Far Roads: Finishing Touches
June 7-21, 2013
(Posted: July 22, 2013)
We returned to Hokkaidō and Tōhoku in mid-June to visit sites and do things we skipped or missed, for one reason or another, on our three previous trips to northern Japan (Tōhoku-Hokkaidō in summer 2005 and Tōhoku in fall 2009 and summer 2010). If anything, we had learned on previous trips that what you can see and do and what you eat and drink is as dependent on what season, or even what month, you go in, as on where you go.
In particular, we wanted to see up-close the summits of three famous mountains of the north, Mt. Hakkoda and Mt. Iwaki on Honshu, and Asahidake on Hokkaidō; Lake Shikotsu, on Hokkaidō; and two scenic coastal areas of Honshu, Kitayamazaki on the Pacific coast and Fukaura on the Sea of Japan, where a ocean-side onsen is located. We also wanted to revisit a few special places in Aomori—Ōma at the north tip of Honshu; the Ōyu stone circles south of Lake Towada; and Aoike ("Blue Pond") at Juniko.
Starting our travel in Chitose, Hokkaidō, allowed us to tour at a more leisurely pace than on previous trips, since we didn't have to make the long drive north from Narita Airport: we traveled in a smaller area, with shorter distances between stops, and could focus more time on eating and drinking saké rather than on long drives to the next destination.
We flew into Chitose around sunset (7 pm) on one of Hawaiian Air's last direct flights from Honolulu. (Sendai would be added as a stopover at the end of June to increase passenger loads.) On the approach to the airport, the mountains of Hokkaidō appeared below:
After an overnight stay at the airport, we drove to Hakodate, from where we planned to catch the ferry to Ōma on Honshu. We had been to Hakodate and Ōma in the summer of 2005. But our overnight stay in Hakodate was brief: we arrived in the late evening after a 170-mile drive from Sapporo and left on the first morning ferry back to Ōma, on Honshu. By the time we arrived, Hakodate was dark, foggy and cold, even though it was early June. After eating at Kuishinbō, an izakaya near the hotel, we went back to the hotel, without seeing much of the city. Early the next morning, we drove up to Mt. Hakodate for a view of the city; but the city was blanketed by fog, visibility almost nil.
In 2013, we wanted to spend more time in this seaport known for its great seafood. We arrived from Chitose before lunch, in sunny weather. We had lunch in the Red Warehouse tourist district, where our hotel located, below Mt. Hakodate.
After lunch, we drove the winding road up to the summit for a wide view of the city and its harbor.
Back down, we found a local saké shop, where we bought four bottles for the road. At dinnertime, we walked to Uni Murakami, a small restaurant on the border of the morning market district; the uni and squid (Hakodate specialties) and grilled hokke (Atka mackerel, in season), with local saké, were delicious.
The next morning we caught the 9:10 ferry to Ōma. We passed through Ōma twice in 2005, without stopping, driving out of and into the ferry terminal. We knew nothing about the town and were on our way to other destinations. Since then, we learned that Ōma was famous for its catch of the best bluefin tuna (hon-maguro) in Japan. We saw a TV special about the fishermen who went out, sometimes alone, to harpoon huge maguro in the straits of Tsugaru, between Hokkaidō and Honshu, where the maguro feed on mackerel. The fatty cuts of Ōma maguro are considered the holy grail of Japanese cuisine. Incredibly, on our 2005 drives in and out of Ōma, we didn't stop to eat.
This time, after driving off the ferry, we headed north into town to look for a restaurant serving maguro. At Cape Ōma was a seaside promenade, with a lighthouse offshore.
Across the street was a restaurant where a bowl of maguro over rice was $25, with the slices layered from the fattiest to the leanest, the difference in quality of taste was amazing, as we ate through the layers.
Outside the sea wind was whipping fishing boat flags:
Also on the promenade was a monument to Ishikawa Takuboku (1886-1912), a famous poet of Tōhoku (Iwate), who once taught school in Hakodate.
Each stone features a poem by Ishikawa:
- Alone facing the ocean / for seven or eight days, / I wished to weep / and departed from home.
- On the white sandy shore of a small island, / Far in the Eastern Sea, / Weary of weeping, / I play with crabs.
- After writing the kanji for "ōkī" [big, great] / More than one hundred times on the sand / I forsook the thought of dying and returned home.
