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.
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.
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.
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.
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.