Monday, 18 February 2013

Wakkanai - Tales from the Frozen North

A few years ago we visited Hokkaido, taking the train across the island to Abashiri and then driving our rented car all around the southern coast. We spent an especially memorable night in the wind capital of Japan, Erimo Misaki. When I wrote about that trip, I ended with "we're looking forward to returning in winter when everything is covered in snow". And so when Isabelle had a meeting planned in Sapporo in December, we just had to make an adventure out of it.

Since we'd already seen a lot of the southern half of Hokkaido, we decided to go north. The truth is that there isn't much to visit in northern Hokkaido - it's pretty, but extremely empty. We aimed for the northernmost town in Japan, Wakkanai, which is just a few miles from the northernmost accessible place in the whole country, Soya Misaki. It's also the basis of a pun in Japanese, since it sounds very similar to "I don't know" - "Where is this train going?", "Wakkanai". "But you're the driver, surely you must know". Actually, that's probably about the most interesting thing about Wakkanai.

First, though, we had to get there. We flew with JAL from San Francisco to Haneda. This is just so much better than arriving in Narita. First, it's a short subway or monorail ride from the city, or an almost-affordable taxi ride - compared to a long and infrequent train ride or the interminable limo bus (forget a taxi, which will cost at least $250). Second, it just works amazingly well. There are never any lines - for immigration, for check-in, for baggage. If US airports worked even a tenth as well it would be a huge improvement.

The next day we had free time in Tokyo. We had lunch at our favourite kaiten Sushi restaurant, then went for a walk in the neighbourhood of our hotel in Ebisu,  and discovered Shirokanedai Park. This is a nature wilderness smack in the middle of Tokyo - we could hear the Yamanote line trains as we wandered around the gorgeous autumn foliage. Cats and dogs aren't allowed, but nobody had told the ginger cat I caught on camera racing through the undergrowth. Later we had a very pleasant evening with old friends from the days when I used to visit Japan several times a year.

Next morning, return to Haneda. It's the fifth-busiest airport in the world - in the US, only Chicago and Atlanta handle more passengers. Yet it always seems deserted, and once again there were no lines, at all. On takeoff there were fantastic views of Fuji - it was a very clear winter morning. Sapporo had a generous cover of snow, with a lot more falling during the afternoon. The view from our twelfth-floor hotel room of the constantly changing snowfall was magnificent. I ventured outside only to buy the Japan Railways timetable - as on every trip - which turned out later to be a very wise purchase.

Next day Isabelle was busy. I decided to take the train somewhere just for the pleasure of it, and ended up in Noboribetsu on the coast. The name means "special climb", except it doesn't because Kanji are just used for their phonetic value in Hokkaido place names. "Betsu" is actually the Ainu word for river, and appears everywhere - always written as 別 meaning "special".

Noboribetsu is a typical small rural town, which is to say there's absolutely nothing going on there and it has a faintly derelict, mouldy feeling to it. I walked down to the harbour, which was of no interest at all, then found the only place that was open for lunch. It was no surprise to see practically everyone from the restaurant waiting on the platform for the return train to Sapporo.

The next day our train, the Super Soya, departed at 7.48 precisely - Japanese trains always run to time. Well, almost always, as we found later. The train chugs along for five hours, mostly spent on a single track winding through snow-covered fields in narrow valleys as it heads generally northwards towards Wakkanai. The views were magnificent. Finally, after a mountain pass and tiny villages, we saw the sea, and soon after we arrived at Wakkanai station.

Here we had to hurry. Not having a car, the only way to Soya Misaki was by bus. There's exactly one in the afternoon, and it leaves 33 minutes after the train arrives. In that time, we had to get our bags to the hotel, and get back to the station. We made it, with a few minutes to spare - just as well, because the only alternative was a taxi at absolutely astronomical cost (around $150 for the round trip).

The bus trundled along through Wakkanai, all grey and cold and snowy. At the new shopping mall - which seems to be the happening place in town - a group of old ladies, their weekly (monthly?) trip to the big city over, boarded the bus to return to their tiny fishing villages.

