Rebun Island (礼文島)

礼 – Salute, bow

文 – sentence, literature, style

島 – island

“If I’m going to be alone, I’d rather be alone in nature, than alone surrounded by empty streets and buildings.”

A quick google search confirms that no one in fact said the above quote; however, if someone had, they would have perfectly captured my emotions in words.

In the port of Wakkanai there is a ferry that runs to the two Island off of Hokaido, Rebun and Rishiri four times a day (two times a day in the winter). If you plan on visiting either, I would strongly recommend starting early and getting the first ferry so you’re not pressed for time, or even worse, stuck on the island overnight. I fortunately made it back to the ferry in time, but I have heard that there are only a few hotels that are pretty pricey, and the hostels that are not expensive, have a mandatory wake up time, and group singing…If you know me personally, you’d know that I would be perfectly fine with the former…but would never be ok with the latter…

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Still….no people….

Getting to the island is simple enough. Exploring the island is even easier. There are multiple tour buses that start from the Ferry station. You can rent a car and even rent a bicycle to get around (which most people do).

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Imagine living in that house

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My original intention coming to Rebun was to hike its 8 hour trek; however, there was rain that day as well as the next five days. I debated trying to wait it out another day or two, but that would mean going back to Wakkanai and staying another night. After exploring the island all day I got back to the ferry terminal and checked the whether forecast one last time. 100% chance of rain for the next five days. Awesome.

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I decided that I would end my trip early and head back down south. There wasn’t much left for me to see in Wakkanai, and the guaranteed rain definitely didn’t help. I took the ferry back, purchasing a plane ticket on the way, and planned to take the next bus to the airport so I could make my flight. As luck would have it, I missed the bus, my fault completely, and I had to take a $50 cab there instead of a $6 bus ride. I was ready to go back to civilization.

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Airport “shop”

Hokkaido was definitely an interesting place. Every place I had gone to in the region felt like a completely different country when compared to mainland Japan. Sure they spoke Japanese, but the pace was much slower, the people much less Westernized (more Japanese I suppose?). I really hope to return one day, in warmer weather and with better plans (read: company).

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If you look at the wing of the plane, put your finger where the wing and horizon line up and work your way left from there, you can see Mt. Fuji!
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Pacific Ocean (太平洋)

太 – plump, thick

平 – even, flat

洋 – ocean, sea

Below are my “Pacific Ocean” pictures from my last and final deployment ever. I took 1 picture, every day for the entirety of the deployment. A lot of the pictures were rather similar, so they have not been posted. There is…..A LOT of ocean out there….IMG_2432IMG_2433IMG_2434IMG_2435IMG_2436IMG_2437IMG_2438IMG_2439IMG_2440IMG_2441IMG_2442IMG_2444IMG_2445IMG_2446IMG_2447IMG_2448IMG_2449IMG_2450IMG_2451IMG_2452IMG_2453IMG_2454

Wakkanai (稚内)

稚 – young, immature

内 – inside, within, house

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1094 km (680 miles) north of Tokyo lies Japan’s northernmost city Wakkanai, a town known for its geography and its seafood. If you’ve studied Japanese at all, you probably know that Wakkanai is pretty much the same as the shortened version of wakaranai (I don’t know).  The name itself actually comes from the Ainu Yam-wakka-nay, which supposedly means “cold-water river.” I can’t attest to the temperature of the rivers here, but I can say that in September, when the rest of Japan was sweating profusely, I was regretfully shivering in my very thin jacket.

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With an average low of of 14 degrees Celsius (57F) in September, and -6C (19F) in the winter, I’m surprised anyone actually lives here, year-round. But they do, supposedly. According to Wikipedia, 37,011 cold resistant people inhabit this city year round. If you had asked me, 24 hours after I arrived, how many people I thought lived here, I would guess a mere 2000.

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8PM

The two days I spent exploring the city, I saw but a handful of people. Not an exaggeration at all. The most populated places I saw included the train station and the hotel. The streets were empty, the shops deserted. It was rather creepy. Eerily creepy. As if everyone had left town for some event, and I was one of the few people, uninformed and left behind.