We headed south from Ōma to the next destination, Mt. Hakkoda, a mountain just south of Aomori, the largest city in northern Japan. In fall 2009, we planned to go up the ropeway to the summit, but when we got there, the ropeway was closed due to gusty winds trailing the first snow storm of the year that had swept through the night before. This time, the skies over northern Japan were blue, and we caught the ropeway up; a short hike led to the marshlands below the summit, still snowy.
Twelve mile south of Mt. Hakkoda, we stayed at an onsen on a tributary to the Oirase River, which flows out of Lake Towada to the Pacific Ocean.
The next morning, we drove to Kitayamazaki, a scenic Pacific seacoast in Rikuchū Kaigan National Park. Driving north from Narita to Hokkaidō in 2005, we stayed overnight in Miyako, on the southern end of the park, but had to choose between the inland route, to see Ryūsendō ("Dragon Springs Cave"); or the coastal road, to see Kitayamazaki. Mutsu, our next overnight stop, was 170 miles away, so we didn't have time to go to both places; Ryusendō (a deep limestone cave with a stream and ponds and stalactites in it) sounded more interesting back then, so we went inland.
From Oirase, we headed for the Pacific Ocean. Past Kuji, the road follows the steep coastline. Before Kitayamazaki, we stopped at Kurosaki Lighthouse, where a monument inidicated we were standing on 40˚ N latitude line.
A couple of miles south of Kurosaki was the park and lookout for Kitayamazaki. A 360-step walk from the observation deck at the top of the cliff went down to a second observation deck with a better view. The stairs continued down to the coast, but the way was roped off to prevent visitors from descending farther. A boat tour from a local village goes along the coast for a view from the sea.
We drove back north to spend a night in Hachinohe. On our way to Hokkaidō in 2005, we drove through Hachinohe without stopping. I knew nothing about Hachinohe back then. Last year, however, we saw an NHK travelogue on the yokocho (side alleys) lined with izakaya in Hachinohe, so we wanted to eat at one. We booked a hotel just across the street from the izakaya district and had some good food and saké at one whose menu was posted on the internet.
The next morning we toured some of the local attractions: the Tanesashi Coast to the south; the seagull shrine on the way there; Hachinohe saké brewery, where we bought a bottle of daiginjō; and the fish market, where we spent $12 on sashimi for two (amaebi, salmon, maguro, tako, and squid). The bowls of rice were free.
The shrine was a mystery: we noticed some tour buses gathered there as we drove by. The area was teeming with seagulls. The smell of bird dung is intense. At the bottom of the steps to the shrine was a stand with umbrellas, offered to protect visitors from droppings from above.
I found some information about the shrine on the internet that night: Kabushima Shrine serves as a habitat for forty thousand black-tailed gulls (umineko).
The gulls are regarded as kami because they help fishermen find schools of fish at sea. June is in the middle of their nesting season, so the gull colony was at the shrine, caring for their young. They depart in August.
Our next stop was Lake Towada, which we visited in 2009. My one disappointment was not being able to drive along the cliffs on the north side of the lake for a view from above; on November 2, 2009, the first snow storm of the season (the one that caused the closing of the Mt. Hakkoda ropeway) came blowing in as we drove down the winding road at the southern end of the lake. The next morning, the landscape was snow-covered, and the road to the north was closed.
In 2013, we we arrived at the lake from the east side; the sky over the lake was clear and sunny. From the northern cliff, the lake appeared below, in summer mist.
Cicadas had emerged from underground for mating, and their shrill, intense chorus saturated the landscape. The next morning, clouds rolled in.
The next morning, we checked out of the hotel and went west for a drive around the Oga peninsula. On the way, we stopped at the Ōyu stone circles, a Jōmon archaeological site just south of the lake. The last time we were there in 2005, we arrived in the early morning from Aomori; I was amazed that we had found the site using road maps from the internet, with little knowledge of roads or driving in Japan. The stone circles are from a time before classical Japanese culture developed in Nara and Kyōto and spread north; from another world, they seem dream-like.
From the stones, on the way west to Oga, we stopped at the Kodama saké brewery The last time we stopped there, it was late afternoon, after our 2010 drive around Oga, and by the time we found the brewery, the shop had already closed. This time we arrived before lunch and bought three bottles of award-winning Taiheizan daiginjō. (Taiheizan is a sacred mountain with a shrine on top of it, 11 miles NE of Akita city.)
