25 February, 2018

The elusive Fujiyama at Hakone...

One of Katsushika Hokusai's "Thirty Six Views of Mt Fuji" (ca 1830), looking across Lake Ashinoko.

Some 100km west of Tokyo stands the icon of Japan, Mt. Fuji or Fujiyama. We've been lucky enough to see the classical conic shape from Tokyo, but we now visited Hakone in the hope of a closer view. This didn't eventuate - in good weather (mostly), Fuji, still 30km away, remained shrouded in cloud, even though February (and winter generally) is statistically a month with plenty of clear days. Oh well, but we discovered that there is much more at Hakone. We got there on the Odakyu Line's Romance Car limited express from Shinjuku to Hakone's base station, Hakone-Yumoto, a very busy station clinging to the side of a hill on the edge of a rather cute mountain town.

This poster shows the view we never saw.

The Hakone area is a truly delightful mountain retreat, a beautiful and complex array of urbanisation, rugged wilderness and a whole cornucopia of transport options. In the four days we spent in Hakone, we got around by taxi, bus, train, ropeway, cable car and boat. Roads here are narrow, steep and windy - all drivers have to cooperate to get past any oncoming vehicle. There is so much of interest here, in the way of scenic attractions, bush walking, history, galleries and even shopping) that it would make sense to spend more time exploring, and possibly a rental-car would be a good idea. No wonder the Japanese love this place, all within day-trip range of Tokyo.

The Haya River cascades through the mountainous town of Hakone-Yumoto.

The Hakone Tozan Line is Japan's oldest mountain railway, about 1920. Its tiny three carraige train sets resemble a light rail system, but the signalling system is first rate. It has to be, trains are running in both directions on a single line track every ten minutes or so, with passing lanes and three "switchbacks" where the driver and conductor run to swap places. The train climbs from 108m at Hakone-Yumoto to 553m at Gora over 9km (about 40mins) of cliff-clinging, twisty track. It's a fun ride, full of things to look at.

Three carriage trains ply the steep twisty climb from Hakone-Yumoto to Goma.

Buses provide a similar experience. A comprehensive network covers the territory, the buses navigating really tight spaces with aplomb and consideration. Every other vehicle gets a wave of thanks from the bus drivers. Every time the bus takes off, the drivers count and "salute" each of their six mirrors. Like everywhere else, the buses adhere absolutely to their timetables.

Tori gate and cemetary at Moto-Hakone.

Lake Ashi or Ashinoko is a large crater lake in the caldera of Mount Hakone. It's 723m above sea level and it's a weird sensation to climb a long steep hill in a bus to look down on a lake, such is the nature of volcanos! A very popular way of crossing Lake Ashi is on ferries, each modelled on old pirate ships or war-ships for some reason, and from the southern end of the lake you can see Mt. Fuji, if you're lucky. We were not, a huge cloud stubbornly refusing to budge from the top of the mountain each time we were here.

The rather bizarre Ashinoko ferries were packed with Chinese New Year crowds.

Glimpse of Lake Ashinoko from the ropeway near Souzan.

By travelling between Goma, the railway terminus, and Togendai-ko, a ferry stop, we learned the difference between the terms ropeway and cable car, in Japanese parlance at least. Between Goma and Souzan there is a "cable car", two trains running on a steep slope (one up, one down) connected by a cable operated from the top station. There are four stops on the way, and the two trains have a passing lane in the middle. And between Souzan and Togendai-ko there are two seperate "ropeways" carrying dozens of gondolas, each holding maybe a dozen passengers. At the top, connecting the two ropeways is Owakudani (1044m), also accessible by road, an extremely popular vantage point.

The cable car from Owakudani arrives to a full platform at Gora.

Sulphur smelling steam wafts assaults the nostrils of everyone in those gondolas.

Owakudani is referred to as "hell" in much tourist literature, it's where the inner workings of our planet break through to the surface in swirls of steam and very strong sulphur smells. (Every passenger on the ropeways has been given a moist face-cloth becore coming here, and warned off if they have any breathing illnesses.) The Hakone area is actively volcanic, being right at the intersection of three tectonic plates. The major formative eruptions of the Hakone caldera were 180,000 and 60,000 years ago, the latest causing lava flow was 2,900 years ago. In 1170AD there was a significant eruption, and much more recently, in 1991 a seismic swarm of 300 recorded earthquakes occurred. In 2015 there was a lesser explosion causing a small, new crater to be formed, evaculations and disruption of tourism. The new crater is evident if you peer through the swirling steam escaping the valley near Owakudani but the whole area is such a sulphurous hell-hole you wouldn't notice it.

Hot water harvesting hell-hole that is Owakudani.

It's said that eating just one black egg boiled in dilute sulphric acid prolongs your live seven years.