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8PM

I wanted to “explore the city” so I went out in search of food. My first stop landed me in a VERY local seafood restaurant. My Japanese is not by any means amazing now, but back then it was absolutely abysmal. All I could mutter was, “Tabette mo ii desu ka? Can I eat?” The owner of the shop, looking at me as if I was an alien or lost (both of which I could have easily been according to this short, older Japanese woman that seemed to have never left town) started spouting off in Japanese. Naturally, I knew nothing of what she was saying. I was not ignorant enough to assume she spoke English, as could be possible in Tokyo, so I curled my lips inward, embraced the tension in the room as everyone (note 3 people) looked at me, nodded my head and said “Hai…”

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Needless to say, I didn’t eat there. I continued on, in search of food, or English, or civilization as I cursed myself for not bringing a thicker jacket. After touring what seemed like the entire city and feeling a profound but unfamiliar loneliness that I had never experienced before, I decided I would just go back to the hotel and perhaps wait until morning to eat. “Maybe all the restaurants close early….everyday…” I thought.

I walked back at a much faster pace, attempting to quiet the relentless feeling of being isolated. I couldn’t put my finger on what I was experiencing. I’m not big on supernatural phenomenon, but the void created by lack of human interaction, even just seeing people on the street at a reasonable time, was replaced with something sinister. I began pushing away thoughts that something(s) was(were) watching me as I walked through the city. I wasn’t necessarily afraid, just creeped out. “Seriously, where is everyone?”

I finally arrived back at my hotel, and regained my humanity once I saw the receptionist. I’ve never been so excited to see a stranger before, and part of me just wanted to stay and “absorb” more human interaction. Starving, I asked “Tabemono wa… (Food?)” expecting him to either say sorry or something I would never understand. Instead, he pointed to his right and said “Hai.” How had I missed this? There was a restaurant…..In the hotel….and I just walked around a post-apocalyptic city for hours in search of food. I did away with my thoughts of calling myself an idiot and proceeded to the restaurant.

I walked in not expecting much, and I’m glad I did. The restaurant was about the size of my hotel room, maybe a little larger, with no windows and dim lighting. There were no paintings, no television screens, nothing but silence. Of course, there was no one there except the waiter, and I assumed, the chef. The options on the menu were seafood, seafood, and more seafood with absolutely no pictures. Overwhelmed, irritated, and starving I pointed to the middle option, and the waiter nodded and was off. Five minutes later, my life saving food had arrived. It wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t great, but it was definitely enough. Now that I had gotten food, I decided it was time to go to sleep, since there was, literally, nothing else to do in this city at 9PM.

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Upon waking, I decided to explore more before I departed via ferry to an island just off the coast of Wakkanai. Interestingly enough, there is a strong Russian presence in Hokkaido due to its proximity to Russia, naturally. As such, some of the signs are in Japanese, English, and Russian. I don’t remember seeing too many Russians as I didnt see too many people, but they had to be there, somewhere, perhaps watching….

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Some Russian
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Some more Russian, no English

Wakkani, a cool little city to see, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend visiting alone, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend visiting in the winter.

Mt. Asahi (旭岳) (Pt. 4) 2291m

About halfway through the hike, the elevation REALLY started to pick up. Fortunately, it seemed as if I was outside of bear territory; however, I was no longer just “coasting along.” Instead, I was in drenched in sweat, muscles aching, reconsidering my decision to hike this mountain. Rather than clearing, as I assumed it would once morning gave way to noon, the fog decided to pick up. I could not see more than 50 feet in any direction, and had no reference other than the occasional height post, of how high I really was. Given this, the edges seemed THAT much more terrifying.

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A little after noon, I decided to take a quick energy/snack/water break. A group of two, younger Japanese women who seemed to be in better shape caught up to me. “Konnichi wa!” they greeted. Just as I prepared to reply, a rude and obnoxious clap of thunder interrupted me. “Hmmm…” I thought, “probably not the best time and place to hear that.” I looked at the two girls the same way I look at flight attendants during turbulence. These girls looked like mountain pros and if they weren’t worried, everything should be fine.

