Personal: From A Distant Hilltop

A horn sounded. I ran down the hill in an attempt capture a good picture of a passing train. Local Japanese turned their heads to the window, curiously watching as an asian girl in a striped blue shirt with grey jeans tucked into black boots sprinted towards them with a DSLR.

After the scene had passed, I turned back around to re-orientate myself after the sudden, unexpected flurry, and found my family at the spot which I’d left them at – still far away, standing at the top of one of the hills in the garden. I lifted my camera.

My uncle noticed me first and started waving. Then my parents and other aunts and uncles began to look in my direction. They waved enthusiastically and as I adjusted the lens, faces flushed with broad smiles and laughter came into clearer focus.

The itinerary for this trip was left largely to my cousin and I, and I was definitely the more particular of us both. Armed with TripAdvisor, trusty Google, and advice from friends, I’d mapped the routes, booked everything from hotels to restaurants, and read reviews and articles over a period of 2 months prior to the trip – I know that probably sounds crazy to most people, but I just wanted to make sure everything was as perfect as could be, you know?

Everyone knows I’m big on planning – from whom I need to catch up with and when, to places I want to go, etc. By any date, I usually would’ve mapped out my schedule for the next 2 weeks or so, and I typically kickoff each year with a list of projects and things that I want to achieve in the next 365.25 days. Most of my “free time” (to do whatever I might feel like doing) or personal time is planned for – “planned spontaneity” is what I call it, oxymoronic as that sounds.

When I look at this photograph, reward – that’s what it means to me. All that planning, researching, everything- that was all made worth it. My family- smiling, waving, sharing a good laugh, on the hill top of a garden in Abashiri, midway through our roadtrip in Hokkaido.

June 2014, 網走国定公園小清水原生花園 (Garden opposite Lake Tofutsu), Abashiri, Hokkaido, Japan

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Reward.”

Travel Diary: Shiretoko Goko-lakes (知床五湖) , Shiretoko National Park, Hokkaido, Japan

I opened the door and stepped out into the heat. Leaving my coat in the car, I started towards the beginning of the trail marked by a large standing wooden sign. The Shiretoko Goko-lakes (知床五湖), also known as the five lakes, are a collection of lakes which were formed when the area of Mt. Iwo blew and left dents on the land which filled with water; the first of which could be reached by an elevated wooden path and viewing decks, but the remaining four being only accessible by foot and with a guide.

The elevated wooden walkway was a work of Japanese genius – it left the scene virtually untouched, with visitors looking out from observation decks while ezo sika (Sika deer) graze peacefully below, their short little tails twitching time to time to address the tickle of the occasional summer fly. Little pools of water irrigated the landscape, funnelled underground from the Shiretoko mountain range which lined the horizon, still visibly snowcapped from the winter.

Shiretoko goko five lakes hokkaido japanZabrina Alexis C at Shiretoko Go-ko Five Lakes Hokkaido Japan Travel

Shiretoko go-ko five lakes hokkaido travelSailing on the sea of Okhotsk Shiretoko Peninsula Travel Hokkaido

Travel Diary: The Mystery of Lake Mashu, Hokkaido, Japan

I awoke to Lake Kussharo. Pulling back the day curtains, I watched as the soft light of the early morning played on its surface a gentle soothing melody. There was a cream-colored wall to the right of my bedframe and where I’d slept, my toes were pointed towards the window. I propped myself up on my elbows so that I could get a better look. A few white swans hovered near the shoreline where we’d had set up a picnic of Japanese takeout the day before, but besides that, Lake Kussharo was a scene of quiet calm.

Lake Kussharo is the largest of the lakes in the Akan National Park, with Lake Akan and Lake Mashū lying to its southeast and southwest. The region has a mix of natural and manmade outdoor onsens (hot thermal springs) – some of which I thought were beautiful and others, not so. Ikenoyu was right along the banks of Lake Kussharo. It sort of reminded me of an ‘infinity’ pool, and going closer, I could see right through the water to the giant rocks beneath which formed an uneven, overlapping base, while the steam left the surface of the water from above, creating a soft mist. Personally, I don’t think I liked it very much – maybe because it was so quiet, and the steaming water which was an unusual intense blue-green had a bit of an unsettling effect on me. But that could just be me and my vivid imagination – I imagine a whole bunch of people could have a blast in that onsen. Note – whole bunch… (Safety in numbers haha)

Ikenoyu outdoor onsen Lake Kussharo Akan National Park Hokkaido

Lake Akan is famous for its marimo (essentially balls of moss which look like what they sound – round furry green things, but yes, surprisingly cute), and the whole town thrived on the lake’s claim to fame by selling all sorts of marimo souvenirs. Today’s itinerary was a short detour down to Lake Mashū, followed by a drive northwards to our next stop on the Shiretoko Peninsula where we would spend the next two nights. We began on Route 243 towards Teshikaga and then exited onto Route 52, which was a long straight road in an open field with a sprinkling of trees which stretched as far as the eye could see.

Lake Mashū, formed in the caldera of a potentially active volcano, is known for being the clearest lake in the world and also one of the deepest in Japan. The tricky bit was that the lake is also known for being frequently blanketed by a fog, so one might never really know what to expect.

Barely a third of the way on Route 52, I saw the start of the fog. It started like a wispy white mist, but very quickly withered visibility down to 60m and then to barely 30m where we slowed to a crawl, especially nearing the lake where the road had several kinks before it veered left along the left border of Lake Mashū, and also where the observation decks were located. At this point, we wondered if there was any point in making a stop at all because the fog was so heavy, but since there was no alternative route to Route 52 which would lead us away from Mashū, northwards and back in the direction of Shiretoko, we continued on.

There were few visitors that day, and if they’re fogged over most times of the year, I’d be surprised if they got any more than a handful on an average day. The road to the observation deck had been a constant uphill climb which took us pretty high up, and besides the headlights of occasional cars passing by us and down the pass from where we’d come, the drive through the quiet and thick blanket of a fog was a little unnerving for me, so I ended up talking and singing a lot in the car.

It’s funny how the only pictures of Lake Mashū on Google are of the lake on a clear day. Or perhaps, it was with good reason, considering we couldn’t see A THING when we got to the observation deck. Till this point I’d kept mum about the local legion which said seeing the surface of Lake Mashū was bad luck, just in case – but seeing (… or not) the lake like this, I decided it was an opportune moment and happily informed everyone of our fine luck.

So for everyone planning to visit Lake Mashū, this is what you can realistically expect on most days. Unless you like driving in fog and thrive on a sense of mystery, I suggest skipping the stop and turning back around should you encounter fog early on in your journey to the lake. For the rest of you, lucky(?) enough to catch Mashū when it’s in the clear, just forget about the local legion which I’d told you about – who believes that ancient stuff anyway… right?