Tsukuba 2015 Pt II: Mt Tsukuba

With three mountains ascended in Hokkaido in June, the idea of climbing mountains has been very much in my mind of late, and it was actually Mitake-San that I was planning to do but when my wife said she wanted to go to Wan Wan Land in Ibaraki-ken the idea of climbing Tsukuba-san was a big reality.

On Marine Day (the name of the national holiday on July 20th) we took a mini-bus to Tsukubasan jinja iriguchi bus stop which was about a 40 minute journey. A giant red torii gate is clearly visible and so we walked through that and on up the road for a few minutes until we reached Tsukuba-san shrine itself. This is a historic shrine dedicated to the sacred mountain which has been worshipped for over 3000 years.

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It was a pleasant enough shrine but like most people we were only there to pass through it rather than pray for protection against evil and illness or be blessed with children.

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Up until this moment I really didn’t think I’d be doing anything more than just taking the cable car up as I’d hardly been unable to walk just two days earlier having overdone it a bit on my return to running. However, my legs were feeling good and faced with a mountain in my way I just couldn’t face the thought of ascending it so easily by cable car.

At this time it was 10:40 am and the signboards said the Miyukigahara Course was a 90 minute ascend but I thought I’d surely be able to shave ten minutes off that time and so told my wife (who was taking the easier route up) I’d meet her at the top at midday.

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This wasn’t actually the first time I climbed Mount Tsukuba as back in July 2004 I ascended it with a couple of workmates and did include it in the ‘Tokyo Daytripper: Top 10 Day Trips Beyond Kanagawa, Saitama & Chiba‘ blog back in April 2014.

On another sweltering day (with highs of 34 degrees celsius) in Ibaraki-ken it was very sweaty work on this two kilometre climb and my t-shirt was pretty much drenched by the time I reached Tsukuba-sancho station at the top 62 minutes later.

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Technically it wasn’t the top as the twin peaks of Nantaisan and Nyotaisan, for which it is famous, are a further 15 minute walk away. I met my wife and chilled for a bit allowing my t-shirt to be dried by the sun (yuk!) before continuing on my lonesome to the summit.

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Not that I really knew it but the peak I chose to climb was Nyotaisan which at 877 metres high is six metres taller than the other peak so I was quite happy that I did that one.

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The views from the top were rather splendid and well worth the extra effort.

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Back at Tsukuba-sancho station there was another lookout point on top of the restaurant and after a quick look at the scenery from there we both went down the mountain together in the cable car which is called Momiji; the same name as Rina’s family dog, so she was happy about that connection.

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You can read ‘Tsukuba 2015 Pt I: Wan Wan Land here

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Tsukuba 2015 Pt I: Wan Wan Land

With over 35 million people crammed into Tokyo Metropolis, space is at a premium and so huge apartment blocks dominate the skyline. Though Japanese people have a strong affection for animals the downside of living in such dense areas is that many landlords do not allow their residents to keep pets of any kind. Furthermore, keeping a pet in a high-rise building without a garden is not such a good idea and needs the owner to take it out more often than in many other countries.

In order to get their animal-fix the people subsequently have to make do with alternative ideas such as dog cafes, cat cafes, rabbit cafes, owl cafes, dog spa’s, petting zoo’s, dog rentals and islands solely devoted to one animal such as Rabbit Island in Hiroshima-ken.

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Ever since she found out about Wan Wan Land (Dog’s Land) last year, my wife has wanted to visit this place and so last Sunday morning we travelled over to Ibaraki prefecture to take a two-day break from Tokyo. It was an absolutely sweltering day with temperatures around 34 degrees celsius as we arrived at the entrance gate and paid 1500 yen for the two of us (rather than each) as we had picked up a 50% discount coupon in the tourist information centre at Tsukuba Station.

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Everyone is aware that most nationalities have their own language but far less know that animals make different sounds according to each country. I had no idea of this and had never really given it a thought before I came to Japan and soon discovered, for example, that dogs don’t say woof here but instead bark wan wan. On entering the park there were display boards showing these differences (although the British one was wrong!) as well as one displaying the various gestures and body language which man’s best friend makes.

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This dog amusement park has different sections such as Wan Wan World (a stage where dogs do some kind of performances – we never went here though), a dog run and some other areas which I will mention later.

