Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Hokkaido Trip 2009 (part two)

The Hamanasu night express train from Aomori to Sapporo, while an efficient way to save some time on our trip, was definitely not the most comfortable. I truly considered getting out one of our new ThermaRest sleeping pads and finding a space to stretch out in the aisle with all the other unlucky (lucky, perhaps?) souls.

We rolled into Sapporo with most of day to spend because Ryan would not be free till later in the day. So, groggy and grimy, we found a "manga kissa" - (comic book cafe). These are places where, for about 300-400 yen an hour, you can read all the comic books (manga) you want, as well as surf the Internet, sleep/relax in comfy arms chairs/sofas, take a shower, and drink all the free drinks (soda, coffee, juices). Pretty sweet deal if you are traveling and need a break.

So, for about $2.50, we both got a shower and loaded up on coffee and juice to start the day. Sapporo reminded us a great deal of Kazakhstan cities with the layout and wide, open avenues and green spaces. We did a quick tour of the fish market and declined to have sushi and raw sea urchin for breakfast. A botanical garden tour was followed by a failed attempt to walk to a shrine/park area that was too far away. With time to spare and a day of unlimited local train rides, we headed back out of town to Otaru, a seaside town, to see the sights. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to do it right and ended up just eating black squid ink and wasabi flavored ice cream - actually pretty tasty!

Another pretty long train ride, we got to Asahikawa and were picked up by Ryan and friend who had a car. We whisked over to a really nice onsen (hot springs bath) for a cleansing soak, followed by an all you can eat salad bar restaurant, a nice change from three days of travel food.
We gratefully fell asleep at Ryan's apartment, glad to be not traveling for awhile.

The next day was full of helping Ryan's friend, Toby, build his rice straw bale house. The weekend had been a workshop for those wanting to learn how to build with straw bales. Quite a project! The carefully crafted wooden internal structure was finished, so we measured, cut and stacked hay bales all day with people from all over Hokkaido and Japan. Joan will blog about it later in great detail...

That night, we did some hurried food planning, shopping and pacing for our seven camping trip, following Ryan's advice on what to bring: mostly soba and ramen noodles with lots of dehydrated tofu and shitake mushrooms.

In the morning, we were picked up by anther friend of Ryan's, Mark, who had access to an SUV, which cut out a lot of travel time spent on train, bus and hiking/hitch hiking to the trail head. Once there, Ryan and Yuka stashed an extra week's worth of food for their second week in a hut shelter, and then the five of us shouldered our packs and started heading up the trail.

Wow, it was tough. We had done some conditioning and hiking in Tokyo, but it is no replacement for a rough, steep trail and a fully loaded pack. Luckily, the first days was only three hours up to the lake where we set up base camp for days hikes. Obviously, one of the best things about the park is the visual beauty, so I will let the photos and videos do most of the talking (park photos start about half way):

The second day was a long day hike to determine the condition of a trail and the location of a water source on the trail. One idea was to hike this long trail to another mountain series and do some exploring on the second half of the trip. Well, the trail was almost completely overgrown by "sasa" - a type of bamboo grass - and pretty much shredded us and our clothes. We also did not find any water. Scratch that plan.

On the third day, Mark headed back to civilization and work, while we did a long hike down the other side of the plateau we were camping to an onsen and mountain hut. Ryan had not been there yet, and the idea of a hot bath and sleeping in a hut sounded pretty good to us. It started out fine, but we got to really steep stuff, it started to rain. Then the trail started following a stream. The the trail became the stream, full of slippery rocks and flowing water. It, quite frankly, became rather miserable and unpleasant. Joan took a fall crossing the water and ended up on her back in the stream. She had been less than happy in general, and this was a bit too much. We took a break, and Joan took a little alone time to sort herself out.

However, we finally made it down to the onsen and hut. A good, long, hot soak in the onsen and a dry change of clothes in the warm and snug mountain hut did wonders for everyone's outlook. We had planned for staying over and so had our sleeping bags, pads, stove, and food. It was a good thing because there was no way Joan (or the rest of us, except maybe for Ryan) was going to hike back up that watery trail in the rain and gathering dusk.

We slept really well and awoke to a sunny day four. More soaking, some quick laundry (clean socks, anyone?) and relaxing in the sun got us ready to hike back up the trail. It was much nicer and more enjoyable, especially now that we could see the spectacular views of all the mountains around us. We made it back to the lake campsite and were glad to see our tents full of food undisturbed by the fox we had seen the second day and by the bears we had imagined would be ravaging our tents while we were gone.

Ryan and Yuka decided to keep on hiking and head back down to the trail head and the hut to get their extra food. With a change in the original plan of where we were heading, they decided it was better to lug all the extra food (with our help) with them so they would be able to go where they wanted for their second week in the park. They took their sleeping gear and the only stove to stay in the hut and took off. We ate our dinner that we had quickly cooked and took a walk around the lake, seeing another fox. Luckily, some other hikers had showed up earlier that day and set up camp, so we did not feel all alone. However, it was a cold, windy, and rainy evening, so we were in the tent before seven and soon asleep. In fact, we all quickly adopted the pattern of going to be before 8 pm and getting up around 4 or 5 am. Nothing much else to do when it gets dark...


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