Friday, 21 August 2015

Snap shot: One of the most beautiful places in Japan

Date: Monday 10th August 2015

Weather: The weather was slightly cloudy until about 4pm when the heavens opened.

MP3 track of the day: a small measure of peace – The Last Samurai

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.


Even though I'd arrived at my hotel late last night, I found myself up and awake at 6am for two very good reasons. Firstly my Comfort Hotel was located in the town of kitami, and not in the town of Shari. This wasn't a huge problem however, it did put an extra forty minutes on my journey time. Secondly, yesterday's weatherboard - at the Comfort Hotel - showed rain for this afternoon; I therefore decided to get up early and make the most of the good weather.

For fifteen pounds a night, this hotel was a real bargain. Not only did that include the room plus free parking, but I was also allowed to eat as much as I wanted from the hotel's breakfast buffet. Though the dinning area was way too small for the size of the hotel, the buffet had a great mix of western and Japanese food. I was therefore able to have sausages, miso soup, a pastry or two, some fruit and a waffle with Canadian maple syrup. All was well in my world and, at around 8am, I found myself in my car planning my route to Shiretoko National Park.

I currently found myself driving along the same roads – though be it in the opposite direction – as I was driving along last night. At that time, I had wondered what stunning views the darkness had concealed from me but now, I can honestly say, that compared to the rest of Hokkaido it was a bit of a disappointment. Though there were mountains in the background, and a patchwork quilt of agricultural land making up the foreground, it still wasn't as spectacular as other parts of this beautiful island. It most certainly wasn't a bad sight, therefore I enjoyed it all the same.

Once through Shari the road hugged the coastline all the way to the national park. Shiretoko actually covers an entire peninsular, which is located within the north-eastern part of Hokkaido however, the road stops halfway up making the rest accessible either by boat or foot. There were quite a few things to see here. The first thing I saw was an 'okay' waterfall perched only meters away from the sea. I parked my car went to have a look.

The water flowing off the top of the cliff face in front of me wasn't a torrent, yet it wasn't a trickle either. I took a few photographs before heading back down from the waterfall and to my car. On the way, a woman stopped me and asked if I wanted her to take a photo of me, in front of the waterfall using my camera. Said in a way which allowed for little choice, I accepted and, once she'd taken the shot, she whipped out her camera. It became clear that she was one of those photographers who, at attractions, take photographs of you, print them off and then charge you a fortune for a 'memory captured'. I was slightly annoyed by this however, it got worse. Apparently, when she had taken photographs of some other unfortunate soles, she had handed them a large plastic fish to hold due the area being famous for fish. Now, having being duped was hard enough to swallow therefore, I wasn't going to look like a chump by holding a giant plastic fish and, although there was a language barrier between us, my facial expression told her all she needed to know. She therefore put the fish slowly back in it's box.

Soon I was back in my car and on my way to Utoro; a sleepy village within the centre of the park. Though it boasted no real tourist attractions itself, it did however have a very useful
tourist information centre. I went in and studied a large map; just like in Shikotsu-Toya, some attractions were closed due to rain, bears or leaves (I didn't know the real reason, but they were closed all the same). Luckily for me the main attraction – Shiretoko-goko; Shiretoko five lakes – was still open to the public. Once outside the tourist centre, I looked up into the sky; though cloudy the rain was holding off; the time was 1pm therefore – with the rain due around 3:30pm – I decided that I had enough time to see the lakes today before play was stopped. I got in my car and drove the ten or so kilometres towards the lakes.

As I approached the lakes the weather took a turn for the better. The main bulk of the cloud seems to have been left in Utoro and here, only blue skies and fluffy white clouds were permitted. It was because of this that I managed to find a great photo spot, of a small stream, before I joined a line of cars all waiting to get into Shiretoko-goko's car park. As I sat there I prayed that the rain would be kept at bay a little longer.

It actually didn't take that long for enough cars to leave for I to park my car. Once out of the car I noticed that it was actually quite hot. I walked away from the car and, as of yet, the lakes eluded me. In front of me were two wooden buildings, one of which housed a tacky souvenir shop and a small canteen. The other building was were the park rangers lived and, unbeknown to me as of yet, this is where I would have to go for 'training'. I was in a little bit of a conundrum; the time was around midday and so I was fairly hungry however, every minute lost here in the shops was potentially a minute of fine weather lost. In the end I settled for a quick 'fast-food' lunch from the canteen before I asked how I could see these five lakes.

The park has two walking routes. The first walking route is the shortest and consists of a huge board-walk followed by a small fleet into a wood located near only two of the five lakes. That's right ladies and gentlemen, even though the two lakes on the first walking route are supposed to be the prettiest, you only get to see two of the five lakes. The second walking route allowed you to see all of the five lakes however, due to frequent bear sightings, I would have to have 'bear training' from the park rangers. As I was here I decided to pay the £2 fee and go for the bear training which, firstly, was mostly in Japanese and, secondly, was given by a lady who walked as though she had possibly had an encounter with a bear at some point in her career.

