Trip Information

Kushiro Marsh
Kushiro Marsh (33)
Trip Date:2003-08-04 - 2003-08-11
# Photos:31 [View]
Countries visited:Japan
Viewed: 4731
I've been attracted to Hokkaido for the last 9 years or so, ever since I bought a CD-ROM of photos from Kushiro Shitsugen (Marsh) that blew my mind. I love places of natural beauty, and there aren't that many of these in Tokyo. Tokyo is a very photogenic city and has easy access to many beautiful places too, so I certainly not knocking it. But I wanted to go somewhere unspoiled, as much of Hokkaido is. For this reason, I decided not to add Sapporo, Otaru and Hakodate to the agenda. Sapporo is a large city which I wanted to avoid, and is also a pivotal point for visiting Hakodate and Otaru. So with that, Hakodate and Otaru also got cut. I do want to see these places and will hopefully make it there someday soon, but not this time.

The journey we've planned will take my wife and I to Kushiro Marsh in the south and Akan-ko, Kussharo-ko and Mashuu-ko, which are Lakes in the east side of central Hokkaido. To Shiretoko near the tip of the arm that can be seen jutting out to the east on a map of Hokkaido, then northwards through Abashiri to Kitami. From there we'll head back to central Hokkaido through the SouUnkyou Canyon past the largest mountain in Hokkaido, Daisetsuzan, literally "Big Snow Mountain", and finally to the western part of central Hokkaido, and Asahikawa, Biei and Furano.

We flew from Haneda Airport at 17:15 and arrived at Kushiro Airport at 18:50. On the decent the sun was setting with a fiery vengeance. My shutter finger was itching like crazy, but by the time we touched down it was all over. Notice we flew directly to Kushiro. From where else could my first trip to Hokkaido start!?

The fifty minute bus ride to the hotel was hot and sticky. Hokkaido was having an unusually hot spell for a few days, and the bus, like places we noticed didn't have very good air conditioning. Many places didn't have air-conditioning at all. I guess it's just not usually that necessary. Anyway, it was hot and raining so all the windows steamed up. It was like a rolling sauna.

The hotel was nice. We were to stay there for the first two days. The first night we just went to the penthouse bar and had a few beers and discussed what we'd do the next day. We were having a renta-car delivered to the hotel at 08:30 the following morning and decided to get up early and eat breakfast beforehand so we could get straight away to the marsh area as soon as it arrived.

This is exactly what we did. Luckily the car had a navigation system, so we input the first point to aim for and set off. We arrived at the first viewpoint on our route, the Kushiro City Marsh Viewpoint at 10:00. This is the only viewpoint we visited that you have to pay to use. The view is not spectacular and the items on view within the building are although not bad, they're not great, so I would suggested not paying the 360 yen ($3) unless like me, you couldn't wait to get your first view of the marsh.

We drove around the marsh in a clockwise direction starting at the south-western point. A little further north is the Hokuto Viewpoint which is probably worth a look, though we didn't. A little further still is the Onnenai Wooden Walkway. I wanted to go here (and did) the following morning before the mist had cleared. We headed for the north of the marsh and the Kottaro Viewpoint. This is where I took the first picture posted in this travelogue. Before this point the rolling hills and quaint farm buildings in the area were a breathtaking change from Tokyo. I've a few photos from here which I might post later.

The marsh is 17km from east to west and 36km from north to south. After the first stop we drove around further still clockwise to Shirarutoro Lake. This is one of the areas that support a large number of Japanese Crane or Tanchouzuru. I had picked up an EF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6L lens in the hope of capturing some of these beauties, but it wasn't to be, at least not here. The only Cranes we saw were in a reserve the following day. I don't regret buying the lens of course. I got a number of other good shots with it this week and you can be sure it'll get a lot of use in the future too. I part chopped my old 100-300mm lens and my EOS D30 to buy the new lens. I will definitely not miss the old zoom lens. It is probably one of the few things that Canon have made that I consider to be of bad quality. Its fine in very bright conditions, but anything other than that, it is too dark, and the image too flat to be of any use.

