Frozen in the Fall

Autumn is my favourite season. I love watching the landscape slowly turning from lush greens to a patchwork of red, orange and yellow hues. I still remember my first encounter with fall in Japan five years ago, when I visited Tokyo. Streets were lined with row after row of yellow gingko and red maple. It was almost like one of those scenes from a jigsaw puzzle. Shrines in Japan are most beautiful, in my opinion, during fall. There’s an inexplicable tranquillity and spiritual energy in these places.

It was with these images in mind as I tumbled along the countryside on one of those rickety buses that ply the countryside in Asahikawa. My destination? Sounkyo Onsen 層雲峡, a famous kouyou  or “autumn leaves” viewing locale in Hokkaido. I had spent the previous night in Asahikawa (about two and a half hours by train from Tomakomai via Sapporo) so that I could catch an early bus from Asahikawa Station to Sounkyo Onsen.dsc01969The pension where I had made a reservation was a humble family-run establishment, but Tripadvisor and Booking.com decals on its glass doors carried promises of a rewarding stay. Since I was two hours ahead of check-in time, I deposited my luggage at the lobby and headed for the Sounkyo Ropeway. The Ropeway was the easiest (i.e. laziest) option to get near the peaks of Mount Kurodake (), which towers above the sprawling Daisetsuzan National Park (大雪山国立公園). Seasoned hikers may prefer the hiking trail that continues from the summit of Kurodake, through Daisetsuzan to the summit of Asahidake. However, without proper hiking equipment and still nursing a severe bout of flu, I decided against the hike.dsc01985Nevertheless, the view from the 7th station of Mt. Kurodake was well worth the 1,950 yen that I had to cough out for the gondola ride. At the top of the Ropeway, a chairlift whisks you nearer to Kurodake’s peak and a tiny cafe for a further 600 yen. Despite forecasts of early snowfall (yes! Snow in October!) in the later half of the day, the weather held up sufficiently for breathtaking vistas of the valley below. My only lamentation was that autumn had not quite peaked here in Sounkyo, contrary to what was written in many of the travel literature I’ve read. In other words, the valley was only covered in sporadic blots of yellow and red. Later, I learnt from the pension owner that autumn had been at least two weeks late this year.dsc02000My second day in Sounkyo was a rough affair. I had planned to make for the Ginga no Taki 銀河の (Milky Way Falls) and Ryusei no Taki 流星の(Shooting Star Falls) on foot – a journey that would take about 50 minutes. However, midway through my journey, the weather turned nasty. Strong gales and a combination of rain and hail threatened to wreck my umbrella (which it eventually did). I had no choice but to turn back as I was completely soaked and shivering. The winds were threatening to make this innocuous 50-minute walk into a dance with death.dsc02031As it turned out, the two waterfalls turned out to be rather disappointing. Perhaps the stormy weather had something to do with it. After my initial failed attempt to trek to the falls, I decided to have another go at it – this time, I opted for the bus service that would whisk me directly to the falls in case the weather decided to bail on me again. Just as the bus was about to leave the Tourist Visitor Centre, it poured buckets again!!! The wind and rain made it difficult to maintain my balance, much less steady myself for a picturesque shot of the falls. The stormy weather probably made the silver aqueous threads less magical than what their names would suggest. Whoever had named these waterfalls must have had a very cosmic (i.e. ethereal) imagination. Needless to say, I was less than impressed to say the least.

The next pit stop on the bus took the pits. I arrived at a giant cesspool of a lake called Taisetsuko (大雪湖). The pelting rain and chilly winds made the landscape even greyer and more dreary than what it already was. No sign of any autumn foliage, no sign of life, except me, a couple of elderly ladies and a family from China. The lake was a bleak mix of ash grey, sickly yellow and dirty green.dsc02039Back in the pension, a huge bowl of ramen was a welcome treat after a frigidly cold outing. Unlike Asahikawa, Sounkyo Onsen is not known for its ramen, but on a miserably wet and chilly day like this, I gratefully slurped down my bowl of goodness. A trip to the Kurodake Onsen (conveniently connected to the pension by a passageway) thereafter was the icing on the cake, and the fastest way to warm up my body. The onsen also has a modest walled-in rotemburo (露天風) that offers a view of the surrounding landscape, albeit through wooden grilles.

And just as I was blissfully soaking my aches and chills away, I saw it! Snow!

Snow in early October??? This is crazy man!!! I mean, I was just told that autumn arrived two weeks late but it’s already snowing here in Sounkyo. Looks like autumn gave this place a miss this year!

