Posts Tagged With: road trip

Roadtrip To Shirakawago – Matt’s Trip To Japan

Saturday morning I woke up a little sleepy but otherwise ok after our karaoke & drinking adventures the night before. Matt and Tim however, they were a different story…poor things.

Nomihoudai’s are a bit like running marathons. The the more you do in your lifetime the better you are at pacing yourself, knowing your limits, and recovering afterwards.  When you’re new to them though, they just hurt soooooo bad afterwards and you wonder why you ever thought doing one was a good idea. I let them sleep in as long as I could before forcing them to get up, get ready, eat a little toast before we piled back in my tiny car Tim’s bags in tow.

We said our goodbyes to Tim at the Fukui train station, waved goodbye as he walked away, and then hopped back in the car. I took a chug of coffee to fuel up, turned on the tunes to get us excited (and keep Matt awake) and gave Matt a high-five! ADVENTURE TIME! Our mission: get ourselves to Shirakawago!

There’s nothing quite like roadtrips to catch up properly with people. It’s about a 2-hour drive to this tiny gem nestled in the mountains which gave us some quality time to talk things out. Matt and I chatted a lot about things that were new in our lives, future goals, reminiscing about our amazing family holiday in Maui and agreed how exciting it would be to have me back in Canada very soon! I’m really proud of him. We talked a lot about his new job. He snagged himself an incredible engineering job at an amazing company right out of university. He’s such a smart cookie, and a really hard worker, so it’s no surprise that not even 2 years later he got a huge promotion! His trip to Japan was a celebration of sorts with his time off before he starts his big new position.

IMG_5024 IMG_5010 IMG_5011 IMG_5027Matt really, really liked Shirakawago. I knew he would! We big sisters make excellent tour guides, don’t-cha-know! It was super easy to plan Matt’s trip, all I had to do was take him to places in Japan I love. We have pretty similar interests and have traveled together as a family for years, so we operate on the same wavelength.

I love Shirakawago a lot, somehow I never feel bored returning to this quaint village, tiny as it is; so it was nice to come one last time! It’s a nice place to putter, walk around and simply enjoy the atmosphere. The sun was warm…we were having fun…life was good! (For more detailed information about Shirakawago: visit my old post about my snowy winter adventure there here.)

Before we left I insisted we climb to the top of the village hill, so we could enjoy a majestic view. Lovely isn’t it?

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After that it was time to go home. I knew Matt was tired by this point of the trip (traveling non-stop for 2 weeks is tough!), and definitely feeling tuckered out after yesterday’s wild karaoke night. We cancelled our dinner plans in favour of a quiet night at home in my apartment. One of my favourite memories from the whole trip actually ended up being this night, even though all we did was make a healthy salad (aka: veggie-overload) for dinner and watch a mutual all-time-favourite movie How To Train Your Dragon. Classic!

Just goes to show you that being with the right people makes can make even what sounds like a quiet-boring night in *magical* simply because you love their company! how to train your dragon

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Onsen Hopping In Kurokawa – Kyushu Road Trip Part III

For foreigners onsens may be just about the most terrifying thing to exist in Japan. At least they were for me. Bathing naked with other people?…I was expected to bath naked surrounded by strangers!?!

As I had never been exposed to this veritable nightmarish situation in Canada, had it been socially acceptable to not shower for 3 sweaty hot days during that English summer camp, I probably would not have entered that first onsen. I was so shy that even changing rooms at gyms back home made me blush fire engine red and make steam come out of my ears. For years my friends had often ridiculed my prudish tendencies in the gym changing rooms as I struggled to get dressed underneath my other clothes. I was that perfectly awkward duckling about being naked around other people. To this day I can still remember trying not to have a panic attack the first time I was forced to use an onsen in Japan, with a group of foreigners whom I had met for the first time that day.

Looking back, I realize I was a total prude and I’m glad I’ve changed. Once I learned the complex etiquette of onsen bathing and realized that no one really gave a damn what I looked like naked I began to grow more relaxed and enjoy this strange but wonderful ritual. Ironically for a person who thought “I am never, ever, ever going to be comfortable bathing naked with a hundred other women around me!” onsens will be the thing I miss the most about Japan. My friends and I have often joked about constructing an onsen in our backyards when we return to North America and traumatizing our neighbours with our naked bathing ways. As much as I say we’re joking, there’s a small part of us that is totally serious. We don’t refer to our onsen dates jokingly as “happy naked time” for nothing, I genuinely look forward to hanging out with my friends at onsens nowadays!

Before Japan, I used to be incredibly insecure about my body.  However, after 3 years of seeing naked women bodies in every way, shape and form, onsens have given me a priceless gift: I finally feel comfortable in my own skin.  Thank you Japanese onsens, you’ve forevermore made me a stronger, more confident woman.

An onsen (温泉) is a term for hot springs in Japanese, though the term is often used to describe the bathing facilities and inns around the hot springs. As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsens and they are very popular tourist destinations. The majority of onsens are gender separated, with women bathing only with other women, and men bathing with only other men.  

For me, an onsen is a sanctuary of peace and serenity. A place I can escape the chaos and stress of life and rediscover myself. After several days on the road I was really looking forward to visiting the famous Kurokawa Onsen Town. This town is one of Japan’s most attractive traditional hot spring towns and is located in the middle of Kyushu near Mt. Aso. The atmosphere is lovely, and very peaceful with traditional buildings lining the streets, a beautiful river flowing through the middle and people walking around in yukata. IMG_2841 IMG_2842IMG_2844

It was like stepping into a story from long ago. We went to the tourist information centre for a little information. There are about 20 onsen houses in this area and we were overwhelmed by all of our choices.  We were a little short on time, as we needed to check into our hostel in Takachiho in only a few hours, so we decided to only visit 2 onsens. The entrance price for each was about 500 yen.

