Thursday, 31 July 2008

Haguro san

Distance travelled: 18.600 km


For those of you not familiar with the writing system of the Japanese, its a rewriting of the title of a song I learned together with the wondrous crowd on Rebun island, and it means I love this country.

I have developed a set answer to the inevitable inquires as to why exactly I love this county; the contrast i tell people, which obviously is as incomprehensible to people who has not experienced Japan as if i had said The blue whales. One of many contrasts you find in this country is aesthetical. Japanese cities, which are quite numerous since they have more or less squeezed 120 million people onto something that bears much resemblance to Norway in terms of size and flat land, the effect is only enchanted by the fact that outside Tokyo, people have come to a collective conclusion, that tall buildings are overrated - This more or less means that anything resembling flat land is either occupied by a city or a rice paddy.

Now, calling Japanese cities pretty, would be much like calling the queen pretty, small patches of exquisite jewelry, on a rather bland mass - gray, concrete - block after block, is the norm, broken up by some of the pretties restaurants, warm springs, temples and gardens in the world. And then there is places like Hagurusan, that will punch out all the air in your stomach, and then proceed to gently caress your senses while you regain consciousness.

I got of the bus, and stretched my weary muscles. An otherwise short journey by what have become my standards, had been made awfully tiring by getting up late, and missing the express train, left with a Futsu, i had stopped at anything anyone considered a town, even a few rice paddies had been considered worthy of a stop. I looked around to get my bearings, souvenir shops and Ramen shacks - nothing out of the ordinary Japanese tourist spot, the amount of people wearing white was though, they were swarming the place like some mongol horde. Worshippers, they were, setting out on the first leg of their pilgrimage to the 3 holy mountains of Daizetsusan, and i was going to follow on this first endurance test of 2446 stone steps.

Haguru san

As i entered the mountain through a wooden gate, i went speechless, not that i had anyone to say anything in particular too, but i was non the less speechless - the place was magical, like taken out of a Miyazaki movie. In an instant i suddenly realized what Shinto - japans ancient religion - is, you could not quite help but to feel the place had a soul. Tall, ancient, majestic trees was reaching for the sky above, their presence so massive you could hardly see it, the canopy dimmed the daylight, twilight almost, and scattered around lay ancient wooden temples - and a tall wooden pagoda stood silently, like a monolith... Hey Hey... Hey! "Snap out of it mate!" Okay, it was a fantastic place, a short glimpse of another world, and my bloody camera ran out if battery! As i reached a tea house half way up the stairs, i was pondering - 3 times by now,I had felt something akin magic in this country.

Kinkakuji, the golden pavilion of Kyoto had been the first, I had turned a corner and walked into a post card, hard to explain to the someone who has not seen it, the garden where the pavilion sits, has been perfected through centuries, to a point where the setting seems to perfect to be real, if you are fortunate enough to avoid the crowds, it too feels like stepping into another world.

Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, was another - while even a Russian would be stretching it to call the place pretty, it is however a truly humbling experience emerging from the underground, and being smacked in the face, by your own insignificance as you walk onto the station square. The sheer number of people pausing, passing, crisscrossing through the myriad of the other 2 million people passing through the place every day, has an uncanny ability to make one feel like an ant.
The fact that the every building in the vicinity has been outfitted with an insane number of flashing lights, giant TV screens and loudspeakers, in a heartfelt effort to short circut your senses, doesn't exactly help on the feeling of being lost in Japan.

And now this place. This is why I travel, apart from being fun and enjoyable, it has the ability to make leave you a wiser man, about the ways of the world.

- Stefan


Distance travelled: 18.115 km

The landscape outside the windows of yet another train, had changed. The crop fields of Hokkaido, was replaced by low slung mountains and endless green rice paddies, it looked distinctively more Japanese than across the straight. What was passing by the windows, the Japanese call Tohoku, a less polite sample, would call it the back lands of Japan - although it bore little resemblance to Western Jutland. I had overnighted in Aomori, hoping to pay a visit to a secluded peninsula on the northern reaches of Honshu - my credit cards would have it otherwise as it turned out - after a tour of a dozen post offices, I had given up and decided to go to the nearest major city, In case my woes continued - it did, and as I bowed to an old lady entering the ATM booth next to me, I was secretly hoping to find a cute puppy to strangle, in front of my feet.

It turned out the situation was not quite so bad as I feared, Visa International, as it turned out, for some reason has a withdrawal limit of 40.000¥ as opposed to MasterCard's fifty, so i could probably have gotten money in the first ATM i tried, well we all have our bad days.

