Wintery blasts and recovering in Southern Hokkaido

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January 14th 2020
Published: January 14th 2020
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We had four full days to play with in Sapporo. Whilst P2 remained under the weather I got my leave pass to head back to the known snow shoe site of the Hokkaido memorial at Nopporo, a safer option to a mountain traverse.

Trains to Shinrin-kooen are frequent and rapidly filled up that morning with locals, young and older. Now being an expert at knowing the park entry points, I had the snow shoes on ready to hike Nopporo within fifteen minutes of alighting. Yesterday’s cross country skier tracks (the tracks owners were an older Japanese couple whom I’d met) remained, as well as our messy frozen contribution.

Snow was in the forecast though that day, which would likely coat everything.

Gaining elevation from the city made a difference to snow depth in Nopporo. After trekking for a good fifteen kilometres, I’d seen a frozen lake, followed the prints of a few others up (at times) many steep snowy steps, and passed several older Japanese men out hiking in their gumboots. The undulating landscape was beautiful,
and certainly an interesting alternative to walking riverside in the city, as I’d tried the day prior.

Fallen uprooted trees suggested there’d been a decent storm sometime ago, as well as evidence of normal tree felling.

P2 still wasn’t up to much after lunch when I got back. Snow had begun to fall heavily and I was hoping to see Otaru in a stormy state above the station area, one of many views in Otaru from on high. I skated my way through the hilly streets. This decided for me that being closer, and in softer snow, was far safer.

‘Eating in’ (thanks the the discount basement Japanese food hall fare) for the next few nights says it all - P2s recovery was happening quite slowly and some plans would have to wait until future trips.

Otaru has been suggested as a snow shoe location but with nothing available on the web giving guidance I plotted a few options, starting from either Shioya or Otaru. There was certainly some leg work along boring streets to get to where I needed to start, discovering a tunnel and several icy residential and industrial streets to get me to point A.

After an hour of walking from the station, I began ascending on heavily snowed streets behind a large hillside cemetery, with one of the best views in town. So I thought. Seeing out over to the ski fields of western Otaru it would be a perfect place to be laid to rest.

About 500 metres on, I approached the upper part of the Hotel Schloss, in sight of the lighthouse, industrial Sapporo in the distance, and the Sea of Japan. Fortunately the dotted line was not in reality closed off. The adventure started with donning what were essential snow shoes and poles. Upwards I climbed for about one kilometre, following many types of animal prints (foxes, rabbits and hares I supposed) and a shallow gutter of a trail beneath them. Once at the lookout, the trail dipped down and completely disappeared, therein being the importance of having GPS. Such was the northern aspect
of this track, and snow bank several metres high, it had engulfed that which skirted the rim of a steep drop. I deliberated on turning back, until I saw (ten metres on) the low wooden railings and steps.

I’d summited Shimoakaiwa, not a monster of a mountain, but being in sight of a coastline, this snow shoeing experience by an ocean was a first! The trail then either split to a nearby road, or as I chose, began to ascend steadily and well marked for another 1km upwards. I’d fathom I’d reached to a height almost greater than the nearby ski field.

Everything was in view. I’d made it to Mount Akaiwa, and felt incredibly lucky to have the frozen footsteps of others, plus those of many animals, to guide me down the steep descent. From a mini-shrine at the trails end, I picked up a snowy rural road, that led another kilometre down into residential Otaru. Add 4km more and I’d trudged back to the Otaru train station. Now I had stories to tell P2. My ‘research’.

Waking early after average sleep, I left P2 in his energy lacking state for sunrise at Nopporo, having arranged a late check out. Bird watchers were out in droves, with their camera and spotting gear. Minus ten Celsius did nothing to disuade the human or bird life on this clear morning.

In between check out and our 2pm train we wandered through Odori park, where the snow sculpture preparations were in full swing. Basic units of carved ice were set to the side, with a wall of snow building thanks to bulldozers and scaffolds. This is what would become one of the main highly decorated attractions we’d seen in 2016.

A brief stint at Hokkaido University gardens yielded minimal visible bird life, so back we wandered, sluggishly for P2, to the JR Inn to collect our gear.

The trip to Furano this time went via Asahikawa, as it transpired, was the better line and departure time that avoided substitute bus services. We transferred quickly, nearly minus a keep-cup of healing broth that I’d been
keeping for P2, and then got on to the crowded local Furano bound train. Large amounts of locals alighted just out of town that the standing-room-only soon led to seats becoming free, with an incredible sunset view of the Tokachi mountains. Seventy minutes later, we’d arrived for the third time, and second winter stay, at the Natulux.

The Nemuro line, once in Furano, became the problem line once we began planning some day trips and our onwards travels. A bridge had been broken, affecting the connections from around Takikawa área to south of Furano. We recalled the substitute bus in our last (summer) trip to Kushiro and unfortunately the restoration of the Hokkaido rail lines has not been prompt.

Health status influenced how much we’d spend doing the days we had thereafter, myself succumbing to a raw throat and runny nose that all sundry remedies came out I.e. salt water gargles, vitamin C loading, cups of tea and fluids, 7-11 lemon drinks and anything to local drug store could possibly sell, we’d viewed it. How much money one can spend on alleviating symptoms is
nearly that not spent on the appetite for dining out!

The relevance of receiving those two types of ‘free gifts’ from the hotel in Matsumoto (for being low room service needy tourists) had come to be. Masks and pot noodles, our theme for the last week.

While some may say the snow fall was not at record-year levels, we found plenty of low key snow fun at town level, depths hovering in the 30-50cm range. Sorachi River side, the usual sealed walking trails were snowed over, but the shape of them was a guaranteed path around the rivers course, all the way to the Asahigaoka park and nearby bridge.

Sun appeared in small doses and several walkers were out. As one ahead of me took his off-lead dog and placed him on a lead, I passed, saying Konnichi wa. P2 and I had been running over the plans to actually eat out when we felt well, and Fukinotou was of course in the plan. As I said hello, I realised it was the restaurant owner from our
last three trips. ‘Open tomorrow?’ I asked. Yes he would be. That’s serendipitous.

The wanman one carriage wonder took us that afternoon to Asahikawa. Locals boarded bit by bit, and the dense snowy landscape combined with a rocking carriage was sleep inducing. Asahikawa is the second largest city in Hokkaido and many twenty year old ladies were traditionally dressed up on this public holiday, the Coming of Age Day. We hunted down an old sake brewery for P2, and took out the cameras just as it began to snow heavily, then slipping and stomping the kilometre back to the station. The station; where anyone and everyone seems to meet and wall sized heaters are the draw card in winter.

La Terre onsen was our intended stop on returning. This tiny icicle covered station halt was our saviour, cutting at least a kilometre off a planned visit, which four years earlier was on a slushy roadside walk out of Nakafurano. Snow had fallen and the modestly warm outdoor onsen was the relaxing experience they always are. Standing in the minus eight Celsius in the dark afterwards, a one carriage wanman wonder appeared reliably at 6.45, to take us home. We had another enduring cough-interrupted sleep.

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