As we enter into the final days of July, we’re finally hitting those excruciatingly hot Tokyo summer days that I remember from three years ago when I studied Japanese for a summer at ICU. The thick, choking humidity immediately engulfs you when you step outside like the steam of a sauna. I think yesterday it just barely pushed over 100º F (37.8º C) for a moment. So today (a casual 93º F) might seem like an odd choice for trekking back to my Hokkaido adventure from a few months ago. But besides just the vicarious relief from the heat that I’m hoping to enjoy from this anecdote, today marks a sad day for me, as my good friend and Hokkaido travel companion leaves Tokyo tonight on a flight just before midnight. So as a tribute to her, and for a chance to let my mind swim relishingly in these icy blue winter wonderland photos, I’ll share the story of my Hokkaido trip.
I was originally planning on doing this trip alone, actually. I wasn’t especially looking forward to the solitude, but I assumed it would be difficult to convince any of my Tokyo friends to accompany me for a couple reasons. First of all, I made the decision to go only a couple weeks before leaving. And second of all, I was hoping to wander the island a little bit recklessly and impulsively; not just hitting the capital city of Sapporo, the beautiful port city of Hakodate, etc., but venturing into the far reaches of the island where I picture nothing but a snowy abyss with rolling scattered farmland, jetting mountains, unrecognizable Japanese, and humans that live quite differently from myself. Amazingly, when I mentioned over lunch with my friend my vaguely-sketched plans, she eagerly offered to join me. A few days later we met in Shinjuku after work and over white chocolate mochas we discussed our plans in greater detail, pouring over a couple guidebooks and Google maps. My friend also liked the idea of reckless adventuring into the unknown, so we looked to the extreme compass directions. Sapporo (the de facto arrival port) is already far east and south, leaving those stretches not very imaginative. So we rather looked to the extreme west and north. To the west our helpful guidebook informed us that in addition to unimaginably cold temperatures, we could also find a well-known prison to explore, but not much besides these festive attractions. So instead we chose north– to the farthest northern city in Hokkaido: Wakkanai (稚内市).
Our itinerary ran something like this: a couple of days in Sapporo, followed by one day in the mountains of the Daisetsuzan national park en route northwards to Wakkanai, where we would spend a couple days before returning to Sapporo. In Sapporo we quickly befriended the charming and adorable host at our hostel– Time Peace Apartment. The hostel was small but cozy, and roasted its own coffee beans, offering a free cup of this coffee at breakfast (along with bread and jam). This was actually a strangely prevalent theme at the hostels we stayed at. The hostel we would stay at upon our return to Sapporo was Yasube, which had a full cafe on its first floor. While the staff there wasn’t quite as gregarious as at Time Peace, it was also charming and more spacious, and, particularly impressive for me, had a beautiful Epiphone guitar in the cafe/lobby that anyone was welcome to play (one of the hostel hosts videotaped my awkward practicing of the song “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac, ostensibly for the website, though he didn’t really explain his purpose). We ventured out to the bars and restaurants and visited the typical touristy sites in Sapporo. On my favorite night, we pregamed our barhopping with a few rounds on that stupid taiko drum arcade game that I absolutely love. And obviously, we had to tour the Sapporo Beer Museum.
After a couple of days, we caught a 7am train out of Sapporo to Asahiyama, and from there a bus to a small onsen resort town at the base of the Daisetsuzan National park called Asahidake onsen. We took the ropeway up and explored around the snow peaks a little, somewhat haltingly, not really equipped for the snow or the ice, or the cold for that matter. After we were sufficiently frozen from our icy hiking we took our pick from the many lovely onsens in the village and soaked until our return bus came.
Just after sundown we got on a train to Wakkanai (literally running to Asahiyama station from our bus and hastily grabbing KFC on our way to the platform). I think that train took about 4 or 5 hours, though it’s hard to remember exactly (no food on the whole train, so good thing we grabbed the KFC). I was disappointed that we were riding the train at night, so the bizarre quiet lands that we were sketching over on our way north were hauntingly invisible to us, no matter how forcefully I tried to peer out the window. We must’ve arrived in Wakkanai near midnight, and made our slow, hazy way to our nearby hotel. The town was entirely deserted, except for the few disembarking passengers, streetlights flashing carelessly and uselessly, with the rest of the bare streets shrouded in cold and darkness.
I have to say we actually got terribly unlucky with the weather in Wakkanai. We only had one full day in the city and it was freezing rain from the moment we woke up to the time we went to bed. The hail and sleet and wind was so intense that the ferries that we had planned to take to the nearby off-shore islands (in our endless quest for remoteness) were cancelled all day. So instead we passed the day in this queer little town.
Even though the weather really prevented us from much exploring in the little city, and basically restricted us to cafes, our hotel onsen, and an impulsive viewing of “Into the Woods” at the local movie theater, we actually had a strangely wonderful time in Wakkanai. Something about the profound remoteness and exotic northernness gave the city this palpable charm. We also had some truly delicious seafood at a restaurant we stumbled upon on our own, since our hotel was strangely unhelpful in directing us to the 7-10 local sites that the town had to offer. After our peaceful, somewhat uneventful day, we rose very early the next morning, grabbed a couple coffees from our hotel lobby’s machine, and ran out to the Wakkanai shore to get an unclouded view (naturally it was sunny and clear on our departing day) of the sea that stretches towards Russia.
And with that, our Hokkaido trekking came to a close, and we boarded a 6-hour bus that snaked along the shore all the way from the exotic north back to Sapporo.
And now my good friend should be safely back in Ireland. But we’ll continue our adventures someday soon.