As I left the post office, with a crisp bunch of banknotes, a rain shower that had been lurking in an eerie sky above, suddenly let loose, and I was treated with a display of physics that have left many a scientist sleepless. Take a medium sized Japanese town of say a million people, and subject it to a rain shower, and faster than the eye can comprehend - which may I remind you- is counted in milliseconds, the entire population located outdoors, will somehow have produced an umbrella, its quite startling.


Being a foreigner I settled with seeking shelter in a cozy looking pub by the river. And had a interesting night with the owner and a brazilophile Japanese samba player. Not all fun and games, you learn a lot about Japanese and the Japanese people, in situations like these. Pubs and Izekayas are the only places you really meet the locals with their guards down. A lot like home when you think about it.

- Stefan

Friday, 18 July 2008


Distance traveled: 17.466 km

Dusk was setting in as the lean express train pulled into the massive
station complex of Hokkaidos capital. A police woman and her K9 dog
was watching me intensely as I exited the station, and made my way
into the sea of neon that was proclaiming my arrival to urban japan. I
looked up between the soaring towers, to connect the loud background
noise with something tangible - to find two police choppers circling
above the station, with random vigilance shining their searchlights
along the station complex. I lowered my eyes to refocus my attention
on the neon forest in front of me, and ordered my senses on a wild
goosechase for a subway sign among the incomprehensible characters,
naturally this was in vain, instead I was left pondering about the
police officers guarding every street corner as far as the eye could
see, and rather more perplexing - why they were all carrying red
light sabers. Blade runner sprang into mind, as I argued with myself
weater this place had managed to pack more cops than the Red Square in
Moscow. Certainly the scenes of Genova or Gothenburg had put a scare
in the prefectural government, and in a country obsessed with safety,
they quite obviously would have none of it on Sapporo's neatly combed
streets. Oh yes, there were certainly a G8 meeting going on, the whole
town was bubbling with it - the subway it turned out, was a mere look
to my left, and in an instant I was whooshing below the streets of
Sapporo towards my hostel.

Japan has a marvelous, well developed grid of youth hostels, covering
almost the entire country, down to the tiniest islands, allowing one
to overnight for a mere 3000¥ (150 kroner) they do come with a bunch
of drawbacks though - strict rules and early curfews seems to be the
norm, Sapporo though, was blessed with a backpacker style hostel -
Ino's place - which i thoroughly enjoyed. Sapporo has a reputation,
fueled by a score of breweries, each with their own massive, and
cheap, beer gardens - and the notoriously famous Susukino nightlife
district - a peculiar mix of Soaplands (ill concealed brothels) and
more reputable establishments to fit any taste, and pocket. Hence the
lack of a curfew, was most welcome news, especially, after a week with
a car.

Sucking in the atmosphere, and people people watching, was quelled by
a sudden downpour, i dodged the rain by jumping in the door of a cozy
looking place, and suddenly found my self downing Carlsbergs,
entertaining a lovely crowd with travel tails, and getting fried about
what i liked and didn't like (the omnipresent seafood!) about this
corner of the planet - and pondered what wonder of chemistry made my
Japanese improve with each successive drink, or maybe it was the
confidence improving.

This was basically how my days waiting for a new credit card to arrive
from Denmark was spent. And when i walked through the door of Miccis
on my last day, and had a whole bar shouting お帰りなさい!
(welcome back), I had a big lump in my throat, and by the time I
stumbled through the doors of my hostel at 6 o clock in the morning, I
was 3 friends, and a place that would always welcome me back richer -
i will surely be on the lookout for a way to return here!

To little sleep later, I was checked out and on the train to Honshu
(the main island) Train buffs (even though I don't recall having any
friends who are) will be interrested to know I passed through the
Seikan tunnel, at 56 km, the longest in the world - between Hokkaido
and Honshu

- Stefan



Driving in Japan, as with most things in this country has some curious
quirks, the most obvious is being a member of the unholy alliance of
stubborn island nations along with the ""we are not European".
Britons and the "its just not worth the effort mate" Australians. who
all insist left hand drive is a jolly good idea, try doing a gear
shift from 1st to 3rd with your left hand and tell me once again that

And once again, like with most things, they've tried ridiculously hard
removing any possible risk of the endeavour of driving, this means at
the slightest sight of anything remotely resembling a house, or - god
orbit - a sharp corner, there will be a speed limit of 40 kmh, and
just in case you miss the signposting, they will print it with big
yellow letters across the road too! Overtaking is definantly not the
norm, but the ridiculously low speed limits have made even the Japanese
- or rather the Hokkaidians - guilty of speeding, by a good 30-40%
that is. Officials are quick to point out this has made Hokkaido the
most dangerous place in japan to drive, I'll bet you that the numbers
are still ridiculously low compared to the outside the world. And I
don't blame them one bit, the roads are so fun to drive its
ridiculous - thinly trafficked, in ludicrous good condition, and
jam packed with turns in just the right angle. This all contributed to
making the 400 km drive from Kushiro to Biei an all the more enjoyable
experience, especially driving through the southern reaches of the
Daisetsuzan national park was stunning.

