Happy hanami!!

Trip Start Apr 12, 2010
Trip End Apr 12, 2011

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Where I stayed
Hirosaki Youth Hostel

Flag of Japan  , Tohoku,
Sunday, May 2, 2010

When it comes to sleep, yoga guru John always said that it was the hours before midnight that count. I can confirm, after a week in Hirosaki, that this is NOT TRUE and perhaps only applies if accompanied by a rigorous yoga routine. Knowing that we wanted to stay in Hirosaki for quite a while, we booked in to the town`s youth hostel (yusu hosuteru) for as long as we could. We thought this would be similar to our Kyoto hostel, but we were wrong. Youth Hostel should not be confused with hostel or guest house here in Japan. A hostel is a friendly place constantly in flux. A place where you can relax, find out things from people, cook and use the internet possibly. A Youth Hostel is a place full of hobbit length beds filled with unfriendly social deviants sporting the full range of socially unacceptable personal habits. Not only were the clientele freaks, but the place had the atmosphere of the moon and you couldn`t cook nor was there any internet. The TV was on from about 07.00 till 23.00. Even the animals had gone a little bit insane. There were timetables for when you could wash (06.00-08.00 and 17.00-23.00) which didn`t seem entirely reasonable. Nickiy and I were in seperate single-sex dorms which meant catching each other in the mornings was a bit hit and miss (only 1 alarm clock). However, this wasn`t so much of a problem because for some reason, and this remains a mystery, every fucker in the place got up (not woke up) between 05.30 and 07.00. Every day. Each dorm had about 6 beds in it so once these Japanese guys were up, apparently it was ok to sing, talk or be on the phone in the dorm. Even with earplugs and curtains around each bunk, it was impossible to ignore it past 07.00. Now, the North of Japan contains some fantastic national parks and mountain treks (including a natural world heritage area) so it would seem logical that a lot of the guests were heading out early for such activities. Not so, as they then sat around for 3 hours watching TV, reading papers and manga or chatting. Loudly. In high sprirts. AT SIX THIRTY EVERY MORNING.

This drove us into a survival zone of damage limitation. Our most sensible plan was to relax in the castle grounds on the grass and snooze during the day. Not only would this allow us valuable rest (hours before midnight!) but would give us the time away from the soulless hostel. After day 1 in Hirosaki, this went to shit as the heavens opened for days and days. Here is how the weather went:

Day 1: Arrived to brilliant sunshine
Day 2: Sunshine
Day 3: Rain
Day 4: Rain, sleet and thunder
Day 5: Rain and lightning
Day 6: Sunshine but too late for our sleep issue
Day 7: Clouded over
Day 8: Sunshine on departure

So as the sleep deprivation set in we found ourselves being unable to catch up because of the weather. Each day we thought we`d do something to keep out of the rain, but often that became a wild goose chase in itself. The internet, for example, pretty much eluded us for the whole week as we repeatedly trudged miles to the station and back for a measly 30 mins free at the tourist information. One rainy evening we decided to track down the internet cafe (only 1 in a city the size of Hirosaki you ask!) which must have been another 2 miles past the station. No buses ran past 18.15. So we found the place and it was a 24 hour manga cafe. You can watch DVD`s, read manga, drink and use the internet. But you have to be a member! So we walked all the way back in the rain. Later in the week we found a place that allowed 1 hour free but you couldn`t plug anything in to the computer and all google services were blocked, so photos, mail and banking info were unavailable and we couldn`t put photos on the blog. Each of these trips took up quarter to a half of each day, so they became extremely frustrating.

Earlier in the week we`d been up near the mountain for our first onsen (hot spring baths). These places are much like Rotorua but less smelly. This, oddly, was cheaper than a swim in the Tooting Leisure Centre. However there are a number of delicate customs which we probably broke. The baths are single-sex. You go into a changing area and strip naked and put all your stuff into a little cubby hole. You then proceed to the bathing room with your little towel (great if you have one but Nickiy did not). You then sit on a little plastic stool and wash yourself thoroughly infront of a half-height shower (with everyone watching you from behind). You then lower yourself into the bath (the too hot one if you are a twat like me) and try to relax as your heart pumps wildly, your head sweats and your skin falls off. Your little towel sits on your head and should NOT go in the water. There was a lot of meditation that went on in mine and none of the blokes talked to each other. I noticed one of the blokes kept getting out and throwing cold water over himself. I copied him and this is the only reason I survived. We will probably visit another onsen when we get to Shikoku and should be more prepared next time!

