Part 2: North and East in Hokkaido

By allrite on September 20, 2017


Posted in: Japan, JRNEWStour, Railways

This is when my journey around each of the Japanese railway system’s compass points really begins.

Again I don’t need the alarm clock to wake me up for my early train ride. Fortunately Japan is currently an hour behind Australia so it doesn’t feel so early. I even have time to buy some more snacks from the shops prior to boarding.

My trip will start with a ride on the first Hikari superexpress (Shinkansen) of the day to Tokyo. There is an even earlier and faster Nozomi service, but Japan Rail pass holders are not permitted to travel on those.

I am booked into the very first car of the 16 carriage train, just behind the driver’s duck nosed cabin and I have it all to myself.

I will be catching five trains today with a total journey time of just under eighteen hours. That’s by no means my longest trip time on a train. When I was a university student my trips home between Canberra and Rockhampton lasted just under thirty-six hours, the cut-off beyond which the government would pay for airfares.

At least on this trip I knew that there was much less chance of being seated next to an obnoxious fat smoking drinker with poor personal hygiene habits. Instead I had a comfortable reclining seat with a huge amount of legroom and a trolley service right to the seat.

It is far more comfortable than flying economy with no fear of turbulence. I have done this route plenty of times. I am content just to sit back and relax and let all the stress of the past few weeks disappear in the blur of scenery outside the window as it rushes past at over 250 kilometres per hour.

So many tourists ride the Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka or Kyoto and think they have done Japanese trains. Sadly that just isn’t true. The scenery is not bad along the route, but so much of it is just rice paddies, factories and grey cities. You need to catch a slower local train and see Japan up close to get a real feel for it. There is so much nicer scenery to be observed and I can’t wait to do that on this trip.

But not so much today. This is about positioning myself and only one leg, the final one to be ridden mostly at night, will be new for me.

The highlight of the Tokaido Shinkansen is undoubtedly the sight of Mount Fuji. I am on the left of the train, the correct side for viewing it when heading to Tokyo, but the sky is filled with grey low morning cloud so I’m sure it will be hidden.

No, there it is! A great grey cone standing tall above the surrounding ranges, topped by a wig of cloud.

It’s just after nine in the morning when we pull into Tokyo station, the terminus for the train. The Shinkansen lines are divided into sections and no one train operates it in entirety.

Tokyo station is busy and the Shinkansen area has construction going on making it even less pleasant than normal. I have about half an hour before my next train. I’ve had a breakfast of convenience store sandwiches, but my next journey will take me past lunch. I have to head up to the platform to find a shop and buy an ekiben, a bento box of chicken done three ways. The choices are somewhat limited here.

My train is a tengu nosed silvery green and pink Hayabusa Shinkansen service that travels up to 300 kilometres per hour all the way north across Tohoku before it slips under the waters of the Tsugaru Strait through the Seikan Tunnel. Unfortunately it’s very popular today and I am unable to get a window seat, so I am limited to glancing through my neighbour’s glass, resting and reading from my phone.

I check out the “Train Shop”, a catalogue in the seat pocket full of useless items like dog ramps up couches and a device to suck odours out of shoes that can be purchased via mail order. It’s easy to laugh at it, but perhaps there are just as silly things for sale on the television shopping programs that I studiously avoid.

The Shinkansen service all the way to Hokkaido only began in March last year, replacing the narrow gauge passenger train from Aomori to Hakodate. I’ve ridden both and the extra speed is welcome on this long journey, now reduced to four hours.

The terminus of the Shinkansen is currently Shin Hakodate Hokuto, a new station complex a distance from Hokkaido’s second city of Hakodate. There’s not much to do in the half hour before my next train and only a single convenience store to provide sustenance.

A platform attendant directs passengers to the correct standing location for their car number. The positions are labelled by animal names whereas the tickets show numbers. Already at the platform is a freight train waiting for clearance to proceed south. The tracks through the Seikan have an extra rail to allow both narrow gauge freight trains and standard gauge Shinkansens to operate over the same lines before splitting off at the other side.