As mentioned above, the training started with the ranger speaking in Japanese. We then moved onto a video which, luckily, had English subtitles. Though the video was pretty shocking, it did it's job by providing me with enough information if I was unlucky enough to see a bear. After the video, something happened which would have a detrimental effect on my enjoyment around these lakes. The park ranger came back and decided to highlight the key points of the video. One said 'keypoint' was 'what we should do, as we walk around the park, to discourage bears'. There were two answers to this, one of which was for us to 'chat' so that we do not surprise the bear (a bear is most dangerous when it has been surprised). I was more than happy with this answer however, the park ranger decided to focus on 'answer two' which was to clap as we walk around the park (she even got us to practice clapping as though it was something new and wonderful to all of us … I think she takes her job waaaay to seriously). Once done we were all given a 'bear awareness course' certificate, which we had to keep on us at all times (what! … so that we could show the bear), and we were allowed out on our way.

I'm sure most of you can guess what happened next. We left in a large group and, almost immediately, Japanese people started clapping. One reason why I like national parks is for their peaceful atmosphere; now, I had some idiot clap every minute … AND WE WERE STILL IN SIGHT OF THE RANGER HUT. Personally, if I was a bear, I would have co-ordinated with other bears and ambushed us by blocking the path to the front and rear (remember, we were let out as a large group) of our convoy, just to stop this infernal clapping. Fortunately it wasn't long before some members of the group had raced ahead, some had held back and some went at a leisurely pace. I was therefore able to enjoy some of the lakes however, far away clapping could still be heard.

The above was annoying, but the lakes had been worth it. Each lake found itself within a beautiful forest over-looked by Shiretoko's spine of mountains. Due to the fantastic weather, the mountain peaks were reflected in the water meaning that my camera was constantly on. I moved forward at a leisurely / fast-paced walk, ever-concious that this superb weather wasn't scheduled to last all day.

After an hour I'd seen the three lakes which, 'walking route one', did not go to. I then made it to 'lake two' which happened to be my favourite. The position of the lake, in regards to the mountains behind, made the whole area look just as beautiful as anywhere in New Zealand or Canada. I enjoyed taking photos and I did try to spend a couple of minutes relaxing by the lake and to take it all in. Once past lake two, I had to go through a heavy metal door, through a metal cage, up some wooden steps and through another metal door; I then found myself on Shiretoko-goko's board-walk, which had electric wiring running all the way around it's perimeter and looked like something out of Jurassic park. Usually, the Japanese don't even understand the words 'health' and 'safety' however here, they have put in enough defences to stop a T-Rex killing a human. In the Canadian national parks, a park ranger told you where bears had been sighted and gave you a stick with instructions to put it in between a bears teeth. Still it mattered not, what really mattered was the view … which was stunning. Not only did this board-walk look like it had just come out of 'Jurassic park', but the terrain it hovered over did so too. Beautiful rolling hills of green vegetation either ending as it got to the sea, or as it hit the far away mountain range. I was in my element and, in between all of this, was lake number one. Crowds came and went however, I spent quite a lot of time looking at this perfect piece of nature. The weather had been superb all day and I was thankful that the rain had held because, truly, I felt as though nothing would come close to the beauty of this place anywhere else in Hokkaido, or even Japan.

Finally I prised myself away from the lake and took the board-walk all the way back to the car park. For some unknown reason, some idiot was still clapping in the car park. I tuned it out and went back into the shop for an ice cream. Once eaten I got back in my car content that, if the rain came now, I was happy with what I had achieved today. I drove back to Utoro, planning to stop at another waterfall along the way however, sadly, this waterfall was closed due to bears eating the hands off humans. I therefore returned to Utoro where the clouds had finally turned to a nasty colour.

Utoro had one mediocre tourist attraction, which was a rock in the shape of Godzilla. As I was here I parked up, went to have a look and agreed that, if you tilted your head and squinted really hard, a Godzilla could be seen. With that the heavens finally opened and so I made my way back to the tourist office. Having failed to see Mashu-ko yesterday, I inquired as to when was the best time to see this volcanic lake and my answer was 'as early as possible'. As the rain poured down I formed a plan of action for tomorrow, which would take in a lot of sites however, it would also mean a lot of driving. Finally I thanked the information guy, ran back to my car and drove back to Kitami. As it was cloudy and raining, there wasn't that much to see; I therefore concentrated on the road in front of me which, again, was incredibly straight.

Once back in Kitami I asked my hotel where, and what, was good to eat here. Unbeknown to me but, kitami is the best place in Hokkaido - 2nd best place in Japan – for 'Yakiniku' (pieces of meat you cook on a small stove). The hotel found a restaurant for me, booked a table and off I went.

Thanks to the hotel's directions, I found the restaurant easily. Though I have been in a 'yakiniku' restaurant before, the staff didn't know that and they were ever so kind showing me how the 'fire thing' worked and what meat they recommend (which I did need help with as the menu was all in Japanese). Finally a few plates of thinly sliced meat arrived and I hurriedly put some of the pieces onto the fire. I am always concious of giving myself food poisoning therefore, I am pretty sure I let the meat cook longer than completely necessary however, it was still delicious. I pushed the boat out and ordered a plate of one of the most expensive meats (can't remember what part of the cow it was) on the menu and I really enjoyed that. Once I was full I paid the bill – which came to about the same cost as a night in my hotel – and waddled back to my room content.

Tomorrow would be another early day, as the weather was due to be the same as today. I was really looking forward to tomorrow; today had been great, but tomorrow I was going to see Mashu-ko ... a lake named after me!

Toodle Pip!

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