The last time we drove around the Oga Peninsula, in Summer 2010, it was pouring rain. We visited the observatory at Mt. Kanpu, stopped at the Namahage Museum and Shinzan shrine, then quickly drive down Nishi Kaigan, the scenic western coast, which was shrouded in mist and drizzle. The drive that day was 180 miles, from Ajigasawa to Nikaho, so our visit to Oga felt rushed. This time the drive along the Nishi Kaigan was more leisurely and we stopped at lookouts to enjoy the scenery.
We went up a backroad to the lookout at Hachibodai, which offered a view of a crater lake and the coast below.
At Nyudōzaki, we walked down to the 40˚ N latitude stones, on the Japan Sea, on the opposite side of Honshu from the 40˚ N latitude monument at Kurosaki on the Pacific coast.
Oga and the west coast of Honshu are noted for sunset over the Sea of Japan. From the dining room at our hotel in Ogata, we watched the sunset over the coastal rice fields.
After a night in Ogata we drove to Iwakiyama, the tallest mountain in Tōhoku. After Noshiro, we turned north on route 317, which went straight through the beech-covered Shirakami mountains (a UN World Heritage Site); we were making good progress on the deserted road, but about halfway to Iwakiyama, a locked metal gate blocked our way: closed for repairs, apparently. We turned around and drove back out to the Ushu highway to circle around to the east, via the Tōhoku Expressway.
We visited the shrine below Iwakiyama in fall 2009. It was late in the afternoon; in the rain and darkness, the visit felt rushed. This time, the walk up to the main shrine was leisurely.
On the last visit, in early November 2009, we weren't able to drive up the Iwakiyama Skyline Road a few miles past the shrine because the road is closed from October 15 to mid-April.
The road, with 69 hairpin turns, goes up a ridge on the southwest side of the mountain, to a parking lot from where a ski lift goes to a platform near the summit.
From the ski lift station, a rocky trail leads up to the summit.
In Fall 2009, we also skipped the famous ocean-side onsen at Fukaura in order to drive the Shirakami Line Road to see the Mother Tree (an ancient beech tree). The road came down to the coast highway just south of Fukaura, near Juniko ("Twelve Lakes"); after stopping to see Juniko, we had a long way to go, to Oga and Nikaho, so backtracking was out of the question.
On this trip, the plan was to see Fukaura and revisit Juniko.
Our room at the Fukaura ryokan overlooked the onsen by the sea.
Hotel guests can sit in the hot spring waters and watch the sun set over the Sea of Japan. But in the late afternoon, the waters felt lukewarm, so we went back to our room for the sunset.
The kaiseki dinner featured sazae (turban shellfish) and abalone, gathered on a small island offshore by the owner's brother, who is one of three fishermen with exclusive fishing rights there.
As we left the ryokan the next morning, we could see mares' tails above, the leading edge of a cold front, with rain, moving in from the west.
We went to Juniko, ten miles south of Fukaura, to see Aoike ("Blue Pond") again, in the morning sunlight. The last time we were there in the afternoon, when it was relatively crowded with cars and buses. This time, we were the first ones on the path to the pond. (We past a couple of other early risers on our way back down.)
Aoike ("Blue Pond"), along with the Ōyu stone circles and the ochre-colored stones at Yudono shrine in Yamagata, is one of the most mysterious sights in our ten years of travel in Japan. The blue tint is due to an algae.
We headed back north to Aomori along the Fukaura coast, which is noted for its rock formations.
North of Ajigasawa, we stopped at Takayama Shrine, dedicated to the rice goddess Inari. We had visited the famous Inari shrines at Fushimi, Kyōto, and Tsuwano in Yamaguchi, with their tunnels of red torii and were curious about this northern outpost of Inari. The massive administrative building was well-kept, but the shrine itself and tunnel of torii were weather-beaten.
After a night in Aomori, we headed back to Ōma. In 2005, after catching the ferry from Hakodate, we drove south on the winding route 338 on the west side of Shimokita Peninsula, from Ōma to Mutsu, then on to Aomori, a 150-mile journey that took us all day. Most memorable were a troop of wild monkeys and Hotokegaura, coastal rock pillars which we saw from a distant, from lookout on the road. The pillars are called "hotoke" or Buddhas because they resemble statues of Buddhas. This time, I wanted to see if we could walk out to the rock formations for a closer look.
