Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Dominoes tremble

I know I wrote there were just four domino pieces but now it feels like four giant domino constructions. And I am just one domino piece among them, waiting to fall in place. I am currently waiting for my Russian visa and stressed to the bone. Why did I have to play the rebel card with my russian visa by not giving them the compulsory travel insurance?
Now I must wait two weeks, two weeks of uncertainty and I just want to get to Russia. Let me sum up the situation again.

I am running out of time, I have to get back to my girlfriend in the beginning of June which is less than two weeks ahead. She will be either in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) or in Tomsk (Siberia, Russia). In both cases my flight is about $1000 and I realize that this time, I don't have the money available. I can't make the flight even if I wanted. Here is what I can afford (Keep in mind Sakhalin is also an island):
Travel path Pros Cons Realistic?
Tokyo → Bishkek/Tomsk
Can afford
Not enough time, unless I hitchhike to
Tokyo in which case too expensive
No
Sapporo → Paris
Can afford
I can't see my girlfriend
Yes
Sapporo → Bishkek/Tomsk
I get to see my girlfriend!
Can't afford
No

  1. Pay for Hokkaido → Sakhalin
  2. Fly Sakhalin → Tomsk
I get to see my girlfriend!
I can only afford one of the two options
No

  1. Pay for Hokkaido → Sakhalin
  2. Hitchhike Sakhalin → Tomsk
Can afford
Not enough time to cross half of Russia
Maybe
  1. Hitchhike Hokkaido → Sakhalin
  2. Pay for Sakhalin → Tomsk
Can afford
I spend all my money and hope
my girlfriend has become a millionaire meanwhile
Maybe
  1. Hitchhike Hokkaido → Sakhalin
  2. Hitchhike Sakhalin → Tomsk
It's free!
None whatsoever
If miracles are realistic, then Yes!


As you see, my success depends on more than one coincidence and I can only influence so much,  that's why I keep talking about dominoes and me being one of them, the only domino which can feel stress. 

But this is useless now, I should do something with my life before they give me the visa and ticket, if they do. I hitchhike in the rain to lake Toya, it is a round lake with a round island. But I am becoming sick again, I don't have much food and everything is wet.

In front of Toya lake
I try gathering small goals to keep my mind from the stress so I decide to go to Noboribetsu, a place labeled door to hell or something because there is smoke coming from the ground and hot springs everywhere. After a few days spent in the rain I was kind of marinating in my half-dirty half-wet clothes and I really needed a shower. My last camp was under heavy rain after I failed to hitchhike far enough from Sapporo. I waited until late morning hoping that the rain would stop but it didn't. Ground was slowly becoming muddy with a lot of grass and leaves to retain the water so I packed the disgusting mess and left. I stopped at a local McDonalds to wait for a better weather but I was kicked out because I didn't intend to buy anything. It happens. I was adopted for a long ride by an almost english-speaking couple who had a spare hamburger and two dogs.

It's was a few rainy rides.
The sky got clearer towards early afternoon where I was left in front of a kombini. Long quiet waves were washing the sandy coast of Hokkaido's south coast.

Waves washing on Hokkaido's coast
The ride towards Noboribetsu was long because of never-ending cities and thus difficulties to catch a ride. My last ride was a kind widow with a little daughter who mistook me for her dad. I even visited the family house and they forced me another 2000 yen into my pocket while I was holding the child. She drove me all the way to the place I was looking for which was a few kilometers north of Noboribetsu. It was a tourist resort with various hotels and attractions. It was really hard to say goodbye because the daughter was really holding on to me.

I did my usual stunt to get a shower. I left my bag in the lobby and I wondered to onsen floor. It is for the resort residents only but nobody checks and luckily I had the floor for myself. As usual, there was a giannt pool of hot mineral water and luxurious showers with shampoo, soap and all the body oils you can imagine. All this with temperature control. Plus, a sauna. Showers really mean the world in times like these.
Next question was to find camp and I was a bit paranoid because of the fumes and also the bears. Sulfur is coming from the ground virtually everywhere.

The next morning I went uphill to see the volcano and there was an amazing lake which was a lake of boiling water with everything around it dead. It was kind of scary walking on the crust between the bubbles of black mineral water, wondering what would happen if I stepped into that bubbling hell.