Darkness had set in by the the time I pulled onto the parking lot of
the Biei potato inn, set among pretty farmlands in a valley tract with
a view over the Daisetsuzan Mountains, the whole area seemed to double
as Japans food chamber and a North European imitation for busy Japanese
people with too little time for the real thing - complete with
tractors whisking busloads of tour groups on carriages in between the
wheat fields towards touristy lavender farms. The hostel though was far
enough from the valleys main drag, to only attract a rather pleasant
crowd. My old teacher's advise that one knows that you speak a decent
Japanese when people stop telling you it's good, was ringing in my
ears, as the owner was doing just that.

- Stefan

Friday, 11 July 2008

Kushiro Shitsugen National Park


Kushiro Shitsugen is a national park on the south eastern coast of Hokkaido, unlike the rest of the parks on the island, Kushiro Shitsugen is flat - due to the expansive marshlands it covers, and as the surroundings - like the rest of Japan - is mountainous, it makes for some quite remarkable scenery. Access into the park though, is strictly restricted, so visitors are limited to some observation post and short hikes on the mountain ridges, at the outskirts of the park.

Which left me cruising around to the different areas with public access, in the car - with sunshine and a clear blue sky above, TV2 blasting out the speakers, and beautiful scenery all around me. I'm sure you're not supposed to see a national park like that, but I was thoroughly enjoying myself, and if any of the demonstrators of the Toyako G8 summit demonstrators flocking to island at this time, had moralized me on this fact, i would have proceeded to punch him in the face, with a big smile on mine. Besides after using public transportation all the way from Copenhagen to Sapporo, them extremist nutcases who all flew here, ain't got nothing on me! :-)

The youth hostel in Toro where i stayed was a homely affair, with a very nice lady doing her best to keep me, and the only other guest, happy during our stay - in particular she whipped off a fantastic dinner, which we enjoyed with dusk settings over the marshes, and beautiful cranes dotting the lake shore.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Akan National Park

Akan National Park

Farmland was wushing by the windows, but it was sometimes hard to
tell, since occasionally St Peter opened up the floodgates somewhere
high in the sky above Hokkaido, as i closed in on Akan dake, i seemed
to be getting closer to the source as i soon reached the clouds, and a
mist closed in on the road, in symphony with the dense forest now
surrounding my vehicle, and the twilight setting in, it felt like I
had entered another world. As i got deeper into the forest, deers
appeared out of nowhere, flew past the headlights, and disappeared as
quickly as they they had shown themselves. The magic dissolved when i
reached an intersection to a busier road, the mist cleared, and the
truckers had woken up from their slumber, and set of into the night.
As i switched on the indicator lights and turned onto the empty dark
and winding mountain road leading up to the Youth Hostel, a little
devil got hold of me, i turned on the long lights, gave an evil smile
to no one in particular, and pressed down the accelerator - and with
prodigy banging out the speakers, i cut every corner i could get near.

As the sun was battling the mist next morning, in a heartfelt effort
to start the day, i finished my breakfast and set out for some
sightseeing, hiking hadn't really taken of in this area, so i was
happy to have four wheels to take me around. The lake was beautiful,
and when i arrived there, the sun had been victorious! :-)

Look for yourself...

Unfortunately as i went for the heart of the National park, the
weather turned against me, and i in turn, turned around back to my
temporary residence and entered a nice warm Ofuro instead. Ofuro? You
may wonder, well it's a something in the way of a complicated bath;

