Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Snap shot - The most northern point in Japan

Date: Thursday 13th August 2015

Weather: Another beautiful day in Hokkaido. Blue skies with fluffy white clouds.

MP3 track of the day: If I ruled the world - Jamie Cullum

Now before I go on, I suppose I should explain what 'snap shot' means within the title of this blog. It basically means that this blog will be a shortened version of my usual blogs, due to a variety of reasons. It is, in effect, a 'snap shot' of my trip.


My alarm went off at 5am as planned. I woke up and immediately scratched my mosquito bites. They itched more than yesterday and my ankles were still swollen. Even a warm shower offered little solace therefore, I only had a quick one. I found myself ready to leave my `incredibly expensive and incredibly old` hotel room at around 6:00am. The hotel offered breakfast but, at around £8 per person, I declined and opted to find somewhere as I traveled north to Wakkanai; Japan's most northern town.

Due to leaving Asahikawa at around 6:30am, the roads were empty and I had the round-a-bout all to myself. I had hoped to have made good time during these early hours however, a `more than average` amount of toilet stops took their tole. Also, whereas the Hokkaido roads I had encountered so far had been wide and incredibly straight; the roads north to Wakkanai were narrower and anything but straight. This prevented me from over-taking slower traffic which plagued my day.

Yesterday, I had bought a couple of Kitkat Chunkeys to keep me going until I was a good distance away from Asahikawa. By 8:30am, both of these had been eaten and I was still hungry. I pulled into a shopping centre which had just opened. Though I was hungry, I struggled to interpret what my stomach actually wanted to eat. In the end I opted for a `hot dog on a stick`, which had just been cooked. Once consumed I ate a yogurt and a small cake. Content, I got back into my car and proceeded north. Currently I found myself within the town of Nayoro and there were signs for `sunflower fields` all over the place. I made a note and, if I had time, I would visit them on my way back.
After my breakfast stop, I felt ready to complete the rest of the journey in one final push. Being in an automatic car, I only needed one foot therefore, I took my shoe and sock off my left foot and placed my leg in such a position as to allow the cars air-conditioning to sooth my mosquito bites.

Though I was plagued by slow vehicles, the drive up to Wakkanai was beautiful. After about two-thirds of the way, the road split and formed a loop. I found myself at the southern most point of the `loop` whereas, Wakkanai was at the northern most point. It therefore didn't matter which way I went. I therefore decided to take the western road to Wakkanai and the eastern road back.

The final part of the drive had the obligatory slow driver in front of me however, the view was staggering. Hills, riverbeds, valleys and trees filled my view with no man-made structures insight ... until I hit the outskirts of Wakkanai itself. I was surprised to find that Wakkanai was actually quite big; I`d pictured a small windswept village with a run-down supermarket next to a sleepy home store. What I found was a bustling town with a healthy economy, a small airport and a McDonald's. Though fishing was the biggest economic drive here, a small tourist industry also flourished. Russian islands could been seen from Wakkanai`s coastline and I soon discovered that trade between the two countries had also benefited this northern hub however, life up here still seemed hard and difficult. During the short summer months, the temperature hovered within the low twenties however, during winter, the temperature dropped and I couldn't help thinking that, once the snows fell, I guessed that this community would be cut off from the rest of Japan for a good three or four months.

I proceeded through the town and towards a park located on the top of a hill. By this time, the clouds had closed in slightly meaning that the sky was a blanket of light-gray and white. Within this `hill park` stood a huge tower. I decided not to go up it due to the fact that the top of the tower was in the clouds; I therefore peered from the base of the tower and scanned the town of Wakkanai. The view was actually pretty impressive and most of the town could be seen. Though from the ground, I felt as though Wakkanai was quiet big; from here I noticed that it had very few housing suburbs. I therefore felt as though Wakkanai`s shopping area was out of scale to its housing area and I did wonder if Wakkanai was used as a base for nearby villages, plus for trade between Japan and the Russia.

The park consisted of many parts which I had to drive between. After seeing the tower I mistakenly drove into a cemetery. Currently its Japan's `Ob-on` season; a time where people go to their family graves to pray for their spirits and for the prosperity of the family. Naturally the cemetery was very busy.

Once out of the cemetery, I drove to the last part of the park. This consisted of two buildings - one of which housed toilets, and the other a gift shop -, a car park and a monument. As I approached the monument I was taken back by the look of pain and sadness on the female face of the statue. The statues whole body language reeked of dis pare and of loss. I then red the inscription next to it which I have copied:

"... This monument was built in honor of the souls of the nine maiden telephone operators who perished in the line of duty at the Maoka (presently Kholmsk) post office in Karafuto. Karafuto was connected to the Soviet Union by the national border laid along the 50th Parallel north. In August 1945, the boarder was unexpectedly attacked by Soviet Armed Forces, breaking 40 years of silence. As evacuation of the island residents begun, war raged through the town of Maoka. Gunfire and explosions could be seen from the windows. In the face of certain danger, the telephone operators stayed at their switchboards until the very last. "...Everyone, this is the end. Farewell, farewell..." Leaving these final words, they took their lives with potassium cyanide. The date was August 20th, five days after the war had ended..."