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After this point no cameras allowed, sorry! The onsens were great, but we definitely were in for a bit of a surprise. We had gotten more than a little cocky, I won’t deny that I totally thought I had the art of onsening down, until we walked through the doors and looked for the showering area (you’re supposed to shower and clean yourself before putting so much as a toe into the baths) only there wasn’t one! We were so confused! We looked around, tried opening doors that were just “fake” doors pretending to be real, and shrugged our shoulders. It looked like that was all these onsen were, a bath.  Yet I was a filthy, greasy little disaster desperately in need of a shower so I really felt bad entering the baths. Just goes to prove that no matter how long you live in a foreign country you will always run into funny situations where you honestly don’t have a clue what to do. Just smile, learn to laugh about it, and follow the locals! If you do, everything will be ok. IMG_2857 IMG_2859Rather short post I know, but it was a rather short adventure.

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Sailing in Sasebo: Kyushu Road Trip Part I

I have learned 3 things about road trips: (1) Good music is essential (2) Fun mates make the hours fly by and (3) logistics can be your worst nightmare. My good friend Lizzy and I had been planning this trip for nearly a year, a last hurrah for our time here in Japan if you will. It’s hard to believe sometimes that it’s only 4 months until I fly home to Canada!

So when the Japanese school term’s spring break finally dawned it was exciting to ditch the research & planning stage and hit the open road. It was time! “Let the adventure begin!” I exclaimed to myself as I scuttled out of school as fast as my long legs could take me. We packed up the car, crammed the 4 partners in crime inside (myself, Lizzy, Heather and Nicole) and took off in Lizzy’s famous little car “The Green Gatsby” for a 12 hour drive.

Our first stop on our 10-day road trip was Sasebo, home to the famous 99 Islands (Kujuku Islands).IMG_2746

Interestingly enough, although the name would imply there are 99 Islands, there are actually 208 tiny islands in this area. A long time ago in Japan, the number 99 was used to express something large and uncountable. Sailing through the islands is a popular tourist attraction and the entire reason we traveled to Sasebo.

You can ride the leisure boat The Pearl Queen that tours the Kujuku Islands from Saikai Pearl Sea Resort. The journey takes 50 minutes. As your magnificent ship zigzags through the islands, you can observe the islands up close and daydream about life as a pirate. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact I watched Pirates of the Caribbean 5 bazillion times (when I was younger!), but I would love to have a ship of my own one day, a life on the open sea would be amazing. After weeks spent in the office working on paperwork the wind blowing through our hair and sunshine on our faces felt pretty damn nice!

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After our adventures on the high sea we grabbed a cup of jo from the Badass Coffee Company. It was pretty badass indeed!Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 1.08.58 PM

Happily caffeinated we trundled off in the Green Gatsby to the Ishidake Observatory for a 360° panoramic view of the islands. It’s a spectacular view and a great place to take a few pictures. It’s only about a 8-minute drive from the harbour; you can reach there by driving up from the side of the parking lot of the Sasebo Zoological and Tropical Botanical Garden, and walking up the mountain path for a few minutes. Easy peasy!

IMG_2750IMG_2754IMG_2758I was pretty surprised to discover that Sasebo was such a big city! I honestly was imagining a small town in my head when we did the planning….oops! Being adventurous certainly worked up my appetite and we all agreed we were starving. One of these days I’ll learn I am not a robot who can survive on only coffee…one day…perhaps. We decided to try and find a supermarket and grab supplies for a picnic.  Heather found a perfect place to hanami (cherry blossom party) it up and we lounged around in the sunshine relaxing and eating for hours. Hanami Hanami2 photo3 photo4

Just as I dozed off for a wee nap the cutest little boy came to chat to us in English. We were more than a little startled (where was his family?! How did he speak English so well?!) but ended up having an adorable conversation with him about all sorts of things. He said some pretty profound things for a 5-year old, I was impressed. IMG_2760 IMG_2773It was a wonderful end to a wonderful first day!

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Rebun Island, Hokkaido

During my 3 years living in Japan I’ve been to many exciting and beautiful places. One of the most rewarding experiences was my adventures as a solo traveller on Rebun Island during the summer I road tripped around Hokkaido.

Rebun Island (“Rebuntou” in Japanese) is a very small island off the northwestern tip of Hokkaido Japan.  This tiny island is only 29km long and 8km wide! In the language of Hokkaido’s native people the Ainu, it is called “Repun” which means “island in the open sea.”  Its other nickname is “The Island of Wildflowers” because the island is dotted from one end to the other with alpine flowers during the summer months. This nickname drew me to Rebun Island like a bear to honey. Although this island is itty-bitty and most people in Japan have no idea where it is, I loved it and will always treasure the days I spent on this island. rebunisland

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 9.37.18 AMIn the right hiking circles Rebun Island is quite famous in Japan among outdoors enthusiasts, renown for its rich flora and the alpine flowers which cover most hikes. In particular I had heard very good things about a spectacular 8-hour hiking course which runs from the north of the island to the southern tip.  That was it though, that was everything I knew about Rebun Island before I went. The biggest problem planning a trip to this scenic hiking retreat was the utter lack of information in English. I was going where no foreigner I knew had gone before. I was on my own, with limited Japanese, a little traveling wisdom under my belt and most importantly a willingness to roll with the punches in the name of adventure. It’s journeys into the great unknown, like this one, that show you what you’re truly made of.

