Watching The Clouds Drift By – Muroran (Part 2)

I woke up to a bright and sunny morning in my budget hotel room in Higashi-Muroran (東室蘭). The original plan was to take the train back to Tomakomai after check-out. But looking at the weather, it seemed such a massive waste to just pack up and go home. Yesterday’s exertions (and disappointments) were still fresh in my body and mind. After mulling over the options over bread and coffee at the hotel café, I decided to give Muroran another shot.dsc01826After a quick browse through Tripadvisor, I decided to check out Cape Etomo (絵鞆岬) and seek out one of Muroran’s specialty dishes – curry ramen. I must say this had to be one of the best decisions I’ve made on this trip. If there’s one place you ever need to try curry ramen, it’s Aji-no-Daio 味の大王. Though it’s still 11.30 a.m., the tiny restaurant was already packed with patrons. The curry is viscous thick, and the noodles are springy. Sweat was oozing from all pores down my face, but I was savouring every drop of the curry. Needless to say, I polished the bowl down to its last drags.img_20160919_115042My belly folks were humming a tune, and I hopped along to it as I made my way to Cape Etomo (絵鞆岬). Google Maps informed me that the trek to the cape would take about an hour on foot, but this time round, I decided to try my luck and just board any bus that would take me as close as possible to the cape. Last night’s misadventure told me that bus no.14 might be my best shot. And so it proved to be, though I had to ride my luck and guess the stop to alight. From my alighting point, it was just another 300 metre walk to the cape, which took less than five minutes.dsc01840dsc01841Although less celebrated than Cape Chikyu (judging by the fact that besides me, there were only three others), Cape Etomo, in my opinion, has more to offer. Not only can you enjoy a panoramic view of the Pacific, but also a perfect vista of the majestic Hakucho Bridge that spans the port of Muroran and its marina. I spent a good half an hour just taking in the scenery.img_20160919_142753img_20160919_143820_hdrHowever, the best find had to be Café Mutekirou, perched at the edge of a small knoll along the coast. The interior had a minimalist feel to it, with a granite wall accompanied by two humongous speakers as the dominant centrepieces. Jazz music was playing, and the entire café was drenched in sunlight through the floor-to-ceiling windows. I slurped my Americano and leaned back on my wooden deck chair, content to just watch the clouds drift by over the Hakucho Bridge. What a way to spend the long weekend!

Ç’est la vie.   LS

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Dead But Uglily Beautiful – Muroran (Part 1)

dsc01829Muroran is dead, and pretty ugly.

These adjectives came to mind as I was researching on this port city, where I had booked a night’s stay to spend the Silver Weekend (The Japanese celebrate Respect for the Aged Day on 19 September, a day to honour the elderly). Most of the search results on Google were travel tips and “Top 10 things to do in Muroran” from Tripadvisor. It also talked about the mesmerising night view of the steel factories. I was struggling to put the words “mesmerising” and “factories” together. Surely, this must be a joke fashioned by the local tourist office. However, there was also a pretty lengthy and nostalgic piece on Muroran titled “Muroran: The town that time forgot” and while reminiscing about the halcyon days of Muroran, it also lamented its steady decline.img_20160918_155752_hdrDespite knowing what to expect (well, kind of), I was still disappointed by how dead the city felt. I was the only customer in a tonkatsu restaurant at a little past noon on a Sunday afternoon. Outside, I could count with my hands how many people I had actually met on the way to this restaurant from the station. Never mind, I told myself. After all, the reason I came to Muroran was to seek out its natural wonders. While Muroran is not famed for onsens, shrines or man-made tourist attractions, it boasts some of Hokkaido’s best scenic views (the locals call it the 8 Sights of Muroran or 室蘭八景). And I’ve come here in search of arguably its most famous sight, the Earth Cape (地球岬).img_20160918_160001img_20160918_160203The Earth Cape is a 2.7 km uphill walk from Bokoi Station. Apparently, there are no buses to the Cape, so you either walk or drive there. Unfortunately for me, my legs would have to be my wheels. Perhaps it’s the weather, or the fatigue from the upward trudge, but to be honest, the view of the Pacific, with the Earth Cape’s iconic ghostly white lighthouse only lasted mere seconds.

