In the month leading up to this trip Japan suffered a series of natural disasters. The powerful winds and rain of Typhoon Jebi flooded Kansai International Airport, shutting down all flights and isolating the artificial island from the mainland. Then, on September 7 a magnitude 6.7 earthquake struck southern Hokkaido, causing landslides and damaging electrical and other infrastructure, including the airport.
Fortunately, both airports were operational in time for our trip and the damage mostly repaired. However, weeks later and train services in southern Hokkaido are still suffering delays. One of the issues is that the posted timetables don’t include the changes, so connections that we thought were possible are not.
Initially we thought we might leave early from Kushiro and stop at Noboribetsu, the best known onsen resort and jigokudani “hell” in Hokkaido. But Mount Io and Kawayu Onsen has sated our desires and we find ourselves getting lazy.
Plus it’s nice to sleep in.
The breakfast spread at the Kushiro Prince Hotel is served on the top floor, an open reception area with magnificent views over not so magnificent Kushiro. The options are extensive, both Japanese and Western, and we wish we had the time and stomach to try them all (or most anyway – fermented squid guts, maybe not). All for 600 yen each, two tickets included in our accommodation.
When we reserved our seats for today’s trains we thought that we’d be spending the morning at the Children’s Museum we visited yesterday. So after that leisurely breakfast we now have an hour or so to waste. We head down to the nearby port area, past the art museum and a big wooden pirate ship play area, to the MOO building.
The building is full of tourist shops selling souvenirs, fresh seafood and small restaurants and cafes. There’s a fish tank housing a giant tentacle nosed sturgeon, looking old and the worse for wear, along with some smaller fish. At the end is an indoor garden, bare of ground cover and noisy with piped birdsong.
Claw machines are generally cruel, designed to deliberately drop your prize just when you thing you’ve got it. In the main building was an even nastier device, a claw machine for clawed creatures. This one allows you to try to grab a crab, your prize being that the shop will cook it for you.
It just seems wrong.
We return to the hotel and grab our belongings for the walk to the station. Along the way we pass behind a large group of preschool students, all dressed cutely in identical hats, on their way to the childcare centre. Nearby is a park with climbing frames and an old steam locomotive. I remember when you could find these in parks all over Australia. I used to climb on them and pretend to be driving the train to distant lands. Then they all seemed to disappear. Safety hazards, graffiti magnets, though some were taken away for the noble purpose of restoration to operational status on heritage railways.
Kushiro Station is a dated, ugly block that feels like the remnants of a former important transit stop. Which it was, receiving sleeper trains from Sapporo and sending out services to a larger network of lines than remains today. It is still the end of the line for express service from Sapporo. But the trains that go beyond are small and under threat of closure, joining those that are already gone.
Inside is a bakery, a couple of restaurants, book store, and a dorayaki stall where I buy a couple of cream filled pancakes that are undercooked when I go to eat them.
After a few days of local trains the 283 class Super Ozora Express feels very comfortable. The last time I rode this service dusk was falling, so I’m glad that we will have the opportunity to see outside this time.
The first part of the almost four hour journey is along the coast, the dull grey skies reflected in the waves crashing against the darker grey sands of the beach. I know many might find it depressing, but I feel attracted to the bleakness, the battered fishing towns, the isolated roadside seafood restaurants relying on the patronage of those in cars. It feels almost like a betrayal of my ethos to admit it, a confirmation of the unsustainability of the railways in Hokkaido, but I wouldn’t mind going for a driving holiday here, the ability to stop by these little places. Or maybe I should just catch the local trains and use my legs. Yes, maybe that.
As the train moves inland we pass through mountains and forests filled with stunning autumn foliage. My favourites are the red maples that flash past in river valleys, evading my waiting camera.
Near Ochiai, the line splits from the Nemuro, the same line I caught from Takikawa to Higashi-Shikagoe. But there is no access to there by train for now and may never be again. Now we are on the Sekisho Line. After Shin-Yubari we have completed the complicated loop around the island from our arrival on this trip into Hokkaido.
According to the timetable, we have an hour in Minami-Chitose before our connecting train to Hakodate. We can hear the roar of aircraft operations across the road, see passenger planes and even a fighter jet fly overhead.
Even in this isolated stop, a junction for those travelling from that airport to elsewhere in Hokkaido, there are things to do. A short walk away is an outlet centre, a collection of brand name shops supposedly selling at a discount. We store our bags in the station lockers and head off to explore, Alex complaining about clothes shopping.
His complaints change in nature when I take him to the Lego store while B looks through Gap. Now it’s requests for various huge and expensive sets! I negotiate him down to a couple of much cheaper base plates that will fit more easily into our bags.
We rush back to the station to discover that our train is actually delayed by another forty minutes due to the earthquake changes. What a waste hurrying back, especially as we are hungry and there are no cafes at the station.
There are vending machines instead, including one selling stale melon cream buns and another dispensing hot snacks. Alex orders some “fried” chicken and chips from it. The results, which take about 3 minutes to vend, aren’t exactly gourmet, but they are edible.
The Super Hokuto to Hakodate is a train I feel like I’ve been on far too often lately. Sitting on the right, we miss the seaside views that fade as the dusk falls across the landscape on the this three and a quarter hour train ride. Without the imperative of constant scenery viewing and photography, in some ways this is my first chance for a proper rest on the train and I use it to catch up with the first episode of the new female Doctor Who.
It’s a quarter past eight at night when we arrive into Hakodate and we are hungry. I’ve booked us the Four Seasons hotel just opposite the station and adjacent to the touristy fish markets, but those have closed for the evening.
There’s no doubt plenty of other restaurants around, as we discovered on previous visits, but we are tired and can’t be bothered to hunt for them, so we take one of the two still open in the market complex despite their obvious tourist nature.
Having developed an obsession for it, Alex orders sushi, B a nabe (hot pot) and me cooked fish that Alex eats most of.
I need something to wash away the fish flavour, so when the other two return to the hotel, I cross over to the small kombini within the station complex. A local trains waits at the platform and, after being stuck in express trains all day, I feel the urge to catch it to somewhere. But everything is closing now and its time for me to join the rest of the city in bed.