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WHAT TO DO ON REBUN ISLAND:

Hiking! Hiking! Hiking! This is what people come from all over Japan and the world to do on Rebun Island. There are several beautiful treks to do:

  • The 8-Hour Course: The most famous hike on Rebun Island. Beginning from the northern tip of the island at Cape Sukoton you hike almost the entire length of the island along majestic ridges, cliffs, beaches and forest trails. (Time Needed: 10 hours/Distance: 25km)
  • The 4-Hour Course*: If you want the beauty of the 8-hour course but lack the time, the 4-hour course is a beautiful and very scenic subsection of the most famous hike. It begins at the same place as the 8-hour course, Cape Sukoton, but ends halfway along the full course at the Hamanaka Bus Stop, from where you’ll take a bus back. (Time Needed: 5.5 hours/Distance: 12km)
  • The Flower Hike* (Also known as the Momoiwasu Course)The most popular trekking course which I highly recommend because it’s the path with most alpine flowers and spectacular views from the southern tip of the island! Starting from the Momoiwa Tenbo-dai to Motoji-toudai (Time: 3-4 hours/Distance:2.5km)
  • Rebun-dake Course: This is a course takes you to the summit of the highest mountain on Rebun Island Mt: Rebun. (Time:  Distance: 4.5km Altitude: 490m)

*I hiked the Flower Road on my first day on Rebun Island and the 4-hour course on my second day. I had originally planned to do the 8-hour course but once I arrived on the island I opted for the 4-hour hike due to unexpectedly injuring my knee just prior to my Hokkaido road trip so I could ‘play it safe’. I really recommend both hikes that I did and wish I had planned to stay one day more so that I could have hiked to the top of Mt. Rebun too. Be sure to budget a lot of time for the hikes as they are breathtaking and you’ll surely want to savour the magnificent views and stop for many photos. 

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HOW TO GET TO REBUN ISLAND

To get to Rebun Island in itself was daunting. Ultimately, after much research, I settled on a route. I returned my rental car in Sapporo, and from there bought a special discount train ticket from the Hokkaido Railway Company that could be used to Wakkanai and back again to Sapporo. The price for the “Direction 3 Discount Ticket” which is a roundtrip ticket that you can use to get to from Sapporo to Wakkanai during the summer was 12,200 yen. It is 100% worth tracking down this ticket booth located near the Tourist Information Desk in the Sapporo train station if you plan on taking a train to Wakkanai, as the normal price for a round trip is 20,340 yen (you’ll save over 8,000yen)! The ladies speak English and are very helpful answering questions. Be sure to bring a good book for on the train, it’s a long train ride which takes about 5 hours. (For more information about this train ticket click here)

Once you arrive in Wakkanai you must take a ferry to get over to Kafuka Port on Rebun Island. A roundtrip ticket on the Heart Land Ferry is 4,800yen. A one-way trip takes about 115 minutes. There are several choices for times to get from Wakkanai to Kafuka. (For more information on ferry transportation click here)

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ACCOMMODATION RECOMMENDATION ON REBUN ISLAND:

I read legendary reviews of the Youth Hostel on Rebun Island. The price for a night is pretty standard for a youth hostel, about 4,000 yen per night. The staff is quite famous for their warm welcoming, and if you visit Rebun in summer it’s likely the staff will be waiting for you at the ferry terminal, shouting and waving a Momoiwasu flag! The location is breathtaking, right on the water (look for the red roof in the picture below!).

The biggest advantage to staying here it that the staff arranges a daily bus trip in the early morning to the 8-hour hike trailhead. If you’re planning to trek this hike, having that free transportation is invaluable. The hostel also serves breakfast, will make you a packed lunch, and serves dinner (all at an extra price) but extremely tasty!

After reading reviews I was both terrified and intrigued beyond measure. I knew when I booked it that I was either going to love it or hate it, so I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. I’m happy to report I loved it, and already dream of going back one day! If you are looking for an unforgettable experience there is no place I would recommend more highly than the Momoiwaso Youth Hostel.  It’s more like staying at summer camp than a hotel though so be careful you’ll need boundless enthusiasm and lots of energy!  (To make a reservation click here

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BEST TIME TO VISIT REBUN ISLAND:

The best time to visit Rebun Island is indisputably during the summer, from July to late August. It’s a frozen and very cold place in all other seasons due to being located on the northernmost tip of Hokkaido, Japan. During the months of June, July and August is also when the wildflowers come out and transform the whole island into a hiking wonderland. I visited in mid-August and enjoyed the weather very much.

LOCAL SPECIALITIES ON REBUN ISLAND:

Thanks to the cold, clear waters around Rebun Island the seafood produced in this area is superb! Things you should try:

  • #1 Seafood Ramen: I am pretty certain that I will never forget the jumbo seafood in the seafood ramen I ordered on my first day! For the price of 500yen for a bowl, which was positively stuffed with delectable goodies, it was the jackpot of all ramen!

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  • #2 Sea Urchin: Be sure to try sea urchin (“uni” in Japanese) as Rebun Island is home to some of the largest and most delicious pricky little monsters in the world supposedly!

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  • #3 Grilled Fish With Miso Paste: This is a famous local specialty. A local fish (the name of which I forget, sorry!) which is grilled and then topped with a dollop of miso paste and green onions. Japanese tourists at the restaurant each ordered one of these so you know it’s something you gotta try! Om nom! IMG_1886 IMG_1889

For anyone visiting Rebun Island who stumbles upon this blog, I hope you have a wonderful trip and enjoy the beauty of this tiny wildflower paradise with it’s rolling emerald hills as much as I did.

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The City of Glass: Otaru

Back to my Hokkaido road trip diary, now that one of my friends was able to help save my photo files off my old, and dying computer! Last time the adventure left off with me just leaving Shiretoko, and the beautiful Kaminoko Pond

It appears that in leaving Shiretoko I forgot to pack my luck. I kid you not, after I drove away it was just one terrible thing after the next, domino style. I had promised to meet my friend from Fukui (who was visiting Sapporo with his parents) for dinner that night, but instead of a little luck of the Irish rubbing off on me, it appears I suffered the worst string of bad luck imaginable. I’m not looking for a pity party, but seriously, it was terrible! So terrible I know it’ll be therapeutic to write down and hopefully let go of the negativity forever!