Pretty moving stuff, I am sure you'll agree. It is also, of course, very bias in favour of the helpless Japanese however, it was the last sentence which really affected me. If what this plaque says is true, and the attack happened after the war had ended, then surely it should be viewed as another `land grabbing` attempt by the Russian government. The Japanese can dress up the situation however they like but, IF the attack occurred after Japan had surrendered, then surely this attack was an illegal act of aggression as the Soviets were taking territory and not defending it. I decided to make it a point that, when I got home, I would do a bit of research (it would appear that the town of Maoka (Kholmsk) was founded in 1870 by the Russians. It was in Russian hands until the war of 1904-1905 where it was transferred to Japanese control. It is true that the Soviet attack occurred after Japan had surrendered however, having previously been in Russian hands, I wonder if this makes this attack valid. Personally I am unsure; what I hope people do learn from this is to not take anything as gospel, especially if the statement is politically motivated as important bits of information maybe missing).

Once finished at the park I got back into my car and left Wakkanai on its western road however, I wasn't done with the area just yet. Though Wakkanai is Japan's most northern town, it is not the most northern point. That was a further twenty minute drive north-west. Once there I found a monument with yet another plaque which stated that this was "... Japan's most northern `freely accessible` point..." another politically motivated statement. This time, the monument consisted of two large obelisks touching together at the top, pointing north. Naturally, there were many people who wanted their photo taken with the monument in the background; I therefore waited for when the groups of people were changing in order to get clear photos of the monument. I then moved onto the gift shop which showed the date, time and the temperature (at 12:45pm, it was 21 degrees ... bliss). Once inside I found little to entertain me however, I did find a glass piece with the a photo of the most northern point. Though I wasn't completely won over by it, I decided to buy it as my souvenir from this trip. With that, it was time to turn around. It had taken four and a half hours to get here therefore, as the time was 1pm and I hadn't stopped for lunch, I was looking at getting back to the Asahikawa area at around 6pm. This was one hour later than I'd wanted to plus, that didn't take into consideration the sunflower fields in Nayoro. I therefore got back into my car and put my foot down.

Fortunately, there weren't as many slow vehicles on the eastern road as there were on the western. I flew south paying more attention to the time, than my actual speed. I had presumed that, with Hokkaido's annual influx of summer tourists, that there would have been thousands of police armed with speed cameras. Fortunately this hasn't been the case. If there had of been then, I would believe that it was purely a `money grabbing` exercise as I believe Hokkaido's road network can handle higher speed limits without reducing safety. The current Japanese speed limit is around 30 mph for `A` roads.

I made it back to the town of Nayoro at around 3:30pm. You can call me meatloaf as I had driven like a `bat out of hell`. Once in Nayoro I slowed, and it didn't take long for me to find the fields of sunflowers. I stopped the car and got out; now that I was further south, the clouds had gone and the sun had returned. I therefore took some beautiful photos with fields of sunflowers in the foreground, trees in the middle with a light-blue sky forming the background. Life was good.

When I reached the final sunflower fields, I found that they were close to a farmers house. No one seemed to be at home and yet, it seemed fine to still enter the property. I parked my car and walked over to the sunflower fields. There were hundreds; part of the field was dedicated to `sun flowers from around the world` and loads of different species had been labeled though, sadly, sunflowers from the UK were missing. I then, by mistake, came across a sunflower maze. This was something that I couldn't miss and so I made my way around this maze, only going wrong once. After that I took a few more photos before pressing on. The time was 4:30pm and I was still over an hour from my hotel ... which would be rather special.

Japan is famous for Onsen and the Japanese people love a good Onsen. An Onsen is basically a hot spring bath however, the difference between a hot spring bath and an onsen is the word `bath`. A bath is wear you clean yourself however, an onsen is not. Before taking an onsen, you must take a shower and clean yourself thoroughly. The onsen is seen as a relaxing time spent with either friends or family. Onsen are so popular in Japan that, wherever a natural spring of hot water surfaces, you can bet that there will be these huge onsen hotels taking advantage. The problem I have with these hotels is that they are usually the ugliest buildings you have ever seen, built within an area of tranquility. During my `trip around the world`, I'd visited an onsen resort in Nagasaki. The building was okay, the experience had been great however, the continual staring, from Japanese men, had put me off going to another onsen (when you go into an onsen, you must be naked). A couple of months ago I had found a great deal for an Onsen hotel here, just to the south-east of Asahikawa. For £80 I got to stay in an onsen hotel, with dinner and breakfast paid plus a private onsen experience. Naturally, it is very weird for a single bloke to go to an onsen hotel and request a private onsen (an onsen is a social experience). Fortunately - during my time in Japan - I have made a few Japanese friends and one emailed the onsen hotel on my behalf, stating that I was a foreigner who wanted to try the `onsen experience` but didn't like being stared at. Soon I had a reply and, from the way the reply was written, it would appear that this wasn't the first time a foreigner had made such a request. I was told that this wasn't a problem however, as I drove down a beautiful deep valley towards my hotel, I was still quite nervous.