Eventually the freight train departs and our Super Hokuto service arrives from Hakodate. It’s an older train and the cabin smells of urine every time the vestibule door opens. Unfortunately I have a case of the runs and smell it far too often.

At least I have a window seat on the right, for this is quite a scenic ride. We pass Lake Onuma before Mount Komagatake looms out of my window. Beyond this we begin following the coast of Uchiura Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The flat waters reflect the sky, lined with yellow grasses, bright green ground cover and fishermen’s huts. Colourful buoys and stringy nets in various states of disrepair surround the huts. Many buildings are run down. A tourist centre with a big crab sign, a factory, a warehouse. Others are still occupied.

I would love to step off the train and stop for a meal in one of the rest areas by the beach. There is no meal service on this particular train, though I have brought my own snacks. Still, it’s a long ride and I am glad when we approach Sapporo.

I spot a distant tower as we enter the suburbs of Hokkaido’s largest city. The Centenial Memorial Tower in Nopporo Shinrin park looks like Sauron’s Baradur without the flaming eye. No wonder it’s apparently described as unsafe to visit. Where’s a Hobbit when you need one?

I’ve got just under an hour in Sapporo. B has insisted that I bring back specific treats from Hokkaido and this might the only time I can get some of them, so I stock up on Royce and corn chocolates, including Royce’s chocolate coated potato chips (crisps for the English) and other delights from the local produce/tourist office store. A temporary stall near the entrance is selling fruit flavoured milks and I give the strawberry a try. They blend fresh fruit, milk and a drizzle of flavouring syrup and it’s not the nicest I’ve tasted, but at least I can pretend to be healthy. I have no wish to try their tomato milk though. Uggh!

I wander around looking for somewhere to eat, but nothing looks like I’ll have enough time to eat it before my next train. I really need fast food but something other than Mister Donut. Maybe it will just have to be another cold ekiben.

I head down past the ticket gates. The choices look like scallops, which I don’t eat, or convenience store bento boxes. I get a convenience store bento.

Only then do I spot the Lotteria hamburger outlet. Too late!

At least the Limited Express Lilac is a more modern train that doesn’t smell like a toilet. I set myself down for the next leg to Asahikawa and eat my bento for dinner as the light fades outside. The scenery outside looked nicer when we headed up Asahikawa in January to visit the famous zoo there, passing through the snow to temperatures below minus twelve degrees celcius, the coldest we’ve experienced.

There is just enough time to change trains at Asahikawa to the Super Soya Express to Wakkanai, crossing the platform from the green nosed electric set to its blue nosed diesel equivant. Final train for the day!

There isn’t much to see out of the window on this almost four hour journey. The overhead red lights demarking the edges of roads which in winter could be covered in snow and the odd car or truck’s headlamps as they raced along. Occasionally we’d pass a town still lively into the night, amber lights shining over the streets and passengers milling at the platform. The manager of JR Hokkaido was proposing to only keep the line under direct control to Nayoro, a small university city, probably the busiest of the stops.

Beyond Nayoro lies mostly darkness. A poor internet connection means chatting with B and Alex was difficult, but there is enough time for them to tell me they’d watched the season finale for Doctor Who before me. I implore them not to spoil it for me. Fortunately my subscription means that I’ll be able to download it tomorrow and watch before we met again.

Instead I decide to watch an old episode on my tablet. After such a long day doing very little it was wonderful to travel to somewhere else in time and space, if only for a little while.

Our scheduled arrival time comes and passes. Not that I am worried, I have nowhere else to be after this. Finally we approach the edges of Wakkanai, colourful lights strung up over the streets. We slow and come to a stop, the last train for the day at Japan’s most northern station.

I’m not alone in taking photos of the train and the sign beyond its stop buffer. But the station and its attached cinema are closing for the night and I have a hotel to check into. I’ve just made ticked off my first goal in time for the end of the day! I’ve made it to the north.