We arrived at the Kushiro train station and staked-out the HosoOka Viewpoint, from where I'd hoped to get a good sunset. We climbed the small hill to the viewpoint and checked out the view. It was a great vantage point, probably better than Kottaro, especially in late afternoon, but the weather was not great. The sky was heavy with clouds that hardly broke to light the beautiful marsh below. It was still only mid-afternoon at this time so we had a while to wait before sunset. As the free-for-all breakfast feast had finally started to be digested we went back to the car for now and drove to the nearest seven-eleven, about 10km away and bought some ready meals for a late lunch then headed back to the Kushiro Station car park. Having not driven for almost a year I was flagging by this time. So having started to backup my CF card containing the photos I'd taken so far to my CinemaDisk, I closed my eyes for fifteen minutes to recharge my batteries.

At around 17:45 we climbed the small hill from the car park again to the HosoOka Viewpoint. The sky was still heavy with big grey rain-clouds, but there were breaks now and even a little colour in the clouds as the sun dropped towards the horizon. As I'd suspected, we heard a local guide telling a group of tourists nearby that this point was a favourite with photographers trying to get a good sunset shot. However the best time of year he said was autumn. In autumn the "camera-men" arrived well before sunset to get a good spot to set up their tripods he was saying. Having seen the fiery sky from the plane the previous day I was still hopeful, but it didn't happen. One of the half-decent shots I got here is the second in this travelogue. I used a gradual grey ND filter to lessen the contrast between the sky and the dark ground, but the ground will still appear very dark on many monitors.

I should also tell you, although you might expect with this being a marsh, the mosquitoes in this area are fierce. I seem to get bitten far more than the surrounding Japanese folk, and having been brought up in the Midlands in England, not famous for warm weather necessary to support mosquitoes, I have absolutely no immunity to these little critters. I knew this would be the case and started the day quite cocky, with my super-duper heavy duty bug repellent, but still found myself surrounded by a cloud of the little monsters within seconds every time I stopped walking. They were sucking on me through my shirt, and I even got bit on my forehead in a couple of places! Anyway, what I'm trying to say is, come prepared, both physically, with the best repellent you can buy, and mentally, as you more than likely will get bit and have to resist scratching for a few days.

After the uneventful sunset, we headed back to the car and the hotel for dinner, a shower and bed.

The following morning we rose at 04:00 to get to the marsh before the mist cleared. We parked up at the Onnenai Wooden Walkway car park and walked down a very precarious wooden staircase to the level of the marsh. As we walked towards the information centre from where the walkway starts a mother deer with a fawn were tucking into the dewy grass just off the path. A close-up of the fawn and a shot of the wooden walkway are the third and fourth shots.

I had hoped the mist would be just a thin layer, hanging above the marsh, but as most of you know, nature rarely does what we want, especially when we have a camera with us. Maybe if it had been just a little colder making the air clearer my dream might have come true. It was still a breath-taking walk out on the walkway into the marsh. I'd dreamt of being here for nine-years, and I was not disappointed. The dewy plants and cobwebs made for some nice shots too, as in photo number five.

We walked around for an hour or so then headed back to the car park. We noticed a hand-written sign on the information centre's notice board on the way out, warning that brown bears had been spotted early morning on the marsh, and to be on alert. I'm kind of glad we didn't see this on our way out, as my wife had been worried about running into one of these beasts, the third largest species of bear in the world, since before we left Tokyo. Luckily we didn't run into any.

On the way back from Onnenai I noticed some horses in a field. Mother and foal were feeding to one side of the field and daddy was standing about 15 metres from the gate at which I stopped the car. Photos six and seven were taken here.

You'll also notice in the background of the photo of mother and foal a run-down shack. I noticed these all over Hokkaido. We figured that unlike Tokyo where you'll pay an absolute fortune for a few square metres of land, it must be quite cheap in Hokkaido. In Japan the humidity and effect of earthquakes among other things bring rise to the necessity to rebuild your house every 40 to 50 years or so. When most people do this, they move into a short-term apartment or stay with relatives etc. for a few months until the new house is ready. In Hokkaido we think that people probably just build the new house near to the old one, and move in, keeping the old one for storage etc until it becomes too decrepit to be of any use then let it fall down. Anyway, we went back to the hotel at around 08:30 and had breakfast before checking out.

