Monday, 24 August 2015

Snapshot: The sky is amazing

Date: Tuesday August 11th 2015

Weather: Amazing. As you will find out later, I managed to arrive at most of today's tourist sites when the weather was perfect. Throughout the day, I could see dark clouds moving in from the west however, as I was always travelling east, I only ran into bad weather when I was driving back to my hotel.

MP3 track of the day: see you again – Wiz Kids

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.


Taking the advice of yesterdays tourist information chap, I was up early stuffing my face with as many sausages - from my hotel's free breakfast buffet - as possible. Once done I waddled towards my car and checked the time. 7:30am … not bad!

As I proceeded towards my first attraction for the day, I often switched between looking out of the front windscreen and my rear-view mirror. Of course, I was looking for potential 'motoring' hazards however, I also noticed that, in my rear-view mirror, there were a lot of dark clouds coming in from the west. They appeared to be moving eastwards, consuming all light. At what pace they were currently travelling at, I could not guess; as my focus switched back to what was happening out of the windscreen in front of me, I looked up at the sky and noticed that it was the perfect summers day. It doesn't take a genius to realise that I was on borrowed time and, though I wanted to enjoy all of the sites which I would visit today, I also had to keep in mind that I wanted to have great weather at ALL of the sites which I would visit today. I therefore proceeded forever onwards, pushing down a little harder on the accelerator.

The first location for today was Mashu-ko; A small 'volcanic-made lake' which shares the same name as I (in Japan, people struggle to make the 'th' sound therefore … my name is Ma-shu). To get there, I had to head back into the Akan national park and use the road I had travelled along two nights ago. Back then I knew that, after leaving Mashu-ko village, I had travelled along a road which had ascended up a mountain before descending it however, I had no idea just how beautiful the view from the top of this mountain was. I stopped my car in a convenient car park, located at the top of the mountain, and just looked in the direction I'd driven. The view was incredible, with the windy mountainous road heading off to be consumed by fields, forests and small urban settlements. I retrieved my camera from the car and began shooting away fully aware of the impending black cloud just over my left shoulder. The only thing that was weird about this scene was that, I was on my own taking in this beautiful view and yet, the car park was full of cars and motorbikes. Judging that everyone else was crammed into the small wooden shop located next to this car park, I finished my photography and proceeded back into my car. As I was about to drive off, I looked down onto the fields below amazed that, all the Japanese people could do, was stand inside a shop and look at tat.

I immediately turned around and pulled back into the car park. Unbeknown to me, at the other side of the car park was an even greater view of Mashu-ko's 'big brother' lake, 'kussharo-ko' ('ko' means lake) and the mountain range which surrounded it. I had to laugh; here I was, thinking that all the Japanese tourists had chosen to look around a tacky souvenir store and instead, they were all walking up to a viewing platform - built on the opposite side to where I was standing, out of view due to the shop – peering down at the 'main event' probably wondering why some foreigner, with bright white skinny legs, was only taking photos from the other side of the mountain. Once I had, again, parked my car I grabbed my camera and rushed up towards the viewing platform where all of the Japanese tourists were located.

Once standing on the platform, I pressed my body against it's wooden fence and peered over. The sky was bright blue with the occasional fluffy white cloud meaning that, not only could I see the lake below, but I could see far into the distance. From this angle, tops of mountains rose like hairs on a tooth brush and I just loved standing there with this excellent panoramic view.

Once I'd spent a few minutes thanking my lucky stars for getting up early, I took a lot of photos and then returned to the car, hoping that 'Mashu-ko' would be similar. I proceeded down the mountain and into the village of Mashu-ko. I filled up with fuel at the same petrol station which saved me two nights ago, before proceeding onto the lake itself.

Now, Mashu-ko has another name which means 'misty lake' therefore, people actually come to see it covered in cloud. Today, those people would have been disappointed as the weather was fantastic. I was in my element; here was a beautiful volcanic lake which shared the same name as I. I was first told about this lake two years ago by an x-student who came here on his holiday and now, finally, I was here. I almost didn't see the lake; there was a £2.50 parking fee and apparently, sharing a name with 'said' lake does not grantee free parking. I therefore stopped arguing and paid the fee.

I ran like a school boy to the perimeter of the lake. I stood there in awe. Imagine peering into a volcano and seeing a pool of water as clear as crystal (once I'd gone into the souvenir shop I discovered that, at one time, Mashu-ko's water was recorded as the cleanest in the world) and, you might just get an idea of how beautiful this place is. The sides of Mashu-ko were ever-so sharp, all of which were covered in vegetation. I spent a while looking at the lake, taking photos and telling anyone within ear-shot that the lake and I shared the same name. No one cared.

Once I'd prised myself away from the lake I headed into the obligatory souvenir shop to buy some 'Mashu-ko' postcards, a 'Mashu-ko' memento and something juicy to eat or drink. Fortunately, none of the things mentioned proved to be an issue; I managed to find postcards and a keyring of Mashu-ko. Afterwards, I saw a woman was selling slices of juicy, ice-cold, melon for 50p. After I'd devoured a slice I headed back outside to take my final look at a lake, which had been the main reason I'd chosen Hokkaido for my holiday. The weather had been fantastic.

Due to the time I'd spent at Mashu-ko, the band of dark clouds had got bigger and closer. I knew it was time to leave; I knew that there was little more I could gain from this place and I also knew that any further delay could affect the other places I wanted to see … however I stayed five minutes longer, just looking and thinking.