The Dormy Inn stands high above most other buildings in Wakkanai’s centre, making it easy to find in the quiet streets of a city gone to bed but for the straggling passengers from the train.

Sadly their free ramen service is already closed for the night, I really could have done with a bowl of noodles in hot soup. This far out there aren’t even any twenty-four hour convenience stores, or kombinis as they are known. The one at the station closed at midnight.

Fortunately, their top floor spa is still open. What could be better after eighteen hours of travel than soaking in a big hot bath?

The pleasure begins with the pre-path wash, sitting down on a stool and rinsing the entire body with the shower and the slap of water poured from a bowl. I’ve learned to feel less self-conscious about being naked in a semi-public area, but tonight the only other occupant quickly leaves.

The rectangular indoor bath is nice, but the outdoor rotemburo, decorated to feel semi-natural, nautical, is even better. The contrast between the cool northern air and the hot water is wonderful. Only the need to sleep eventually makes me leave.

I go to bed feeling very relaxed indeed!

Highlights from Shin Osaka to Wakkanai

I get to sleep in! There’s a six thirty am train out, but no, I need at least one day in four where I’m not leaving early in the morning. Besides, what’s the point of coming so far if I don’t see anything?

The Dormy Inn promises a buffet breakfast full of local delights. That means only my second meal since leaving Australia that is not prepackaged.

Wakkanai is a fishing port so there is plenty of seafood on offer, much of it raw. It is labelled in Japanese and English with instructions how to make kaisen donburi, a bowl of rice topped with your choice of sashimi and bright orange salmon roe. There are also bowls of salted raw squid guts, octopus tentacles and natto (Japan’s equivalent of Vegemite).

Now, I have to be honest here and say that I’m not a big fan of sashimi or other raw seafood. Nor do I really wish to start the day with tofu, pickled vegetables and sticky seaweed. I’ve tried it, can eat it, but it’s not something that brings me much pleasure.

Fortunately there are plenty of other dishes to choose from, such as cooked fish, chicken, croquettes and salad. I eat and I eat well. It is just a pity B and Alex aren’t here to share in it.

Satisfied, I return to my room, collect my luggage and leave it with the hotel as I set out to explore Wakkanai.

The cloud is burning away to blue skies but the atmosphere is slightly unreal here. Though there are people on the streets and cars on the roads it feels dead. Behind the hotel a single wind turbine silently spins atop the hill, a lookout tower accompanying it. I wonder if I should try walking up there, but decide to save my energy.

Ahead of me a single worker sweeps the paths of a park. I visit the bronze statues within. A lone girl touching her hair. Another, entitled rhythym, of three children dancing in a circle. A stone memorial to the people of the north. Freshly planted flowers welcome the warmer months.

Further along is a pale yellow building that appears to be a derelict apartment block, the lower windows boarded up. I listen to the wind rustling through the long grass that surrounds the building. Wakkanai is reputed to be the windiest city in Japan.

I’m making my way towards the breakwater that is the defining feature of Wakkanai. To the left of the seawall are a few small boats moored behind a wall of concrete jacks. The air smells of seaweed, a pungent scent which recalls so many happy memories for me of holidays by the sea.

The winds and waves are fierce here and the most famous structure in Wakkanai, the breakwater, was built to protect travellers transferring between the railway and the ships docked in the port. Or maybe it was built as part of a submarine base. Either way, the semi-arched 427 metre 70 pillared concrete structure is very impressive.

The only remnants of the railway here is now a pair of steam engine wheels mounted as a memorial. School kids and a tourists stand in front of it and another monument taking photos. A couple of crew members tend a large Japan Coast Guard ship docked in front.

This would have been the furthest north the railway stretched in Hokkaido, but once there would have been even more northerly Japanese railways and where the coast guard ship is berthed would have been a ferry to the island of Karafuto, or Sakhalin as it now called. Now Russian territory, it was once possessed by Japan, who built railways upon it that are still in operation today.

