Abashiri to Kawayu Onsen: Cliones and sulphur volcanoes

Go to jail, go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect 200 Yen.

This is a first for me, driving a car overseas! Before we left I picked up an international driving permit. We were planning to visit the Shiretoko Peninsula and had tried to organise buses, but our emails probably got lost in the big earthquake to hit Hokkaido. So we rented a car instead.

Unfortunately the weather doesn’t seem to be complying. The passage of Typhoon Kong-Rey means a wet day with low clouds and gale warnings. Not really the right kind of day to visit a remote national park.

Not to worry, because a car will still come in handy for my alternative plans, which are basically to visit local Abashiri museums, which are located a bit out of town. I’ve hired a Mazda 3 because I want something familiar, having owned Mazda’s for a while now. I’m missing the extra automation of our higher end models though, and there’s an annoying device located on the left of the foot well that rubs against my leg. The car is also more sensitive than ours, the Japanese settings definitely different to those in Australia.

Now I have to worry about Japanese speed limits, which are a lot slower than Australia. No heads-up display to tell me what they are either, though the GPS does a pretty good job, so long as I can find a rough Japanese address.

Our luggage all in the boot, we set off to the first destination, Abashiri prison. This was one of the harshest prison in Japan and Abashiri still hosts a facility. The original prison, however, has been turned into a extensive museum to the inmates’ experience.

The Japanese got serious about populating the wilderness of Hokkaido in response to the Russian Empire’s expansion in Sakhalin to the north. On of the major projects was the construction of a road to the north, performed using convict labour and given less than half the time than would normally be allocated. This meant prisoners working overnight to the light of big bonfires in the freezing cold and wet of Hokkaido’s forests, wearing little more on their feet than rope sandals. Many died.

Later convicts constructed and resided in many of the buildings located on the compound. Others, like the court house, have been moved from other locations. Despite the persistent rain, the attractive grounds, with ancient ginkos and red maples shedding leaves.

Much of the signage is in both Japanese and English, along with the audio-visual presentations. Where it wasn’t printer sheets of information were made available.

The museum was spread across several buildings, including an ornate administrative centre, rough temporary accommodation where early inmates slept and lay their heads on wooden logs for pillows, the guards tapping on them to wake them up, a courthouse moved from elsewhere in Hokkaido, agricultural sheds showing the making of soy sauce and miso, and the five wing main prison building, the wings radiating out from a central guard point.

There are signs describing the experiences of some of the inmates in the cold wooden cells, along with recreations of a modern Japanese gaol. It was interesting to compare Abashiri with some of the Colonial Era gaols of Australia, along with the cultural differences in attitudes.

We return to the car wet and rather hungry. A short drive away is the Okhotsk Ryu-ho Museum, a blocky tower located on top of a hill.

First things first, we are hungry. B is a bit disappointed not to find some local seafood place like last night, but Alex insists and we head straight up to the top floor to the 360 Restaurant. It’s a nice restaurant with a trendy feel for the visiting tourists, but the views are good, or would be but for the low cloud which quickly hides them.

B orders the crab curry, which unlike your typical Japanese curries, has a Thai tom yum flavour and is very pleasant, if spicy. I eat a deer burger and Alex raves over his tomato and cheese dish. It may be western style food, but its delicious and satisfying and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The drift ice museum is small, but well worth a visit. Every winter layers of ice that form on the Amur River in Siberia drift along the currents and off the coast of Abashiri. This phenomenon is popular with the tourists and also supports its own ecosystem.

The first stop in the museum is an enlarged meat locker. We are handed jackets and wet towels and sent into an ice room where the temperature is below minus fifteen degrees Celsius. You spin the towel around and watch it freeze solid. I had shorts on, so was extra cold.

The highlight of the museum are the sea creatures, especially the delightful little cliones, tiny sea snails without shells and are so cute, until you watch the video of them eating by splitting their heads open to eat other sea snails. Other tanks contain fish of the Cyclopteridae family, “lumpsuckers” that attach themselves to objects using suckers.

There’s a relaxing and beautiful video of the environment as well that’s worth a few minutes of your time.

Outside, the weather is miserable. The original plan was to drop the car back by three and we would catch the train from Abashiri to Kawayu Onsen. But the car itself is hired until seven. With this weather there’s no point going to the Shiretoko Peninsula, but I come up with a plan to drive B and Alex to our accommodation at Kawayu Onsen, then return to Abashiri and catch the later train down. It should give us a chance to view some of the sights around Kawayu Onsen as well.

I program the address of the hotel into the cars GPS and we set out along the country roads down to Kawayu Onsen, about an hour away. Japanese speed limits seem very slow to a Sydney driver, but there is also a distinct lack of speed signs except in built up areas. I miss the automatic speed features of our cars at home!