Boiling lake
Climbing the volcano nearby was kind of stupid because there was no climbable path so I had to rely on unstable rocks, plus there were sulfur fumes everywhere around.
On my way back I started a conversation with a couple who forced another 1000-yen bill in my pocket. This is not about food anymore, I can almost have a small salary in Japan just by accepting donations.
Under the lake there was a river of hot water which formed a pond as well as a smaller stream. Following that stream was a place which had cooled enough to take a comfortable bath. But since I already had used the hotel, I could skip.

My next stop in my wait for a visa was cape Erimo. I didn't get there right away. I was taken in by some retired guy who was going on a hike with his friends. It was a botanic hike, people were taking pictures of flowers for the whole time and it was fairy boring. I was invited to his place which is fine since I didn't sleep in a Hokkaido home yet.

My host lives in Niikappu, a coastal village and his house is a few meters from the sea. Hokkaido's coast seems more poor than what I was used in Japan. If you showed me Honshu's east coast now and Hokkaido's coast and asked me where the tsunami hit, I would tend to point at the latter.
My host's house looked a bit built with improvisation but never at the expense of comfort. It still had a bathtub although it was a bit miniature.

I was glad to rest at that place and the next day I was supposed to get going but my host and his friend wanted to take me to a bar and since I never was in a Japanese bar yet so I said yes.


Me and my hosts at a small village bar
My hosts spent an insane amount of money at the bar. There were two girls serving stuff and it was clear that much more than serving, their job was to keep the consumers entertained. You were paying to talk to a pretty girl. And it worked great. The girls were laughing and talking to my hosts who were otherwise lonely and/or retired; in neither case could they have the opportunity to have such a live conversation with the girls.

They were pretty girls alright but according to Japanese standards they were actually average which doesn't matter much since this was a small village with no competition and while that might be a sexist paragraph that is exactly how the bar owners thought.

Me and one of the bar girls
It's funny how it was all unfolding, the girls were pushing my hosts to buy drinks and food, half of which was almost obviously useless but it would be too shameless to give money for conversation time. On my end, I was eating as much food as I could, sushi, cheese and whatever as well as copious amounts of alcohol. The girls didn't try to make me buy anything and one of them bought me a drink which was probably against guidelines but I am probably the only gaijin here in a hundred years. 

We went to 2 bars and my hosts spent almost 20,000 yen which is a little bit more than 12 Beijing prostitutes or 3 french psychologists. My hosts called a special driver for drunk people who can't drive home and he charged them about 2 Beijing prostitutes worth for the drive home.

The next day, I met one of the guys because he wanted to drive me to Cape Erimo where, south point of Hokkaido where I originally wanted to go.
Woman with cat, because... Japan
Erimo-Misaki means cape Erimo in Japanese. It is a clear day and it is always very windy at these pointy ends going endlessly into the sea. On the way I had the chance to catch internet. I received an email from the ferry company. It reads:
Hi hitchhiker !
Filip, Can you visit our office tomorrow 20/05 around 16:00 ?
We would like confirm your russian visa and talk something.
Pls prompt reply.
T. / Heart Land Ferry
I don't know how to interpret this but I guess it's good. I can't confirm my Russian visa since I still have one week to wait until I get the answer but at least they didn't tell me to fuck off. Also, I am on the other side of Hokkaido and I have to return to the capital tomorrow.
Cape Erimo
Fortunately my driver has to get home too and I drive with him until halway between Tomakomai, Hokkaido's big harbour and the capital Sapporo. I have a couch-surfing there, in Iwamizawa city, with a guy named Yuya. Luckily, I get there in time. When I find internet, I get an angry email from heart and land ferry saying that I didn't reply although I did. Now they don't know if I am coming so what if they were going to hand me the ticket and now they'll cancel the whole thing? Damn, if I wasn't stressed enough. Moreover, I have an interview tonight, with a french radio about the prison episode, not the lightest of talks.



Fortunately, my host was most kind and understanding and so were his parents. I got my usual Japanese lunchbox from the mother and I printed my travel maps instead I needed to impress the ferry company once more. That is, if they still want me there since they don't see to receive my emails.
Fortunately, I get an email in the morning saying that everything is ok, my emails were found and they are waiting for me. I hitchhike to Sapporo and I am in front of the HeartLand ferry building again. I don't know what stresses me more: waiting for the russian visa or getting the free ticket.
Security looks at me suspiciously as I enter the building, I must be the only human there not wearing office clothing. And I am quite far from it, I am actually pretty close to your usual homeless drunk with mild mental issues.

