August 7th: This way for marimo!
Once again we had to get up at 5am to catch our train. First we took a four-hour express train to the town of Kushiro, the farthest we could go. From there, we had to transfer to a bus and ride two hours to the small lakeside town of Akan. Akan Lake is famous for its native algae, which tumble around in the current caused by natural hot springs draining into the lake, becoming spherical. These algae are called marimo. Upon arriving in town, we dropped off our luggage at our hotel and took a boat out to the marimo museum on a small island in the middle of the lake.
Upon returning, we began shopping in earnest. Akan has a LOT of marimo merchandise. There are even various kinds of marimo-inspired food, such as marimo soft-serve ice cream (containing a small green sphere embedded in the center) and marimo-shaped cheesy potato balls. (Hokkaido is famous for both potatoes and dairy products, in addition to its beer.) wednesday_10_00 went crazy with the shopping. In fact, we found a doll that struck us as quite representative of her marimo passion.
We lugged our purchases back to the hotel and went back out again, this time to visit the town's other tourist attraction, Ainukotan. This is a small strip of shops where the native Ainu sell their traditional crafts, mostly wood carvings. (The Ainu had populated Japan first, but were driven north by the Asians that became today's Japanese people. Now they mainly live in Hokkaido.) They perform exhibitions of their traditional dances, but we were too tired to attend the evening showing. We chose instead to crash in our room in preparation for yet another early morning.
On the 8th, we grabbed breakfast at the hotel buffet (complete with marimo tofu) and hopped on a bus for Mashuu, the nearest town with a train station. It happened to be a tour bus, complete with a guide who explained everything we were seeing along the way. It was really fascinating to listen to her. She apologized for the heat--it was in the 90s--saying that she knew we all came to Hokkaido to escape the heat because it's usually cooler there. She also said that we were supposed to spend all our time in Hokkaido with a beer in one hand and ice cream in the other...it was their goal to get us all at least 2kg heavier during our stay. My favorite part was when she showed everyone the cow crossing: a tunnel under the road for the dairy cows to cross to the pasture on the opposite side.
We got off the bus at Mashuu and waited for our train. While there, we encountered this sign telling us how far we were from Tokyo. Our train finally arrived...and it was only one car. I had been on small trains in the middle of the mountains in Niigata before, but they always had at least two cars, so this was a novel experience. We took the train north to the city of Abashiri.
Abashiri is famous for the icebergs that can be seen off the coast (though not during the middle of summer). They are proud of their icebergs, as demonstrated by this booth in front of the train station. We didn't come for that, however. Our goal was to visit the Abashiri Prison Museum. This was an agricultural prison (the inmates grew their own food) until the 1980s. When it closed, it was reopened as a museum, with mannequins depicting the lifestyle of the prisoners. megory and wednesday_10_00 began by spending some time behind bars.
If anyone ever gets a hankering to travel to the far side of Hokkaido, this is a great place to visit. It's positively hysterical. The mannequins are great, of course, but the "English" on the signs posted everywhere is endlessly entertaining. There is also an area where you can dress up in prison clothing and hang out with the other "inmates." megory and wednesday_10_00 get into the spirit of things in the foot-washing room. There were far too many awesome sights for me to post pictures of them all, so I will provide an example: the bathhouse.
As you leave the prison museum, there is (naturally) a museum shop. You could buy random Hokkaido trinkets, sure, but you could also get goods specific to the prison itself. My favorite item was the "jailbreak chips."
~ To Be Continued ~