For some reason, the viewing platform, which would have offered a more panoramic (and beautiful) view of the ocean and setting sun, was closed. There was a dirt track along the wooden fence that seemed to lead to somewhere, perhaps, a secret scenic spot! Buoyed by my curiosity, I followed the stampeded track, only to find that it ended abruptly in a clump of bushes. dsc01771If you ask me, I felt the descent proved to be far more interesting than the ascent. Instead of returning to Bokoi Station, I took a left instead, in the direction of Muroran Station. Along the way, I came across a stunning view of a cove and a cemetery deep in the woods. Truth be told, I was walking at twice the pace because daylight was fading fast, and I was desperate to make it to the city centre before it got dark! Thankfully, I just about made it when the last rays laced the evening sky.img_20160918_172606After a quick dinner, I headed for my next destination – the Hakucho Bridge. In a sense, I had to say I had asked for it. I had already spent a good part of the afternoon walking, and despite my aching legs screaming for me to call it a day, I decided to check out the Hakucho Bridge. Once again, Google Maps informed me that there seemed to be no bus connectivity, so I would have to make the 40-minute walk on foot. So I did, past empty streets, and empty roads. And this was just a little past 7 p.m. but it looked as if the city might already have gone to bed. For what seemed to me like eternity, I kept urging myself on, tucking my hands deep into my sweater in search of some warmth in the chilly air. As the bridge loomed larger into view, I realised that the start / end was a massive loop which meant that I would have to make a huge detour just to trace the entry. Just a little more, I egged myself. And then there it was, a sign that said “No entry to pedestrians, bicycles and motor-cyclists”.

Damn!

I had trudged for more than an hour in 14 degrees cold just to discover that I couldn’t get on the bridge. I checked Google Maps again, and realised it was directing me to some unknown location after the bridge. I had come so far, I thought, I might as well give it one last throw of the dice. I followed the arrows on Google Maps, past a creepy deserted road buzzing noisily with crickets, past a row of warehouses with “No Entry” signs. And then I saw the gleaming waters. Besides the majestic Hakucho Bridge that spanned the Port of Muroran, I found myself standing before the famed night view of the JX Nikko Nisseki Energy factories, glittering like a swarm of fireflies. It was the most unlikely place to behold such a sight!dsc01809I spent the next 15 minutes snapping away, zooming in and out, even attempting a ‘live’ broadcast on Facebook. And then, the thought of having to trudge back to the train station suddenly hit me. It’s well past eight now, and I’m pretty sure any chance of a last bus was slim, since it was a Sunday. Along the return journey, I stopped at any bus stop I happened to come across and used my handphone as a torch to check the bus schedule. I had no luck for about two to three stops before I found one that told me that there might be a chance that I might still be able to catch the last bus. I decided I would take the chance.

I didn’t have to wait long.

Like a glowing beacon in the encroaching darkness, a bus slowly lumbered into view. I flashed a grateful smile.   LSdsc01806

Jazz It Up, Jozankei

Fall is in the air. After two weeks of consecutive pummeling by typhoons, the dipping temperatures and clear blue skies are a much welcome respite. Fall also happens to be my favourite season. It’s the season when leaves turn into brilliant hues of red, orange and yellow – a phenomenon the Japanese term 紅葉 (literally, “red leaves”) or みもじ. And one of the most popular places in Hokkaido to catch the fall colours is the Jozankei Onsen (定山渓温泉) district. Like Noboribetsu, this sprawling valley of monolithic hotels also happens to have some of the best hot spring (onsen) waters flowing through it. The story goes that a monk by the name of Miizumi Jozan discovered the hot springs in 1866, and opened a healing spa. Today, there’s a statue of the monk near a free hot spring footbath to commemorate the reverend’s contribution. So while it’s perhaps too early to witness the area blanketed in a sea of red and yellow, I had made the trip last weekend to enjoy the bubbles.img_20160911_160434_hdrJozankei’s close proximity to Sapporo makes it an ideal day trip, or a weekend getaway. Express direct  (直行便) buses whisk you from the Sapporo Bus Terminal from berths 7 or 8 straight to the onsen area every hour and the 70-minute journey will cost you about 840 yen one way. However, you could also opt for the more frequent “Rapid” (快速) buses (770 yen one way) from the same berths. But these would take a good 15 minutes more, as they stop at every bus stop along the way.