It was with a heavy heart that I drove away from Mashu-ko. As I drove further and further east, I couldn't believe how lucky I'd been. People – who'd visited Hokkaido on more than one occasion – had assured me that my trip to Mashu-ko would be a cloudy one and yet, first time the sky had been amazing. This blue sky kept filling my world all the way until I could drive no further east. I had currently hit Hokkaido's north-eastern coast; once there I immediately turned around and drove a short distance back. I parked within a shopping centre and decided to consume a 'KFC two-piece chicken' meal for two very important reasons. Firstly, that is what I fancied and secondly, it would be quick. Once consumed I felt fine to continue my journey; I made it back to the coast and then headed south for about ten minutes. I then took the only road which headed out to my next tourist site; the Natsuke Peninsula.

Now, most of us have probably driven around a peninsular before. What made this peninsular special where a number of things, most noticeably was that you couldn't drive around the peninsular as the width of the road was, in some parts, 'the peninsular'. I stopped on a couple of occasions to take photographs. It was weird to see the sea on one side of me and then, once I'd turned 180 degrees, see the same sea on the other side of me. The other weird thing was that, from this peninsular, I could see the island of Kunashiri-to. What makes this island interesting is that, before 1st September 1945, this island was in Japanese hands and now, it's apart of Russia.

There is a chain of islands linking Hokkaido to Russia. The Russians believe that all of the islands are apart of the 'Kuril island' chain or, as Japan calls them, the 'northern territories'. The Japanese believe that the 'northern territories' start partway up this chain of islands meaning that, the three islands closest to Hokkaido – which includes Kunashiri-to – are effectively part of the Japanese mainland. World War Two officially ended on 2nd September 1945 when Japan surrendered to the allies. As a part of the surrender agreement, I think, the Japanese had to give the 'northern territories' to the Russians. The problem was, as mentioned above, Russia believe it included all of the islands therefore, they took control of all of them. This is one of the reasons why a peace agreement has never been signed between Japan and Russia; Japan believe that, with the Russians occupying Kunashiri-to, they are effectively occupying apart of Japan.

As I looked out to sea, I found it weird that I could see Russia; a country which boarders Poland. Usually, when I see another country, I have this sudden urge to go there to see what it's like. This urge did not come on this occasion. Not to get too political but, I really have no time for a country which is governed by a mentalist fixated on trying to dominate as much of the world as he possibly can. Though Russia has done a few good things – like vetoing a UN mandate to, basically, invade Syria – it doesn't come anywhere near to forgiving what it's lunatic leaders have done; most recently invading a sovereign country (I'm not 'sitting on the fence' with this one). I therefore enjoyed seeing this foreign country but … this was as far as I wanted to go (I actually felt a little uncomfortable being this close). It's weird how things change so quickly; back in 1945 I presume Japan was seen, by the western-world, as untrustworthy and an enemy. Now, with Russia, China and North Korea as neighbours (arguably the three craziest leaders / government's in the world right now) I, and I guess a lot of the western-world, feel sorry for Japan and feel as though the country needs protecting from our old '1945 allies due to necessity'. Recently, the Japanese Prime Minister has increased the role of the Japanese military; a lot of Japanese are against it in fear of another militaristic government taking control however, when you can physically see a nation in front of you who are hell bent on occupying as much territory as possible, you start to understand the PM's decision and, actually, I wish that he would go further.

Time was pressing on. In the distance I could see that the black clouds had finally engulfed the mountain range Mashu-ko is located in. I couldn't physically go any further east and so I turned the car around and headed north conscious that, now, I wasn't extending the gap between the clouds and I.

All the way up Hokkaido's north-eastern coast I could see the Russian island. It looked so peaceful just sitting there in a sea which was as calm as a pond.

Finally I made it back to Shiretoko national park however, I found myself on the parks eastern coast (yesterday I'd spent most of my time on the parks western coast). I stopped within the sleepy town of Rausu amazed that it lacked any military presence. I visited a park plus the towns tourist information office, both of which kept me captivated for only a few minutes. Finally I went to see my final attraction for the day which was a blow hole. Unfortunately a notice said that water could only be seen, approximately, every seventy minutes. Having no idea when it last blew, I gave up waiting and headed back to the car. The sky had finally surrendered to the dark cloud and rain was starting to fall. Looking at the map I knew that, in order to reach the western side of the park – and after that my hotel – I had to cross Shiretoko's mountain chain. Looking at the squiggly line on my map, it was easy to see that the road went over the top of the mountains and not through a tunnel. With the skies darkening I was actually quiet worried about this mountain crossing however, I need not have been. Though it did rain, the crossing was fine and I even stopped at the summit to take a few photos and have a quick look around. Neither the photos, nor the look around, were worth it due to the clouds however, I'm glad I did it.

Once I'd hit the western side of the mountain range the rain poured down until I was an hour south of the Shiretoko national park. It was at this point that I, and others, pulled our cars over onto the side of the road and put our hazard lights on. I stepped out of the car and peered back towards the mountains of Shiretoko. A beautiful rainbow soared across the sky and, for the first time in my life, I could see the start and end of a rainbow. This day had truly been blessed and I couldn't stop smiling as I took photo after photo.

Once done the sun finally set, and I drove in silence back to the town of Kitami. By mistake, I ordered waaaay too much food for tea, and I couldn't finish it. It mattered not; once I'd eaten as much as I could I sat back and re-lived the day in my mind. The sites I'd seen had been amazing however, they would have been nothing without the outstanding sky I'd all day.

It is true; the best things in life are free.

Toodle Pip!

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