Finally we arrived at Soya Misaki, several other people getting off with us. This is the northernmost point in Japan that you can visit - there's a tiny uninhabited island that's further north but you'd need your own boat to get there. The southern tip of Sakhalin, in Russia, is about 40km away. On a clear day you really can see it, or so they say. This day was cold - below freezing, and with a strong breeze. There's very little to see, just a couple of monuments. We looked for the monument to the victims of KAL007 - the plane that in 1983 inadvertently overflew the USSR and got shot down. But we couldn't find it. Only later did we discover that there are several more monuments on top of the hill, a short walk from the shore but not possible in the 25 minutes before the return bus. And you really don't want to miss that, because the next one is another 3 hours.

Once you've scanned the horizon for Sakhalin, and taken each other's pictures in front of the various monuments, the only thing left is to visit the northernmost tacky tourist junk shop in Japan. Every attraction in Japan has these (though there were none in Noboribetsu), selling much the same variety of made-in-China local handicrafts. This one was special, though, as definitively the furthest north in Japan. We bought some postcards and some dried squid, of which more later.

The only thing left now was to wait for the bus. There's a shelter, but it's set back from the road. And we really didn't want to miss it. It was very cold and windy, and the idea of spending another three hours in the gift shop was enough to make me happy to brave the cold. The sight of the bus, when it arrived (precisely punctual of course), was truly the best part of the excursion.

We trundled back to Wakkanai, sharing our dried squid with a couple of Taiwanese girls who were on the same pilgirmage as us. It tasted funny. Later we discovered that this wasn't the classic Japanese snack, which is enjoyable in a chewy and getting-stuck-between-your-teeth kind of way, but an "improved" version made from New Zealand squid soaked in corn syrup. Yuck.

Once back in town, there really wasn't much to do. From our room we had a view over the generously-sized but completely empty harbour. In summer, Wakkanai is the departure point for the much-visited islands of Rebun and Rishiri, but in winter they're covered in snow and nobody goes there. There are also - maybe - boats that visit from Russia.

For dinner, we chose the most famous restaurant in town. Oddly, it's called kuruma-ya, written 車屋, which means "car dealer". We were almost the only people there, but we had an excellent meal including gigantic Hokkaido crab legs and much other seafood.

Our flight next day was at 1.30pm, so to occupy the morning we took a taxi out to Cape Noshabu, the northernmost point in the town itself. There's not much there, so after the obligatory snowy picture, we continued along the coast road. It is very bleak. There are a few houses in the snow, facing out over the cold, grey ocean, surrounded by rickety wooden structures for drying seaweed (kombu). You can see the two islands, grey mountains looming out of the mist and chill.

We still had time when we returned. We discovered the Russian shopping street. Even though the hotel clerk said there are no more tourist boats from Russia, there is this whole street of tourist-type stores, with everything labelled in Russian. Compared to Khabarovsk in Sakhalin, Wakkanai is the sunny south. But the street was almost deserted and looked very sad and run-down. Maybe they run in summer.

Finally it was time to go to the airport. It was sunny when we left, but when we arrived just 20 minutes later there was a blizzard and you could barely see across the runway. We waited, and waited - the display said something about "investigating the weather conditions" which wasn't very encouraging. Finally Isabelle had exhausted the possibilities of the tiny gift shop and we started to go through the security. Just then there was an announcement, and the guard held up his hands in a big "X". What had we done wrong?

It took only a moment to realise that the flight had finally been cancelled. It was very lucky that we hadn't gone airside, because it meant we were in the first few people in the queue at the desk. But what on earth to do now? There's exactly one flight a day to Tokyo, and even if we got on the next day's flight it could just as well be cancelled too. That would be a big problem, since our flight back home was that night. There are a couple of flights to Sapporo, but they're on little commuter turboprops - there were more than enough people waiting to fill the next two flights.

The alternative was the train, again. Luckily Isabelle had retrieved our bags, and with them the JR timetable (moral: never let it out of your hands). I realised we might just make the midday train, which left for Sapporo in half an hour. But how to get back to the town? The taxi rank, outside in the blizzard, was deserted.

