Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hokkaido Part II: Sounkyo and Shiretoko National Parks

(Republished with photos)

We took a bus to Sounkyo Onsen hot springs, which I accidentally called Sounko Onsen (unko means shit in Japanese) but I will never call it that again! Our hotel was in a beautiful valley of hot springs and red and yellow fall leaves, and during our stay we soaked in three different sets of baths. My favorite was an outdoor bath under the brightly colored fall leaves, which felt especially wonderful in the cool mountain morning air.

Our morning plan was to hike up Mount Kurodake in Daisetsuzan National Park, Japan’s largest national park.
Mt. Kurodake is 1,984 meters, or 6,000 feet, pretty high when you’re coming from near sea level. We took a rope-way (cable car) up part way, then a ski lift and then we hiked the last two very rocky and steep hours.
We had great views of the fall leaves, and at the peak we took pictures and ate a great lunch scavenged from our hotel’s delicious buffet breakfast.
During the hike we saw a couple of chipmunks. In Japan it’s nothing special to see monkeys but people think it’s exciting to see chipmunks and squirrels! Below is a photo of the peak we hiked to, seen from the ski lift on the way down.In Japan, it's always easy to get a box lunch. Here, we had dinner at the bus station.

From Sounkyo we took a bus and train to Abashiri, where, with some English-speaking Chinese tourists, we had the freshest sashimi breakfast ever at the fish market next to the harbor.
Afterwards we watched as workers loaded huge metal boxes of freshly caught salmon onto a semi truck.

Then we took a tiny train, consisting of just two cars, along the coast to the Shiretoko peninsula, a world natural heritage site and the most remote place in Japan.

In Shiretoko National Park we hoped to see higuma bears in their wild and natural habitat, not trained ones like the posing bears in Kamikawa, cute as they were. (I think bears are really not supposed to be cute). But most of Shiretoko is roadless, hiking is difficult, dangerous and illegal without a permit, and we were still limping after the rocky climb up Mt. Kurodake. So we took a sightseeing cruiser boat along the north coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula through the Sea of Okhotsk which borders some Russian islands all the way to the peninsula’s tip.
Along the way we saw lots of beautiful coastline, many amazing waterfalls, cormorants, and finally a higuma bear! The bear was fishing in the mouth of a stream. It was beautiful to watch such a huge creature jump and leap after salmon with such agility!
During the last part of the boat trip we got completely drenched with salty spray, so after a quick cold limping walk back to our hotel we enjoyed a wonderful soak in the hotel’s hot springs before dinner. There were three large pools on the seventh (top) floor of the hotel, one colored and scented with lavender. From these pools we looked out over the harbor and the ocean – a beautiful view but not as amazing as the view from the outdoor pool on the rooftop above the seventh floor! There we soaked outdoors breathing fresh air while enjoying a view of the ocean.

Since all of our clothes were wet we used the hotel’s coin laundry machines. We looked around for a soap vending machine before we realized that the washing machine was equipped with soap and would automatically add the right amount at the right time! I continue to be amazed by Japanese technology.
The next morning we took a short hike in the five lakes area and saw some beautiful views of lakes reflecting the surrounding mountains. Access to three of the lakes was closed due to recent bear activity.
In the afternoon we ate delicious sushi including sea urchin, a local specialty, which Itsumi likes more than I do. Then we took a train back to Abashiri.

Abashiri is famous for its prison, a cold and miserable, largely unheated outpost on what once was the Japanese frontier. Abashiri is as famous for its Siberian air as Alcatraz is famous for its rocky, desolate island. We didn’t visit the prison, which is still in operation, but we took the obligatory photos of ourselves behind the fake prison bars at the train station before heading back toward central Hokkaido.

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