I found myself struggling to decide which onsen I should visit. Most of the hotels in this area have an onsen onsite that are open to day trippers but it’s always good to check in advance. Eventually, I settled on the furthest one, the Hoheikyo Onsen (豊平峡温泉), which is also the final stop on this route.dsc01715For onsen regulars, Hoheikyo Onsen might come across as a little on the expensive end. Its 1,000 yen admission fee notwithstanding, there’s also a 500 yen rental fee for towels (though you do get back 300 yen after your bath). The trick is to bring along your own towels, so you would only have to pay for the admission.

This onsen essentially has only two pools. As far as traditional onsens go, this definitely has some of that rustic feel. Stepping into the shower area adjoining the indoor pool, you can’t help but notice the potholed floor – the result of various stages of erosion by the spring waters. The main attraction, undoubtedly, is the rotemburo (露天風呂) or outdoor pool, with its landscaped gardens complete with a stationary water mill. It almost feels like being part of a Japanese bonsai. Come autumn or winter, when the surrounding hills are draped in red, yellow or white, they would provide a picturesque backdrop to enjoy your soak.137© http://jozankei.jp/

Interestingly, the onsen also has a buzzing restaurant that reportedly sells some of the best Indian curry in Sapporo. Strange combination in my opinion – onsen, curry and naan – but hey, if it rocks your palate, who is to judge? I decided to give it a miss since Indian cuisine is not that much of a novelty where I come from.img_20160911_172344_hdrLeaving the onsen, I took the bus for a couple of stops and alighted at the main Jozankei Onsen area. Here, a half dozen drab giant slabs of concrete and glass line both sides of the valley. One look at the hotels and you can tell that these have been here for ages. However, a check on the Internet may give you a shock! Many of the properties in this area go for upwards of 15,000 yen (or about 147 USD) a night. The smaller boutique hotels would probably charge at least 26,000 yen (or about 255 USD) per night. And we’re not talking about state-of-the-art facilities!

Many of the reviews I came across on various hotel sites such as Booking.com and Expedia pointed to the outdated décor and furnishings. Some complained that the rooms reek of cigarette smoke. It seemed a little exorbitant, to be paying top dollar for at best mediocre accommodation, to be honest. If anything, you are probably just paying for the scenery! So while the idea of spending a weekend here sounds incredibly enticing, the hotels really have to do a major makeover before they get my vote. For now, I’m content with just hopping from one onsen to another.  LS

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Weekend Wanders

Weekends can get pretty boring in Tomakomai. After all, this is a port city and an industrial town, whose biggest pride is a shopping mall and ice hockey. I couldn’t count on visiting Sapporo every weekend because that would put a financial strain on my already massively reduced income. (Travelling by train in Japan is pretty expensive!) Still, after two weeks here, I was itching to get out of Tomakomai and explore the neighbouring towns. I figured I could always start from the nearest, and then venture further as I go along. My first destination was the Lake Shikotsu in Chitose.

DSC01504A caldera lake created by the eruption of three adjoining volcanoes (Mount Eniwa, Mount Fuppushi and Mount Tarumae), Lake Shikotsu is the second deepest lake in Japan. It’s about a 30 minute bus ride from Chitose Train Station. On the weekend I visited, there was a huge crowd of mainland Chinese tourists (well, you can’t avoid them, they are everywhere…). And they were milling around a small jetty which offers boat rides in the shape of swans. After checking out the rental fees, I decided to give it a miss. I headed for the quieter end of the footpath, where there’s a wooden platform that leads down to the waters. There, along with a few others, I took off my shoes and treaded carefully into the waters. This was also a good spot to capture the beauty of the lake, with the surrounding volcanoes. I didn’t stay in the waters for long because the pebbled ground was giving my feet a painful massage, so I retreated to the wooden platform and sat there to soak in the sun and beauty of the surroundings. A colleague told me that there’s a secret onsen resort on the opposite end of the lake (from where I was), the Marukoma Onsen Ryokan (丸駒温泉旅館). The reviews on Tripadvisor and pictures on the hotel’s website do seem enticing. However, without a decent four wheels, I would most likely give it a miss for now.

