A byte of life from the Land of Sumos and Sushi

Friday, August 26, 2005

Summers in Fukui are unpleasantly hot and humid and having already experienced one last year, I had no intention of suffering through another. Hence, early on in the year, an escape plan was born; I would head north, fleeing the equator, to the northern most island of Japan – Hokkaido, where it’s said summer temperatures are pleasantly warm and walking to the car doesn’t leave you drenched in sweat.

So, I set about searching for road trip crew members. Lewis, who has yet to leave Japanese soil since his arrival and has no intention of doing so, was an obvious choice, but the other three members were specially selected and shipped in from the UK, for their road tripping credentials. Chris P, Gary M, and Danny G, good mates I’ve know since I was 9, are all highly qualified road trippers, and in various combinations, we have together road tripped around Europe (the summer of ‘99) and Canada (the summer of 2001).

So, after the Fuji Rock festival, we reconvened in Fukui to check out the local high lights, before packing the Jeep full of tents, tunes and beer and hitting the road. With no plans aside from heading north, we were free to enjoy our time on the road, wherever it would take us. Which was Hokkaido.

However, after a long day of driving and looking at how little we had travelled on the map, we realised that Hokkaido was actually quite a long way away, and that perhaps being stuck in a hot car for the next three days wasn’t going to be as much fun as we had originally thought. Yes folks, less then 12 hours in, the future of the road trip was in jeopardy.

Enter the ferry. Conveniently, on the first night we camped by a beach in Niigata, which happens to have a ferry service running to Hokkaido. Whilst taking an evening swim in the sea, Danny claimed to have been stung by a jellyfish, but later admitted that is was just his swim shorts brushing against his leg, an easy mistake to make.

We had some trouble getting a ferry booking, as it was the “Obon” holiday period (probably the busiest week of the Japanese calendar, where Japanese families return to their home towns for family gatherings) but we eventually succeeded and we boarded the large ferry, happy to be free from the confines of the Jeep. Forget road trippin’, now we were boat trippin’.

We slept in the third class accommodation, which is simply a large room, where about 20 people sleep side by side on the floor on a thin blanket with a square pillow. Here we met some of our fellow travellers, two young students, and a couple of old truck drivers, who provided us with much entertainment. The very first thing one of our new friends told us was that all Japanese men had small dongers, but that he had a big one. It was not the ice breaker that I would have chosen, but it served its purpose all the same.

The 21 hour journey gave us plenty of time to chill, sunbathe, read and relax. Chris and Gary enjoyed their first taste of a Sento (a large communal hottub – the only place on the boat to wash), and we chatted to our new friends, watched the blue waters of the sea pass before us, often seeing shoals of dolphins leaping clear of the sea in an impressive display of grace.

We arrived the follwoing day in the late afternoon to the port town of Tomakomai, an ugly settlement, with seemingly little worth seeing, so immediately headed north east to the Shikotsu-ko, (in the Shikotsu National Park) a huge, deep, perfectly clear lake, encircled by volcanoes, some of which are active, and we heard and saw an eruption during our stay.

We spent two days camped at the shore of this beautiful body of water, swimming in its cool waters, watching fish dart around our feet, bbqing to eat, and hiking up a small extinct volcano.

It was when we first arrived at the campsite, undercover of darkness, that the Japanese yet again showed their amazing kindness and generosity towards foreigners. We had a bbq, but no charcoal and hence no means of cooking our food. I humbly went to explain our predicament to some nearby campers, who judging by their camp set up, looked like they had moved in for the week, and in broken Japanese eventually got the message across.

No sooner had I requested a little charcoal, when immediately a full scale famine relief effort was in effect. Our neighbours rallied round, not only providing us with charcoal, but with their own bbq set up, a huge gas light to cook by, a grill, cooking implements and offering beer and food too. We gratefully, but slightly guiltily accepted their kind offerings, vowing amongst ourselves to buy them a crate of beer come morning, but by the time we had risen from our drunken slumber the next day, the entire family had gone.

Next time on the funky drummer: The crew get naked in the onsen (exclusive pictures included) after taking on an active volcano.


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