Iwaki-san loomed over us everyday and at 1625m in height was hardly going to give us pulmonary oedema if we climbed it. There was snow at the top but also darker areas indicating rock as well as a piste that ran most of the way up. Maps indicated a 5.5km path up from a shrine with a vertical ascent of only about 1500m. Once summited there was a 4km descent (of about 1100m) which ran alongside a 69 hairpin apline road through virgin beech forest. We estimated this would easily fit into our 8 hour window between buses. The night before, we prepared our kit; checked water, compass, headtorch, light rope, waterproofs, snacks, first aid and a bento lunch. The weather was due to be overcast and dry.

We jumped on the first bus to the base of the hill, tightened laces and set off at about 08:20. Firstly we walked through the empty and peaceful shrine surrounded by very old firs. The clearly-marked path was large enough to be a firetrail through the trees. At the bottom of the piste the path was confusing and we veered off into a valley following random kanji signs. A bridge forded a small river and the snow on the steep side opposite swallowed our boots. Miraculously we managed to keep on the steps which occasionally glinted out from beneath the snow. After a while we noticed pink ribbons tied to trees and we figured these were better crumbs to follow.

Nickiy was carrying the pack so kept sinking knee deep in places that shouldn`t have had more than a few inches of snow. Just at the moment of realisation I heard a yelp from behind me. The path, it seems, ran alongside a river. The inaccurate markers had encouraged us to follow the least forested area, which WAS the river. I looked back to see a semi-breeched birthed Nickiy head and arm at ground level. The extra pack weight had taken her through 3 feet of snow and her arms, pack and leg had wedged her in this new hole. Not actually knowing the true depth beneath her, I quickly ran back within the trees, grabbed the rucksack carry loop and pulled her onto the tree roots. Peering into the hole, she had just missed the metal scaffold of a river bridge which was the "path" we were trying to follow. Our trousers were pretty wet and we stuck to the trees from that point onwards.

After a couple of hours we came to an old shack which we used as an excuse for a pit stop and snack. Pressing on shortly afterwards we were faced with rain, the wind picked up and visibility dropped. We continued uphill until heavy, driving rain forced us to shelter beside a tree trunk. Our trousers were soaked by this point and our boots were liquifying the snow in their tops. Our fingers were red and numb. The rain turned to sleet and thunder rolled in the valley. We stood behind the tree for 20 minutes or so waiting for the weather to clear. Instead the weather held so we fell back to the hut which leaked horrendously. Cold rice, cold tofu, cold tomatoes and cold nuts (edible ones) for lunch didn`t help our thermal problem but at least the wind couldn`t get to us. A final review of the weather sealed our fate as we dejectedly retraced our snowy steps to the bus stop at the shrine.

We caught the 12:45 bus back into town and huddled around the hostel heater with green tea all afternoon. In retrospect we should have just walked up the side of the piste but even on the retarded route we took, we had beautiful views over the valley and the Shirakami range. We should have ended the walk in an onsen but neither of us could face getting back into our wet trousers later. The full test of our equipment went well overall; only waterproof trousers and gaiters were lacking!

So apart from the hostel being a place we avoided, Hirosaki was an extremely picturesque place. The castle gounds were amazing and we arrived when the 5,000 cherry trees were all budding. Tiny pink dots were scattered all over the trees. Daily progress was obvious as they puffed open during the evening hours until full bloom was with us on day 6. If you don`t like soft white flowers and water reflections you probably shouldn`t look at the pictures at all! They have the cherry blossom festival every year in the castle grounds and, aside from all the tat that goes with these things, there was plenty of room for everyone to lay out their mats and have their picnics (hanami). After the stretch of rain and sleep deprivation, we were more than ready for our hanami; 2 bottles oif sake, bento boxers, snacks etc. We got a touch of snoozing done before all our generous picnicking neighbours came and gave us food, and later drinks. Dried salmon, octopii and other fishy stuff. Oranges, crabs legs and later beer, sake and shochu. By then we were pretty well roasted and further gifts included our new pet dog (an Akita) called Po (who slipped his collar and went for a swim a few days later). This is all fairly obvious from the photos! We`d been in the sun all day, had no real dinner, hadn`t drunk any water and subsequently felt like gash the next morning (well all day really). But we had had a proper hanami which was easily worth it!
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TPO on

Quite the adventure - the hostel sounds crazy. It's kind of weird being a traveller when the weather is bad, cos you have to be outside all day. Looks like you timed the blossoms perfectly though - they are your reward for not falling down that big hole!! The locals seem very friendly - you guys looked blasted!! And Po, what can I say about Po? I hope he finds his way over here. Arf!

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