However, I am also driving slower due to the wet road conditions, with railway track like puddles along the rolling country roads. There’s also the wildlife! Driving through a forested area we come across a group of sika deer on the road.

It’s very scenic, but I can’t take photos until we reach Mokotoyama Observatory. I pull over and we head out into the damp, wet air for amazing views of Lake Kussharo, a huge caldera. If it looks familiar, it’s because it was the model for the meteor crater in the Japanese animated movie Your Name.

But this crater is of volcanic origin.Visible from the lookout in the distance we can see steam rising from Mount Io. Last year when on my train ride around Hokkaido I smelled Mount Io before seeing it. The rotten egg scent of Hydrogen sulphide. Then the blasted mountain appeared and I really wanted to get off at nearby Kawayu Onsen station. Unfortunately, my schedule was too tight to allow the delay.

We continue on to the town of Kawayu Onsen and I make a slightly wrong turn in towards the town instead of the station. As I stop and look for a place to turn I realise that we are close to the Eco Museum, another place I wanted to visit.

The museum has displays of local nature and explanations of the geology, in both Japanese and English, making it a really interesting resource. The park grounds are pretty with autumn leaves.

Not far out of town is Mount Io, an active volcano. I love the name, reminding me of the similarly named moon of Jupiter, the solar system’s most geologically active body and one that itself spews out sulphur compounds.

Mount Io was once mined for sulphur, the extraction dating back to the native Ainu people. Today, hot water bubbles out of steaming vents, leaving towers of bright yellow sulphur crystals on the blasted bare surface. Fortunately, the direction of the wind means the toxic rotten egg scent is not overwhelming.

I am so glad we changed our plans and had the opportunity to see this and all the other sights along the way.

Our hotel, the Parkway, is just down the road. I check in and carry our luggage up the wooden steps to our tatami room. Eager to return before darkness falls, I farewell B and Alex and return alone in the car up towards Abashiri.

I feel more comfortable in the car now, though I pull aside a couple of times to let the more impatient pass. The skies are dimming now and I worry about seeing more deer in the forests, but fortunately none make an appearance. I do see a huge fox running across the road.

The route back is different to the one down. I find myself following the Senmo Line along the coast, the gale force winds whipping up waves. I want to stop at the little stations, each which seems to have its own character. Above the road on each side are flashing lit arrows pointing to the edges, a light show along the way.

Before I return the car I need to fill up with petrol. The staff at the Abashiri Eneos are super helpful, guiding me through the self-service facility, though I’ve only used up a tiny amount of fuel in the tank. I’ve got an hour and a half left when I park back at the Times rental office.

I’ve got over an hour to waste before the next train down to Kawayu Onsen. I’ll get back too late for dinner, so I’ll need to find a meal. I decide to relive my first visit to Abashiri and go to the Victoria Station. It’s windy, raining and I just want to sit somewhere for a while.

I order a cheesy hamburger patty, salad bar and sit back in a booth and have a slow meal. It’s good to have salad, curry, soup and dessert. I indulge, but after today I need to.

Then I cross the road and hop aboard the red and silver KiHa 54. Unfortunately it’s too dark to enjoy the coastal scenery along the way, so I just sit back and relax. Night rides in the local diesel DMUs is a bit of a fantasy for me, heading out to quiet country towns.

I recognise the stops from last year, happy memories of the adventure. We pull into Kawayu Onsen where another train travelling in the opposite direction waits at the station platform. I wait for both to depart before crossing the tracks to the station building.

The station is closed for the night, the waiting room doors are closed and the foot bath, in an adjacent shelter, is empty of water. I am alone as I walk down the street away from the station, past the little shops and houses, all shut for the night, if not permanently. I am not afraid, though I keep an eye out for unlikely bears. The wind has died down now, the rain only spitting occasionally as owls hoot in the trees. Clouds of steams emerging from the drains along the road, the hot onsen waters of Mount Io flowing just below the surface and touching the cool night air.

I am happy out here. It’s almost a fantasy come true, walking in the quiet streets of a small Japanese town at night. If only there was a tiny Japanese eatery still awake, a cafe for an unlikely tea or hot chocolate. Maybe even a kombini. I’m not hungry, but somewhere to sit and dream longer would be prolong the magic.

Alex and B are waiting for me in the room when I arrive. They race about the dinner in the hotel and Alex is desperate to use the onsen facilities.

There are six baths in the hotel. Apparently there’s a mixed bath outside, but we are confused which one it is. So B goes to her indoor bath and we to ours, going through the ritual of washing ourselves down first before entering the bath waters. We are alone. After a soak in the indoor bath we continue outside to the rotemburo, or outdoor bath. It’s poorly lit, but there is something special about bathing in an outdoor pool, the cool air offering relief from the heat and steam of the onsen waters.

Then we return to our room and fall asleep in the futons laid out on the straw tatami floors. This is Japan.

Filed under: