Masters dissertation week 1: Asahikawa and Daisetsuzan

On my photography trip for my masters dissertation.
Destination: Hokkaido.
Goal: find wild animals and beautiful landscapes.
Week 1: Daisetsuzan and Saroma.

I had a long trip from Belgium to Tokyo with Aeroflot – cheap airlines but the price justified it – trick is: look for flights on a Wednesday and open jaw – the cheapest I found was rome to Tokyo to paris for £220! On the plane from Belgium to Moscow there wasn’t much space. In fact, there was less than not much space, especially when the guy in front of me put his seat back. Note to self: it seems Russians really like tomato juice. Transfer in Moscow was a bit hectic as there were a gazillion Chinese people who had to have all their papers specially checked but the flight was so comfortable – I’ve never seen such an empty plane! The whole rear end was so empty that some people had 4 seats to themselves! Same goes for my skymark flight to Asahikawa from Tokyo – surprisingly empty. The economic crisis all of a sudden became very real.

In Asahikawa I hopped on a bus towards the university (very easy to find – Asahikawa airport is very small) and was met at the bus stop by my first couchsurfing host. We went out to an izakaya for dinner – how I missed Japanese restaurants! The small, shared portions, the good food, the umeshuu J
On Friday I dedicated my time to the zoo. Asahiyama zoo is quite famous but the good thing is that it has a wide array of animals found locally, just what I needed. I thought it would be a good idea to get some back-up shots in case I didn’t get them in the wild. It was a beautiful, sunny day – I was well overdressed for 23 degrees! And I was given a nice surprise: they had gained a Blakiston’s fish owl since March. These are a pretty rare sight to see, and I thought only 1 zoo had them in Japan (in Kushiro), but I was lucky. A few other animals I’d wanted they didn’t have but I didn’t mind so much anymore. Also got a shot of a Steller’s sea eagle, albeit behind obvious bars, but I’ll make do. And I found Raul’s brother – a real red panda! How exciting.

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I stayed at a different host in Asahikawa that night, and was gearing myself up to hike the mountains in Daisetsuzan national park (between the asahidake and kurodake peaks, supposedly a beautiful and easy hike) but the weather turned for the worse. There was lightning and heavy heavy rain. I wasn’t sure what to do, but the next day it was still quite miserable – I decided to take a day off, and good thing I did as that day they had 10 centimeters of snow where I wanted to hike!
I went there anyway on the Sunday as I didn’t have any more time to lose. I was given another shock – basically that the end of May is still TOO EARLY to hike between two of the peaks. There goes some of my main Daisetsuzan shots. Not knowing what to do I had to do some quick thinking and I decided to dish out for the ropeway up to the peak to try and get some photos anyway. Not really worth it though as I couldn’t see 5 metres ahead of me: the clouds were so thick and I’m pretty sure there was still somesnowfall. I met this Finnish guy who sad that 2 days before (the day I went to the zoo) it had been sunny with blue skies. ARGH! The first of my many frustrations to come (as well as scaring off a stoat with the car on my way up, which would have been an ace shot).

I managed to hitch a ride back to Asahikawa with a really nice couple, and stayed with my first host for one more night before making my way to Kurodake – the place I would’ve ended at on my hike.

I decided to start hitch-hiking (I was told it was easy, and I’ve had no issues at all so far) because the less I had to pay for transport the better! And lucky I was – soon enough a man picked me up to tell me I needed to go the other way and he drove me halfway there. I then had to wait for 30 mins (my longest wait to date) and was picked up by someone who works in the military and he took me to Kamikawa, where there was a campsite I could use (beware as they make you pay a lot!!). Set up my camp, and the good weather motivated me, so I headed out to Kurodake (hitch number 4). I took the ropeway again because they warned for left-over ice (which I found when stubbornly trying to walk it down), and got some plant shots and an argument with my autofocus when it missed a woodpecker. I also tried to get a squirrel but none came out. So I got some scenery but nothing really in terms of animals. Oh well, on and hopefully up.

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It was freezing cold that night and safe to say I didn’t get much sleep. I had to wear several layers and socks – it’s so difficult because it really warms up when the sun’s out but at night it’s still quite cold. That’s spring for you (or the end of winter – the hot seasons are really short here).

I got a lift with this really nice truck driver to Kitami – he wasn’t even going that way but he decided to make a loop so he could pick up his first hitch-hiker! Really nice man who even bought me some food and invited me to a bbq with his wife and daughters at his house next time I’m in Asahikawa (that’s 5 so far!).
To get to my next destination, saroma city right by tsaroma lake – famous for its sunsets – I was instructed to hop on this bus for older folk (to transport them between saroma and the hospital in kitami – got quite a few looks on that one).

I could tell that I was finally heading towards the mountains as the town was quite small and in the mountains. My couchsurfing host, Sean Holland from Alaska, was super friendly! We went for a drive around the mountains and spotted a white-tailed sea eagle and 2 fox cubs, but both managed to avoid the camera. We had a bbq with scallops, meat and vegetables, and then had some umeshuu (plum liqueur) as well – how I’ve missed that stuff!

The next day he lent me his bike and a map and I went for a nice cycle around. It was so nice to be able to move relatively fast on my own! It was tough going though, all those hikes, and I think I overdid it. I hiked up to this viewpoint – on the way to which I got that woodpecker shot I’d missed a few days before – and got a stunning view of Saroma lake and beyond, and had some lunch. I got down pretty quick (felt my muscles twitching) and got back on the bike (at this point my bum was already hurting pretty bad due to the bike seat). As I went off to see if I could find the fox cubs or the sea eagle again this weird mist came up off the lake and shrouded a huge area in this impenetrable fog – it was quite eerie. Neither the fox cubs nor the eagle were there, and the fog made my sweat-drenched clothes very cold to the touch, so I decided to leg it back to the house – which was quite difficult with drained muscles, painful bum and 20km to go!  I got back tired as tired can get and I hopped in the shower to prepare myself for my camp out by the lake for some sunrise/sunset shots. I wasn’t sure if it would work with the clouds but luckily they had cleared a while later and we (Sean came with me) still had a nice sunset. Set up camp (there’s a free campsite right by the lake, excellent location though it’s difficult to get there without a car – as are all things this far away from big cities in japan) and got in my tent. Next thing I know Sean comes back and says he’s spotted the fox cubs again!! It was really dark but he took me there anyway and we saw momma vixen with 4 cubs. Sadly, the lack of light meant I couldn’t for the life of me get a shot that was in focus. It was very strange though using my headtorch to find the foxes (2 lights glared back at me, slowly inching closer before dashing off into the forest) in almost complete darkness. I decided to give up and try again in the morning, though red foxes aren’t really active then, and walked back. So weird to walk through a forest so far into the countryside without anyone really around… definitely spooky. There was also some weird bug that was chasing me, which sounded like a geyser bubbling… bizarre. In my tent up for 3.30am for sunrise.

The next part is for next time – did I see the foxes?

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