A smaller Coast Guard cutter is berthed further back, then there is a pair of shiny metal arch topped buildings whose purpose I cannot fathom. They look like government offices or a museum, and the bus terminal sits in front. But the complex appears closed, whether temporarily or permanently I cannot tell.

It is actually a swimming pool and indoor sports facility, closed on Mondays.

Walking back towards the station I come across an orange building selling fresh seafood and souvenirs below and with a restaurant above. B has asked me to bring her back a crab, but they are expensive and I do not think they will keep that long. Instead I buy omiyage, gifts of snacks. Hokkaido chocolates we like last time, some local cream buns. I try Soya Cheese Misaki Wafers from the little sample box. As I walk around the flavour stays in my mouth and I decide I like them a lot. Another pack then.

Outside the back of the station is a stretch of preserved line with a buffer stop, an unused extension showing that the station was once further north. Beyond that metal tracks set into the ground, a point, perhaps indicating that this line once served freight from the port as well. Where do we say the end of the northern line really is? Well, I’ve walked it, now done it, as far as I can either way.

Across from the station, towards the centre of town, there is a marquee set up in a car park. Beneath it are stalls selling foods and produce. I buy a punnet of bright red cherries after taking a try. After all, fresh fruit is healthy! They turn out to be from Yamagata Prefecture in Honshu and not local at all. At another stall a man dressed like a Buddhist monk gives me a slice of smoked cheese flavoured pickled gobo root to try. He says it’s good with beer.

I don’t drink beer, but ten minutes later the smoky cheese has won me over and I come back and buy a pickled root. Not sure what I’m going to do with it.

There’s a camera crew filming in the main street. Many of the shops are closed and there isn’t much to see. Somebody is frying gyoza and dumplings outside a supermarket, but when I go across to purchase something he has disappeared inside.

Wakkanai is closer to Russia than it is to Tokyo and many street and shop signs include Cyrillic versions.

Further on I find the post office, withdraw some money from their ATM, one of the few networks to handle foreign cards. Across the road is a big book shop and a large Sapporo Drug Store outlet. My bowels have been giving me trouble since I arrived in Japan. I know that it’s a consequence of the anxiety and I’m sick of it, so I go looking for medication inside the drug store.

It’s confusing and there aren’t many people around to help. I use Google Translate’s photo recognition software to translate the packs of medicine. It’s only a couple of months since I recovered from a bout of gastro so I can still remember the name of the active ingredient. I finally attract the attention of a pharmacist and he helps me find some Loperamide, or “Roperamido” as it’s called here.

I’m in the vicinity of the hotel, so I return, use their facilities and pick up my bags. I look for somewhere to eat lunch, eventually ending up in the big orange building again. I climb up the stairs and head inside to the restaurant. Lots of seafood donburi, but I don’t feel like that. I want seafood, but not raw seafood. I settle on what looks to be tempura prawns in curry sauce with rice.

When I bite into them I discover that they are nice than prawns and are actually crab legs. That makes me happy, even if the rest of the dish isn’t really what I came to eat here.

The modern station includes a cinema complex. I read about it a few years ago in Spike Japan and had actually toyed with the idea of watching a subtitled movie there, if only I had arrived early enough. Not that there was anything I really wanted to watch. A Pokemon movie? No thanks.

I pop into the tourist office for some brochures about some places I’ve already seen and no longer have time for and foods I may have eaten or not. The sole convenience store, a Seico Mart, is next door and I take the opportunity to stock up on some supplies for the coming train ride. Melon flavoured mochi and melon flavoured drinks. Because why not?

Our train arrives into the station, separated from us by the big glass windows framing the monument to the most northern station. We have to wait for all the incoming passengers to pass the ticket inspector before we can reverse the process.

The Sarobetsu number four express for Asahikawa is much like the train which brought me here, modern and comfortable. Only today we are travelling in daylight and I get to see what I missed out on last night.