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Rina was feeling a little sad about the conditions that the poor dogs were in so we decided to cough up 1000 yen (20-25 minutes) and took a dog called Ponni out to give it a break from its enclosed environment in the cage. It wasn’t too long before it took a dump which got me thinking that I’d basically paid money to pick up it’s poo!

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After that we took one of its cage-mates for a 25 minute walk. This one was a Siberian husky called Hasumi and though the idea is good for people who are unable to keep a pet it is a bit strange and she (as well as Ponni) really didn’t seem to know where they were and what was going on. The whole thing generally made me more sad than happy.

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At some stage during our visit there was a goalkeeping dog show where the kids had the chance to try and beat the dog whose agility and reactions were naturally very quick. It seemed the only way to beat it (other than striking the ball really, really hard) was to chip it up and over the poor dog on a restricted leash.

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An area called Wan Wan Park is a pen separated into two sections; one for the big dogs and one for the smaller dogs. Visitors are invited here to touch and play with the dogs and was a noisy area with so many of the dogs barking constantly no doubt confused by an ever-changing cast of admirers trying to stroke the animals and take photos. It should be noted that these sections are only open at certain times to give the dogs a rest.

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It may be called Wan Wan Land but there is also a small building devoted to  the other most common family pet; cats. If I hadn’t been in Japan for so long I think I’d probably consider such a place very weird but these days I don’t really think too much when all these uniquely Japanese places pop up.

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The park closed at 4pm and we left the place slightly less than satisfied and a little sad as it just didn’t seem right for such animals to be kept in such conditions. Of course we don’t know the full story and why they are kept in this vicinity rather than being with just one family.

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During the walk to and from Wan Wan Land we could see the beauty of Mount Tsukuba in all its glory and most impressive it was. We would ascend this mountain the following day which you can read about here. (Link will appear soon…)

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How to get there: If coming from Tokyo then take the Tsukuba Express line from Akihabara station which takes just 45 minutes. Outside Tsukuba station is the bus station and a 20 minute bus ride from stop #3 will take you to Tsukubasan-Guchi bus stop (passing Wan Wan Land on the way) and then it’s a 15 minute walk from there. Head back towards the giant torii gates, turn left and go past the Save On convenience store (on your right), keep going until you hit the main road, turn left and go past the closed unagi (eel) restaurant (below) and Wan Wan Land is on the right after a few minutes walk. Or just take a taxi!!

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Having refreshed back at our hotel for a bit we then went out for dinner and had shabu-shabu which is basically thinly sliced beef and vegetables boiled in water and served with dipping sauces. This isn’t a particular speciality of the area but we were tired and didn’t want to venture too far from our lodgings. The deal was very good value and it was nice to enjoy a dish that I probably haven’t had for about a decade.

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You can read ‘Tsukuba 2015 Pt II: Mt Tsukuba‘ here (coming soon…)

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My Leicester City Memorabilia

One of the presents I got last Christmas was ‘Got Not Got! The Lost World of Leicester City‘ which is co-written by Gary Silke who is the editor of ‘The Fox‘; the long running City fanzine that’s been going for 27 years! This excellent book is crammed full of pictures and stuff from a time before Sky Sports and modern-day football when things were more simple. I was so impressed that I fairly quickly purchased the Norwich City version for my dad for his birthday.

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Inspired by this, I dug out and photographed as many Leicester City items as I could find lying in boxes and suitcases at my parents place. The majority of the items were my old replica shirts (they will get their own entry at a later date) but on top of that I also had programmes, videos, records, tapes, fanzines, books, Leicester Mercury newspapers, magazine cuttings, posters, sticker books, cigarette cards, bugs (above), hats, mugs, a scarf and so on.

I remember having a Leicester City comb and towel in the very early 80’s but they sadly failed to escape the bin-men back in the day so first up are the old Panini football sticker albums. My first one was the 1984 version which in my memory came out in 1983 at the start of the 83-84 season and the reason for starting to collect football stickers was not as straightforward as one may think.

I actually went into our local newsagent to spend my pocket money on some Star Wars stickers for the ‘Return Of The Jedi‘ album I’d acquired from somewhere. However, the shopkeeper had no Star Wars stickers and the only stickers left were football ones. I just wanted stickers and didn’t really care what they were so decided to get the football ones and there was no looking back after that. It is possible that that one moment is responsible for me becoming obsessed with the beautiful game these last 31 years!