DSC01529DSC01520IMG_20160827_144627_HDRTwo weekends later, my belly tubbies (sorry, Micah, I borrowed your term) are calling out for beer, so instead of paying a ‘pilgrimage’ to my town’s resident shrine, the Tarumaezan Shrine, I decided to book an appointment to visit the Sapporo Beer Factory. It helps that there’s a train station named after it, and walking to the factory from the train station took only about 15 minutes. I was given a detailed commentary by the guide, albeit in Japanese (which means I probably only understood 10% of what he’s trying to tell me). What disturbed me was that my ‘tour’ group comprised a couple of Japanese families with toddlers and 5-year-olds in tow. Surely, this is not the right place to bring your kids for an educational tour, unless you intend to raise alcoholics. Well, at least not yet, in my humble opinion. The kids were creating such a ruckus during the tour that at times, it was difficult to hear the guide. I also made the mistake of picking a weekend to visit the factory, as it was a rest day, which meant that the machines weren’t working and we could only watch videos of the assembly, filling and bottling processes.

DSC01561DSC01552The saving grace of this tour? Two free half pints of authentic Sapporo beer on tap, straight from the source. And you can kick back your shoes at the spacious viewing gallery (which overlooks an expansive golf course) to savour your brew. Depending on your experiences, I would say this tour of the Sapporo Beer Factory beats the one I had at the Sapporo Beer Museum which I wrote about previously, for the simple reason that you don’t pay a single dime for your booze. Call me a cheapskate if you like, but any free beer wins my vote anytime!

IMG_20160827_145347_HDRI guess that’s about all Chitose had to offer, so I was ready to venture further this time. The next nearest destination on my Google Maps is Shiraoi, a sleepy rural town with a decent museum and village on the Ainus, the indigenous people of Hokkaido. However, reviews have been average at best, and I’m all too familiar with the Japanese’ love for dioramas, so this Ainu village may not be an exception. I ditched the idea of looking at fake people and animals and instead opted for Noboribetsu.

DSC01627The last time I was in Noboribetsu, I spent a good afternoon exploring the Hell Valley (also known as the Jikokudani) and even managed to squeeze about an hour and a half soaking in one of the many daytime onsens (of course, I went with the cheapest admission given the limited time I had before the last bus). A word of caution to day trippers, the last bus from Noboribetsu Onsen to the train station leaves at 6.58 p.m., so unless you have booked a stay at one of the expensively mediocre hotels here, you probably should really plan your trip. Having said that though, I am still contemplating a weekend staycation here one of these days because though the hotels are exorbitantly overpriced and grossly underwhelming, their onsens are amazing!

DSC01632For this trip, I decided to check out the Date Edo Ninja Village (登別伊達時代村) instead. I’ve heard about the famously notorious bear park here, but didn’t fancy the idea of seeing bears trapped in glass enclosures. I must say the admission tickets, priced at 2,900 yen, did shock me a little because by Japanese standards, the prices are slightly on the high side (not including Tokyo Disneyland). Still, I relented since I was already there. The Ninja Village was a good re-creation of a normal feudal town during the Edo period. Of course, there’s the requisite diorama showcase of life during the Edo period, what’s like inside a samurai’s residence and a whole street of trinket and games shops. You could even dress up as a ninja if you like, but for an additional 2,000 yen, I would recommend you do your ninja cosplay at home.

DSC01640What made this trip worth it though were the cultural performances, and I was really fortunate to be able to catch all of them, almost back-to-back! There were four altogether, including two ninja action shows, a comedy featuring the village mascot, a samurai cat/dog called Nyan and my favourite, an Oiran show. Oirans were top-ranked courtesans a.k.a prostitutes during the Edo period. They actually enjoyed prestige and social status during the Edo period, even invoking a sense of mystique among the common townsfolk.

DSC01691IMG_20160904_161119_HDRThere’s also a whimsically eerie Cat Temple (O-nyanko), with an interesting “haunted house” experience. In fact, the Cat Temple was probably scarier than the adjacent Haunted House (incredibly named the House of Ghosts and Monsters), which turned out to be more lame than horrifying. I also found the Ninja Maze pretty entertaining, seeing people (myself included) struggling to balance themselves on 30-degree inclined rooms. Overall, I had an enjoyable two hours stepping back in time to feudal Japan, and for a while, fantasising about how cool it must have been to be a ninja or samurai. For a split second, I even contemplated lugging a katakana or Oiran doll home from one of the souvenir shops. LS

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