Basically an Ofuro is an oversize bathtub, the Japanese it seems, are
more comfortable splashing around at least a couple of people in the
same bath, and have increased the tubs size to accommodate this
peculiar desire. In time this seems to have created some hygienic
concerns, and after chopping of gross peoples heads for a while,
someone who forgot his samurai sword at home, had the brainwave that
it might be a jolly good idea to have people wash before they entered
the bath, so that the number of farmers without heads, didn't start to
cause a food shortage - and so it was that little chairs and buckets
of water was provided for people to wash themselves before they
entered the bath. Another problem was the lack of laundry machines,
this was due to the fact that in feudal japan, electricity was limited
to tying frogs to metal wires during thunderstorms. This created a lot
of dirty towels that again created hygienic problems in the very same
baths that were supposed to keep the Japanese clean. The solution, now
that people had heads, someone thought, was simply placing the towels
on top of these, out of the water. A while later, a Japanese guy had
been splashing around his Ofuro for a while, quite disenchanted with
his rather dull bathing companions, and decided the the few
gaikokujins (outside country persons) was an untapped source of such -
so he decided to import and adapt the shower head, for washing ones
hair, only in the name of the aforementioned entertainment, the hose
was made so short you still had to sit on your chair, this both kept
the guy entertained as westerners tried to shower, and as an added
bonus this also happened to solve the problems of towels getting dirty
from unwashed hair (another side effect of leaving peoples head on).
This ongoing evolution of the bath has left taken a bath in Japan a
rather complicated affair for foreigners, and to this day, remains a
source of much entertainment to the splashing locals.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Daisetzusan National Park

Distance travelled: 16.358 km

First stop on my ''Tour de National park Hokkaido'' was the National park Daisetzusan, meaning the Great snowy mountains, Japans largest national park - where I installed myself in a local youth hostel in the small onsen (hot spring) town of Sounkyo, a rather touristy spot - Japanese style, complete with ropeways (cable cars) and towering hotel blocks, but the location was impeccable, nestled in between towering mountains in a narrow river gorge.

Naturally since I only have the car for 6 days, good old Murphy decided it to play his tricks, and current weather forecast for the next 6 days is saying rain - and only on Hokkaido that is! Not to despair, i set out on an 8 hour hike the next day, which took me over 3 mountain peaks, the highest being 2115 meters. For the first 5 hours, just as the weather forecast had predicted, I was being pounded by rain, gail force winds, and thick heavy clouds that only left a few meters of visibility. But on the last 2 hours the clouds suddenly cleared - and I realized the beauty of the scenery i had been going through. It was a faunal extravaganza extraordinaire, complete with pretty butterflies, crystal clear mountain streams and soaring rivers, I hope I've been able to capture some of it on the pictures.

Daizetsusan National Park

When i got back to the cable car i was absolutely spent, but I still had a 5 hour drive to the next stop, Akan National park. However when i return the car in Asahikawa, ill try to return to Daisetzusan, at another onsen town further west closer to Asahikawa, if the weather is better - it was mind blowing!

- Stefan

Friday, 4 July 2008


Distance traveled: 16.307 km

I arrived in Asahikawa by the Soya line, Japans northern most railway, from Wakkanai - it was an interesting train ride, as the landscape outside the windows looked nothing like the Japan i know, rolling hills with farms and expansive fields, that even didn't grow rice! at times i looked like it was Switzerland whooshing by the windows.

I had decided to rent a car in Asahikawa, to really be able to get around Hokkaido, and this was no easy feat as i turned out - high season - In the warm summer months the Japanese flock to Hokkaido, to escape the rainy season which bypasses Hokkaido, and more importantly to escape the smouldering heat of the southern cities, as Hokkaidos climate are much more temperate than the rest of Japan. Everywhere i tried on the Internet the message was clear, all sold out!

So while I was waiting for something to come up, I was absorbing the first large City of Japan, and getting into the Rhythm and mindset of the bustling metropolises to come, a compact city center made, and Aarhus size population, makes Asahikawa an easy city to get into tune with, although there is not much in the way of sights around. There was a famous zoo though, so i went there to pass some time, didn't find it particularly interesting, but an outstandingly cute baby Orangutan, and a Chimpanzee who spend his whole day posing (I mean really, seriously, it posed for the cameras!) made it all worth while :-)

Next day i had a car coming up, so i went there in the Morning and sorted out the paperwork - and tried to set of into the National parks of Hokkaido, but this was a bit more complicated as such, the car was an automatic which Ive never tried before, and on top of that, it was left hand drive - meaning brakes and accelerator was reversed, so was the indicator lights and windscreen wiper controls. So after figuring out how to get the damn thing started, I was so preoccupied with working the damn thing, that I proceeded to drive out in the wrong lane of a busy street - amazingly not a single driver honked their horn! And I got to my destination in one piece. :)

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Rebun Tō

Distance travelled: 16.047 km

The idea go to Rebun island, was much a matter of "well, I`m up here anyway". Part of a national park, the island is a two hour ferry ride west of Wakkanai. In port, the ferry was greeted by a barefoot Japanese hippie type, frantically waving the Youth Hostels banner, and screaming Okaerinasai! (Welcome home) - pretty much exactly how Lonely Planet described it would be. It hadnt quite prepared me for what was to come though!