Once we are out of Wakkanai we pass through some lonely coastal scenery. It then turns pastoral, with rolling fields of cattle and horse studs, the blue skies disappearing to be replaced with overcast grey. Past Onnopunai we begin following the broad Teshio river and I begin to feel like I’m on a more scenic and worthwhile voyage.

We are passing though forest beyond Teshionakagawa when the train comes to an aburpt halt. Something is wrong, but I can’t understand the announcement over the speakers.

Have we derailed? Or did we hit someone or something? JR Hokkaido claims it can’t afford to maintain all its railways, so I wonder if it is a track or train fault.

We stop there for a while as train staff don fluorescent vests and inspect the exterior. It feels like the train between Chiang Mai and Bangkok all over again, even down to the forest, and I hope that we will not be as late. I have a short connection in Asahikawa, although there is one more train available, I was looking forward to an earlier night at Abashiri.

Fortunately the engines start again and we are once more speeding off down to Asahikawa. We make up time, but I am still racing between the platforms at this very attractive station with its walls of wooden slats, each one labelled with someone’s name.

I wish I had time to buy some snacks at the platform kiosk, but I don’t dare risk missing the train.

The Taisetsu Express to Abashiri is an older train than the one I was just on, but it has powerpoints for each seat row. It also feels more open than its more modern cousin. I’m in the rear carriage and if I stand near the guard’s compartment I can watch the track flowing away from us through attractively green countryside. This train ride just feels right.

I remember as a young kid in Melbourne imagining that the open suburban train I was on would take me far, far away. So many long distance trains enclose you in a small space, high seats segregating you from the world inside and outside the train. This one feels bright and open and I love it.

I’ve been on this line before as far as Kamikawa, from where we caught a taxi to Sounkyo Gorge. Just as on that journey the scenery is very pretty, travelling though a valley lined with rocky ridges alongside a river and through fairytale forests.

Engaru is a Y junction in the line and our train changes direction for the final stretch to Abashiri. So now I was in the front carriage watching the neon signs and signal lights flying towards us.

It was well and truly dark by the time we arrive into Abashiri, my stop for the night. Abashiri holds no geographical signficance with regards to the railway location, but is far as I can get towards my next point today.

My hotel, the Toyoko Inn, is just across the road from the station. At a quarter to nine it is my earliest arrival so far in Japan. Before leaving Australia I imagined that I might not have a chance for a proper sit down meal until here, so I’d scanned Google maps for anywhere open a bit late.

Obviously my prediction was untrue and I’d already had some great food, but I hadn’t yet had dinner and I felt like something nice.

There were two late night chains near the station. A Sukiya, serving rice bowls with meat toppings. Honestly, after a few bento boxes I didn’t feel like that. The other was a Victoria Station “family restaurant” serving Western style food.

As I’ve written before, I feel a rather romantic connection with the family diners. You don’t find them much in Australia anymore, but when B and I were dating we’d often find ourselves at an all you can eat Sizzler, Pizza Hut, Matildas or a highway roadhouse, cars racing past along outside. They are islands of light and life in the inky blackness outside.

I know many will be aghast that I should choose a chain over an individual restaurant and the truth is that I don’t disagree with you, for by definition a standalone restaurant is a unique experience that one can theoretically have nowhere else. But sometimes all you want is anonymity where one is not personally involved with the restaurant’s food or owners. That is me tonight. I’m tired, I’m hungry and I don’t want to judge the food or be judged for eating it.

I only have my romantic memories for company when I enter the doors of the restaurant. Surprisingly for a city as far away from anything as Abashiri there is still life on a Monday night and I’m not alone, there are couples chatting and what looks like a group of railway workers. But I am on a table alone. The menu is mostly steak and hamburgers, which in Japan basically means the patty with no bun (although they have conventional hamburger chains as well), with unlimited refills softdrinks, soups and a salad bar as extras.