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One of the girls looked out into the fog, tilted her head to the side, and drew her breath in hesitation. She said something to her friend, and they both contemplated what I’m assuming was their decision to continue on. I forgot what the word for safe was so I stated the word for danger in a rising intonation and pointed behind me. “Abunai?” The friend that had been silent before laughed and said “Oh-Kei desu…..maybe.” We were over 1500m (4900ft) in elevation, and there was thunder, I assumed either next to me or below me. I frightenly chucked, “nice…ki o tsukete” and they were off. I took a few more minutes to hydrate and eat my sugar gummies as they faded off into the mountain. IMG_0041

This being my first mountain, I couldn’t grasp how much personality she had. But between the fumaroles, the smell of gas, the colors from green, to blue, to brown, to red, and even the noise of wind rushing past thousands of feet in the air…it was hard to not be overwhelmed. Not to mention the unwelcomed thunderstorm.

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The rest of the hike was quiet, besides the constant thunder in the distance. The higher the elevation, the higher the elevation change, or so it seemed. At certain points, I was, hands and knees, climbing over boulders, thanking myself for investing in quality hiking boots and pants.

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These birds at the top of the picture were ZOOMING by and making this incredible screeching noise.
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“Hello!” Never missing an opportunity to practice their English.

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Finally making it to the top, I took a picture of the “view.” I was a little disappointed at first with how low visibility was, but, it gave the mountain quite a bit of personality throughout the entire hike.

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Peak of the mountain. 2291m (7561 ft)

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The hike back down wasnt TERRIBLE. However, the steep incline, or decline I should say, made it tough to go at a slow pace. All of the locals, along with their bear bells, seemed to have trekking poles that they would use to support them going down. I had no such contraptions and my knees took quite the beating for it. I made it down in roughly three hours, and back to the hostel in four. I had JUST enough time to through my clothes in the laundry one last time, shower, and catch the last bus back to Asahikawa.

I would HIGHLY recommend this hike, late in the summer. It is grueling, but well worth the pain. Thinking of going? Check out the Live Webcam to see the snow coverage. I personally wouldn’t go if there was snow due to how steep some parts were, but some of you may be more adventurous than I. If you have any specific questions about the hike, how to get there, when to go, feel free to find us on Facebook or fill out our Contact Us form. Hope you enjoyed the trail! Next stop, Wakkanai.

Mt. Asahi (旭岳) (Pt. 3) 2291m

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Pressing on through the hike, I was calmed considerably by the beauty of the trail. I had never seen a fumarole in person before and I was pretty awe-struck by it, as if I was getting more intimate with Earth. I’ll let the beauty of the hike, speak for itself.

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Fumaroles in the distance

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Someone took a picture of me…taking the picture you see above this one…

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Mt. Asahi (旭岳) (Pt. 2) 2291m

I had set my alarm the night before for 5AM thinking I’d be the first one up, the first one showered, and the first one on the trail. The middle aged Japanese man I had not said a word to somehow had me beat. By the time I rolled over and turned my vibrating phone off, he was throwing on his jacket and walking out the door. Much respect to that guy.

It only took me about thirty minutes to shower, eat, and step out myself. I was met with a beautiful morning fog, and a refreshing mountain morning chill, the kind that makes you feel suspended in air as you cut through it. From ryokan to the base of the mountain is about a five minute inclined walk. I dint see anyone on the road with me and took it as a good sign that the trail would be sparse as well. Right at the base of the hike, you have the option to take a cable car up, or hike the beginning. I asked the guy behind the counter on the second floor if the beginning hike was special or worth seeing. “No,” he replied, “It is more populated with bears though.” “1 ticket for the cable car please,” I casually requested as I thought for the first time of the potential of seeing a bear. I had just missed the first cable car of the morning and the next one wasn’t for another twenty minutes so I had time to spare.

I walked back downstairs to check out the small store they had and buy some hiking snacks. Walking around, I found it quite odd that there were so many bells. “Do the locals like to ring each other as they pass by on the trail?” I thought to myself. I grabbed some water, rice snacks, and some sugar gels and proceeded to the counter. I set my items down, and there, at the counter, were more bells. The lady began ringing my stuff up and I had to ask, “kore ga nani?” She chuckled and pointed to a small picture of a large bear. “So they can hear you,” she smiled and practiced her seldomly used English. I could tell she was just eating up the confused, startled look on my face. “Would you like to buy one?” “Ah…no, irimasen,” I unconvincingly replied. “Ki o tsukete ne!” I thanked her and returned up to catch the cable car. The bear bell was ten dollars…I’m sure it was just a store sale tactic…I doubt I need a bear bell…at that, so a bear can hear me?

