As I'm sure you no longer remember (I barely do myself) we went to Hokkaido for our New Year holidays. We stayed overnight in Kushiro on the south-east coast of Hokkaido, spent New Year at Kussharo Genya, a youth hostel run by an old friend of Ritsuko, then spent a night in Sapporo before returning home again.
Kushiro is much the same as the last time we passed by. It's sizable city with a large fishing port, but the town center feels lonesome and a little dreary. Lots of stores where shuttered, and judging from the realtor signs it's not all because of the New Year holidays.
There were a lot of local people at a nearby supermarket, stocking up for the holiday. A fair number of tourists — us included — found the Moo complex in the harbour, which has a bunch of restaurants and shops selling local products. It's not bad, especially if your heart is set on marinated or dried fish.
But overall, Kushiro seems to be a place that you pass through; a way point, not a destination. Life there is probably quite comfortable. It's big enough to have some speciality shops, restaurants, cafes, railway lines and an airport, but small enough that you can actually explore the entire town. But there's not a whole lot there for visitors.
After a night in Kushiro, we left town northward by rail. The line passing by Mashu — and ultimately to famous/infamous Abashiri on the north coast — is trafficked by a one-car rail bus. I like these. It feels small and compact, and it's slow enough that you can see the sights outside. But it's still a train so the ride is smooth, comfortable and fairly quiet.
You reach Kussharo Genya via Mashu, a small town to the south of the main lakes. We got picked up by Kazu-san, the owner; the car ride takes some 20 minutes or so. Most or all of the 15-odd guests were regulars, come to celebrate New Year. As Kazu is a former Kyoto cook, the food here is always good, and at New Year he really outdoes himself, with a buffet on New Years Eve, then traditional dishes on New Years day.
A good tip when shooting a picture like this — when you carry a bag full of camera equipment, tripod and so on down a snow-covered road in the icy cold of dead winter — is to not forget both your flashlight and phone inside. Without a light, you can see neither the light meter display, nor could you set the shutter and aperture if you could.
And walking all the way back to the hostel, pick up the flashlight, then trudge up the road again in the pitch dark is not nearly as fun as it sounds.
In the evening we all watched Kōhaku, the traditional music team competition. We also had a team quiz and a dart tournament — I was never good at darts before, but after not playing for ten years I really suck. Still fun though.
The whole area is hilly, but there's no really big mountains, so the place is good for cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing, should your interests lean in that direction. A couple of guests actually went on a canoe tour — they got full winter gear and dry suits, then out on the lakes with a guide in the subzero weather. They came back beaming with joy, so it was a success, apparently.
We spent New Years day walking about, camera in hand. We're not spoiled for snow in Osaka, so the crisp, dry air and the bright white snow cover is a welcome change from the usual grey drizzle. The weather was so-so, mostly cloudy and windy. Towards evening we sat around with the other guests reading and talking.
Our final destination was Sapporo. We took the local train back to Kushiro, then boarded the express to Sapporo in the west. It's a large city of almost two million people, with its own (very roomy) subway and tram lines. It's big enough that it has everything you'd need, and I guess that's part of the problem; the rest of Hokkaido is bleeding young people to Sapporo, and that causes quite a bit of resentment. But it's a beautiful, comfortable city and I like the place. I'd probably prefer Sapporo over Tokyo if I had to choose.
The food is excellent in Hokkaido; the seafood, especially, is probably the best in Japan. We bought fillets, smoked fish, fish roe, packs of shishamo (small fish you fry and eat whole) as well as cheese, sausages and smoked bacon. It's cheap and easy to ship a frozen food-box to Osaka, so you just make sure to buy enough to fill it up.