My Series of Unfortunate Events:

  • Typhoon like weather hit and I had to drive the 381km winding roads (which would not have been fun to begin with) in non-stop torrential downpour terrified out of my mind. This should have taken 6 hours, due to terrible weather, it took 8.5 hours.
  • Had an absolute BLAST with my friend and his parents at dinner. Genghis khan BBQ is fabulous and it’s a must do if you’re in Sapporo! Unexpectedly, I then went out drinking with him and his parents (must be an Irish thing, but loved it!) where I guess I drank a little too much and proceeded to loose my iPhone getting out of my cab home.
  • Spent the entire morning calling police stations and lost&found offices. Unfortunately nothing was open because it was a Sunday. Just my luck, eh? Seeing as I had no reservation to stay further in Sapporo, I was forced to leave…because, of course just my luck yet again, my hostel, and every other hostel was fully booked.
  • Admitting defeat, I printed off driving directions and road maps because I was now about to commence the last 2 days of my road trip with no GPS. Checked out of my hostel and upon arriving at my car saw that someone had dented the passenger side door, which would later cost me 20,000yen (approximately $200) in damage fees to the rental company. UGH!
  • Drove the entire way to Otaru and Niseko with no bloody idea where I was going and “winging it” in the truest sense of adventure. However, instead of the adventure and “liberated-at-long-last-from-the-ball-and-chain-that-is-technology” experience I was expecting, I instead proceeded to have numerous minor heart attacks on the Japanese highways with all of the road directions being written in kanji (which I am only so-so at reading).
  • Oh, and the cherry on top I broke my kindle (e-reader book) screen, rendering it completely useless, not long after.

Even 2 months after this nightmare has ended, it’s still painful to recall. I can vividly remember parking my car in Otaru, after many harrowing driving experiences (for the record it’s only 40 minutes from Sapporo, a mere 40 minutes!), putting my head against the steering wheel and wanting to cry. I had made it, but I was barely holding it together. It’s at times like this that traveling alone is really the pits, you have no one to cheer you up and try to make you laugh. You are forced to delve into the depths of your own wandering-weary soul all by yourself and find that gem of hope and optimism in light of a terrible situation.

I took several deep breaths, told myself to just breathe, just breathe. I played my favourite Michael Buble song to rally my spirits and slowly began to calm down. I was in Otaru, and I was going to enjoy myself. I was in Otaru, and I was going to enjoy myself. I was in Otaru, and I was going to enjoy myself…It became my mantra, and after several minutes I took one last deep breath packed everything into my purse and stepped out of the car ready to spend my now limited time in Otaru (only a few hours at most) having fun. Only of my friends used to have a quote for times like these. Screen shot 2013-10-17 at 10.40.19 AM

So true. I may not have been able to drink (I had to drive later) but I could brush my hair, apply a fresh coat of lipstick, smile at myself in a mirror, stand up a little straighter and go have an amazing adventure. That’s exactly what I did. So glad I did too, Otaru was simply delightful. IMG_1524 IMG_1525

Otaru is a small little city very near Sapporo that is often called ”The Venice of Hokkaido” for its beautifully preserved canal area and the multitude of blown glass.  Blown glass art is a specialty of this city so be sure to save time to go shopping! Nothing like a little retail therapy to turn a frown upside down!IMG_1547

My first course of action was to walk along the canal, breathing in the salty air and hunt down the famous steam clock. There is a steam clock outside the music box museum which was a gift from Vancouver (where I’m from) so I was determined to find it! It didn’t take me long and I arrived just in time to hear the main steam whistle which occurs on the hour every hour (it plays a little chime too, every 15 minutes). After that I strolled along happily shopping what felt like every glass store I saw.IMG_1536 IMG_1537 IMG_1540

When I was young and wild, or at least wilder than I am now, I dreamt of running off to Venice to learn how to blow glass. It has always been something that fascinates me. When I was really little, my favourite part of visiting Granville Island in Vancouver was dragging my parents to watch the glass blowers at work. It was nothing short of magical the way the artists blew the glass as effortless as if they were blowing up a balloon. About 3 years ago, after finishing university and before I moved to Japan, I actually took a night class at my local art college in Calgary. It was a dream come true and much more difficult than I ever imagined. Since then my appreciation of blown glass has increased even more. Therefore Otaru was like glass blowing heaven for me, I could have watched the artists at work for hours and shopped all day long. I think I spent more money shopping this day, than any other day the whole 2 weeks I was in Hokkaido.

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I bought a cute circle vase to grow my marimo in and a few under-the-sea miniature glass figurines to keep them company! It was a perfect souvenir!

I also bought myself the sweetest looking tea set. I adore yuzu (a Japanese fruit similar to a lemon) and was positively smitten with this set. It was hugely inconvenient hauling this around Hokkaido with me for the rest of the trip, but I bought the whole set (stand and all!) and brought it back to Fukui.

I also bought myself the sweetest looking tea set. I adore yuzu (a Japanese fruit similar to a lemon) and was positively smitten with this set. It was hugely inconvenient hauling this around Hokkaido with me for the rest of the trip, but I bought the whole set (stand and all!) and brought it back to Fukui.

