the next day, I had a look around while I waited for the tourist information office to open, and found the famous Sapporo Clock Tower, later described by one of my colleagues at Nishiko as one of Japan's greatest disappointments. It was quaint, but it's true that it wasn't very impressive, especially when surrounded by the tall city buildings that make up today's Sapporo. When the tourist information office opened, I picked up maps for most of the places I was planning to visit (the lady there spoke such good English that she was able to identify my nationality from my accent and handwriting!) then went back and had a look round the inside of the clock tower while I waited for my next train, a late morning express to Kushiro.
The Sapporo Clock Tower.
Akan National Park
At Kushiro I changed to a local train for Mashu (in a small town called Teshikaga, on the edge of Akan national park). This train took us through part of the Kushiro Wetlands national park, famous for its red-crested cranes. I saw about half a dozen white things that may or may not have been cranes; either the train was moving too fast or they were too far away for me to be sure. I don't think there are many of the red-crested ones around at this time of year anyway, so even if they were cranes, they probably weren't the famous kind. I did see a few wild deer too.
Spent the next two nights in Mashu-ko youth hostel, which was a bit remote but a very nice hostel, with proper beds (not bunks) and helpful staff. They were quite happy to ferry guests to and from the station, which must have been about an hour's walk away; there was a bus stop outside the hostel but there were very few buses. Each evening we were given green tea and cakes, and a talk on the local attractions and the activities available - though of course this was entirely in Japanese. One of the possibilities was "kengaku" (which literally means study by observation) at a local dairy farm, where the participants got to make their own butter, and another option was a canoe trip.
One of the staff advised me on how to make the most of my one full day in the area, so I followed his advice, and took the tourist bus that does a circuit of the main sights in Akan national park and ends up at some airport or other. It was a bit pricey, but definitely the easiest way of seeing the area if you didn't have your own transport. It started in Akan, in the south-west of the region, and passed the YH on its way up to Mashu-ko, so that was where I got on. There was a 25-minute stop for sightseeing at Mashu-ko, which was beautiful and pretty dramatic. It has a reputation for always being shrouded in mist, and there's a saying that if you can see the island in the middle of the lake then it means you'll get married late. It was a beautiful and mist-free day, so I got a clear view, but then by Japanese standards the prophecy has already come true for me! Actually it seems that recently the lake has been covered less and less often by mist. I suppose it's true that people are getting married later and later too, but I suspect that global warming has more to do with the real reason!
View of Mashu-ko. (The island's on the left, half-hidden by a leaf.)
Next we had about 15 minutes at Io-zan, or Sulphur Mountain, just outside the small town of Kawayu Onsen. This was very impressive, with steam belching out of vents in the mountainside. You could go right up to some of the vents, so you had to be careful not to get scalded. A few entrepreneurs were selling eggs that had been cooked in the steam.
Io-zan, and eggs cooking in one of the steam vents.
After passing through Kawayu Onsen we went down the east side of Kussharo-ko, with another stop at Suna-yu, where a hot spring bubles up and warms the sand on the shore of the lake. There wasn't really very much to see there, but if you dug down into the sand at the lakeside until you reached water, the water that you found was warm. The effect must be a lot more dramatic in winter.
The beach at Sunayu.
I got off the bus at Wakoto-hanto (peninsula), at the southern end of the lake. Followed the trail around the peninsula, then spent a while at the rotenburo (open-air onsen) there, but it was too hot for me to get any further than knee-deep. I wasn't about to strip off and jump in anyway, since it was right next to the beach with no shielding for privacy, and I didn't have a towel with me.
Wakoto-hanto: steam rising from vents by the lakeside; Kussharo-ko and me; the rotenburo.
I took a bus back to Kawayu Onsen and had a look around the town, with its warm river running through the centre. Then I followed a nature trail back to Io-zan and from there to the station, where I had an excellent pizza and then caught a train back to Mashu.
The warm river in Kawayu Onsen (kawa means river, and yu means hot water).
The following day was the final day of my one-week rail pass, so it was the last time I travelled on express trains. From the local train back down to Kushiro I definitely saw at least one crane, though it didn't appear to have any red plumage. (Maybe the females don't.) I spent an hour or so in Kushiro but it was pouring with rain so it wasn't much fun. From there I took express trains to Furano, where I'd intended to spend a couple of hours going to see the lavender fields (the lavender was approaching the end of its season but there was still some around), but it turned out that none of it was very close to any stations. In fact the lady in the tourist information office told me I'd be better off going straight to Biei, my destination for the night, onthe edge of Daisetsuzan National Park, since there was lavender there too. The train from Furano to Biei turned out to be a special seasonal one called the Lavender Express, though "express" was a bit of a misnomer, since it was slower than the usual local trains!
The Lavender Express.
I'd been unable to book a bed in the youth hostel at Biei, but I'd got a map with comprehensive accommodation listings from the tourist information office in Sapporo, and I booked into a "rider house" called Hachinoyado. Rider houses are real budget accommodation aimed primarily at motorcyclists (motorcycling is very popular in Hokkaido); they offer floor space and basic washing and cooking facilities for usually just a few hundred yen per night. The drawback is that they're often difficult to reach by public transport, but this one was only about 2km from the station, and the owner came and picked me up anyway. It only cost ¥500 for the night, plus ¥50 to rent a blanket (most people bring their own sleeping bags), and for me it was one of the best nights of the trip. The place was pretty full, with about 18 of us altogether, and for the evening meal someone organised a big nabe to which we all contributed.
At the rider house.
