“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…
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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….
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.
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.
Rock on the mountain is from the Holocene era making it almost 12,000 years old.
旭 – rising sun, morning sun.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?