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My first Leicester match was a 2-1 home victory over rivals Nottingham Forest in May 1984 and the matchday programme (above) of that game still causes debate among friends as to whether it’s Ian Wilson or Andy Peake on the cover. I’m sure it’s the former but others are not so sure!

Anyway, I continued the sticker collection and the Football 85 and 86 albums (below) followed and I think I continued suit until around 1990 when I gave up on stickers.

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The Bukta kits of 1990-1992 heralded in a new era of stylish shirts and at a time when shell suits were popular I was lucky enough to combine the two with this number. That fashion came and went and a few years later drill tops were the order of the day and this Fox Leisure one was quite popular with fans, particularly at our  school. Neither item seems too appealing now!

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The Fox fanzine has been going since 1987 not that I really got on board till about 1990 (albeit initially with a couple of issues photocopied by a mate!) and I still continue to get every issue to this day. Below are some of the earliest issues I have as well as the bigger sized summer specials.

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Churchgate in Leicester used to have a shop called Turnstile which stocked all kinds of City-related merchandise in the early 90’s including my trusted beanie hat and a Cheat Fell Over t-shirt featuring David Speedie who eventually became a Leicester player just over a year after his dive for Kenny Dalghlish’s Blackburn Rovers denied us in the Play Off Final of 1992.

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In the mid-nineties a few other rival fanzines appeared on the market (even I wrote a couple!) with the most successful competitor being called ‘Where’s The Money Gone?‘ which was a humorous p*ss-taking publication high on jokes but quite low on content! It used to only ever take 5-10 minutes to read it cover to cover!

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The picture of my mugs (above) got a fair bit of response when I posted it on Facebook a few months ago. I was given the one on the left in the late 80’s/early 90’s and the commercial and marketing department were certainly creative with the club’s honours list which is displayed on the mug. It is covered with audacious boasts like being FA Cup Finalists four times, playing in Round 2 of the European Cup Winners Cup and winning the Charity Shield in 1971!! True! Even though Arsenal did the double they declined to take part so Division two Champions Leicester were invited to play it and managed to beat Liverpool!

From 1985 till about 1993 my dad bought me Match football weekly magazine each and every week. Most of them were binned many years ago but I did keep a few select pages relating to Leicester’s most famous son. He’s probably more famous these days for flogging spuds, presenting Match Of The Day and tweeting but Gary Lineker was a legendary goalscorer for England and he just happened to start his career with Leicester City. He was in pretty lethal form in those early days when I saw him playing up front with Alan Smith and almost took it for granted that one of them would score! Times certainly changed after they left! After a few big money transfers Lineker moved to Japan in 1992 to join Nagoya Grampus Eight and the feature below has a fact filled and fun guide to Japan, the city of Nagoya and the inaugural J-League. I’d hardly even heard of Japan at that stage in my life so it is highly likely that this article taught me everything I know about the country.

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My Leicester City Replica Shirt Collection can be seen here (link will appear soon…) 

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Hokkaido 2015 Pt VII: Sapporo

Given that Hokkaido’s main city is nearly 50km away from New Chitose Airport we didn’t actually visit Sapporo on arrival like most people presumably do. It wasn’t till our third night, following our Lavender Farm trip, that we arrived in the city for a night out as we thought Saturday (27th June) evening would be a bit more interesting there rather than further south in the countryside!

Susukino is the centre of Sapporo nightlife and where we headed for on that night with Ethan in charge of which places we went and it wasn’t too long before we came across  Curious Fox; an English pub just begging for a Tokyo Fox crossover of sorts. Other than a photo though we didn’t enter that place as food was our first priority and immediately across the road was Ramen Alley.

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We’d already sampled local speciality miso ramen in Obihiro on our first night but that didn’t stop us from having some more. As the name suggests, Ramen Alley is a narrow lane full of restaurants serving up the Japanese noodle soup dish. We walked the length of the alley and couldnt really decide which one to go in so I just decided to go in the end one as there were a few customers in there meaning that it must be ok.

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As it was, I struck lucky as by complete chance we had stumbled upon Aji no Karyu; the restaurant visited by the witty, sarcastic and profanity-using American chef/TV personality Anthony Bourdain in 2011 for his ‘No Reservations‘ TV show (S08E07) on the Discovery Channel. As a fan of his TV shows I was very happy to have ended up in this place and an autograph and message from him donned the wall along with countless other Japanese celebrities.

