Japan – Chasing the North Star: Shake, Rattle, and Roll.

I’m currently relaxing on my birthday here in Shanghai, finishing up some breakfast at the rooftop patio lounge of the hostel I’m staying at and watching cats slink by four stories up on the narrow highways at the edge of buildings. As mentioned in my previous post, this is the second part of my Japan adventures post which includes all points north of Tokyo. Thankfully, the further up north I went, the cooler the temperatures were as I escaped the mid August heat and humidity in that still persisted throughout the world’s largest city.

My trip north wasn’t without challenges as cheap accommodations, in the form of hostels, was harder to come by. However, a good fallback were the relatively inexpensive business hotels nearby train stations which were efficient and adequate, if a bit small at times. Also on the topic of trains, for this part of my trip I opted to get the JR Pass which definitely was the best choice for value and efficiency. I was able to purchase it in Japan as they currently allow it until end of March 2019 (at a $50 premium). If I had taken the same trip on purchased tickets, I would have probably spent over $1500 while the JR Pass ended up only costing about $650 for the 21 day pass. It would’ve been even more effective if I had the chance to hit up Japan’s eastern most point (Nemuro), but unfortunately, that plan was waylaid by Mother Nature.

 

 

 

 

Before I get into the “highlight” of this excursion, let’s go through my itinerary:

  • August 22nd: Picked up a JR Pass and hopped the train to Fukushima city. The city is in the prefecture of the same name where the Fukushima Daiichi disaster occurred but is a couple hours away. Only one night as I was using the city as a stop over.
  • August 23rd: Found out what the fox says when visiting the Zao Fox Village near Shiroishi station. Also, spent the night at a relatively inexpensive ryokan (Suzukiya) and had the full dinner experience.
  • August 24th: Made it to Kitaakita where I’d be spending 3 nights mostly to visit a friend.
  • August 25th: Headed out on a road trip my friend to Daisen to check out Japan’s largest national fireworks show and competition (the Ogawari National Fireworks competition). Swam through a sea of humanity that number over half a million individuals. Impressive considering the Daisen area only has a population of 20 thousand.
  • August 26th: Spent a relaxing day planning for my trip further afield.
  • August 27th: Headed to Aomori for 3 nights.
  • August 28th: Checked out various sights out and about Aomori including one of the largest Jomon era archaeological sites –┬áSannai-Maruyama Ruins. Also, visited the nearby art museum before heading over to the ASPAM building for some local culture exploration.
  • August 29th: Headed out to Hachinohe for the day. Made it to Kabushima temple but found it was closed until 2020 due to repairs. Headed back to the center of Hachinohe and the tourist info center was really helpful and I managed to salvage the day with a trip to Nejo Castle and the museum.
  • August 30th: Grabbed the shinkansen off of Honshu (the main island) and made it to Hakodate.
  • August 31th: Wandered over to the seafood morning market for breakfast before heading to Goryokaku to check out the tower and park/building.
  • September 1st: Had a tour of 3 museums: Museum of Northern Peoples (the Ainu), the Former British Consulate, and the Hakodate Old Public Hall. After that, decided to climb Mt. Hakodate while fending off hordes of mosquitoes.
  • September 2nd: Made it to Sapporo and decided to take a mental break with a movie. Luckily, many English movies have the original language with Japanese subtitles.
  • September 3rd: A nice enough morning as I headed out to wander the Hokkaido Shrine and surrounding park. Had lunch at the Hokkaido University cafeteria – really cheap but avoid the 11:30am-1:00pm lunch rush!
  • September 4th: Caught the train to Wakkanai – Japan’s most northern publicly accessible area. Checked out Cape Soya before wandering around town and finding some Russian fare for dinner. It also ended up being the last night my plans were on track.
  • September 5th: Woke up to torrential rain as Japan’s worst typhoon in 25 years was finishing it’s northern sweep. Same typhoon completely wrecked Osaka to the south. Most trains were cancelled except a local commuter to Asahikawa that evening. Managed to get to Asahikawa around midnight and went to sleep about 1am.
  • September 6th: The earthquake hit. Just after 3am I was suddenly awake and swaying. Spent the day figuring things out and just surviving.
  • September 7th: Still no power in most of Hokkaido including where I was staying. Power only available at the JR station and hospital beside it.
  • September 8th: Power returned to Asahikawa. Still no trains but managed to catch a bus to Sapporo and then got the last seat on a bus to Hakodate. Caught the second last Shinkansen train out of Hakodate to make it back to mainland Japan. The train terminated in Morioka where I spent the night.
  • September 9th: Brunch was the 100 bowl wanko-soba challenge in Morioka (successful!) Made it back to Tokyo.