If you want someone to take a good photo of you, pick a person holding a real camera.

Steam ejects from all over the Hakone caldera.

We had been wondering how onsen hot water is managed, and up here, we gained some insight to that question. Owakudani is a farm where hot water is grown and distributed. It an amazing, and ugly, industrial enterprise, but the scalding water thus produced is then used to warm us up in those wonderful Japanese bath-houses. When you are here, it looks like the end of the earth, but a study of the map quickly shows how close the trappings of tourist civilisation are, ryokans, golf courses etc. There's a Geological Museum at Owakudani and the JPY100 entry fee is well worth it, giving the history or the area, and with scale models of the heat exchangers.

Mythology regards Lake Ashinoko as a vicious nine headed dragon - artwork in the Geological Museum.

On the bad side, our whole time at Hakone was blighted by huge crowds. When we made these arrangements we didn't realise that it was Chinese New Year, and nor did we appreciate that Japan would be so popular with the Chinese at this time. We thought families were meant to reunite back home at CNY, not decamp to foreign countries! We first discovered this problem when we had to queue up for an hour at Shinjuku Station, Tokyo just to buy the Hakone Free Pass which would get us on the Romance Car limited express train to Hakone-Yumoto Station as well as local trains, buses, cable cars and ropeways within the district. For our visit, public transport was distressingly overcrowded - the cable car was the main bottle-neck, but the trains were packed too. We imagine that it is always busy in this tourist region, but Chinese New Year is definitely to be avoided!

The pirate ship-like ferry welcomed Chinese New Year visitors.

For accommodation, we picked the Kai Hoshino at Hakone for a few nights of luxury before returning to Tokyo for the last time. It squeezes in between the Old Tokaido Road and the Sukumo River. Our suite, which is in a new wing, faces due north across the river to a very pretty and very close foothill of Mt Yusaka. Steam from the onsen downstairs wafts pass our full width picture window. It's really pure indulgence, our suite, with large living and sleeping rooms, in a modern-traditional styling fusion, and a large ultra-chic bathroom and shower.

The Sukomo River passing below our room at Kai Hakone.

Kai Hakone is decorated in themes of parquetry from various local woods, called yosegi zaiku. There are truly glorious wooden creations, including impenetrable puzzles, in both the common areas and in our suite. Tempting but expensive.

Fine wooden creations were everywhere at Kai Hakone.

In individual paper walled rooms, we dine on Japanese style kaiseki dinners here, which are probably the best of the whole trip. The kitchen goes to great lengths to accommodate special food wishes, and the staff try to explain what everything is. We get written menus. Kaiseki breakfasts too - at this time of day we'd probably prefer our fruit, cereal and toast!

Just one course of our kaiseki meals at Kai.

Kai Hakone is located on the Tokaido road, a torturous path through the mountains taken by travellers between Edo (old Tokyo) and Kyoto. Under a policy called sankin kotai, once a year, feudal lords (daimyo) were obliged by the shogun to travel to and from Kyoto for the purpose, it was said, of impoverishing them beacuse of the costs of maintaining two households. This annual event is commemorated on a giant noren (curtain) which divides the Kai's onsen into "inside" and "outside" - it's a truly spectacular katazome (stencil dyed) sketch by Mitsuko Ogura made even more interesting by fanciful elements such as the mountains being represented by parquetry, the appearance of a modern day pirate ship on Lake Ashi and a tourist cable car too!

Sunset shot from our Kai Hoshino room.

The onsen is unusual, a large rectangular wooden tub (no natural rock formations here) half in and half out of the building. There is a very pretty, subtly lit, garden by the onsen, and if you sit on the bath edge, you can contemplate the river only a few metres away, until you get too cold and have to slip back into the 40C water. All pretty nice, but we wonder if this onsen is big enough to cope with sumer crowds.

We wondered how the shogun and his daimyo got to enjoy onsen.

And on that sankin kotai pilgrimage, one of the three ports in the pirate ship cruise loop on Lake Askinoko is Hakone-machi where the shogun placed a sekisho, a check-point, which operated from 1618 to 1868AD, where arrivals were searched for weapons, and (apparently more importantly) departing women were scrutinised closely in case they were wives (or children) of the said daimyo attempting to flee from Edo. The women were hostages in Edo to make sure the daimyo came back!

Hakone Shrine by Lake Ashi was called on by daimyo and other travellers.

As we left from Hakone-Yumoto station, we observed packed Romance Car trains arriving every 20 minutes from Tokyo, packed local trains arriving from nearby big city and Shinkansen stop Odawara, and wondered how this district can absorb such visitor numbers. We were very glad to have been able to enjoy almost absolute peace and quiet at an out-of-town riverside ryokan.

Romance Car train pulling into Hakone-Yamoto station.