From Mutsu, we took route 46 through the central highlands of the northern Shimokita Peninsula, then down 253 to the coast near Hotokegaura, a more direct route than the route along the coast; my hope was routes 46 and 253 were well-paved. They were, offering a more pleasant drive than the road on the west side. But the skies were overcast from the evening before, and when we got to the parking lot for the trail to Hotokegaura, it was raining, and the coast was fogged in.
The parking lot was deserted. As I approached the trail head, I noticed a large beware-of-bears sign. A little farther in was a shuttered tourist facility (food and souvenirs) that looked abandoned rather than just closed for the day. Not knowing how long the trail was and imagining bears lurking the rainy forest, I decided against continuing on. A glass-bottom boat goes to Hotokegaura by sea from a local village.
We continued on the coastal road and stopped at the lookout from where we had seen Hotokegaura in 2005; the rock pillars below, shrouded in mist, appeared ghostly.
Back in Ōma, we went back to the restaurant where we ate maguro-don just six-days earlier, and ate another bowl. The worker was grilling a maguro head outside the restaurant.
After lunch, we waited at the ferry terminal for the 2:10 pm departure to Hakodate. (Vayu, the ferry we rode in 2005, has been replaced by a new ferry, Daikan Maru.)
Despite the rainy weather, the strait of Tsugaru was calm; after an hour, the headland of Mt. Hakodate appeared in the sea mist.
We checked into our hotel, and we went back to Uni Murakami for dinner, but the restaurant was full, so we went to the nearby Kuishinbō, the restaurant where we had dinner and breakfast in fall 2005. We ordered uni (not as fresh as at Uni Murakami) and amaebi and ika (fresh, caught live from a tank).
The tail was the tastiest part.
We ordered shochu neat (no water or ice), and the tumbler came with two inches of liquid, not the half inch served in Hawai'i restaurants.
The next morning we went for a walk at Goryōkaku, a former western-style fort built to defend Hakodate from foreign invasion. The azaleas and wisteria planted around the well-kept grounds, now a city park, were past their peak bloom.
In 2005, we spent our first night on Hokkaidō at an onsen on the shore of Lake Toya, near the two volcanic peaks of Mt. Usu and Showa Shinzan, on the southeast side of the lake. This time we stopped at southwest side, near Toya town, for a lakeside walk to see sculptural pieces we missed on the last trip. The southern lake shore features outdoor sculpture.
We ate lunch at a roadside diner (Chinese noodles and buta-don, pork over rice), then continued on to Lake Shikotsu, which we skipped in 2005 because from Toya, we had an all-day, 235-mile drive to Kushiro, on the east side of Hokkaidō.
On the way to our ryokan at Lake Shikotsu, we stopped to see Koke no Domon, a protected gully where varieties of rare mosses grow. (Walking into the gully is not allowed.)
Lake Shikotsu is less developed than Lake Toya, more of a recreation area than a tourist destination.
The elegant ryokan, Mizu no Uta ("Water Song") was in a small tourist village.
Farther north than Hakodate, at Lake Shikotsu, the azaleas were in full bloom.
The next day we drove north to Sapporo, with a stop at Mt. Moiwa to get the panoramic view of the fourth-largest city in Japan (after Tōkyō, Ōsaka, and Nagoya).
Summer solstice was approaching, and city workers were preparing flower displays in Odori park:
For dinner, we went to Sapporo Kani Honke for hairy crab. The crab is less meaty, but more delicate and sweet than king crab:
The next day, we drove to Asahidake in Taisetsuzan National Park.
In 2005, we came south to Asahidake from Asahikawa, and from Asahidake went north to Wakkanai, so we missed Furano. This time, we wanted to see this area famous for its farms and fields of flowers. On the way, a roadside park featured Sandantaki ("Three-Stage Waterfall"). To stretch our legs, we made the short hike to the falls.
After a bowl of ramen for lunch in Furano, we stopped at a lavender farm. We were a couple of weeks too early for the full bloom of lavender and other flowers.
A hothouse featured an early bloom of lavender Most of the tourists were from China.
The lavender ice cream was a highlight of this stop.
The hotspring town of Asahidake and the mountain itself had less snow now, in mid-June, than in 2005, at the end of May. The town was less attractive, too, with dark brown mud and decayed vegetation appearing after the snow melted. The skunk cabbage were blooming.