Isabelle rushed outside and talked to a guy who had exactly the same reflex as us. Somehow, despite not having a word in common, she communicated with him and agreed to share a taxi, should one arrive. Which it did, in the nick of time. Constantly encouraged by our new friend, the driver went as quickly as he could on the snow and ice covered roads. We arrived at the station seven minutes before the departure time, enough to buy our tickets and see the blessed train arrive.

We had no idea what we'd do once the train took us back to Sapporo, but it was much better to be stuck in Sapporo than Wakkanai! The Tokyo-Sapporo air route is the busiest in the world, so getting back in time for our flight home would not be a problem. JR timetable to the rescue again - it showed that we should easily be in time for the last couple of flights.

This train journey was painful, unlike the previous day. The train was much older, and stunk of diesel fumes. There was no food service, so we survived on a few nuts that we had with us. It was overheated and stuffy, and for much of the trip it was dark outside. But still, we weren't stranded in Wakkanai! And for part of the way, we sat at the front of the train getting a driver's-eye view which is much better than looking sideways. Tiny country stations flashed by, no more than a short platform and a lamppost - yet surely a lifeline to some remote community. The track was completely buried in the snow, only the shiny tops of the rails showing. Visibility was terrible, no more than a couple of hundred yards in the swirling blizzard, and you can certainly appreciate the driver's task, having to slow down for invisible bends, known only through his minute knowledge of every twist and turn in the mountainous track.

One thing we noticed is how polite Japanese trains are. American trains have incredibly loud horns that you can hear from miles away. Japanese trains just have a little high-pitched whistle that goes "pheeeep" - you can barely hear it from inside the train. It's as though the train is saying "shitsurei itashimasu" (the super-polite version of "excuse me") in a squeaky voice just like the shop ladies.

Eventually we arrived in Sapporo. And we were late! This is unknown in Japan, a full quarter hour behind schedule, most likely due to the terrible conditions in the mountains.

Finally we got to the ANA desk at the airport - no queue of course. The lady was very helpful, took all our details, told us there was room on the last flight - and then showed us the price. It was over $1000! I'd been kind of expecting that - I'd managed to call ANA from the train and they weren't very helpful, with our "Explore Japan" tickets which are much cheaper than the published fare. Without much hope, I explained again that we hadn't chosen to travel this way, that the flight had been cancelled and all the rest. There was much "sooouu desu nee" and typing and phone calls. And then - mirabile dictu - she handed us two boarding passes. With my few words of Japanese I'd just saved over $1000!

The plane and then the subway delivered us to Shinagawa station at exactly midnight. We couldn't believe the crowds. Trains departing outbound were so full that people were left standing on the platform. It needed the white-gloved crowd-pushers from the Yamanote line. It was almost impossible to get through all the people to the taxi rank outside. It was the second-last Friday before the Christmas holiday, and evidently Tokyo's salary-men (and women) were partying to the full.

We'd barely eaten all day, so dinner was a priority. When we arrived from the US we'd discovered an Italian wine bar on the wrong side of the tracks at Ebisu station, practically in the catacombs down at street level. We rushed back there. Every few minutes one of us would say, with a sense of wonder, "We're not in Wakkanai!". It was such an incredible relief to be back in Tokyo.

The next day, Saturday, was our final day, but the JAL flight from Haneda doesn't leave until midnight. We went shopping in Ginza, which I haven't done for a very long time. It's an amazing place, in such a Japanese way. The quality of everything on sale is just astounding, whether it's food, household stuff, porcelain... anything. I could have spent the whole day just revelling in the place, admiring things that normally I'd never even pay attention to. I found a little etched brass model of the Toyota FJ, which I just couldn't resist (although it is still sitting wrapped, accusingly, on my desk, waiting to be built). It comes from a lovely series of architectural models, allowing you to build things like a typical Tokyo street scene. And of course I just had to visit Tenshodo, one of the world's greatest model train shops, three tiny floors crammed full of every make in the world (even Hornby from Britain, I wonder who on earth buys that in Japan), and all within a few paces of the Ginza Crossing.

And so, finally, to Haneda, and our flight home. Wakkanakatta.

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