Saturday 3 February 2018


We arrived in the dark at a railway station in the middle of Kushiro. It was cold here, even colder than Hakodate had been. We made our way to the hotel by following the maps on our iPad and managed to slip on thick ice down a backstreet on the way. This town seemed hardy, there were no small dainty buildings, just concrete and hard corners.

After checking into our business hotel we headed out to find dinner, it was Friday night and things were getting busy. Down corridors inside buildings people were loitering, heading up flights of stairs to undisclosed locations, presumably to bars and karaoke places. Kushiro was daunting at first. It felt tough and unfriendly. Salarymen in suits slipped in and out of snack bars, groups of men in smart suits drank heavily and jeered at people. We saw a fight start happening between two groups of men. This was, we thought, all very un-Japanese behaviour and we weren't sure how to take it. We were tired, too tired to force ourselves to be brave and push our way into a bar so we fell back on the ever-present konbini and got ourselves some sake and sushi and retreated back to the comfort of our hotel room to watch TV and drown our travelling sorrows.

The next morning the sun shone on the crisp white snow and we were greeted to a view of the longest sheet of icicles we've ever seen. A local told us not to stand underneath them or our head would get squashed. The town's pale concrete streets were empty, a Tannoy echoed around, the voice of a woman over the PA, sweet and gentle, pumping out general messages. Like an old communist town, it was a steely ode to industrial Japan. The tourist draw to this town is the national park and the famous and very rare Japanese cranes. We were too late to catch the very precise bus to the crane sanctuary, so instead we decided to catch a train to the outskirts of Kushiro-shitsugen National Park.

Comprising excitingly of just one carriage, our train chugged its way through the countryside saturated with snow. It was unbelievable to see fans hanging from the ceiling above our heads—how could this Siberian deep freeze ever get warm enough to warrant using them? There were a handful of fellow passengers, a group of students and a couple. We all got off at Kushiroshitsugen station, a small platform with a wooden cabin. It was like being in a model train set. We scrambled up some snowy steps and adventured into the wilderness without any clear direction. The views from up high revealed a sweeping land below, a marshy National Park as far as the eye could see. We found a road and followed it one direction, stomping through snow as far as we could and then doubled back and explored lower down in the other direction, past Lake Takkobu. Here we walked parallel to the train tracks and said hello as we passed by fishermen trying their luck in the river; we spotted the wild shika deer and a steam locomotive trundled past us as passengers waved out of the window like a page from The Railway Children. What time were we in? Old traditions never seem to fade and die in Japan. The winter's sun was dropping and was time to board our one carriage train home to Kushiro, tired and cold from a day walking.

That evening we had an incredible night. We had read online about Restaurant Izumiya (レストラン泉屋) a yōshoku restaurant which sells a Japanese take on Western cuisine. From the window display downstairs it seemed like we were in the right place: intricate plastic models showed off the food on offer upstairs, so we headed up the narrow staircase anxiously. Inside the restaurant was busy with businessmen and couples and we were showed to our seats and handed the menu. It all looked tasty and we deciphered what we should eat.

By the time we had completed our delicious delve into yōshoku cuisine it was 10 o'clock and we were out on the frozen streets again and feeling in the mood for more drinks. We found our way to two alleyways of tiny izakaya all hidden behind sliding doors, each bar or restaurant had room for maybe six people on tall stalls around a bar. They were all really busy, packed with people having fun with their friends on a Saturday night. But we wanted to join in – going to an izakaya is one of those things to do in Japan – so we chose one and slid the door open. The place was empty apart from the guy behind the counter, we asked him if it was ok to come in and he nodded and motioned for us to sit at the counter; there was no room for tables.

There was a huge list of sake to choose from, so we asked what he recommended and went for that one. He put a cup onto a small plate and poured sake in till it overflowed. Delicious gleaming flavour. And then they guy, who didn't really speak English, started handing us plates of food - we'd already eaten but we simply had to eat it. Delicious bowls of octopus. Seaweed. And possibly the most delicious sushi rolls we ate in the whole of Japan, melt in your mouth amazingness. Two customers came in. Two young women, they had a chat with the guy behind the counter and were very please to see us. We tried so hard to talk to each other, using Google Translate and sign language. We all got on a laughed together anyway. Then another customer walked in, a young guy who actually spoke English! He worked for the local television channel and sat down at the bar to eat and drink. He became the translator. It turned out you were meant to book at place in these bars but the owner behind the counter was really kind and let us in and have a place. It was probably a shock for him to see two foreigners wander in to his bar.

The evening got more and more silly as we drank and laughed and drank some more, all squashed into this tiny white portacabin-type square of a bar. We made each other laugh and then ate and drank some more in a whirl of warmth and happiness. What a place Kushiro is: on the surface steely and unfriendly with nothing of interest but just with a little effort, just under the surface is a Hokkaido culture all to its own. In this cold and icy concrete port the heart of Japan is warm.



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