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.

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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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Set Off On Adventure (Pt. 1)

I had been in Japan for well over a year by this point, August 25th, 2016, but I hadn’t seen ANY of Japan. Between going back and forth on U.S. Navy deployments, and visiting family back home on the East Coast, I realized I’d seen more of the Pacific Ocean than I had of Nihon (I’ll save you the trouble, it’s a BIG ocean, with not much in it besides Asian Warships, Ocean Liners, and the occasional Sea Animal). I was finally transferring from working on a ship to working in a Navy building and decided that this month in between would be an excellent opportunity to do some exploring.

The very next day, August 26th, a Saturday, I woke up with no plans at 0530, mind still contaminated with military schedule, took a shower, packed my NorthFace backpack with two outfits, wore a third, and got on a train bound for Tokyo. The only problem was, the day prior, I had purchased these Patagonia pants that were…..well, whatever is tighter than “extra slim fit.” I consider myself a pretty confident guy, but that entire walk to the station, train ride, airport walk, I was PRETTY self conscious of these pants that articulated every curve of me with great attention to detail. Keen words of wisdom, never shop for clothing after dinner and celebratory “I’m finished with deployment for the rest of my life” drinks WITHOUT trying the clothing on at some point in time.

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Train Station

Disregarding my lack of comfort, I trekked on towards the airport, researching airline ticket pricing the entire way, waiting to pull the trigger until I knew for sure what time I would arrive/how much time I would have to get through security. I found the cheapest ticket, I believe around $200, and it took off an hour later. I was 45 minutes away from the airport…..The next available flight was 3 hours later and $100 more expensive. Yabai. I was now on a timeline, a short, constricted one at that…and I was leaning on the “late” side. As luck would have….I missed my exit, thinking I was heading to Terminal Two and had to double back. I got off the train, ran to the other side of the station, got on the train, took it one stop and SPRINTED to the ticket counter, accounting for the tightness of my pants and being painfully reminded of the “slim” factor with every step. Sweating, I politely asked the women if she spoke English. She even more politely responded,”Yes, where is your destination Sir?” “Sapporo” I panted. And she told me that the next available flight was in three hours. “Eh?! There isn’t a flight in fifteen minutes?” She typed the magical logarithm into her computer and seemed pretty uncomfortable, getting ready to tell me it wasn’t possible. I told her I’m not checking luggage and am more than happy to sprint to the terminal. She smiled, I payed, she printed a ticket, and I was off.

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Train bound for Tokyo Airport

Have you ever seen a chocolate macchiato man drenched in sweat, running through the airport at full sprint in hiking boots, SKINNY hiking pants, and a backpack?