Photo density map shows how we worked around Mt Hakone.

24 February, 2018

Cranes and planes in Kushiro...

Finally, on our last day in Hokkaido we zero in on the city of Kushiro, but before that we visit the Akan International Crane Centre in the city's north for another look (hopefully) at those gorgeous red-crowned cranes, known locally as tancho. This is a place devoted to the cranes and performs the dual roles of nurturing the endangered birds as well as providing a great opportunity for visitors to observe them in the wild. There are interpretive displays, a video to watch, and a bird hospital outside. The publically chosen nickname for the centre is Grus which is part of the scientific name for the cranes.

Tancho may be rare, but photographers are in abundance in the well-structured viewing area. There are 25 or so cranes coming or going. It's quite windy (not to mention a long way below zero), and the tancho are quite spectacular as they exploit the wind to take off and land. There are dozens of whooper swans there too, which, sadly, get in the way of clean photographs. But the cranes were close enough to get some good snaps.

The Akan International Crane Centre main building.

Photographers are well catered for at Grus.

In flight, in search of a better spot.

A crane amongst the swans.

Running into the wind for takeoff.

Strong headwind makes landing easy.

That's my crown!

Red-crowned crane in profile.

Whooper swans like it here too!

Kushiro is a large port city (4th in Hokkaido) which was opened to trade with the UK and USA in 1899AD and benefits from being relatively ice-free compared to others this far north. We have a quick lunch at the Kushiro Washo Market (Mike and Steve pig out on sashimi) and then we asked the critical question: "is there a Starbucks in Kushiro?". We haven't had a cappucino or espresso since leaving Sapporo, so the need was great. The answer was yes, just opened! Steve had a big fat mocha, we had our usual.

On sale at the Washo Market in Kushiro.

It's best to eat your fresh seafood right at the market, like we did.

The market came to a stop when Japanese darling and (eventual) gold medallist Yuzuru Hanyu was on the ice.

Red-crowned cranes on the Route 113 bridge across the Shinkushiro River, just opposite Starbucks.

And then to the airport for a JAL flight to Tokyo Haneda. So, what did we think of Hokkaido? In summary, it was not what we expected. Once we left Sapporo with Steve and headed east, we really thought we were headed into relative wilderness which would be sparsely populated, and very few visitors. How wrong we were! Cities and towns were much bigger than we thought. Almost everywhere we went was crowded, and packed with tourists, and most of them were not Japanese, and not westerners either. The sights were beautiful, there's no doubt, but we didn't expect such numbers to be looking at them with us, bus tours everywhere. The Meiji Restoration had the objective of developing the island and keeping the Russians out - they seemed to have achieved the former, but maybe not the latter.

This photo density map shows our coverage of Hokkaido, with a distinct focus on the east.

We know (and met) Aussies who have successfully toured Hokkaido on their own, renting a car, but we employed a private local guide, Steve, from Hokkaido Nature Tours (HNT), who took us everwhere and arranged everything. This was successful for us - we could never have seen the sights so efficiently without a Steve. Because it was a private tour, Steve was very accomodating of our expressed wishes, and also, he flexed the program wisely to cope with forecast bad weather, of which we had a fair bit. Thanks Steve, and thanks HNT.

22 February, 2018

Akan-ko, homeland of the Ainu...

Having checked out of the Yorouchi with some sadness, our scheduled morning activity was a canoe ride through marshlands which, we saw, in spring would be the nesting areas for the wonderful red crowned cranes which we hoped to see later in the day. The boss canoe man was a guy who has spent years in New Zealand being a mountain guide for Japanese tourists. His office was full of kiwi artifacts and a NZ internet radio station was playing. He and his offsider both had very good English.

The red-crowned crane is an icon of Hokkaido and Japan, and its image appears everywhere.

The canoe went into a quiet creek which is an overflow from Lake Toro somewhere between Shibecha and Kushiro. We paddled to where the creek meets the Kushiro River which flows to the Pacific Ocean. We saw two other canoes, but not much in the way of wildlife, a few deer, ducks and eagles at a distance. Sadly, we just missed seeing a steam-train which runs every day in February.

Fellow canoers on this quiet marshland.

Almost perfectly camoflaged deer by the river.

Out of season, the trees are not so pretty.

The overall river scene is quite photogenic.

We saw this Stellars Sea Eagle from the road. The canoe operator told us he sits here every day/

Late in the day Steve went into the area known as Tsurui on a crane hunt. Tsuru means "cranes" and the "i" at the end apparently makes it "live here". He tried a couple of places, talked to a few photographers, but at first we only saw cranes at a distance. But then we passed another place where a farmer or shopkeeper puts out food, and found a good number of the treasured cranes pecking in the snow and flying off to their night roosting places.