I am welcomed in the office, just as any respectable collaborator. The good secretary brings me and T. coffee as usual. Enter two more people enter, one of them is the manager for the Sakhalin connection.
"Do you have your russian visa?" Dreaded question.
"It's in process"
A moment goes by and I wish to teleport home.
"We can't give you the ticket before you get the visa. But we decided to give you the ticket on one condition"
"... What's that?"
"We have discussed it and we have think that Japan has many interesting places and it is a shame not to visit those places before leaving Japan."
"Yes..." I am not sure what they are getting at, now.
"We think you should visit the island of Rishiri or Rebun"
Turns out that the HeartLand ferry doesn't only connect Hokkaido to Sakhalin island, it also goes to the two small islands North-west of Hokkaido. Rebun is a long island famous for its unique flowers and Rishiri is a perfect round volcano in the sea reaching over 1700 meters of altitude.
People say it is possible to see Sakhalin on a clear day.
But I am not sure if they mean what I think they mean.

"Are you saying that you are giving me a ticket to Sakhalin on the condition that you give me also a ticket to Rishiri or Rebun?"
"Yes, is that an acceptable condition?"
That's about as acceptable of a condition as getting two pizzas for the price of... zero so, "Yes!"
"Please come collect your ticket when you have your russian visa"

Meeting is over, I have great news and Janela is happy too. I have still about ten days left to explore Hokkaido before I return to Sapporo again to collect my visa (hopefully, hopefully), take my ticket (if they don't change their mind) and I am off to Sakhalin! Needless to say this all feels unreal.

What now? I go east. I want to reach the easternmost point and that is cape Nemuro, just next to the Kuril islands. By close I mean really close, 2 kilometer-ish close, "you can see them from the coast"-close. My way there was relatively fast, I didn't stop much. I think mainly once, in a giant garden full of flowers and strawberries. I received food and money on the way, as usual. I still didn't spend any money, not even the donated from the moment I set foot in Japan.

Finally I arrive at Nemuro, driving with a Hokkaidean fisherman. He speaks only Japanese but at this point I can already handle a conversation. It's hard to believe that when I return, I won't be able to speak Japanese again, I'll forget everything.
The Nemuro peninsula is polished by strong winds from all directions. You can smell the sea pretty much everywhere and seagulls are everywhere. The sea feels cold and wavy. I didn't really think that straight when I considered going to Kamchatka through that angry watery element.

As we approach Russia, a strange phenomenon appears: Road signs, usually written in Kanji and subtitles in Romanji (romanized Japanese script) are now also subtitled in Russian. It is the first time that I see three popular alphabets in one place. Earlier, in Xinjiang, it road signs were in Chinese and Arabic.
I start seeing Japanese/Russians signs
What about people speaking Russian? Dream on! Russia may be the closest country to Japan geographically, it is not culturally. Japan is as close to Russia as Tokyo is to Moscow. In fact, as long as the Japanese are concerned, when I cross the narrow sea patch between Hokkaido and Sakhalin, I will be crossing the border from Asia to a weird part of Europe. And while road signs are in Russian, we are reminded of the territorial dispute between the two countries: the Kuril islands are seen as "Japanese northern territories" as seen here above the town hall:

Kuril islands labeled as Japanese northern territories
From my side of things I tend to side with the Japanese on the dispute but it may very well be because I am on the Japanese side of things. But as I travel around I meet fishermen who go fishing to Kunashir, the closest of the Kuril islands because they used to go there for generations. The island is part of their daily life even though it isn't theirs. I also speak to Japanese born on Sakhalin and who migrated to Hokkaido. 
I arrive to Cape Nemuro in hellish wind. Behind the lighthouse, black volcanic rocks are the last mark of land in the sea. Damn no, I am not going into there, especially not alone.