It is so nice to have an unhurried meal and the fare is hearty and easy on a weary palate. I even order a parfait for dessert. Then back to the hotel, for it will be another early start tomorrow.

Highlights from Wakkanai to Abashiri

Today my mission is the easternmost station in Japan, Higashi-Nemuro. I’m still on Sydney time because I awake early. It’s already bright sunshine outside, a real summer’s morning.

The Toyoko Inn chain provides free breakfast, but not until six and in my muddled state I don’t think I have time. I’ve only got an hour in this town so I figure that I had better go out and have a look. Abashiri is best known in Japan for its prison, built over one hundred of twenty years ago and infamous for its forced labour and harsh conditions. Today the city still houses a maximum security prison.

No time for a voluntary visit and not desire for an involuntary one.

In winter ice from the Amur River in Siberia flows down off the coast of Abashiri and is a popular sight for tourists. Again the time is wrong, indeed the whole season is.

There is enough time for a walk across the bridge beside the hotel to admire the sun shimmering off the river. The banks look unloved and weeds sprout in between the concrete steps lining the banks. Beyond the river I can see the centre of town and the coast. It’s pretty in its own way and I wish that I had a bit longer here.

I cross over the road to the station, which is fronted by a telephone booth with a plastic snow roof and a statue of a spear throwing Ainu hunter, a native of the area prior to occupation by the southern Japanese. To the left is a twenty-four hour Lawson convenience store and from here I purchase some packaged items for breakfast. But when I look at the departures board at the station I realise I had enough time for a quick breakfast at the hotel, if only I hadn’t checked out.

Japan is possibly the only nation in the world where there is nothing odd about train photography. The station gates at Abashiri are only opened for arrivals and departures and already there is a man at the platform opposite with his camera gear waiting for our train’s arrival.

It’s a single carriage rail motor, an inauspicious ride for a three hour plus journey along the main line to Kushiro. More of a rail bus. Not that I am complaining, mind you, because these are exactly the kind of trains that I love in Japan, chugging their way along rural lines.

With sunny skies overhead this is a cheerful morning ride indeed. We follow the coast for a while, the bright green grasslands on either side interspersed with colourful flowers, pinks, oranges, yellows and purples. Irises and tigerlillies, glimpses of ocean as we run between the land and the sea.

Many of the school kids who have joined us during the journey depart at Shiretoko-Shari. We too leave the sea and begin heading inland, past farmlands with a backdrop of Mount Shari looming in the distance.

We stop for a while at the small station of Midori, which despite its name is mainly painted in pastels than the green of its name. Another passenger checks with the driver that we’ll be long enough for him to run around and take lots of photos and use the facilities.

Eventually another train arrives from the opposite direction and the line is clear for us to proceed. We are now heading into the forested mountains, very pretty. I catch a whiff of hydrogen sulphide, rotten eggs gas, in the cabin. I wonder if I will see patches of steam emerging in the forest shade, but the source is revealed as a tall mountain appears ahead of us.

As we approach closer huge clouds of steam can be seen billowing from its sides. This is bare sided volcanic Mount Io, overlooking Kawayu Onsen station. Io is an appropriate name for the mountain, as the sulphurous moon of Jupiter which shares its name is the most volcanic place in the Solar System.

I wish that I have the time to stop and explore here, that I wasn’t forced to pack my travels into such a short period. It’s just the kind of odd stop in the middle of nowhere that deserves more investigation.

We then return to an agricultural landscape before arriving in the Kushiro Marshlands around Toro. These are the only remaining home of the highly endangered Japanese crane, better known as the bird symbol on the tail of the national airline.

Again there is no time to explore further as we make our way down to the industrial port of Kushiro, terminus of this train.

Highlights from the Senmo Line from Abashiri to Kushiro

Kushiro’s station is a big ugly four storey building with a large yellow and green neon “Station 946 Diner” sign at the front. It’s the wrong time of day for a meal, but I’ve got an hour to kill before the next train, so I buy a cream filled fish shaped pancake bun and use it as a source of humour.