Anyone who has ever watched ‘The Ramen Girl‘ (2008) starring the late Brittany Murphy would probably have been surprised to see her include sweetcorn in her ramen but it seems that in Hokkaido this is a reality and corn miso ramen is a very popular dish. However, I don’t really like sweetcorn so plumped for the butter miso ramen which in effect saw me pay ¥100 more than Ethan just for a nob of butter to be added! Now, I know there is supposed to be a butter shortage in Japan at the moment but that is ridiculous!

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Ethan’s goal was a pub called Rad Brothers, and with a window seat overlooking the street, we had a good view of what was happening out on the streets and we ended up spending most of the night supping on our cold beers in there. We eventually headed off to another bar or two after that (passing the R2D2 in the window of one cafe bar along the way) before walking back to our hotel. We took the underground walkway which leads to a smooth stroll without traffic lights halting you and is essential for the locals in the Winter when the streets are covered in snow and ice.

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We moved on the following morning and headed down to Mount Tarumae and Lake Toya for a couple of days before returning to Sapporo by train at the end of the trip having returned our rental car near the airport. It was my desire to go to Sapporo Dome but after that we were back in the city centre and before a few drinks I needed some food. By chance I saw a nearby place called Yellow Soup Curry on the map in the station so we went there and sampled this local delicacy. Thereafter, we returned to Rad Brothers bar for a couple followed by a ¥500 bar but that closed early and we realised that Sapporo was pretty dead on a Monday night as we had expected, so returned to our hotel.

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The sights of Sapporo were never really too appealing to us but we ticked off a few the following morning to kill time in between our check out and meeting an ex-student of mine. First up was the Clock Tower (below) which was constructed in 1878 and pleasant enough to view from the outside but we didn’t bother going inside to investigate.

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The 147.2 metre high Sapporo TV Tower was next not that we had any real interest in it. Far more impressive was the former Hokkaido Government Office Building; a neo-baroque brick building constructed in 1888.

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On our first night in Sapporo we’d gone to Nemuro Hanamaru sushi restaurant which is located within the station concourse but I felt the waiting line was way too long but here we were on our last day and we still hadn’t sampled any kind of seafood in a part of Japan that is famed for and specialises in such delicacies.

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Thankfully that changed when we met up with my ex-student Rina at Hokkaido University and wandered on up to the aforementioned restaurant for some sushi at a price that is a little higher than I usually pay with the plates ranging between ¥180 – ¥500. The set-lunch options are reasonably good value and start from about ¥1250 and naturally the taste was of a very good, high standard.

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That wasn’t the end of our lunch as directly across from the kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurant was a place serving up desserts. Ethan and I had fairly simple ice-cream parfaits but Rina went for the very elaborate Yubari melon parfait seen below.

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Ethan and I headed off to the airport at around 2pm but there was one final stop before we parted ways. That was Royce Chocolate World where I picked up a couple of souvenirs for my wife and then it was time to return the real world back in Tokyo.

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For other reports from our Hokkaido trip click on the following links:

Pt I: Mt Meakan       Pt II: Lavender Farm       Pt III: Mt Tarumae       Pt IV: Lake Toya      Pt V: Mt Usu       Pt VI: Sapporo Dome

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Hokkaido 2015 Pt VI: Sapporo Dome

Coming off the back of a lengthy round-the-world backpacking trip, the 2002 World Cup Finals happened at a great time for me as I was free to watch pretty much every moment of the tournament and it made such an impression on me that I even moved to Japan. During that World Cup, England played their five games at the following:

* Saitama Stadium 2002, Saitama (52,721): 1-1 vs Sweden (2 June 2002)

* Sapporo Dome, Sapporo (35,927): 1-0 vs Argentina (7 June 2002)

Nagai Stadium, Osaka (44,864): 0-0 vs Nigeria (12 June 2002)

* Niigata Stadium, Niigata (40,582): 3-0 vs Denmark (15 June 2002)

* Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, Shizuoka (47,436): 1-2 vs Brazil (21 June 2002)

Of those five, the Saitama one is the only one within close approximity to the Tokyo Fox Global Operations Centre and one that I have been to a couple of times to see Urawa Reds play. Whilst that is an impressive stadium, it has always been the Sapporo Dome that I have wanted to visit ever since I saw a TV feature on this stadium during that Summer of 2002.