The easternmost point of my trip

If you look closely, you can see the closest Kuril island
Even through the mist, I can see Russia ahead, the closest of the Kuril islands. There is a Russian lighthouse, even closer, taking waves in the middle of the sea. It seems to be constructed in a micro-island just to say: Yes we are here!
And a mere thousand kilometers north east, following that patch of islands is the tip of Kamchatka. That is strange. But I am not going to Kamchatka anymore, I have decided that in my cell in Tokyo. I am glad to go Sakhalin and I very much want to live.

My next destination is another peninsula called Shiretoko. It is also the wildest part of Japan, volcanoes, bears and extreme sea weather concentrated in one place. No trails.
The closest town is called Rausu, I will try to get there tomorrow. Now, I camp in a sort of neighborhood of abandoned houses. 

For the first time, I use money to buy some food at a Seiko-mart. It feels strange to give money for something, even more strange if that something is food. I haven't bought anything for nearly two months. But money is fast to get accustomed to. It works a lot like a hard drug: if you don't use it, you don't really need it. But as soon as you start using, you never stop. You can't use a little, you can't use it once; you start using it on a regular basis and you soon stop all other ways to sustain yourself. Very soon, you even forget the possibility to get things by other means than money. You stop accepting gifts, you stop trusting people, you only trust money to get the things you want.
And even if one day, you stop using money again, it will stay somewhere, in the back of your head, reminding to you that it is the easy alternative to anything you do and that it is... everywhere.
Dependency-wise, money hooks you up faster than heroin or crack cocaine.
But in our world, you never come to see it as a dependency because everyone is hooked up on it. It is only if, like me, you decide to go on a close to zero or zero-budget that you start seeing the similarities.

In countries with no controlled economy and only a little education, for instance Kyrgyzstan, people have such an unhealthy relationship to money that you could talk about money-junkies but that is a topic for another time.

My camp is a ditch but the view is still beautiful. The Shiretoko peninsula is very narrow and mountainous and this time of the year it has a lot of snow.
My camp, with view of the Shiretoko peninsula
The next day, I buy myself breakfast and the offered breakfast by my first ride goes to waste. Then I have no rides for a long time. There is not much going through that road anyway. So I walk for a long time until a journalist stops. She has good English and she has been to Kunashir, the first Kuril island. Actually, it is worth noting that even though Kunashir is Russia, military land and disputed territory, you'll have a hard time finding a person here who has not been to Kunashir, either legally or not. That journalist has been there legally because there is a special permit for scientists or journalists. I wonder weather I could try to infiltrate some journalistic crew or scientific mission to get there. I don't keep a precise log but that might not be the craziest thing I have attempted on this trip. But besides the craziness, the main issue is time. I have worked and hoped a lot to get that ferry to Sakhalin, what will I gain if I miss it and get stuck on Kunashir island instead.
The journalist tells me that fishermen often go there and sometimes they get sprayed by machine gun fire. Sometimes they get kidnapped, do some forced labor and are sent back. I imagine, with a 5000-something population, the Russians welcome an extra hand.

The journalist leaves me at Rausu where I spend some time getting information from the tourist office but they just tell me that there is no path and to not go there. It is merely 15 kilometers from the moment the road ends but people who I question about it talk of 5-day hikes. I hitch a ride to the end of the road by a fisherman who has also been at Kunashir. At the end of the road there is a bit cynical inscription that says that the way is very hard and that unless you are in an extremely good physical shape, you should not attempt the hike. But you are free to die there if you don't bother anybody. I actually like the japanese hiking style more. As opposed to the Korean, they treat you as an adult, they don't try to tell you that stuff is impossible, they just don't want to be bothered rescuing you if you end up in trouble which is fair.

The warning sign
I get lunch and good luck from the fisherman and I am on my way. The road continues with a few houses and then it becomes a stony beach. It is amazing how fast I transition from civilization to total wilderness. My feet hurt a little because my shoes are seriously destroyed and I feel the stones under my feet. Houses are slowly stopping to look like Japanese houses and more looking like improvised shelters. There is still electricity lines though, for a while and then it also stops.
The end of the road

One of the last houses
In the beginning I can walk comfortably (if I forget about the pain in my feet) but then it becomes more difficult. As advertized, the stony beach stops and I have to climb rocks. I climb with my heavy bag over steep rocks. But still, civilisation has not given up on me. Even though there is no house to be found, I come across a bridge which surely was constructed by man. And then it's rocks, rocks and only rocks. I feel overwhelmed and a little bit scared by the immensity of the nature. Shiretoko truly is an impressive wonder.
Civilisation is fading away but there is still this bridge!
I walk among rocks in a beautiful landscape