Finally, if you’re looking for a nice little place to grab lunch, seek out PRESS CAFE. It’s right along the canal, and it’s a pleasant walk to get there. I know that sushi is a specialty of Otaru, but I was seeking somewhere quiet so I bypassed the expensive and busy sushi restaurants. The sushi in Fukui is plenty delicious enough that I don’t feel the need to seek it out when I travel.  If you stroll along the canal away from the busy area you’ll probably be able to smell this restaurant before you see it. Wait for the tantalizing scent of curry being carried on the breeze. I followed my nose and I wasn’t disappointed. They serve delicious curries and have a unique drink menu. I ordered the blood orange juice and my taste buds were singing hallelujah after the first refreshing sip.IMG_1528 IMG_1529 IMG_1531 IMG_1534

I loved the tall ceilings and general sense of spaciousness. I really savoured my meal here, relaxing in the tranquil atmosphere and gazing out at the Venetian canal before heading out. I guess the lesson that can be learned from this terrible, terrible day is that mindset when traveling is everything. Once I was able to tuck my bad mood under the rug and turn over a new leaf I was able to experience all the beauty of Otaru and salvage my day. Out of curiosity, any travellers out there, do you have any advice for a new solo-traveller for what to do when things just go unbelievably wrong? How do you deal with bad luck when traveling?

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Sometimes life closes a door. That doesn’t have to mean the adventure is over. It’s up to you to find another way…

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Kaminoko Pond

Sorry for the long delay between posts. As I’m sure you can understand, back to school in September for teachers is like Christmas for Santa Claus, the busiest time of the year by far. It seemed like a never-ending highly-stressful nightmare, but I’m happy to report that I’m alive! These days when people wistfully say that teaching English in Japan sounds like the easiest, funnest job in the world I just laugh, and then laugh a little more, and hopefully I stop laughing before they think I’m crazy. It’s hard work, anyone who thinks teaching is a “soft & cushy” job has obviously never taught.  Anyways, on to my actual story!

The Kaminoko Pond on the border out of Shiretoko was the last place in Hokkaido that I visited where I can honestly say I felt lucky. It would appear that I not only left my heart in Shiretoko, I left my luck too.

Kaminoko Pond (神の子池 Kaminoko-ike) is a very well known beautiful pond just outside the border of the Shiretoko National Park, near Lake Mashu.  Its aquamarine and emerald green waters are mysterious to behold and it’s no wonder it was given the name “Child of God Pond”…although, that may also be because the person who first discovered it thought it was a miracle not merely to behold but to find!IMG_1507IMG_1509It’s really nestled deep in the woods, so be prepared for an adventure getting there! You won’t need 4-wheel drive to make it there, but it is a bit bumpy. It’s well worth the trouble of finding, so don’t give up!

IMG_1509 IMG_1500  IMG_1511Seeing as there is VERY little information (in English) about instructions on how to get there I thought I’d try to help folks out.

How to get to Kaminoko Pond:

Coming back from Shiretoko National Park change from Route 334 and get onto Route 1115 (heading towards Lake Mashu). From the base of the peninsula, this will take approximately 1 hour (48km or so).
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When you see this sign turn in off Route 1115. You’ll need to drive a little bit uphill over some bumpy terrain, this will take approximately 10 minutes.

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Climbing Mt. Rausu

The next day was a rough wake up. My lovely and oh-so-NOT-considerate hostel roommates kept me up until 2am with their partying (UGH!) and I had to get up at 4am in order to meet my friend in Shiretoko for a hike. With only two hours of sleep under my belt I headed out.  I was a bit worried about the weather, but while it looked overcast it didn’t look terrible. I was more worried about the exhaustion that I felt deep in my bones. I don’t do well tired, I’m a complete bear, just ask my friends. If it hadn’t been for my eager friend waiting for me on his one day off that week, I know I would have cancelled the hike. I won’t say I didn’t enjoy the hike, but I will say that I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more had I been well-rested.

The goal of the day was to summit Mt. Rausu. It would be the first big hike I had done since injuring my knee and so I stuffed my bag with water, snacks, plenty of Advil, cold herb compresses and tiger balm in case it flared up.

Mt Rausu is the highest point of the Shiretoko peninsula. It’s a World Heritage Site and one of the top 100 mountains in Japan. I read reviews that claimed it is “renowned for its striking beauty, abundant wildlife and pristine nature. It also however, is quite famous for its brown bear encounters. Therefore, I strongly recommend wearing a bell and bringing bear spray. Good tip: I later discovered that it’s possible to buy bear spray from one of the information centres, the best part is that it’s returnable if you don’t use it. Brilliant idea!

The height of this mountain is 5,448 feet and the Rausudake trail is 12km return.  The people working at the information desks, and all the locals in the area will strongly recommend you start as early as possible, they were quite insistent telling me I should be at the trailhead by 4am or early. SORRY!?! WHAT!?!?! For a 12km hike, you have got to be kidding me! There was absolutely no way I was going to need 14 hours to hike 12km….

People in Japan take hiking very seriously. In my opinion you do not “absolutely need” to start this hike at 4am, so take their advice with a small grain of salt. I talked to other people on the hike who started as “late” as 10:30am and were still able to complete this hike well before the sun set. My hiking buddy wanted to start at 4am…but, seeing as that would have involved me getting up at 2am, that was not an option. We compromised and I agreed to meet him at 6am, though if I had had my way we wouldn’t have started till 8am (we still would have been fine, for the record!).

How to get to the trail head:

From the parking lot at Iwaobetsu Hot Spring, walk on the paved road that goes next to the large hotel until you come to a mountain hut and toilet. The trailhead starts here.  Be sure to sign the log book!

While I wouldn’t call this hike difficult, it was challenging, so it’s not for the faint of heart.  I didn’t take many photos that day, but my friend was kind enough to send some of his my way for this post. Enjoy!

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Jum was a great hiking partner, he had so much energy! We had a good time chatting about movies, hobbies and Shiretoko National Park, he’s got some great stories from working in the park for the past 3 years.IMGP1966-1

I totally forgot about taking this photo before Jum emailed it to me. I actually just about died laughing, I look ridiculous! Check out my non-existant “guns” why don’t you!