Though it was getting dark, I could still make out that `practicality` had been a higher priority than `aesthetics`, when it came to the look of the building. In front of me stood a seven-story white box with windows which looked as though the hotel was suffering from ache. I let out a sigh and parked my car.

Once in the hotel things instantly became better as I no longer had to look at the outside. The front entrance was huge and I was really looking forward to discovering all that this building was hiding. I checked-in and, once I had got to my room, I was greeted by a lovely leaflet all in English. Bless them, the hotel staff had provided all of the information, which I would require, in English; They had even given me a guide on `how to put on a Yukata (a kind of thin Kimono which the Japanese wear around their house or around a onsen hotel. Only underwear is worn underneath the Yukata). Now, I hadn't been planning on wearing a yukata however the phase, `in for a penny, in for a pound` came to mind and so on it went.

I gingerly walked out of the lift and into the reception area. A staff member at the front desk gave me a nod and a smile to indicate that the yukata was correctly installed. What they hadn't seen was how I walked in it. The Yukata was incredibly long meaning that it rubbed against my mosquito bites; I therefore had to waddle from side-to-side which provided hours of amusement for any Japanese person who witnessed my `penguin walk`. Once at the front desk they told me when, and where, my free evening buffet was being served and when it would finish. They then handed me my `meal voucher` after which I thanked them. The time was 6pm and though tea was being served, it didn't stop being served until 9pm. I therefore felt that I had an hour or so to waddle around the hotel revealing its mysteries.

It was quite disappointing really. The basement held a few restaurants - one of which was where I was going to get my tea - plus an arcade. The ground floor held the front entrance, a bar, a shop and a place to sit down. The rest of the floors held guests rooms until you got to the top floor where the communal onsen were (a men's onsen and a ladies onsen). As you can guess, it didn't take as long as I had anticipated for me to see the whole hotel. I therefore went down to the restaurant and handed in my meal voucher.

A nice gentleman showed me to my table which was, unfortunately, in the middle of the dinning area. I hadn't noticed the room quieten as the guy was explaining that, once I'd finished my meal, I was to flip my table card over to the `finished` side. I thanked him and, as he walked away, I then had a panoramic of a huge room, full of Asian people, looking directly at me. Feeling a bit like `Sanka` from `Cool Runnings`, I waddled away and towards the buffet.

There was everything you could possibly want at this buffet however, most of the foreign food looked a little odd. There were English translations for all dishes however, I found it hard to trust them as the mushrooms had been labeled `mistake mushrooms`. I filled my plate with a mixture of Japanese food and Japanese-foreign food; tempura, raw fish, hamburgers and vegetables to name just a few things. I stayed away from the rice as I wanted to `get my monies worth` and I made sure that I kept some room for dessert as an array of cake was on offer. Over time the stares died down and I was allowed to finish my meal in peace. Once done I waddled - this time, more to do with the amount of food I'd eaten rather than my bites - out of the restaurant and up to my room. I stayed in my room briefly; I picked up my white towel and headed back to the front desk to inquire about my private onsen, which had been booked for 9pm.

The hotel had taken care of everything. There were no private onsen at this hotel, as they were all located at its sister onsen hotel which was a five minute minibus ride away. A guy was waiting to take me and so I boarded his bus in my slippers and Yukata. Once at the other hotel I was shown to were my private onsen was and, without comment, the guy in-charge of the private onsen gave me my room key.

I entered my private onsen unsure of what I would find. The area consisted of three rooms; a toilet, a restroom and a bathing room. The toilet is self explanatory but the restroom had a TV, a fan and a fridge with a bottle of chilled water in it. The bathing room had a shower, soap and the onsen itself. Due to being located in the basement of the hotel, there was no view. Five minutes of my hour had already ticked away and so I hurriedly got undressed, showered and hit the onsen.

I need not have worried; the onsen water was so hot that I could only stand periods of ten to fifteen minutes at a time. The water was milky white with a faint smelt of sulphur. I was enjoying it and It felt as though it was doing my body, especially my mosquito bites, a world of good. I flicked between the onsen and the rest area throughout the hour. While having a glass of chilled water, I realised that this would indeed make quite a nice social time however, I still felt uneasy about being naked in front of friends.

The hour went by in a flash and soon I was handing the keys back. I felt utterly relaxed and I almost fell asleep in the mini-van as it took me back to my hotel. I gave the lady on the front desk a `thumbs up`, and she smiled. I then waddled into the elevator and then into my room before collapsing on my huge bed. "What a day", I thought as I closed my eyes. "The most northern point, history, sun flowers and onsen hotels. This won't be forgotten in a hurry".

Toodle Pip!

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