As I don't think I will meet any more civilisation after that heavy climb I discover a fishing settlement of three houses, several boats and even a bulldozer. There are a lot of Sika Deer nearby as well as deer horns. These deers are beautiful, unlike ours they have shiny white horns which are left around freely because deer are eaten by bears all the time. They transported the stuff to here by boat... obviously. They are fishing around Shiretoko and Kushiro. I ask them if there is another settlement later but they tell me they are the last. I replenish my reserves of water and continue my way. At the last house, the path stops again but this time there is no bridge and no nothing. A group of fishermen are coming home with huge fish through the rock.
"...San Higuma..." they say which to my knowledge means they saw three bears. However, they really don't seem to be very concerned by the presence of bears.

One of Shiretoko's isolated fishing settlement
Since the road has stopped I must climb. Not too high because I don't want to encounter the "extremely high concentration of brown bear" but not too low because there is there are only cliffs and no flat space. The problem is that in-between the high and low, the way wasn't too comfortable. I was hanging out in mid-air on a steep slope covered with grass, holding to the grass with my hands, hoping that the grass will not detach and I will not end up impaled on the sharp rocks underneath. I better make small steps. This is the most difficult climb I ever made and I am in my best shape. After a while of nearly killing myself by falling down cliffs I decide to climb up, to the forest. I didn't feel too reassured with all the sounds around but most of them were deers. It really looks like all Japanese wildlife got concentrated here at Shiretoko. After a moment of paranoia I take a pair of deer horns as a weapon and/or souvenir. As I reach the biggest heights I see the silhouette of Kunashir emerging from the sea.
I climb through the narrow patch of grass between bear land and cliffs
I emerge on the other side of the rocks, there is another stony beach and another settlement. It is abandoned and it falling in ruins. However, there are enough abandoned boats to take me through the Kuril islands and even Kamchatka if I knew something about boat repair and sailing. So my initial plan wasn't so dumb to begin with. Crazy, yes but somehow feasible. May this serve as additional information for people who want to try the adventure to Kamchatka.

I eat my lunch on the abandoned beach and continue my climb. But I am tired, my bag is heavy and the terrain even more harsh. I climb again and again through even more rocks and I don't see a beach anytime soon. And I start getting cramps. I leave my bag above a cliff and continue a little bit alone. But it is getting late and I soon give up. I'll be lucky if I make it at least to the settlement.

I cross back to the abandoned settlement and startup the climb back but it is harder than the first time. The lighting is worse, my strength too. I barely fall down a few times so I go higher again. Within minutes of stepping into the trees I fall face to face with a bear. It looks at me and then walks away in a bored manner. It is a Japanese bear and respects the law: bears don't eat humans, bears eat deer. But it obviously knows that it can eat me just as easily, it's just a law-abiding bear.

I end up somehow sliding or descending the last slopes down to the three-house settlement. As I pass it for the second time, I am invited in. I am more than glad to rest somewhere comfortable. Since there is no electricity lines, they use a a gas generator.
Since the water in this part of Hokkaido is infected by the Echinococcosis parasite, they use home-made filters. It was the most primitive way of life that I have seen in Japan so far. I guess it is a country of all standards.The fishermen were going to Kunashir tomorrow and I was just thinking that contrary to common beliefs, reaching this island is quite an easy task provided enough social skills and guts.

Home-made filter
I am spending the night in the fishing settlement in Shiretoko

The next morning we all have breakfast and get busy with our lives. The fishermen go fishing to Kunashir and I go walking back.

It starts raining again as I hitchhike on the empty roads. People seem to have lost their spirit the same way as I have given up my hike to the end of the Shiretoko peninsula. What I mean is that I've had a series of emotionally empty rides.

That is until this man stop at Lake Kussharo. He is in his fifties and he is an artist. And if you thought artists are crazy, then you haven't met Japanese artists. They are double crazy. This guy was an artist with money so he decided to build a hotel with an onsen which he decorated with his pottery and various art he made or sponsored. The lobby was made of wooden sticks disposed in a way to make rainbows indoors through a system of mirrors positioned outside.
Water does not resonate with the body well enough, henceforth it is better to bathe in... sulfuric acid. That is why in the basement of the hotel there is an onsen with undiluted water from the hot sulfuric source. The hotel already had one inhabitant: the rainbow artist who was responsible of the lobby.