Everyone teased me that I wouldn’t see snow if I went to Hokkaido in summer. My friends know all to well it’s killing me that I haven’t made it to Hokkaido for crazy-awesome snowboarding, yet. He he he, suckers! Somehow here I am in my element, score! Muwhahahahah, yes that’s right, only the truest Canadians frolic in snow in the middle of August.

IMGP1959-1This was my favourite part of the hike, walking up this snow gully! From where I’m sitting, we had to hike up. Seriously fun stuff! My mood changed a lot after this point, it was the highlight of my day. Jum was very entertained by how much I loved the snow. Don’t worry though, I promised him not all Canadians are this snow-crazy.IMG_1489

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I did whip out my camera at this point because the sun had finally emerged and the mist was clearing up. Loved all the little wildflowers in this area, especially these little pink snowdrops. IMG_1407

Once you climb up around the corner everything flattens out a bit and you get to see the summit. We stopped here for a snack, a few pictures because you could finally see the peak and a short rest. I was really on the fence about climbing the last hour and a half up to the summit, but Jum encouraged me and next thing I knew we were off. Just as a warning the way up from here is challenging and involved a bit of scrambling over rocks. My knee was very bothered by this part, it’s very steep with lots of steps, unstable footing and rocky areas so take your time. IMGP1993-1

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What the hike up to the summit is like.

What the hike up to the summit is like.

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My glorious moment on the top of Mt. Rausu! Everything is downhill from here!

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View down from the summit!

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The clouds cleared for just a few minutes, it was nice to see a bit of blue sky!

As we headed down the mountain Jum pointed out a place I could fill up my water bottles which were running a bit low. The water comes from an underground spring and is safe to drink.

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Beautiful view as we descended the mountain.

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Snow! Snow! Snow!

IMG_1480 By the time I finished I was exhausted but happy. All in all it was a great hike that I’d recommend!

Categories: Life in Japan, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Walking Up Warm Waterfalls: Shiretoko National Park

There are breakfasts, and then there are the breakfast of champions. My second day in Shiretoko started off great with this gorgeous plate of fruit accompanied by fresh banana, yogurt and granola. OM NOM NOM!IMG_1292

One of the most difficult things about long road trips is finding time to be healthy. Too many combini-store meals make me sluggish, so I have learned to buy lots of fruit and at least eat a healthy breakfast! After all, my mother always said “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!” I lounged around the hostel for a bit having a bit of “me-time” simply relaxing, reading my book, skyping my family and savouring my yummy breakfast. That’s what holidays are about!

After, I headed out to explore some more in paradise. I decided to drive to the Shiretoko Pass and check out the mountain I was planning on summiting the next day.
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There’s me looking ridiculously optimistic about what the very next day would prove to be my Mt. Doom. I’ll save that story for the next post however, so stay tuned.

After this I drove to the Shiretoko Nature Center where I chatted for a bit with a Shiretoko local who really knew their way around. He was pretty good looking and I have to admit, I was a little disappointed when he ran off for a date with another lovely lady instead of hanging around with me.

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The Kamuiwakka Waterfall (カムイワッカ湯の滝 Kamuiwakka-yunotaki) is a famous waterfall and is one of Hokkaido’s coolest natural wonders. Its name in the Ainu language means “River of the Gods” and this is no ordinary waterfall everyone, it’s very very special. It’s an onsen waterfall meaning the water is hot! What’s even cooler? You are actually allowed to walk up the gentlest slope of this warm waterfall in sturdy sandals, bare feet (my recommendation) or, if you’re looking for an awesome souvenir, the stores sell special toe-socks with rubber grips on the soles of the socks! I would also recommend wearing a bathing suit, as you can go swimming in the deeper pools if you’re so inclined!

With regards to logistics, the road to this waterfall is closed and the only way to get there is by taking a 40min bus from the Shiretoko Shizen Center, a round-trip ticket is 1180yen. Keep your eyes peeled for interesting wildlife on the way!IMG_1317_convertedIMG_1315_converted (1)

Yeah, you can actually walk up that in case you’re curious, “amazing” doesn’t do this place justice!IMG_1316_converted IMG_1323_converted

This photo was taken by my new at-the-time friend Jum who works for the Shiretoko National Park. He was stationed that day as a “tourist-supervisor-lifeguard” at the waterfalls, keeping all us tourists out of trouble and within the safety bounderies (despite whatever adventures we might want to pursue).

Jum introduced himself politely and asked if it was ok if he practiced his English with me because he didn’t get many opportunities. Surprised, I looked around at all the other tourists, it was easy to see why, I was definitely the only foreigner. As we talked, I discovered that this November he’s is planning to go on a 4-month home stay program in Alberta, Canada! What are the chances?! He couldn’t believe his luck either, when I excitedly told him I was from Alberta! It was definitely his lucky day! When he asked what my plans were the next day, I told him I was hiking Mt. Rausu, and he asked if it would be ok if we went together since it was his day off. He’s a much better English student than I am a Japanese student eh?

I was a little tentative to go with him I won’t pretend otherwise, mostly because I’m not one for doing long 8-hr hikes with strangers…. I thought about it for a bit and then eventually agreed to meet him at 6am the next morning. In the end, my fear of hiking alone in bear country far outweighed my apprehension of hiking alone with a stranger. The fact that Jum was actually a Shiretoko National Park Nature Guide made the decision a whole lot easier, he’s hiked Mt. Rausu about 10 times in the past 2 years!

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This final photo is of the beautiful view as I drove back to the hostel from the Nature Center! Gorgeous view, ne?

