My Final Week in Hokkaido: Kushiro and Beyond
September 4, 2011 3 Comments
My final full day spent in Kushiro would actually be spent exploring some of the Kushiro wetlands, for which the city and indeed the entire area is famous. According to the information pack, which I picked up at Kushiro station the Kushiro, marshlands are Japans largest wetland area, covering an area of 18,300 hectares. This are has been designated a Special Natural Monument, and is home to a large number of plant, animal and insect species which are unique to the area, or are endangered in other parts of Japan. The wetlands are also home to a large community of Japanese Cranes, a bird that in many ways symbolizes Japan, there are also any number of birds of prey, including Black kites and whit-tailed sea eagles. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see any of the Cranes, I was in the wrong spot basically, but I was able to see some Black Kites.
My initial plan had been to visit a famous viewing platform called Hosooka Marsh viewpoint, which was meant to be the best viewpoint from which to see the wetlands. There was also the bonus that there would be a café there. Having asked about when the next train that stopped near this viewpoint was I went to that platform. But what I saw was quite curious and was not what I expected, instead of a simple one or two carriage local train which I had become used to, I saw an old diesel locomotive from the 1930s.
This train turned out to be the ‘Kushiro Shitsugen Norokko-go’, an old locomotive with 6 carriages that slowly makes its way through the wetlands between Kushiro and Toro about twice a day. Rather than wait around for the next local train, and with my train pass in hand I decided to get onto this curious train and see where it took me. It was a curious decision because at he time I had no idea what station this train would stop at and in fact when the next one was.
The train itself was fascinating; as I said it was an old 1930s diesel engine with six cars behind it, they were all furnished with wooden seats and tables, and important the windows were big and could be slid all the way down to allow the passengers a clear view of the marshlands. Basically it was a sightseeing train, and the reason it moved so slowly was to allow the passengers a chance to look at a small part of the wetlands as we moved along. It turned out that the station, which I had originally planned to get off, was about a 10 min journey away from Kushiro, but this train would make a 40 min journey to Toro, I decided to stay on the train and take the full ride and basically see what happened.
The journey was fascinating, we had some announcers giving us a detailed explanation of what we were seeing, and although I didn’t fully understand everything that was being said, I did understand enough. Having been on many trains since I arrived in Hokkaido, it was nice to have one where you could open the window and have some fresh air. The scenery itself was spectacular, even when looking from inside the carriage. The Kushiro Marshlands are surrounded on all sides by a hill/mountain range, and we could clearly see that range from inside the train, but before us stretching out for miles, were the wetlands.
When we arrived at Toro, the first thing I saw were queuing Japanese, I have never been to any country that is as good at queuing as in Japan. Basically I had no idea what I was going to do when I got to Toro, having not thought that far ahead, I also had 3 hours before the next Kushiro Shitsugen Norokko-go train would arrive, and although there were a couple of local trains I had decided that it would be nice to ride back on the same train.
I wanted a better look at the marshlands, so I decided to head for two other observation points that were located about 2 kilometres outside of Toro, there was also a third observation point, but that was a 8km walk, and I didn’t fancy doing tat in the humidity of the marshlands, especially when I had 3 hours to walk there, have a look around and get back.
I set off for Sarubo viewpoint, a 2km walk away, it was quite humid as I said and although the walk along the road wasn’t so bad, as soon as I got to the hillside it was quite nasty. Climbing up a hill with a bag on your back in what felt like 80%+ humidity is never nice, but by this point I think I was already used to the conditions in Hokkaido and continued onwards. There were actually two viewpoints on this ridge in different points, I decided to visit them both, first would be Sarubo, and then the other one (forgotten its name and it wasn’t on the map).
The views from Sarubo viewpoint were amazing, I saw Toro in the distance and of course I could see Lake Toro, rivers, marshlands and green mountains. What I also saw were Black Kites circling around the viewpoint (It was confirmed by someone on Facebook that they were Black Kites, at the time I simply saw birds of prey), I took a few pictures, but unfortunately my camera lens was not powerful enough to pick them up properly, still an amazing sight to see.
The second viewpoint took a little longer to get to, it was a little lower down, but it gave you a different view of Toro Lake and the surrounding marshlands. This was a fascinating viewpoint actually, and it had a clear view of the train track. I am not the train spotter type (and never will be), but when the next train, a single carriage like the one I had taken to Nemuro went past, I couldn’t help but take a picture. The scene was like something you usually see in a manga or anime, with a single carriage train going along between marshland and lake and surrounded by mountains, truly wonderful.
After a brief walk back to the station I had coffee in a small café that was situated in the station itself while I waited for the Kushiro Shitsugen Norokko-go to arrive. The café was fascinating, full of memorabilia from JR Hokkaido, stretching back several decades from what I could make out. The journey back was as good as the journey out; we had the same sights, the same wind, but this time in reverse.
The next day was my last day, not only in Kushiro, but also in Japan, for this trip at least. My train was not for a couple of hours, so once I had got up, had my breakfast and checked out, I decided to look for the major shrine in Kushiro. The walk to the shrine itself was fascinating; it being early there weren’t many people about, apart from high school kids in the main bus station going to school. The shrine itself wasn’t as hard to find as I had thought; this time it was a Buddhist shrine, but unfortunately for me there was a festival in Kushiro that night, so everyone was busy. I therefore was unable to get any sort of Omamori or other token from my visit to the shrine, the visit itself had been great though and I am glad I went.
What followed on from this was a curious mixture of great fun and boredom. After the shrine visit I went back to the station to catch my train, which would start roughly 48 hours of traveling for me. I arrived in Sapporo with several hours before I needed to head to Shin-Chitose Airport, so I contented myself by wandering around the shopping mall in the station, visiting a couple of the parks and having one last proper meal before I started my plane journey.
The shopping mall was fascinating, absolutely massive; I was able to find some presents here as well. When I was having a look around a musical instrument store (I play Saxophone), I was asked if I played guitar, when I replied that I play jazz saxophone, they took one of the saxophones out of the case and found me a mouthpiece and reed to use. What started was one of the most surreal and amazing experiences that I have ever had, an impromptu jam session in the middle of an instrument shop. We had someone go on the drums, a keyboard, a guitar, a bass and a piano, along with a few other instruments playing along by the end. Of course this attracted a lot of attention, and there were loads of pictures taken, even a round of applause when we finished. This, my walk through Obori park, where I saw people practicing dance moves and a local fair, and of course a wonderful sunset were my final memories of Sapporo.
Shin-Chitose was full of Japanese like you would expect, all waiting for various internal flights to Tokyo and such, the flight from shin-Chitose was ok, I slept through most of it. What awaited me when I arrived at Haneda was an 8-hour wait for the connection to Heathrow. I have been on many early flights, but haven’t waited that long in an airport. Haneda was very quiet, and due to the Setsuden energy saving policy that is currently sweeping Japan, most of the lights were turned off. The flight back was normal for a 12-hour flight, boredom and not much sleep, and thus I arrived back in England, with the certainty that I would go back to Japan.