Lake Kussharo, man loading a boat on his car
"You have a cool trip man!," said the artist, "I would be happy to welcome you in my hotel. For free. But it's not finished."
It may not be finished but it has internet and shower.

The lobby or "rainbow room"
The artist drove me to his hotel and left me there with his artist friend "who also speaks english". That is how I lived for a few days in a japanese artist community. My host's friend was a rainbow artist. He had designed wonderful spaces with dancing rainbows all over the world, especially India and now he was doing that lobby.
He was a man in his fifties with great talent and wisdom and completely childish ideas about love. He was in an idealised and pretty much one-sided romantic relationship with an Italian girl whom he met in India when she was still a child. She is now in her twenties and has a boyfriend, a thing the rainbow artist failed to accept. His life story was as scattered as his art itself, full of mirrors and broken dreams. It was hard to understand what exactly happened in India but it seemed to change his life forever. Somehow the village hated him and he had to run away only to come back later. I just can't remember or understand why. But his vision of love remained as naive as the one in Disney movies, an ultimate goal to reach in life, a goal he shall never reach or he might be disappointed after 50 years of idealization.
An example of rainbow's work

We go to a bar that the hotel artist has also designed with the hotel artist and the rainbow artist too. A friend of his was serving stuff in there. She was nice and very motherly. I don't know if she was also an artist but she surely had taste.
Barmaid
The barmaid gave me food for later but I didn't use it until a long time because we were eating together with the rainbow artist. Even with limited resources he managed to make real good stuff. Hotel artist went away probably see some women entangled in an arty relationship only Japanese artists who bathe in hydrochloric acid can understand.
The hallway in the making
Soon, as I was living there, I was also bathing in the hydrochloric acid and dancing in between rainbows. It is alright if you keep it out of the eyes and put water on yourself afterwards.

On my last day there, we all went to hotel artist's main house where he was living with his girlfriend who was a real beauty for her age and an expert in pottery. The home was a strange construction combining a oven for pottery, various art pieces everywhere and constructions of strange machines which purpose could only make you wonder.

I wasn't as bad as pottery as I thought I would be. We were supposed to make pottery pieces that were to serve as weights to keep the rainbow mirrors in place.
Hotel artist's home


We all make Pottery

Various creations, I made the one with the road
The next day, I leave. I say my goodbyes to Rainbow Artist and I am on my way. I liked this town. I liked the sulfuric streams and the boiling rivers. Before I go I hitchhike to Lake Mashuko, a volcanic lake that looks absolutely amazing. I get there with two rides, a policewoman and a very cool family of Singaporeans. The daughter was a funny one, I actually liked her a lot and we went together into a screaming hole which was venting fumes from the ground.
Hot stream of sulfuric water

So funny! I am obstructing a volcanic vent!
I have only a few days left and after my failure to hike to the end of Shiretoko, I want to climb the highest mountain of Hokkaido, the 2000-something meters high Mount Asahi. Yes like the beer. The first part of the climb is by done by ropeway but it's too expensive for me so I give my bag to some random tourists who go there by ropeway and go there without luggage. The way is closed says everyone but I ignore them because I think they are exaggerating. I should have learned by now, the Japanese are not pussies, usually when they close, they mean business but nobody forces me. I climb the steep mountain using pieces of sharp wood as a replacement for a much needed ice axe. I climb the last hundred meters on hard snow only using my pieces of wood to maintain myself.

Top of the ropeway
At the top of the ropeway the snow has become thick and I fall down knee-deep on every step. This is not good. I have to abandon again. That's the second challenge that I abandon, I hope I will not give up Rishiri. So I go down under the mountain to the mountain resort and take a much needed shower at one of the hotels in my usual infiltration-style.

Foxes and deers are crossing the streets and I am exhausted. I go to sleep. Tomorrow, for the last time hopefully, I return to Sapporo. I will know if I get my visa and I will collect my ticket. That is, if everything goes right. Wish me a miracle.
My bag with Sika Deer horns