Categories: Life in Japan, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

I Left My Heart In Shiretoko

A long time ago a friend gave me some valuable traveling advice “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst and that way you’re always pleasantly surprised.” Day 4 dawned and the second I looked out the window I knew my plans were up in the air, the most ominous looking of thunderclouds clouded the sky blocking out every vestige of sunlight. Uh oh….so much for hiking. So I promptly rolled over, hey no judging it was 4 am in the morning, and I went back to sleep for another couple of hours.  Weather is a fickle mistress and it does no good whatsoever to shake angry fists at the sky and cry “why! WHY?” not always having perfect weather is a reality every traveller must face at one point. I wasn’t angry, if anything I was relieved to get a few more hours of rest to be honest.

When creating an itinerary I do my best to plan for everything within my control, and then after this careful planning always aim to give myself a little extra “breathing room” in my schedule just in case. Like I said, you hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. I never like to jam pack an itinerary in case something unavoidable happens. I can’t count the number of times that this traveling philosophy has helped me out on recent trips.

Only last Christmas while traveling with friends in Cambodia did my plans to visit Angkor Wat at sunrise have a rude awakening in the form of food poisoning at 2am. “Uuuuuugh!” doesn’t even begin to cover it. The disappointment of missing out on seeing Ankor Wat with my friends was almost worse than the food poisoning itself, almost. Luckily for me I had planned an extra two “safety days” at the end of my time in Cambodia before flying to my next destination (Singapore). Had I not, I would have left Cambodia without seeing its most famous site, which would have been tragically disappointing. So, as sad as I was to have to explore Angkor Wat alone, as my friends had departed for Thailand, I was happy that I could visit this historical monument, better alone than not at all!

Thus, when my plans to hike around the famous Lake Mashu area went up in smoke I simply fast forwarded my itinerary and phoned my guesthouse in the Shiretoko area to see if it was possible to shift my entire reservation forward by one day.  Luck was on my side, it was ok to check in later that afternoon. Off I went chasing the promised beautiful weather on the eastern-most area of Hokkaido, the Shiretoko Peninsula.

I stopped briefly at the top of one of Lake Mashu’s observatories to see if I could at the very least glimpse the supposedly clearest lake in the world….but no dice…I could hardly see 4 feet in front of me let alone down the valley to where the lake would be.IMG_1104 IMG_1105Vowing to return on my way back I headed off down the windy highway….and a mere half an hour later…WOW! What a change, eh? I was able to relax my white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel and cruising down the highway became a real pleasure after this. IMG_0999My nostalgia concerning wide open spaces after Biei was still on my mind. As I drove past beautiful golden wheat fields with their hay bales clearly visible against a robin’s egg blue backdrop of sky I couldn’t help but reflect on my childhood in Calgary, Alberta.  I would drive past the wheat fields every weekend in the summer while driving in my family’s car on my way to the mountains. Hard to believe I ever found landscapes like this boring, preferring instead to burry my nose in whatever book I was currently reading.IMG_1107IMG_1108After a quick check-in at the guest-house I was off to the peninsula. From the moment I first crossed this national park’s threshold I was in love. It stole my heart faster than a kiss and that was it, I was hopeless, utterly enamoured. Driving along that coastline is one of the most beautiful roads I have ever been on in my life. I knew in that first moment it was going to be an amazing three days! Even if I did nothing else than drive along the coastline I was destined to be happy as could be. IMG_1112 IMG_1113 IMG_1116

As fate would have it I saw a large sign along the highway indicating that one of my highly anticipate sightseeing destinations was coming up. The Oshin-koshin Waterfall is a must see when in the Shiretoko National Park! IMG_1118

Finding it was easy, walking up even easier, no hiking necessary to see this spectacular beauty of a waterfall so you have no excuses to not see it.
IMG_1137 IMG_1136 IMG_1129As you may notice I’ve got my knee all prepped for a little hiking.  Unfortunate reality that is my life, go figure, I injured myself a mere week before traveling to Hokkaido. Going in to see a doctor before my flight (that was leaving the very next day!) I was terrified she was going to ban me from any hiking in Hokkaido, which was the whole reason I wanted to go in the first place. Luckily the doctor said the pain I was experiencing wasn’t anything too major. My left knee is just currently lacking enough synovial fluid (the fluid contained in joints to reduce friction when moved) to move smoothly resulting in the bones rubbing a bit together. OUCH! She said as long as I did easy hikes, and took it slow I should be ok. That being said…

  • Advil and other doctor prescribed medicines taken? Check!
  • Icy-herb packs applied? Check!
  • Wearing my…knee-brace-socky-thing (to be honest I have no idea what you call it) over top of everything? Check!

I was excited to be heading off after this to the famous Shiretoko Five Lakes for my first hike of the trip!

The Shiretoko Five Lakes (知床五湖, Shiretoko Goko) are a five small lakes along the western coast of the Shiretoko National Park. They were formed long ago by the eruption of nearby Mount Io and the water comes from underground springs. According to legend the 5 lakes are supposed to look from above like a god’s five fingerprints.  The Shiretoko Five Lakes offer beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and wilderness. For any foreigners seeking directions you’re best of referring to them as “goko” which translates as 5(go) Lakes(ko). They are the #1 must see in the area so I decided to go there first (despite my itinerary) while the weather was the most beautiful day you could possibly ask for! Screen shot 2013-08-18 at 9.27.46 AMBefore you can hike however, first you must pay a small fee (300yen) and get a permit to hike at the Shiretoko Five Lakes office. It’s a very easy process that can be done in less than 10 minutes (if there are no lines!) at the information desk. I chose the 3km course (the longer one in blue) which takes you around all the lakes. It says 3 hours are necessary, but unless it’s bumper-to-bumper people traffic you can easily walk this in about an hour and a half. It’s very easy, and my hiking shoes were definitely not necessary. I saw a woman doing this “hike” in heels to put things in perspective.