Pickings are poor for red-crowned cranes in winter, but the community makes sure they have enough to eat.

It's important to say that community nurturing of these cranes is an important part of their rescue from near extinction, especially in winter. Overdevelopment caused their near demise (only 30 left!) but the Tsurui community embarked on a program to save them and there are now a total of 1000 in Japan, all in Hokkaido. The cranes are migratory, but the meagre Japanese population has been conditioned to moving only 150km between summer and winter because of their loss of habitat.

Photographers watch every move of the cranes as they forage in the snow.

The red-crowned cranes are among the biggest cranes and get their name from a patch of bare red skin at their forehead, which gets brighter during mating. Other than that, they are snow white in colour, with some black feathers in their wings.

The cranes build up a gallop to take off.

In flight, there is nothing more graceful than these large cranes.

These are precious birds indeed, and are absolute icons in Japan. Japan Air Line's logo features a red-crowned crane, as does one series of Japanese bank notes, and their mating ritual is one of Japan's 100 soundscapes. How wonderous to be able to find them so easily. (In fact, earlier in the day, we spotted a few more, although too distant to photograph.)

Those black feathers are on the wing, not the tail, as you might think when they're on the ground.

Getting dark, these red-crowned cranes and heading to their roosts.

We stayed the last two nights of our Hokkaido journey in Lake Akanat the New Akan Hotel, maybe called the Shangri-la in some previous existance. This is a big nine storey place which has been visibly extended three times around the lake front, no doubt as the owners managed to acquire more property. Our room was billed as "western" and had a bed, but it was shoes-off on entry, devoid of a chair although it did have a huge day lounge beside the large bay window which offered us a great view of the lake.

Lake Akan Hotel from the frozen lake, huge restaurant at bottom, onsens up top.

Icy predawn light over the frozen Lake Akan showing skating circuit plus rental of ice fishing tents and snow mobiles.

Sign within the hotel warns of rather low temperatures today.

Tough work learning to skate when it's -20C and blowing snow.

No kaiseki here, we had buffet dinners and breakfasts which were excellent in range and quality, but the whole scene was one of pandemonium. Everyone in the hotel crowded into a very large restaurant space over a relatively short period of time. It's madness, and the poor staff were worked off their feet. Western items were available from the buffet (cereal, fried egg, bread for toast etc) but no cutlery. We found a butter knife and a fruit fork. During the day, the hotel is so quiet, we figure everyone is off doing tours.

In this giant dining room, we studied the crowd (and listened to their language) and realised that there are not so many Japanese staying in this particular hotel (but there are plenty of others). At least on the days we were here, the guests were mostly Chinese and Korean with a sprinkling from South East Asia. And not a single westerner, except for ourselves. Lake Akan is still popular with Japanese people - they seemed to arrive by car, and are maybe just on day trips from, say, Kushiro. The best parking area in town is the frozen lake - that probably doesn't work so well in summer!

One of hundreds of ice fishing shelters that you can rent on Lake Akan.

You can hire snow mobiles or dune buggies, but a ride on a banana sled was the most popular in the foul conditions.

Again, huge areas over two storeys of the hotel were devoted to "bathrooms". The locker rooms were unusually palatial. There were segregated large indoor and outdoor pools. On the building roof there was an arrangement we hadn't come across before, a large non-segregated pool and smaller segregated baths and also jacuzzis. Unexpectedly, you had to cover up to visit the top floor areas, and they lend you "bathing shorts or bathing gowns" which, frankly, look ridiculous but preserve modesty. We think this area is the preserve of tourists and not the Japanese. But this didn't detract from the sheer pleasure of a steaming hot bath while heavy snow falls on your head!

Lake Akan, Akan-ko, is a volcanic lake formed about 6000 years ago. Part of the touristy village we stayed in is Akan Kotan which appears to be a spiritual homeland for those Ainu people who are aware of their origins. Most Ainu are fully assimilated and interbred, it seems, and unknowing of their roots, so the "Ainu" population is uncertain (25,000-250,000), but there are enough here to run a village of souvenir shops and an evening cultural presentation which we attended in a very well equipped theatre. The troupe we saw consisted of seven young Ainu women, a couple of older women, and an elderly gentleman - they danced, sang and played a traditional instrument, a tiny stringed thing with amazing tonal variation. To us the performers looked like any other Japanese, which is no surprise since both races originally descended from Mongolian clans warring since the late 1300's. There are apparently some evolutionary differences between the Ainu and the dominant Yamato people of Japan (120m of 129m), but we couldn't see them in their faces.

Snowy entrance to the Ainu People's village.

Even the polar bears are cold in Lake Akan!

New Tourist Centre at Lake Akan is styled with Ainu motifs.

To the Ainu, the great Cikap Kamuy owl was the god of the land and all other owls.