25 August 2008

Tokyo to Hokkaido

I can't say I've been having a bad time. Quite the opposite. It's Sunday morning and been away from home almost 2 weeks. Another week to go. It's definitely a worthwhile holiday.

Currently I'm at Toya Lake in the southern part of Hokkaido, the northern most of the 4 main islands of Japan. I live in Hiroshima, Japan, and have taken a holiday which has lead me up Mt Fuji, around Tokyo sightseeing and catching up with friends, and up to northern Japan by train.

I left Tokyo Monday. Stayed in Sendai at an internet cafe, only to find myself having no sleep due to booking flights for Christmas holidays, uploading photos of the trip so far, emailing and planning the next part of my trip. At that stage, I didn't know exactly where I was going to stay in Hokkaido.

Made my way onto the train about 6am Tuesday morning in Sendai. Grabbing bits to eat on the way from 7-eleven and small noodle shops (eg. onigiri, soba etc). After no sleep, was very tired, and slept a little on the trains, trying not to miss any train changes.

Could only make it as far as Aomori that day. It was a rainy, cloudy day of travel. Spent a little while at a small station during lunch time and had to wait for more than 2 hours for the next train. Had a nice meal at the family-run restaurant across the road... very nice. The cloudy weather made for nice, cozy travel, making it easier for me to sleep on the train, and for others to fall asleep on me!

(Japan is quite a safe country, so it's not uncommon to see sometimes more than half of the people on seats sleeping on the trains. Then, of course, people tend to "fall" and end up sleeping, leaning up against someone. I'd say, on Japanese trains, if you're not using your mobile phone or reading, then you're probably sleeping.)

Found a business (capsule) motel in Aomori across from the station for 3000 yen for the night. You get a capsule (about 1m x 1m x 2m) with TV, radio, clock and bed. Also, there was a shower and ofuro (bath) and lounge area. Good price and jost what I felt like I needed. I'd had anough of internet cafe sleeping... time for something a little nicer.

Got settled, did some washing at the laundromat (coin laundry), went for a bike ride just after dark in a tiny bit of rain. Ate some dinner, had a good scrub in the bath, relaxed, watched a little olympics (go Australia!) and had a good rest.

Up the next morning, another bath (just because I could), some breakfast at the station (soba and tempura) and then raced for the train! Oh no! Only seconds to spare... racing down the escelators (with suitcase, bike, tent, backpack, clumpsy!) and just as I got to the platform, the train just started to move.

The next train was about 2.5 hours later, cutting my trip right down for that day... but... the train driver saw me, slowed and stopped the train, let me on! I couldn't believe it! I've never heard of that before. I was so thankful, and stood on the train trying to catch my breath and calm down for the next 5 minutes. Then thanked the trian driver. I doubt that would ever happen in Tokyo.

From there, caught the train to the northern tip of Honshu (the main island of Japan). Changed trains for the next interesting leg of the journey. To get from Honshu to Hokkaido (two islands) there's a 50km train tunnel under the sea. So, we caught an express train and completed it after 20 minutes of travel, and passing 2 underground train stations! I don't know what you would do there, but I think they're for maintenance and emergency escapes etc.

On that train, I met Daiki, a young man from Tokyo tripping up to Hakodate (the next stop). We had a good time, and, in Hakodate, shared a nice meal and enjoyed good conversation. It was a pleasant time.

So, we'd now made it to Hokkaido! Let's compare the trains. In Tokyo, fast, new, 16-car electric passenger trains with few seats and plenty of standing room to jam people into during peak hour. In Hokkaido, slow, older, 1-car deisel passenger trains with seats and not much standing room. Hmmm... I don't know why they go so slow, but now I know why it takes so long to get around Hokkaido by local trains. I shouldn't complain. I still love train travel and Hokkaido.

About 5:30 pm Wednesday, left Hakodate (main centre for southern Hokkaido) and caught a train to Toyoura station, a little to the east along the coast of Hokkaido from Hakodate towards Muroran. It's a very small town.

When I got there at night, it was dark and rainy. So, reassembled my bike, saddled it up with my suitcase on the back, and made my way to the onsen place down by the coast (1 or 2 km away). They said there's no accommodation, and the onsen was closed, but the map I had said there was a campsite next to it, so I found it, setup the new 3000 yen tent and got settled.

But, I was hungry, so I rode up and down the main street (not very long!), saw a karaoke bar and a few other bars, and then finally found a place where they served up some nice Hokkaido ramen (noodles) with vegetables. That really did the trick and suited me fine. Rode back to the tent and had a good rest.

Good morning, Thursday morning! Woke up to the sound of waves washing up on the shore. The day before, I'd planned that I would spend a good 3 or 4 days next to the mountain lake about 10 km away, Lake Toya. So, that was today's plan. I checked out the map, planned which tent site to stay at next to the lake, packed up, bought some good groceries (finally descent food, not 7-eleven style), and headed up the mountain.

Rode through some tunnels (scary! on my tiny wheeled bike, loaded up, low gears and trucks coming up behind!). Made it to the next town about 5km away, and at the station there, there was some stuff about an international summit etc. Anyway, headed up the mountain from there. Was a good, tough climb.

Rode past some smoldering (what was probably a) volcane, and saw some destroyed houses. Hmmm... Anyway, kept going and cruized down the hill to the Toyako town next to the lake. Found that my $50 bike has it limits, especially in the "brake" department. They smelt hot! Smelt just like car brakes when the get too hot. Luckily I had the front brakes to use also. The back brakes haven't worked as good since.

When I got to Tokako, it was much bigger than I thought. There are free hot foot and/or hand baths scattered around the town. Post office and bank, plenty of hotels, really nice visitor centre, volcano museum and pretty much everything you need for a good holiday. Not to mention, the really nice scenery, the fresh mountain air, beautiful lake, and overall healty feel to the place. Also, there were quite a few eco-friendly things around the place... solar panels, wood things, natural feel etc. Then, I found out, this was the place where the G8 Summit was last month! Didn't even realise! Anyway, wasn't time to rest yet, because I hadn't made it to the campsite.

So, another 10km or so around to the west side of the lake, I finally made it to Toya and found a nice grassy spot beside the lake. In this little town, there's also a post office, bank, konbini (convenience store) open til 11pm, info centre (with good price fresh fruit and veges and bread), free internet, great camping places, and, not to be missed, a nice onsen on a hill overlooking the lake.

Boy, was it good to have a nice meal and get settled. This was the destination of rest. I'd spend the next 4 or 5 days here. This was one of the aims of the trip... to rest, relax, refresh and revive in a rural place in Hokkaido. It was good to unpack and settle.

I later found my way to the onsen, got clean, slept a little in the relaxation room, ate some dinner, saw some fireworks across the other side of the lake, did some reading and slept. It was a cloudy day with a tiny bit of rain, but a very nice day.

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