I decide to go for a brief wander along the main street. An old lady hollers out a “Sugoi!” at the sight of my backpacks.

There is not much to see, the shops still closed this early, so I walk back to the station. When I cross over to my platform I spot a huge commotion.

It’s a diesel locomotive hauled tourist train, the Norokko, heading back up to the marshlands around Toro. It would certainly be fun to ride in one of the open windowed carriages, but I have just come from there and it doesn’t fit in my timetable, should there even be a seat left.

The rowdy passengers photographing themselves in front of the train seem to be mainly Chinese in origin.

Our train to Nemuro is much more modest, a silver and red striped single diesel rail car, just like my previous ride. The cabin is fairly crowded with most passengers heading straight for the right hand side window seats, obviously the better view. I am stuck on the left, though free to roam around to the front and rear windows should I so desire.

After crossing the Kushiro River the Nemuro Main Line runs inland for a while past farms and forests. Feeling rather tired after the late night and early morning I am content to sit back and just look out the window until we reach Monshizu, where a view of Akkeshi Bay appears to our right. The line skirts the water, swinging around at Akkeshi to follow the coast of Lake Akkeshi and the Chiraikaribetsu River the feeds into it.

Suddenly I am switching from the back to the front of the train, for the scenery is magical as we enter the marshlands around the river. We rattle across low bridges over the rivulets threading the swampy landscape, following a line of telegraph polls as birds launch themselves off the tracks to escape the approaching train. I feel like I’m in the train on Spirited Away, not the last time I will recall that beautiful animation today.

After Chanai I drift off to sleep, lulled by the rocking of the train. I wake with scant moments to spare before we pass the easternmost station of Japan, Higashi-Nemuro, without stopping. I don’t even get a photo. Not to worry, because I’ll have to pass it again later today when I return.

A couple of minutes later and we are at the end of the line, Nemuro. The crowd pour out, all seemingly with a destination to go to, replaced by the passengers returning to Kushiro.

I could join them. I’ve completed my task, the easternmost point and could look forward to an earlier night at my ultimate destination of Sapporo. But my timetable allows me to spend a couple of hours here. On Google Maps, during the planning stages for this trip, I spotted a couple of crab shops near the station. I’m hoping to have some grilled crab for lunch and take some back for the rest of the family.

From Kushiro to Nemuro

Sadly, when I walk down the street and take a look under the awnings it appears that I am out of luck. It must not be the right season. The crabs don’t look fresh, are still beyond my budget and nobody is cooking anything to be eat straight away.

Now I need to find some lunch. Time to take a walk into town.

The silvery sky of high cloud and the quiet streets give Nemuro a mystical air, as if I had passed across into a slightly different reality. Again I thought of Spirit Away, for it would not have surprised me if the town was lying in wait for the spirits to emerge.

Nemuro’s station is around a kilometre away from the centre of the town. Along the road from the station are a cake shop and a fish monger with a variety of weird looking fresh seafood on ice. Sadly no cooked for available. I should have checked my map closer as I miss the open sushi restaurant across the road as well. I’d read that the town is famous for its catch.

I walk through a park with a memorial to Adam Laxman, the first envoy from Russia, who landed at Nemuro in 1792 to setup diplomatic relations with Japan. The plaque is in Japanese, English and Russian.

Ultimately Laxman was unsuccessful at his task, for at that time Japan was closed to foreigners except for the port of Nagasaki in the far south.

A mother and her young children played around the park fountain. It was a little surprising as remote towns like Nemuro are suffering from shrinking demographics as the young depart for the opportunities of the big cities, leaving the elderly and a decaying town behind.

This decay is very much in evidence in Nemuro as I walk the streets. An old wooden warehouse boarded up, its roof rusting. Crumbling facades and empty shops, their windows shuttered, contents left to gather dust. As I look out towards the port, a house gradually being reclaimed by weeds, the collapsed wooden structure of a disused warehouse.