Around lunch time we arrived at the Kushiro City Tanchouzuru (Japanese Crane) Nature Park. This is located near the Kushiro Airport, and probably worth a visit if like me you can't find any in the wild. They are beautiful, graceful creatures. I fully intend to make my way to Kushiro again, hopefully at the end of next winter or spring to get some shots of their mating dance on the snow, and in the wild this time. For now please make do with the eighth shot in this travelogue.

From here we drove to Akan-ko (Lake). This is very touristy, and probably not worth going out of your way to visit. There is also a street of Ainu souvenir shops here. (Sorry Adam, we stumbled across this particular tourist trap. It was not planned, honestly!) It was here that I took the portrait of the elderly sculptor at work, which is shot nine. He was sitting near the doorway of one of the shops at work carving. Luckily he didn't see me crouch down a few metres away from him until after he heard the sound of my camera shutter, so it's quite a natural portrait.

We didn't hang around at Akan Lake for long. We took route 241 to Kussharo Lake where we had booked our third night hotel. We reached the area just before sunset. The view of the lake from the room was striking, but nothing worth posting here. There's an island in the middle of Kussharo Lake which looks very nice spooky, yet beautiful with its misty hat. In different conditions it would make a very nice photo, maybe with a boat or something else of interest in the frame.

The following morning I woke at 04:00 again to see what was happening outside, but again there was just a thick mist, actually more like fog, so I jumped back into bed for a few more hours. After breakfast we drove to the top of the Tsubetsu Pass, a nearby mountain to get a shot of the lake with its island in the centre, but as we walked from the car to the vantage point, a huge cloud enveloped the top of the mountain and we couldn't see a thing. We waited a while but it didn't clear again so we gave in. It was going to be a long haul to Shiretoko, and we had another lake to visit on the way.

The lake to the east of Kussharo is Mashuu. There are songs about the mist that engulfs this lake all day long, almost all year round. We were wondering just how true this was, but as we neared the lake we drove into a thick fog. It was like an old black and white movie I once saw, where once inside the fog the stars went through a time-slip and couldn't get back out. Well, actually we didn't go through a time slip, and we got out pretty easily too, but the general feeling of going from a relatively clear day into such a thick pea-souper was very weird. The tenth photo is a just down the road from the lake. I was going to post this photo in colour, but decided to go with black and white, as it seemed to suit the fog. After this we did go to the edge of the lake where I got a photo of my wife with a pure white cloud background. It would have been great if I was after just a portrait, but it could have been taken anywhere with a white sheet as a backdrop. :-(

On the drive over to Shiretoko we stopped at a number of scenic places. Shot number eleven is of a cropped wheat field with a wedding chapel in the background. Although not particularly a Christian country, there are thousands of such chapels, built for the sole purpose of holding posy wedding ceremonies. Of course there are also many working churches, which I don't mean to insult in any way.

Just outside Shiretoko is the Oshin Koshin Falls. Oshin Koshin in the Ainu language means Man and Woman. The falls are split into two, one slightly larger than the other, like a man and woman standing next to each other, which is how the falls got there name. See photo number twelve.

A couple of kilometres down the road from Oshin Koshin were a couple of large rocks standing in the sea. It was here that I took the thirteenth shot, with the sun around an hour from setting showing through a break in the clouds. I metered for the bright area of the sea between the rocks and myself so as to throw the rocks into silhouette. I also set my auto-white balance on my EOS 10D to 6500K. I'd say this is about the equivalent of using a warm-up filter on a film camera. Although you can use warm-up filters on a digital SLR, it's not really necessary if you can customize the white balance, especially if your camera accepts Kelvin settings. I also tried at the warmest (10,000) and coldest end of the range (2,800). The warm end was too warm. The sun is was still too high in the sky to give that warm a feeling, so the shot looked un-natural. The coldest end gave a very interesting result. A very blue cast made the shot look like a surreal Arctic landscape. (By the way, daylight white-balance and daylight film is usually set around 5,300 Kelvin.)

