Friday, 7 August 2015

The positives and negatives of car ownership

Date: Friday 7th August 2015

Weather: Horrible, wet and cloudy along the coast however, once inside the mountains the rain stopped and the clouds brightened … but the sky was still full of clouds.

MP3 track of the day: Driving in my car– Madness

I was pretty excited about today; not only would I be heading to my second national park but, I would be getting there under my own steam. Yes indeedy, today I was picking up my car hire which I would have for the next ten days (at great expense). From when I awoke at 7:30am this morning, to when I collected my car at 9am, things couldn't have been better. Within my head I was planning all of the things I could go and see now that I had a car to take me there. Even the weather – which was dark, cloudy and threatened to rain at any moment – didn't put me down as I approached the rental shop. Waiting for me was a brand new version of the car I used to drive in Miyako; it was black and it had only done 2,000kms. I got in the car and went to work putting all of my stuff where I wanted it; I then checked my route and headed off. It wasn't long before I hit my first red light … and then soon after my first line of lorries reduced my pace a little however, for now, life was grand as I sat in my own box going where I wanted to go and, only stopping if I wanted to.

Speaking of stopping; the time was 9:30pm and I hadn't had any breakfast. I was trying to wait until I came upon the next big town – Muroran - however, that took a lot longer than I'd expected it to. As I was driving to this town, I kept one eye on the road and another looking for possible breakfast joints, which was pretty difficult. Eventually the road headed into Muroran and soon enough, I found a shopping centre with a McDonalds. It had taken me a good hour and a half to reach Muroran; the road had hugged the coastline which sounds pleasant, if it wasn't for the fact that this was Hokkaido's most industrial coastline. Still it mattered not; I had arrived at the shopping centre at 10:30am and was going to order my usual McDonalds breakfast when, quite shockingly, it would appear that breakfast had finished. Actually this was a good thing as this meant that I could order McDonald's new 'Avocado burger with bacon' and a salad … which is just what I wanted.

Once I'd consumed my breakfast, I went into the shopping centre quickly and bought a small bottle of water plus a big 2ltr bottle. The great thing about having a car is that you can carry these 2lt bottles thus saving you money on drinks. I eventually got back in my car and pressed on to my target for the day; Shikotsu-Toya National Park.

As I approached the perimeter of the national park, I noticed that a ring of mountains surrounded the park forcing the clouds to stay close to the coast and decant their water there. This mean that, as I crossed the mountains, the weather changed dramatically. Instead of wet roads, bone-dry ones could be seen. There was still a blanket of clouds in the sky - acting like a lid over the ring of mountains – but these were far more friendly that the coastal ones. Just like in Onuma-Quasi national park, this part of the national park was basically a huge lake – called Toya-ko - with an island in the middle called Nakajima (the park is bigger; there is another lake closer to Tomakomai which I plan to see tomorrow). Nakajima had three large mountains on it, and it was covered in vegetation.

Just like Onuma, this lake was also created by volcanic activity, some of which happened as recently as the year 2000. Though I couldn't tell today, due to the cloud, my guidebook informed me that this lake is over-looked by two famous volcanoes. The first, and tallest, is called Usu-zan and it was probably this volcano that helped to created 'Showa Shin-zan', the other famous volcano. From December 1943 until September 1945, huge earthquakes rattled the area I currently found myself in. During that period a new dome of lava rose from the ground, sometimes at the rate of 1.5m a day. By the time 'Showa Shin-zan' (new mountain) had stopped growing it stood 405m above sea level. Unbeknown to me at the time, I had indeed seen this mountain as it stood just below today’s cloud line however, back in 1945, the Japanese government tried to keep the new mountain's birth a secret in fear that US air planes could use it for navigating towards military targets.

Being a lot bigger than the lake in Onuma, there was no way I could cycle around it; I was therefore lucky that I had the car however, at first at least, there were very few places I could stop my car and take a photo. I also found it quite difficult to devote any time to looking at the lake due to other road users. Eventually I found a car park and so I pulled in, got out my camera, and took a few photos before driving off. This procedure was repeated many number of times as I managed to photograph the lake from many different angles. From one angle, there was a lovely small shrine, on it's own small island in the lake, in front of Nakajima. It made great photography and, luckily, a foreigner – who had decided to picnic at this stop – had chosen a location slightly away from the shrine as not to intrude on peoples photos.

Stopping and starting took it's toll in regards to time. Today I'd planned to see the lake, the two mountains and 'hell valley' (a Luna-like valley created by an ancient eruption close to a small town on my way back to Tomakomai) but the time was already close to 2:30pm when I'd finished circling the lake. At this point I found myself in the small town of Toya; a tiny area made up of hotels, souvenir stalls and people. Somewhere in this town was a walkway where you could see a recent break in the Earth's crust however, due to tourists walking onto the roads, bicycles, tiny tourist signs and drivers behind me driving almost into my car, I gave up trying to find it and headed to an attraction I was originally going to miss.