Inside the minibus, i was told to forget about my intelligence, culture and shame, before i ever sat foot on the Youth Hostels property, rather odd request i thought. But when they rolled out the Pink carpet (rather than a red one), and i was told to scream Tadaima! when i opened the door, I realized I was up for something out of the ordinary - when my scream was returned by the whole Youth Hostel screaming Okaerinasai! while banging a odd variety of musical instruments, and giving a deep bow on all four, I was sure this was going to be an interesting experience!

I barely had time to eat, and chat with the 4 (lovely! :-) girls, I would be doing the "infamous" 8 hour trek with, before the 4 crazy crazy staff members, came shouting through the hostel, with a guitar, singing "MEETINGU! MEETINGU!" on so it was on to the first meeting! The meeting generally consisted of ALOT of singing, dancing, practical jokes about the neighboring island, and a bit of information about the Island, once i got over my shyness it was loads of fun! and i was so exhausted by 22 that I didn't mind the early lights out one bit.

Next morning, at 4.30!!! me and "my flowers" as they referred to themselves, set out on the locally world famous hachijikankoosu or The Eight hour course, for a 30 km hiking from the Northern tip of the island back to the Youth Hostel in the southern end, and after an hour or so of cold crap weather, the rest of the hike was absolutely stunning! cool people, beautiful sea and a wonderful scenery, not to mention the explosion of Alpine flowers covering whole island - but look at the pictures, instead of me yapping!

Rebun-to National Park

When we returned at 6 in the afternoon, rather exhausted, the staff had climbed the roof, and was frantically waiving a Japanese flag, while screaming their lungs out with welcome home song, and next morning when we walked for the ferry, the goodbye song and screams could be heard long after we lost sight of the Hostel.

I had a little lump on my throat, as the ferry departed, and the rest of staff, held a goodbye ceremony at the port, again singing and dancing their (and our) hearts out, to the great bewilderment of the rest of the passengers.

I can not stress this enough, if you're ever in Hokkaido, or even Japan, you quite simply have to go there! it was one of the best travel experiences I've ever had! And hopefully ill meet up with some of the girls in Sapporo and Nikko respectively, to revisit the feeling, and maybe some of the songs!


- Stefan


Distance travelled: 16.047 km

We arrived in the Terminal right on time, curiously even though i had headed straight south, the clock was set two hours back, I noticed this as i was standing behind a Russian shouting something in Russian to the immigration officer, who proceeded by giving him a vacant look and saying something in Japanese, fortunately I (and the Ambassador of Luxembourg!?) had suspected this would be the case - and raced for a front spot in the Que, and while the Ambassador was busy explaining there was indeed a country called Luxembourg, and that he as ambassador, of this independent European country, did not need to provide fingerprints, I had my entry visa stamped in my passport!

On my way out Wakkanai International Ferry Terminal, I was stopped by two Japanese police officers, who began questioning me of my plans for Japan, with questions printed in English over cute little cartoons. I was a little bit guttered by the fact that they kept pointing to the English questions, despite my best efforts to answer all the questions in Japanese. It wasn't until i saw the cover, that i realized that there is a G8 meeting, coming up here in Hokkaido, and Naturally the Japanese cant have any trouble makers coming in, they let me pass after a while though - so much for Stefan the terrorister :-)

Next point was to head for the Post office to get some Yen, and that didn't go quite as planned! You see the magnetic stripe on my Visa card had started to peel off, I blame the Gobi's damn sand for that one, and being Japanese, the ATM would have absolutely none of it! So it was onto my Mastercard, which i had raped to get money for the ferry ticket after my Rubles was stolen, naturally after such an horrendous experience, it did not cooperate, and suddenly i found myself in a situation much like the one in Kagoshima back in 2005! (everyone that knows me, should remember that story, since they have probably heard it a dozen times over late night beers!) I didn't like it one bit, as i knew my reserve cash was gone as well. Fortunately i had a small stock of Yen from my last visit here, and i was able to a crisp 10.000 Yen note out of the Machine after some convincing. So after some hunting around for some free wireless Internet, so I could have someone contact my bank. I bought my tickets for the Rebun ferry, and decided to wait till the weekend was over there, where the Youth Hostel was cheaper.


Turned out to be a splendid weekend, but more on that later.

- Stefan