Shiretoko is famous for many things, but the one I was most interested in was its sunsets. Today though, as with previous days, it was not spectacular. The sky did turn a little red, but the clouds were too thick for anything great to happen. I got no photos worthy of posting here.

The following morning we got up at 07:00 and after breakfast headed over to the Shiretoko Five Lakes arriving at 10:05. On this day, only the first two lakes were open to the public as brown bears had been reported in the vicinity of the other three lakes. I wasn't too disappointed. Firstly it was raining quite hard, and secondly, I didn't want to get eaten by one of them. I must admit though, that I was hoping to get a view of one of these magnificent creatures from a far, and hopefully justify my new 100-400mm lens a little more too.

After Shiretoko we drove to Abashiri. There is a famous prison in Abashiri, or should I say infamous. The cold harsh winters in Hokkaido are very long. There's snow on the ground from autumn through to late spring in most parts, and the stone prison building offers little protection. Being sentenced to jail in Abashiri used to be something that most people on the other side of the law dreaded. Nowadays, there are no long term sentences at Abashiri. It's used more as a short-sharp-shock type of a sentence. There's a museum near to the prison that has waxwork dolls and all, showing the conditions of the prison. We skipped this though, as although most of the people inside deserved to be there, I don't like wallowing in their suffering. We stuck to buying one of the Nipopo dolls that the inmates calve. Nipopo are a kind of rough "Kokeshi" doll with just a long body and a head with no arms or legs. Originally calved as a way repenting and wishing to be free, they are now very popular. To the extent that there are fake Nipopo dolls available in many stores. You can tell the originals by a scorched stamp (branded) on the base and a black and gold sticker on the side near the base.

We went on to Cape Notoro, where there's a famous black and white lighthouse (a little like an inmates suit). I got a couple of shots here too, but it was raining with a very white, uneventful sky, so again, nothing worth posting.

It was still quite a way to Kitami, where we were booked into a hotel, and a typhoon was on its way (hence all the rain), so although still only early afternoon, we decided to get on our way. It was on the way to Kitami that I got shot thirteen. As we drove through some road works, I notice a break in the hills through which I saw a group of horses standing on top of a hill. The third horse shot in this travelogue might lead you to believe I'm a horse freak, but that's not really so, but I do think they're quite photogenic. At the time I spotted them there was a break in the clouds lighting just this hill, this single point, making it stand out, hi-lighted against the dark mountain side behind. Unfortunately as we had past the first flag-man and not yet cleared the road-works, I couldn't stop. Having u-turned and gone back through the road-works twice more trying to find somewhere I might be able to stop, I gave up and parked the car about a kilometre down the road and walked back with my camera. The flag-men were kind, telling me it was OK to walk through, but to be careful and don't get in the way. The resulting photo, number fourteen, was not great. The light had by now past over the hill so there was not so much contrast between the horses and the mountain in the backdrop.

At Kitami we checked into the hotel and decided to go out for a beer. It was Friday night by now, and I was ready for a drink. When we left the bar/restaurant a few hours later, and a little worse for wear, we had a short walk around the town and came across a couple of young buskers. They had brilliant voices and touching lyrics too. Typical of what you might expect from a couple of youths in a small country town, signing of there dreams of getting out and making something of themselves. I snapped them during the song and that is photo fifteen. Talking to them afterwards they asked if we were here on holiday, having replied "yes" they boasted of having just returned from travels themselves. I expected them to tell of a trip to Tokyo, or at least to mainland Japan, instead they said they'd done a busking tour of Hokkaido. Not wishing to put this down, they're still young and this was quite adventurous, but I could have hugged them both to death there and then. As this probably would not have gone down well, I decided to show my appreciation by doubling the amount I gave them in return for the entertainment, and the photo. I chose black and white for this by the way, as the bar/restaurant sign in back was black and white, and the small amount of colour in the guy's clothes was a little distracting. Also, the guy to the right was moving his head as I snapped. Result? Not a great shot, but I want to put it in here just for the memory. Sorry.