Initially, I thought I’d only get to see this state-of-the-art from the outside or by a tour (and I’d have been fairly content with that) but by miraculous chance there was actually a J2 game being played on the Monday night when we were in town so I managed to persuade my American counterpart Ethan (a non-sports fan) to go to the game.

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The J2 game in question was between Consadole Sapporo and bottom club Oita Trinita and having made our way to Fukuzumi Subway Station on the Toho Line we walked on down to the stadium which was about ten minutes away. Unlike my recent J1 ventures there didn’t seem to be as many replica shirts on display which was even the more bemusing as once inside the spaceship-like domed arena the majority of fans were wearing the black and red stripes of the home team.

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Getting tickets was very easy and we chose to sit amongst the more vocal of the Consadole fans behind the same goal where David Beckham slotted home the winning penalty (Watch it here) in the aforementioned grudge match against rivals Argentina. On that wonderful day in 2002 the attendance was nearly 36,000 people but on this occasion it was just shy of 9,000 (8,974 to be precise!) not that you can really compare the two occasions of course!

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The main reason for my fascination with the Sapporo Dome was not just to do with England once playing there but because the roof is not retractable and is indeed fixed yet the pitch they play on is most definitely real grass. How can it be I hear you say! Well, the grass is kept outside among the elements when the games are not on and then slides under one of the stands into the stadium. It’s not just a football pitch either as an artificial baseball turf does likewise and is used by the Nippon Ham Fighters. (See a video of the transformation process here).

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As is the norm at games in Japan the atmosphere was good and the noise prior to kick off in particular was pretty loud. Usually when reporting on games we trot out all the usual cliches such as the away team scoring to silence the home fans but that kind of thing, such as Oita’s 13th minute opener, doesn’t seem to interfere with the atmosphere too much in Japan where the singing rarely ever stops.

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Watching with an American was actually fun. In the past I’d have probably have hated to hear such on-the-field action described in such a different way to how us Brits refer to the beautiful game. I just wish I could remember some of his Americanisms! Thankfully, he enjoyed his first ever football match more than I thought he would. I think the flow of beer helped with that!

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This match also gave me the chance to see ex-Japan national team players Shinji Ono and Junichi Inamoto; two players who really helped spark my interest in Japanese football. I had ‘Ono 18′ on the back of my first Japan shirt in 2005 and Inamoto was a star of the 2002 tournament with a couple of goals and his fine form continued for Fulham in the Premier League at the start of the 2002-03 season. As for this game, Inamoto started but was substituted just a minute into the second half and Ono came on in the 78th appearance for a brief appearance. Neither really impressed in any way which is not too surprising given that they are in the twilight of their career.

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For the record, the match finished 1-1 with Consadole equalising in the 60th minute and  though they pushed on they just couldn’t break down the resolute Oita defence. Personally I don’t know how anyone can ever leave before the end of their own teams game but as neutral fans it didn’t matter so much so we left in injury time (though we still watched the remainder on the TV monitors in the concourse) as I wanted to beat the rush and get back into the city centre as soon as possible in order to get round a few drinking places on our final night in Hokkaido.

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You can read ‘Hokkaido 2015 Pt VII: Sapporohere 

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Hokkaido 2015 Pt V: Mt Usu

Prior to our arrival in the area of Lake Toya neither Ethan or I were unaware of the volcanic lava-dome that is Shouwa-shinzan until we drove by it with a look of bewilderment on our faces. Intrigued by it we set off the next day to see it up close and then climb Mount Usu but having spent longer than expected looking around the remnants of the 2000 disaster we were short on time so had no real option but to take the Usuzan Ropeway up to the crater rim walk.

The highly impressive Shouwa-shinzan (below) could be seen from the car park and it really is hard to believe that this miracle mountain appeared out of the earth following the eruption of Mount Usu in 1943. As we travelled 1,370 metres in the cable car in seven minutes we could look down on this relatively new mountain which is designated as a special national natural monument.

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On disembarking at the summit station the path around the crater basin was a gentle tarmac slope offering views of Volcano Bay and Ginnuma Crater which is the largest crater created by the 1977 eruption.