I walk alleyways of shuttered izukaya, past closed coffee and clothes shops, looking unsuccessfully for somewhere to eat. In the main road one solid building promotes Ermenegildo Zegno suits, but it must have been a long time since anyone required luxury Italian suits here. And Fashion House Do Do is as extinct as the bird in its name.

On one street corner a loudspeaker advertises food and products, as if to make up for the lack of people on the streets. A sadness pervades the streets.

I give up on my quest for fresh seafood and return to the izukaya alley where I had spotted a little udon restaurant that appeared to be open. The two old ladies welcome me, their only customer this late in the afternoon, inside. I choose a kake tempura udon, one of the few things I can read on their small menu. An old man, probably the husband of one of the ladies, arrives and thrusts of Japanese tourist booklet of vouchers on me.

It is an enjoyable meal, though sadly to generic a dish to be special. I thank the owners and the start the long walk back towards the station.

If I can’t get a seafood lunch I hope at least to buy a bento box of local specialities for dinner on the train tonight. Opposite the station is tourist centre, but sadly they are not selling any fresh food either. I try to ask the elderly souvenir stand attendant in Japanese what products are local in Nemuro, but I am tired and can’t think straight. He requests I speak English instead, as his English is better than my Japanese right now.

I buy some crackers and add them to my burgeoning bag of omiyage for B and Alex.

It looks like my only chance for take-away food is the supermarket across the road. It is not inspiring at all, but the train is leaving soon and I don’t have much choice.

The same kind of train that delivered me to Nemuro, a single diesel railcar, will take me back to Kushiro. This time I get a seat on the left.

I’m ready when we stop at Higashi-Nemuro to pick up one young man, another tourist by the looks of him. Japan’s easternmost station is merely a side platform without shelter and just a white pillar to denote its status.

In my sleep on the way in I missed all the coastal scenery as we wind our way through the grasslands, looking down towards the bays and across to the wind turbines dotting the coast. There are farms and horse studs. Japanese horses have become better known in Australia since their successes and failures at the Melbourne Cup in recent years.

When we return to the marshlands around Akkeshi I am again overwhelmed by their beauty. I can’t believe that this railway line would be considered for closure. It is far too pretty.

Past Akkeshi Bay we entered mountain forests. I see sika deer springing out of the way of the train, back into the pretty depths of the forest.

Returning to Kushiro from Nemuro

A gloomy dusk falls as we arrive into Kushiro. This time it is a quick changeover to the modern Super Ozora train that will take me to Sapporo. The skies are a dull grey now and the dingy industrial areas on one side and the sea on the other reflect it.

Darkness falls and there is nothing further for me to do than just sit back and relax for the four hour journey to Sapporo.

B sends me photos of their hotel in Sydney. Unlike me, they are staying in the Stamford Sydney Airport, arrived early and were upgraded to a room with views of the airport. Much nicer than the Ibis Budget. Then I watch the latest episode of Doctor Who, last of the current season until Christmas.

When I arrive in Sapporo Station at eleven PM everything is closed but for the convenience stores outside. As I walk to my hotel, a Toyoko Inn, I am glad that it is not winter and I don’t have to worry about slipping and sliding down the patch of snow and ice that was there six months ago.

In three days I have done north and east. It is now time to head southwards to meet up with family and complete the final two compass points.


3 thoughts on "Part 2: North and East in Hokkaido"

  1. Chris says:

    Fascinating insights into modern-day Japan. Never realized they are struggling with emptying cities like they apparently are..

    1. allrite says:

      Hi Chris,

      The demographics of the population are skewing to the elderly while the young leave for cities like Tokyo and Osaka in search of jobs and “life”. If you want to know more (and have a good read) the sadly no longer updated Spike Japan blog is a great place to start.

      Andrew

  2. Bim says:

    I love reading your trip reports on airliners and followed your link to here. It looks like a tiring but amazing trip. I love these quiet, rural towns but am saddened by the decay.

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