In late May 2005, we planned to catch the ropeway to see the mountain ponds and wildflowers below the summit, only to discover that the ropeway doesn't open until June 15. June 16 was still early. There were few tourists in town or on the ropeway when we caught the first car up. Only one of a pair of "married" mountain ponds was visible, and only a few wildflowers bloomed along the trail; still my curiosity about what the summit looked like close-up was satisfied.
On the way to Asahidake we planned to walk the trail to Hagoromo falls at Tenninkyō ("Heavenly Being Gorge"), but as we approached Asahidake, I realized we had missed the turn-off. On our way back to Sapporo, we went to check it out; the road to the gorge is lined with basalt cliffs:
When we got to the parking lot for the hiking trail, we found barriers across the entrance and a sign explaining that the trail was closed due to mud slides. In the distance, we could see the cliff down which the waterfall tumbles.
Oh well. We decided to stop at the lavender farm for another taste of lavender ice cream.
Back in Sapporo, we went looking for sausage and beer for lunch. We had a tasty meal at the Sapporo Beer Factory in 2005, but when we got to the restaurant we recalled it was a smoky room where most of the customers were grilling lamb at their tables. Having an aversion to smoky rooms, we found beer and sausage restaurant at Sapporo Factory, a shopping complex about a mile away. Crab pizza was an added bonus.
After checking into a downtown hotel, we went shopping for omiyage (gifts), then to a yakitori (grilled chicken) bar for dinner; the saké, whitebait tempura, and grilled thighs were delicious.
On our last full day, before driving to Otaru, we went saké hunting at department stores and shops to buy bottles to carry back to Hawai'i. We picked up six bottles, including Otokoyama daiginjō, which I had tasted in 2005 at the Otokoyama brewery in Asashikawa. (When we got back in Honolulu this sumer, I saw a bottle of Otokoyama daiginjō for $130 at a Japanese food store; we paid $55 for it in Sapporo.)
We passed through Otaru in 2005, but we were pressed for time and didn't stop. This time, we booked a a hotel just outside of town on a cliff overlooking the sea.
After checking in, we drove back to town to have dinner at a sushi restaurant, since Otaru was a seaport known of its fresh seafood. I made the mistake of not doing enough research on the town. I read one American tourist's blog recommending a sushi restaurant along Otaru's famous canal and assumed that that's where the best restaurants were located. As it turns out the main highway through Otaru that runs along the canal is not the best place to look for a good sushi restaurant. The one we ended up at was a generic diner for tourists—nothing outstandingly fresh or well prepared. In fact the grilled crab legs were cold and tough.
At least the canal was pretty at night.
The next day, we discovered that the street up from the canal was lined with small shops and restaurants. We found a small izakaya where a couple of Japanese tour guides were having lunch at the counter – a good sign. The uni-don we ordered was excellent. I was happy that I didn't leave Otaru with my only food memory that of the generic sushi we had the night before.
On the way to the airport, we swung past Lake Shikotsu for a last glimpse.
The new Chitose airport turned out to be a pleasant place to hang out while waiting for a flight. It offers an onsen and a restaurant with an excellent selection of saké from around Japan. Along with saké from Niigata, we had tasty soba with crab tempura and udon with shrimp tempura for dinner.
This trip to the far north allowed us to fill in some blanks from earlier trips; not surprisingly, it created a couple of new blanks. If we wanted to see the lavender fields of Furano or the mountain flowers on Asahidake in full bloom, we would have to visit later in the summer, when the weather would also be hotter, and the tourist sites more crowded.
We also missed Hagoromo falls: the memory of the distance cliff down which it spreads its water is a motivation to go back. That miss reminded me of another falls on Hokkaidō we missed, in 2005. On the Shiretoko peninsula, we planned to hike to Kamuiwakka, a hot spring-fed waterfall, where you can soak your feet; but a ranger was standing in front of a gate across the road, blocking access to the trail. I didn't understand what he was saying, but I assumed it was something about a bear sighting.
It's hard to believe a decade has passed since our first road trip in 2004. We plan to continue to travel in Japan, but our trips will be different: having driven so many far roads, from Wakkanai and Shiretoko in northern Hokkaidō to Cape Kasasa in southwest Kyūshū, with stops at so many cultural and natural sites along the way, I no longer feel the need to travel with the intense pace of the last ten years. We can slow down now, stay longer than one or two days in a city or town to get to know it better and explore more deeply a local area and its food and saké.