Next due to the large number of bears in the area you must watch a bear information video warning you of the park rules, dangers and how to respond in various situations. It was so over-dramatic I think I started giggling 5 seconds in. It’s definitely good information however, especially for people who’ve never been in bear country before, and the video has English subtitles too! This whole process only took me about half an hour, but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s because I was there at the end of the day and was one of the last groups to go in. From the way the process was laid out I have zero doubts, it probably can get very busy, this process may take longer so prepare accordingly.

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Permit in hand, I headed off quickly after the video as not to be stuck behind the huge crowd of people.IMG_1147 IMG_1152IMG_1157 IMG_1160 IMG_1162 IMG_1163 IMG_1172 IMG_1189 IMG_1204 IMG_1210

It’s at this point the shorter trail and the longer trail converge. Both led towards a large 800m long elevated wooden platform that once you enter you can’t go back. Spectacular views of the largest of the five lakes can be see from here, you could also catch glimpses of the sea!IMG_1225 IMG_1235 IMG_1222IMG_1219

I spent about half an hour relaxing on a bench in front of the lake, savouring the beautiful panorama while basking in the sunshine’s warm glow. I really enjoyed the time of day I went, I started walking around 4:00pm (a little over 2 hours before sunset) so the sun wasn’t scorching hot and was just beginning to start descending as I walked along the boardwalk back to the parking lot.IMG_1228 IMG_1221 IMG_1223After I left the Shiretoko Five Lakes, I quickly headed off to the little town of Utoro to watch the sunset. When coming south through Utoro watch for a 7/11 combini. When you see it make a left and then another left immediately to go up a large hill towards all the high-end hotels. Park your car wherever possible and walk to the campground. Take a right at the campground office building towards a large cliff, this is the best place to view the sunset. I got there about 20 minutes before the sunset and held my spot at the front while happily munching on fresh watermelon to take the edge off my hunger. IMG_1252Glorious end to a glorious day. Can you see why I instantaneously fell in love with Shiretoko? Isn’t it just the most enchanting wilderness you’ve ever seen!? Friends and family will be lucky to ever see me again. I’m thinking of find myself a cozy little cave to live in for the rest of my life!

 

Categories: Life in Japan, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The World’s Most Adorable Algae : Marimo

I am a plant murderer. It’s not something I’m proud of. It is simply something I’ve been forced to accept about myself, that despite my best efforts not to be, I am a plant serial killer. No matter how many times I try, the poor little things wilt into oblivion under my care. The only plant that has survived my care, so far, is a cactus. Pathetic, I know!

Despite this however, I love them! You may have noticed I took quite a few photos of flowers in Furano, and I always enjoy being surrounded by nature when I’m hiking, I just am a terrible owner.

Thanks to this love of plants Day 3 of my road trip brought me to the beautiful Lake Akan. IMG_1013

Lake Akan is a beautiful crater lake in the Akan National Park in the eastern area of Hokkaido.  What drew me here was something very unique, the marimo. Marimo colonies exist only in Iceland, Scotland, Estonia and Lake Akan in Japan. Naturally my curiosity was piqued.

What is a “marimo” you ask? Well, this little geek went on a miniature science field trip and is happy to share her newly acquired knowledge! My parents will be delighted, all that money spent on science summer camps clearly had a lasting impact.

Marimo (mah-ree-moh) are an exceptionally rare algae species that form into beautiful, velvety-looking green balls. They do this so as they roll around under the water all sides may do photosynthesis. Marimo have a growth rate of about 5mm per year. Left alone for a few centuries, Lake Akan’s marimo can reach the size of soccer balls! EPIC! The algae have been designated a National Special Natural Monument in Japan.

IMG_1059The plant was named “marimo” by a Tatsuhiko Kawakami, a Japanese botanist, in 1898! “Mari” means a bouncy play ball while “Mo” is a generic term for plants that grow in water. The Ainu people (native people who live in the region) have known about Marimo for much longer and refer to them as torasampe (lake goblin) and tokarip (lake roller).

When you go to Lake Akan, there is one thing you must do and that is go on the Lake Cruise. The price is pretty reasonable, 1,850 yen for a 85min cruise that includes a trip to the Marimo Conservation Centre. As far as I’m aware, this is the only way to get to the centre, which is on an island in the middle of Lake Akan, where you can view the real marimo.  Careful though, you only get 15 minutes at the centre so make the most of your time.

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Somehow these little rolly-poly-balls charmed me, and I began to think of them as endearing. Whoever would have thought that I would find myself thinking of a ball of algae as adorable? Bizarreness.

After the boat cruise finished, I found myself thinking quite seriously about purchasing a few of my own to bring back to Fukui. My plant serial killer tendencies however, made me pause. I’m terrible with plants, what if it’s the same for algae? Murdering marimo is terrible to even contemplate! Eventually though, eternal optimist that I am, I ended up buying a few to raise as pets.  Say hello everyone to my new little friends! Fingers crossed I don’t kill them! marimo 3 marimo 5

The ladies in the stores assured me that keeping marimo alive is super simple. For anyone who visits and wants to bring some home as pets like me (who needs cats or dogs when you have adorable algae right?) here’s how to take care of them:

  1. Change their water about once per week (purified water is best).
  2. Don’t place them in direct sunlight, even though your instinct may be to do so because they do photosynthesis, it will kill them. The lady I spoke with recommend placing my marimo somewhere that receives weak sunlight – such as near a covered (with curtains/blinds) window.
  3. If your marimo turns grey then simply flip it over and make sure the grey area gets light.
  4. If that doesn’t not work then you can get a bowl, add water, ice and salt, let them soak in that for about 3 hours .
  5. If the marimo aren’t perfectly round anymore, you can roll it back into shape in the palm of your hand.
  6. They won’t float unless the water is squeezed out of them.

Tomorrow the adventure continues with a trip to Lake Mashu. Stay tuned!

Categories: Life in Japan, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

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