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Cable Car Station

I boarded the cable car and was pretty impressed. Everything seemed very modern and the view was amazing. Two very friendly Japanese hiking women asked me where I was from and why I was in Hokkaido. We talked for a bit about the hike and they mentioned that there were two paths. The path to the left led to a flower hike, where you could see flower species located only in Hokkaido (and only on that mountain I believe, but cant recall exactly). The path to the right, they told me, led to the peak of the mountain, and they recommended that route to me since I was a “strong foreigner.” “Right it is,” I replied, commended them for their great English, and thanked them for their advice.

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View from lift off.

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Once the cable car got some altitude, the fog rolled back in. I had never seen so much fog in my entire life, but all I could think of was, “I wonder how many bears are down there…”

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I don’t remember the last time I felt such a concoction of excitement and fear as I did when I stepped off the cable car. I saw a few people with me that were just starting their hike as well. All of my senses were running at full speed. The lack of depth caused by the fog somehow seemed to diminish my sense of hearing.

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I took a few steps and was still in awe of everything I couldn’t see, if that makes any sense. And then it hit me. There was this chorus of pings going off. “Ping, ping ping, ping, p-ping.” “Are these all bells? Does everyone seriously have bells?! IS THE BEAR THREAT SERIOUS?!?” I nervously thought to myself. I grew up in Virginia Beach, far from the country side. I had never seen a living bear, let alone worried about one chasing and mauling me down. “I should have bought a damn bell,” I mentally slapped myself. “Well….I have this change in my pocket from the store……what if I hold it in my hand…and shake it as I walk……” I laugh now thinking back, but that’s exactly what I did, for the entirety, of the hike… I was not prepared to see a bear that day. I guess a bear seeing me first and not being startled is the better of the two options.

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Mt. Asahi (旭岳) (Pt. 1) 2291m

  1. Sitting at 2,290.9 m (7,516 ft), Mt. Asahi (aka Asahidake 旭岳) is the tallest mountain on the Island of Hokkaido.
  2. Mount Asahi is an active stratovolcano, with a volcanic activity rating of C given by the Japan Meteorological Agency.
  3. Last eruption was in 1797.
  4. Rock on the mountain is from the Holocene era making it almost 12,000 years old.
  5. 旭 – rising sun, morning sun.
  6. 岳 – point, peak, mountain

At the end of very long and winding road, our bus finally arrived at the last stop, Daisetsuzan Shirakaba-sō, a youth hostel/ryokan hybrid right next to the mountain. I cannot recommend this place enough. Not only was it affordable, roughly $70 compared to the $200 nightly rate of some of it neighbors, but the staff was extremely friendly and accomodating.

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At the end of very long and winding road, our bus finally arrived at the last stop, Daisetsuzan Shirakaba-sō, a youth hostel/ryokan hybrid right next to the mountain. I strongly recommend booking here if staying hiking Asahidake. Not only was it affordable, roughly $70 compared to the $200 nightly rate of some of it neighbors, but the staff was extremely friendly and accommodating.

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The rooms were spacious and comfortable. I had two extremely friendly roomates. One was a engineering college student in Hokkaido, the other was a middle aged Japanese man whom I exchanged zero words with for whatever reason. Seemed like a really nice guy though. My last roomate was a talker. This guy was 50 or 60, from New York, and had stories about EVERYTHING. He asked me what I did, where I worked and that conversation just snowballed for further and longer than anything I had the energy for. Finally, when the college student returned, I invited him back into the conversation as I strategically slipped out to do laundry. Fortunately there is a washing machine downstairs you can use for $5 the first time. I ended up using it three times, and when I went to pay the second and third time, the guy just looked at me and said don’t worry about it man. Dinner was AMAZING. I imagine that’s where a good portion of the $70 goes towards. Breakfast was two or three onigiri, nothing special, but a solid fuel source for a hike start. Oh, almost forgot to mention, there is a small onsen downstairs. Since there was no TV and I had already finished my book, I spent the majority of my time here in this onsen.IMG_0062