As I mentioned earlier; in the year 2000, Usu-san erupted and all of the residents of Toya had to be evacuated. In the end, the eruption engulfed the south-western part of the town – called Konpira Parade - which was manly residential apartment blocks. As far as I can tell no one was hurt, due to fact that the evacuation had been called some months prior to the major eruption however, huge steel walls have been put in place with 'mud shoots' created to try and force any further lava flows away from the rest of the Town of Toya. Make no mistake; this volcano is still active and as I climbed up one of these giant steel walls I could see the town and just how close Konpira Parade is to town.

There haven't been any more eruptions recently so the whole area of Konpira Parade has been open to the public, with a slightly dodgy walking map handed out for free. I was met by an man, at the entrance to the park, and it was he who gave me the map. I followed the directions as best I could, only getting lost once. At first the park wasn't much to write home about; I could tell that the earth was new and nutritious, due to the sheer volume of wildlife which had decided to make it's home here. Halfway around I even managed to peer into a small crater filled with crystal-clear water however, it wasn't until I was walking around the few remaining buildings of 'Konpira Parade' that things really got interesting. You know the film 'I am legend'; well this place was a little similar as it was an urban area over-grown with plant life. The roads were cracked, with plants gradually consuming them. Half a road bridge remained with twisted street lamps in place; this grass-covered bridge pointed to an apartment block who's ground floor was totally submerged under the 'new Earth'. This was incredible; a tree was growing out of a third-floor apartment window. Kitchen fittings could still be seen through the broken and shattered glass and yet, in every room this building was loosing it's battle against nature. I circled the building taking endless photos and trying to comprehend what actually had happened here. I have never seen anything quite like it and, I am sure, I will be unlikely to see anything quite the same again.

Once I'd circled the apartment building, I moved onto an old community hall which looked as though it was sinking into the, now, solidified mud. Everything had been left; I could see submerged desks, chairs and drinks machines with the cans lying on the floor. It was incredible and I told the old man at the gate when I returned there. What I didn't know was that, this old man, had lived in a 3rd floor apartment, of that apartment block I had taken photos of, at the time of the eruption. Having seen my look of surprise, he rushed back into his little cabin and returned with some photos from the time of the incident. Now I love history, but to have a living, breathing survivor there with you just added so much more. We chatted and looked at the photos and I was just amazed at the whole bizarre situation. It would appear that, here in Japan, you are damned by Tsunami's if you live near the coast and damned by lava-flows if you live inland … how lucky we are in the UK.

Once back at the car I realised that my opportunity to see both mountains and the 'Hell Valley' had slipped through my fingers due to the visit to this apocalyptic urban settlement however, I didn't care. The mountain tops were still covered in clouds and, honestly, looking around these ruins could well be the highlight of this trip. Best of all it was free however, there was a donation box which I emptied my purse into (only had 11p in change). I drove away content trying to find a good place to take a good photo of 'Showa Shin-san', as it was the only mountain visible. I past a car which had, annoyingly, stopped on the roadside to take a photo instead of pulling into a car park a couple of hundred meters down the road however, when I got to said car park, I was greeted by a less than pleasant man who wanted me to pay £2.50 to park my car so that I could get a photo of something which he did not own. I therefore reversed out of the entrance and parked alongside this other car on the road and proceeded to take my photo.

With that done the time was 4:15pm and I knew that 'hell valley' would be closed. I therefore decided to take the mountainous road back to Tomakomai as it would be quicker. Though on the map the mountainous roads I had chosen looked spectacular, in reality nothing could be seen due to the clouds. I therefore raced along these roads getting a good feel for the car I had hired for the next ten days.

I eventually made it to the coastal road I had used this morning where it was still raining. I proceeded into Tomakomai … and out of it again in search of a restaurant. So far I have eaten hamburgers, sandwiches and cakes therefore, I really wanted something Japanese. Fortunately for me I stumbled upon a ramen chain-restaurant (which is technically Chinese, but the Japanese have loved ramen for quite a while) which I have dined at often. I ordered my 'usual' before returning to my hotel where I parked my lovely new rental car. Today I have learnt that a car is great to get you to many places within a short amount of time however, once at your destination, it is rather a pain as you need to park it. It's also quite hard to see things from your car as there are many other pressing distractions which take up your concentration. For rural areas like national parks, a car is great however, even in the smallest urban area – like Toya – can be a nightmare. I would never take a car into a major city.

So tomorrow I am planning on heading back into the same 'national park' and checking out another lake (I wish Japan would stop calling these places 'national parks'; today I had the same problem as I did in Onuma-quasi National Park which is, I couldn't get out and explore the area). If time, I may head back and see 'hell valley'. Sadly though, you'll have to wait until I return from my holiday to hear any more. Tomorrow a friend joins me here in Tomakomai and we will be travelling together therefore, expect some 'brief' reports about my next few days starting late August.

Until then … Toodle Pip!

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