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I was kind of hoping that this crater walk would be an easy stroll but the sight of hundreds of steep steps descending to the outer rim boardwalk was not what I really wanted to see with the scars of Mount Tarumae and Mount Meakan still fresh!

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All in all though it was well worth it as there were very few tourists or hikers on this stretch of the crater and the views in all directions were pretty awesome. There was the lava dome and crater basin on one side, Mount Yotei in the distance ahead and the stunning Volcano Bay on the other side.

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On a trip where it had rained every day this was a rare hot day and as we returned closer to the ropeway station, Ethan wanted us to make the next cable car so we absolutely caned it up dozens and dozens of wooden steps and ran around the remaining course and just made it in time. We were absolutely dripping with sweat as we descended the mountain and once back at ground level and having cooled down a bit we finally saw a bear….but as you can see below it was just a stuffed one standing outside the souvenir shop which we had a quick look around.

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There was actually a Bear Park here that is home to about 100 two-metre long bears but we decided against going in as we only wanted to see one in the wild although the chances of that happening on this trip had already gone. Also, time was against us and though we  could have kept the rental car till the following day we decided to return it earlier as we didn’t feel we would need it in Sapporo for our last day and it would also save us a bit of money. Subsequently we dropped the car off back at the car-hire place near Chitose Airport mid-afternoon and then took the train to Sapporo station for our final 24 hours in Hokkaido.

You can read ‘Hokkaido 2015 Pt VI: Sapporo Domehere 

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Hokkaido 2015 Pt IV: Lake Toya

Having been unable to get any accommodation on our first night in Hokkaido we learned our lesson from thereon (not that either of us particularly minded spending a night or two in the car!) and booked a place to stay a night in advance each time. To mix up things a bit we decided to stay at a ryokan (Japanese-style inn) in Toya-ko following our ascend of Mount Tarumae.

This one was called Daiwa Ryokan Annex and was located right on the edge of the lake with some lovely views of the water and Nakajima island in the distance. I always think of ryokan as being in the countryside but this was in the heart of the town and a little bit different as our room had mattresses rather than futons on the tatami matting.

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As we approached the town we saw a cosplayer or two and didn’t really think too much of it but then more and more began to appear once we arrived. Having asked the receptionist at the ryokan we were informed that there had been some kind of Anime Festival over the weekend but it had pretty much finished. We popped over the road and caught the end of things where there were still many itasha (decorated cars) and a fair few cosplayers hanging around.

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We took a wander down the main street but other than hotels and a few souvenir shops there wasn’t much to really captivate (other than the giant cuddly fox below!) us so after walking back along the pleasant waterfront we had a quick onsen (hot spring bath) in the basement of our ryokan before dinner.

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There were many reason we chose Daiwa Ryokan Annex for our stay and one of them was because the evening meal was a ‘Genghis Khan’ BBQ lamb dinner which is one of the dishes Hokkaido is famed for. There was a sufficient amount of lamb meat for us to cook and along with loads of rice and miso soup it was quite nice to experience something a bit more Japanese than what we’d been surviving on up until that point. At 8:30 pm there were the nightly fireworks which we half-watched from our lake-side view room whilst enjoying a few beers before having an early night.

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The following morning we had another onsen and a Japanese-style breakfast and then our  first port of call was a nearby walking trail weaving its way through a course on Mount Konpira and Mount Nishiyama.

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These active volcanoes erupted as recently as 2000 and the effects were pretty devastating on this area as the resulting mudflow washed away a bridge and severely damaged the ground floor of local buildings.

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There wasn’t a soul in sight as we freely wandered around the remnants on the disaster in the Konpira Crater. The town was evacuated in the wake of this most recent eruptions (the last one before that was in 1977) and the old hot spring facility building (above) and an apartment building (below) have been left the way there were damaged and it was fascinating to view this ghost town up close.

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The trail eventually took us up a slippery volcanic ash path to Yu-kun crater which was formed by the eruption in 2000 and is a mysterious emerald green coloured pond.

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Our hike continued on up the slope a bit more as we could see smoke pouring out of somewhere behind the trees but it proved to just be an old incinerator and with that we decided to turn around and head back to the ryokan to collect the car and drive on the relatively short distance to Mount Usu and Showa Shinzan.

You can read ‘Hokkaido 2015 Pt V: Mt Usuhere 

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