So as you can see, it was an eventful last few days of my northern trek. The original plan would have seen me head to Nemuro on the 5th via Furano to check out Japan’s easternmost point and then head back to Sapporo for a couple more days before returning to Tokyo. Instead, I had an entirely different kind of adventure! I’ll detail it a bit more here for those that are curious.

As mentioned before, my train out of Wakkanai was delayed due to the remaining effects of the typhoon so instead of getting to Nemuro on the 5th, it looked like it would be pushed to the 6th and I’d have to stay the night in Asahikawa. However, on the morning of the 6th at about 3am, the earthquake hit. Power went out a couple minutes later. Was a magnitude 6.7 about 150km away in the Chitose area. I went to sleep again close to 5am after weathering a few more aftershocks and after waking up, I checked out of hotel and headed down to train station. There was no power anywhere but I managed to find a locker to put my bags into. A pharmacy nearby was open and making brisk business so I found some sustenance to at least last me for the day (basics). Right after, I realized I would probably need to find a place to stay. Luckily, the mobile phone service was still working along with my internet on my phone. With that, I managed to book a room for one night at a local business hotel. Another piece of luck was literally less than an hour later, all hotel websites in Hokkaido had closed off reservations. When I went over to the hotel to check in, they had to verify over a mobile phone with the head office. Also, they said they couldn’t charge me for the room as there was no power or running water. This was perfectly fine with me as long as I had a bed to sleep in. I spent most of my day at the train station as power was restored rather quickly to there and the hospital beside it and I was able to keep my phone recharged and also topped up my CPAP’s battery. Spending the night in a city with almost no light pollution was pretty surreal and I slept with the window open and a perfect view of the night sky plastered with stars.

Around 4am that night, power was restored to the area (was woken up by all the lights and running water). After waking up again later in the morning, I headed to the train station to see what was up and basically no way out of the city again. I got back to the hotel as they were serving breakfast and I got to say, this place was fantastic. They took care of me during the ordeal and with impeccable efficiency and kindness. It’s called the Super Hotel Asahikawa and is a brief walk from the train station so I recommend staying there if you get a chance. They were kind enough to extend my reservation by one day and I ended up not having to pay for that night as well (directions from their head office). I spent the day in my room working on my phone before finding a restaurant for my first hot meal.

On the 8th, I finally managed to catch an early morning bus to Sapporo. When I got there, I waded through the crowds at the bus station and waited in line a the ticket counter for about an hour. My luck held out and apparently someone cancelled their reservation so I procured a seat for an afternoon bus down to Hakodate. Most trains were still not running but the Shinkansen off of Hokkaido was operating from it’s terminus in Hakodate. If the bus could get there in time, I’d make one of the last trains off the island. After a relaxing and gorgeous sunsent drive along the southern coast of Hokkaido, we made the train station with time to spare. There were two trains still available that evening and I decided on the first one as it went all the way down to Morioka while the second (last) train only made it as far as Aomori. And so ended the exciting “shake, rattle, and roll” part of my adventure with the departure of the Shinkansen train from Shin-Hakodate station.

There’s not much else to say other than it was an unforgettable experience and while it was happening, I was rather surprised how calm I was throughout it.

And with that, let’s look at some random photos!

Categories: Travel

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