The rain, and the ever-so-slight hang-over kept us in the hotel a little later than usual on Saturday morning. We left at 09:30, planning on visiting SouUnKyo, roughly translated as "Layered Cloud Canyon". The original plan was to park the car near to one end of the Ginga Tunnel that takes you through the foothills of Daisetsuzan (Mountain) and walk along one of the public footpaths to the nearby waterfall. However, the rain from the coming typhoon was getting even heavier now and the walk seemed unwise. We did go to near the top of KuroDake or "Black Mountain" via the SouUnKyo ropeway. If you visit the area and the ropeway is running, I suggest you go up in whatever conditions. (It will be closed in heavy wind, other harsh whether, or the winter time. I think it said from October to April was closed.) The view of the canyon and nearby mountains is amazing. The clouds were indeed in layers above and below us, as the name of the canyon advertised. It was here that I got shot sixteen. This shot reminds me of the fine ink paintings you see on many Japanese hanging scroll paintings, or Kakejiku.

The remaining drive to Asahikawa City, where we were to spend the last two nights of the journey revealed another side of Hokkaido. Hokkaido is a very agricultural island, with most areas farmed in some way, and Asahikawa from the outskirts, almost all the way to the centre has wide roads along which are many, many very practical shops. Hardware stores, car and truck showrooms, and most of all, tractors, combine harvester and agricultural equipment stores. In many ways Hokkaido reminded me of the States. In addition to the scenes in Asahikawa, the roads across Hokkaido often went in a straight line for miles when there were no mountains to navigate around. I've not seen this in many places in other parts of Japan, England or Europe. Only in very big countries like the US. I guess this is proof of how much wilderness is left in Hokkaido.

The last two days in Hokkaido were in an area that famous for its patchwork of wheat, potato and flower filled fields. In fact there's a road near Biei, the first place we visited on the morning of Sunday the 10th, called Patchwork Road. It's a road that winds through the rolling hills for about five kilometres. Many of the wheat fields had already cropped and so too had many of the flower fields. Still the patchwork of farmed fields, was beautiful. The rolling hills also reminded very much of England, my home country. Come to think of it, we'd said from the first day that Hokkaido smelled like England. We guessed it was due to the similar vegetation. The trees still looked very green, even in August, much as they do in England. In warmer parts of Japan, this look wears of by around April or May.

A famous photographer, Shinzou Maeda made photographing these hills his lifework. He used to work in Tokyo as a salary-man, but when in his forties, having decided he'd had enough of the rat-race, he moved to Biei and started to photograph it. He pretty much single-handedly made this area famous with his photographs. He also spend over a year and a half creating moving photos of the area with a high-vision video camera, commissioned by Sony. There's no panning in the shots. He simply set up the video camera and started taping for a number of seconds from the same locations that he photographed many of his most famous shots. The result is pretty much like a photo album, but when you look closely, the grass is blowing in the wind, or butterflies are dancing across the top of the wheat field in the distance. It is truly amazing work, which his son continues today.

Shinzou Maeda founded the art gallery Taku Shin Kan in Biei in which his most famous work is displayed and framed prints for sale. This is a must if you are in the area. (It was here that I bought a three DVD box set of the moving photos I mentioned above.)

Just down the road from the Taku Shin Kan, is the "Shikisai No Oka Farm". This name means roughly the "Colour of the Season's Hill Farm". It was on the road to the farm that I took shot seventeen including the farm in the bottom right. This will show you pretty much what the weather was like on this day, changeable to say the least. From inside the farm I took the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth shots of the flower fields from within the farm. To our good fortune the typhoon had past in the night. A clear patch of sky now illuminated the flowers, but the sky in back of two of these shots was still heavy with clouds. These dramatic skies possibly make a change from the usual bright blue skies in the flower filled photos from this area. The major downside here is that you cannot see the mountain range in the distance in shot twenty. That also would have made for a spectacular photo.

As I've posted my photos in chronological order, I didn't mention shot twenty one above, but if you ever get to see any of Shinzou Maeda's work, a very large proportion of it contains the white tower of the Bibaushi Elementary School shown in my shot here. A very photogenic tower, as Shinzou proved. I didn't do so well, but I couldn't leave Biei without one shot of the tower that made it famous.