My original plan for the next day had been to take a morning bus up to Shirogane Onsen, where I was staying the next night, and spend the rest of the day up there, but I got a better offer and ended up spending most of the day on the back of the bike of guy from Osaka called Watatani. A helmet was borrowed for me from the owner of the accommodation; it was too big but I padded it out with a headscarf and a towel. We went out with two of the other guests and visited most of the local attractions - various trees that had been used in ads (mostly for cigarettes) or given imaginative names for some other reason; fields of colourful crops; a park overlooking the town; and a photo gallery of work by Shinzo Maeda. The scenery around the town was not that dissimilar to central England, with rolling hills planted with crops, but the crops in Biei were more colourful; I suspect that a lot of them were planted more as tourist attractions than as money-making crops in their own right. We also took a trip up to a big waterfall inside the national park. Unfortunately I didn't get to see the Daisetsuzan mountain range, because it was covered with low cloud the entire time I was in the area. Our final destination for the day was Fukiage Onsen, a mixed rotenburo in the forest at the base of the mountains. The majority of people there were male; all the other women were wearing swimming costumes - except for one old lady in petticoat and knickers - so I was glad I'd brought mine. (I could alternatively have gone in wearing a towel, but then I'd have ended up with a soggy towel to carry.) Many of the men, on the other hand, were stark naked apart from small towels which where I come from wouldn't be considered big enough for anything other than drying your hands on. They would wander around holding the little towels in front of them, but a rear view, especially if you were sitting down in the water, left nothing to the imagination! Unfortunately there weren't many young ones, so it wasn't a particularly attractive sight!
Sightseeing in Biei: poppies; lavender field at the Outlook Park; at the waterfall; all I got to see of the Daisetsuzan mountain range.
Fukiage onsen. The blond guy is Watatani and the one with the yellow towel is Hori. The lower pool was as hot as I could stand; the upper one was scalding. See the little canopy with a bedraggled curtain across it? That was the extent of the changing facilities.
On the way back down to Biei, Watatani dropped me off at the Kokuminshukusha Shirakaba-sou, my accommodation in Shirogane Onsen. I'd been tempted to stay another night at the rider house instead but thought it was unfair to cancel my booking at such short notice - but then when I got there they had no record of my ever having booked! (I'd made the call about three weeks before; maybe the fact that the guy didn't realise until I gave my name that I wasn't Japanese should have set some alarm bells ringing at the time!) They did have space though, so I ended up staying there anyway, with a big room all to myself. Took a walk around the resort and found the Volcanic Defenses Information Center, which was quite interesting and explained why there are great lumps of concrete all over the place.
Shirogane Onsen: waterfall leaving mineral deposits on the rocks, and the riverbed built up with volcanic defences.
On August 1st I'd been planning to catch a bus down from Shirogane Onsen to Biei and then local trains from there to Sapporo, but when I left my accommodation I had more than two hours to wait for the next bus. The cloud was so low that it was foggy, so there was no point in going hiking, especially when I had all my luggage to carry, so I decided to take my life in my hands and try hitching. Made a sign saying "Biei please" in Japanese, and started walking. After I'd walked about 3km and about ten cars had gone past, I was picked up by a couple of teachers called Onishi from Kyoto who didn't know where Biei was but was it on the way to Sapporo? In the end I got a lift with them all the way to Sapporo, so it saved me not only time and the bus fare but also the cost of a day on an 18-kippu for the trains. They had a hire car with a brilliant GPS navigation system which not only showed them where to go but also gave spoken countdowns of the distance to the next turning.
I was dropped off at Nakajima-koen in the south of the city centre. Visited the Hoheikan (formerly used to accommodate visiting emperors), then walked up through Susukino to Odori-koen and met my host, an ALT called Alexandra, at the TV tower there. We went up to the viewing galleries on the top floor of the city hall (free, and almost as good a view as from the TV tower), then I went to the Botanical Gardens and the Old Hokkaido Government Building, and checked my email for free at the Yes electronics store on Tanuki-koji, and we we met up again back at her nearest station in the south of the city.
Sapporo: views from the city hall, and the Old Hokkaido Government Building, affectionately known as Aka-renga or Redbrick. Brick buildings are rare in Japan, but I find it hard to get excited about them when red bricks are the default building material where I come from.
I had the whole of the following day in Sapporo, before catching a night bus to Hakodate just before midnight, so I dumped my luggage in a locker and took a bus out to the Hokkaido Historical Village. Visited the Hokkaido Centennial Memorial Tower (you could walk up to the 8th floor but the lifts to the top seemed to be for staff use only) and walked through the lobby of the Hokkaido Historical Museum, but decided against looking round the whole thing. The historical village was interesting, with about 50 buildings, mostly originals brought from different parts of the island and set up to look as they would have done at various times between about 1905 and 1930. It took me about three hours to get round everything, but then I wasn't in a hurry.
House belonging to a well-off fishing family. Sixty employees lived in the left half of the main building, which is what the interior picture shows.
Having taken a bus back to the city centre, I had a look round the Sapporo Factory: former brewery, now a shopping and entertainment centre with a huge atrium. Spent some time in the other shopping areas too, and walked the entire length of Odori-koen with all its beer gardens, then wandered down to Susukino (the nightlife area) to take a look at the festival that was taking place there. The food and drink stalls weren't the usual takoyaki, yakisoba, etc.; they were more like miniature beer gardens set up by the local hostelries, and all of them were yellow. There was a small parade which seemed to take place several times, with the main attraction being a couple of girls dressed up in full maiko regalia, complete with 20cm tall geta (wooden sandals).
The atrium in the Sapporo Factory, decorated for the Tanabata festival.
Susukino festival. The second photo gives a good view of the maiko's neck make-up.