If there’s something I’ve learnt since arriving here in Hokkaido, it is that anything is possible as far as weather is concerned. Here in Hokkaido, a 20-degrees diurnal range is not an exception, but the norm. And that is something I need to quickly get used to. I still struggle with waking up with cold feet to zero degrees in the early morning. I am constantly amazed by how my students could run around with boundless energy, playing football in the sun-drenched field during lunch break in 14-degrees weather. In the evening, I meticulously plan the steps to take in between changing and taking a shower, so that I do not catch a chill. I shudder to think what my first full experience of winter here will be like.  LSdsc02005

Special Feature: Magical Miyajima 특별 기사: 아름다운 미야지마 섬

지난 달에 일본에 여행을 갔다왔다. 이번 여행은, 나는 덜 인기있는 지역을 선택했다. 히로시마와 규슈에 갔다. 히로시마에 대해 이야기 할 때, 사람들이 에게 가장 생각하는 일은 원자 폭탄이다. 사실은 “원자 돔”은 히로시마의 상징이다.  그러나 무엇보다 잊을 수 없는 여행은 미야지마 섬이다. 20141129_123622작은 섬이지만 미야지마 섬에는 볼거리가 많다.  특히 유명한 미야지마 잇수쿠시마 신사는  제일 인상 깊었던 곳이다. 그 신사는 일본에서 다섯 손가락 안에 드는 관광 명소이다. 바다의 한가운데에 거대한 빨간 도리문은 신사의 입구입니다. 높이 약 16 미터에, 이 도리문은 1875 년에 지어졌다. 그 도리문은 썰물 때 보러 갈 수 있다. 그것은 일출 또는 일몰 때 태양에 물든 바다와 도리문의 풍경은 정말 환상적이다.

여행 중에 새로운 것을 먹어 보는 것도 하나의 커다란 즐거움을준다. 미야지마 섬에서 나는 맛있게구운 굴을 실컷 먹었다. 굴은 너무 큰 신선하고 저렴하다. 매우 부드럽고 즙이 많았다. 너무 맛있다!   LS20141129_14421720141129_153059

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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

Take My Breath Away

I have been waking up to this every morning (see picture above), and if this doesn’t take your breath away, nothing will. Lake Toya (洞爺湖) is probably one of the most understated attractions in Hokkaido, ironically, in contrast to neighbouring Noboritbetsu (登別) and its stinking sulphur. In fact, after a day trip to the “Hell Valley” (a.k.a Noboribetsu), I would say Lake Toya (洞爺湖) takes the cake hands down. Not only the view but no rotten egg smell too. I mean, just look at this!DSC09899And that’s not all. If you make the short hike up Nishiyama, you would be confronted by another view – on both sides. One side takes you to a baby caldera lake, the other opens up to the Sea of Japan.  Toyako (洞爺湖) or Lake Toya, when written in Japanese kanji, literally translates to “hole grandfather” (not sure who named it). It should really be called the Playground of the Gods.DSC09942One of my personal highlights on this trip to Hokkaido are the train rides. I know train journeys can be boring, monotonous, painful, even nauseating for some people. And some popped the sleeping pill almost as soon as they boarded the train. But I assure you that in Hokkaido (unless you’re a local of course), train rides are an excellent opportunity to marvel at the natural beauty of Hokkaido.DSC09960Every time the train emerges from a tunnel, a new snow draped mountain unfolds before my eyes. And like the curtains on a stage, the peaks start to reveal themselves one after another. I zipped past endless rows of snow-spangled cones from Furano (富良野) to Niseko (ニセコ). My trips from Sapporo (札幌) to Otaru (小樽) took me to the ocean, where the tracks literally hang precariously next to the crashing waves. I was rewarded with a huge flock of seagulls dancing above the waters on my journey from Lake Toya (洞爺湖) to Hakodate (函館). Every turn is a postcard. Every turn a surprise. I found myself humming to the lyrics of Roxanne.  LS

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When Nature Calls

Seogwipo (서귀포) is a mistake. Unless your idea of a holiday in Jeju (제주) is to stay in a five-star luxury resort and romp around kinky sex dioramas. Because you had really come here to soak in Jeju’s natural beauty. And that makes Seogwipo a mistake because Jeju’s “upmarket” area also happens to be furthest away from Jeju’s most captivating sights.

For those not intending to drive, it will be more sensible to base yourself in Jeju-si (제주시), the island’s city centre just 4 km east of Jeju International Airport. From Jeju-si, two of Jeju’s highlights are less than an hour away. First up, the Manjanggul (만장굴) is an awe-inspiring 13.4 km-long cave (the world’s longest) carved up by molten volcanic lava thousands of years ago.

After your underground escapade, head further southeast until you see the ocean. Along the coast stands a juggernaut of an extinct volcanic crater – the Seongsan Ilchulbong (성산일출봉). It takes only 20 minutes to scale up the stairs to the best view in the whole of Jeju. And if you’re crazy enough (like me), give Hallasan (한라산) – Jeju’s highest peak at 1,950 metres – a holler! There are five hiking trails to choose from, in order of increasing difficulty: Seongpanak (성판악), Yeongsil (영실), Eorimok (어리목), Donnaeko (돈내고) and Gwaneum-sa (관음사).  LS

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