There are number of other striped flower fields in this area, the most famous probably at the Tomita Farm in Furano which we visited later in the day, though the shots I got there were similar though not as nice as the three previous shots. These farms are commercial places, though many don't charge an entry fee. The Shikisai No Oka Farm asks for a 200 yen ($1.70) donation per person. They probably make most of there money from selling ice creams and other snacks at the entrance. Tomita Farm doesn't charge at all, but they are far more commercialised. If you've ever seen pictures of rolling lavender fields in Hokkaido, they were probably taken here in Furano at the Tomita Farm. I personally preferred Shikisai No Oka but with only a twenty minute or so drive between them it's worth visiting both.

In between Shikisai No Oka and Tomita Farms we stopped briefly at another farm on route 237. I failed to note the name of this farm, but the sunflowers there were beautiful. I took photos twenty two, twenty three and twenty four here.

We made our way to back to Biei's Shinei No Oka (Shinei Hill) in time for another wished for sunset. This spot has a 360 degree view of the Biei area. As usual, the sunset didn't happen. I had been out of luck all week for sunsets, though I couldn't grumble, I'd got my fair share of photos from the journey. Shot twenty five was taken here around day-break.

On the final day, Monday the 11th, we were to fly at 19:30 but we'd pretty much visited all the places we'd hoped to on the previous day. We had another drive around the Biei and Furano areas I took shots twenty six and twenty seven at the farm house just down the road from the Takushinkan at Biei.

We then we drove over to Tokachi Dake (Mountain) to the Bougakudai Viewpoint. This is not far from the peak of the Tokachi Mountain that continually vents volcanic steam. Again low cloud meant nothing great photographically, but it was a nice excursion. A drive through the silver birch tree woods on the way back towards Furano was pleasant and we stopped to photograph a woman working in a green field on the way. That's photo twenty eight.

Finally, we decided to head for the Asahikawa Airport. We were to return the renta-car by the airport before the flight. After checking in, we took a quick look at the souvenir shops and made our way upstairs. We went out onto the observation deck, to watch the planes landing and taking off. It was here that I took the twenty ninth photo of the airport worker bowing to the plane as it taxied off to the runway. Only in Japan!!

Having spent a little time here, we decided to go in for dinner before flying. The holiday was over. As we sat waiting for our meal to come out, with a beer too, the car had been returned now, the sky started to turn orange, then red. I couldn't believe it. I'd been standing waiting for a spectacular fiery sunset almost every night for the last week, and now, while I'm sitting in a restaurant with a beer, waiting for my noodles to arrive, the sky was turning red. I tried to play it cool for a while, telling my wife that I'd taken enough photos for this week to last me a while, and I could resist this one. To be honest, at first I thought this was going to be another dud. On a few of the previous nights the sky had gone a little red but then fizzled out before coming to anything.

I was wrong. The sky set alight! I was glad I'd ordered cold noodles. I couldn't resist it any longer, and grabbed my bag and went back out onto the observation deck. It costs 50 yen (60 cents) a time to get out there, but who's counting. The trips had cost me a small fortune anyway. The sunset I'd been waiting for was happening before my eyes. I took a bunch of shots, but didn't want to keep the missus waiting too long, so after five minutes or so I went back in, convinced that the best of the sunset would be over soon.

Again I was wrong. The dark red continued to expand across the sky, and it was at this time that another plane started to taxi out on to the runway. I'd wanted something extra in the shot to add some interest. If I rushed, I'd get back out there before the plane rolled down the runway in front of the flaming sunset. Another fifty yen into the turnstile and I was out there. The thirtieth shot in this travelogue. Thirty one is of the airport lights with the flaming sky. They seemed to be watching the sunset as well as the planes departed. They were to watch us take off shortly afterwards. Anyway, I was happy. I had finally got a sunset that was to be My "Goodbye Hokkaido" sunset!

Thank you Hokkaido! And thank you Yoshiko, for putting up with this camera crazy husband, and for enjoying the trip to Hokkaido as much as I did, in despite my incessant photo taking.

Martin Bailey.
A week in Hokkaido. August 2003.