Abashiri, there’s only one reason to go there, or rather two. One is voluntary and the other is mandated by a court of law. About a hundred years ago a high up in the Japanese military came to this small port town, stood upon a hill, and decided that this would be the ideal place for a prison. Since then this place has been known for nothing but the collection of buildings that house hardened criminals. There might be other things that the town is famous for but I have no idea what they are, and neither did the helpful staff at the tourist information center.
Unfortunately my night at the hotel hadn’t been so restful because of the late hour in which I finally tucked myself in. Pictures and blogs to upload, website to organize, correspondence to deal with (Karrimor was still putting me off), my trip is not just running around to see the sites.
The prison museum was set slightly apart from the town which was to be expected. It’s large stone gates loomed just beyond the ticket counter. Luckily the kind people at the tourist center had given me a discount for a coupon saving 80 yen off the full price of 1000 yen (way too much for a place that was too much space and not enough content as I found out later).
I had been warned that the place was depressing but as I wandered the grounds I didn’t feel much of anything. Maybe it was the sunny weather or lack of things to look at but I was almost in a whistling mood. One of the things I did notice was there appeared to be a cult of mustaches among the staff.
I didn’t catch it at first but as I sat down to lunch in the prison cafeteria to enjoy a ‘prison lunch’ I began to actually look at the guards (plastic mannequins of course). Each and every one of the 3 guards in the room had some bit of hair glued to their upper lip. I glanced through the door from my bench into the next room and the guard I could see had a mustache too. Coincidence? I didn’t think so.
I went back to each and every room and took a survey of the guards. I had to do it covertly because I didn’t want to get caught and be thrown in with the rest of the criminals. Not a doubt was left in my mind after I did the math. Some 80% of the guards were part of the ‘guild.’ If you ever make it to Abashiri you can check it out for yourself. See what happens when you make someone pay 1000 yen to see a bunch of empty rooms and plastic people? We look for other things to do.
Having run out of fun at the prison I set my next destination, Bihoro mountain pass, a decent 45km away. It was still early afternoon so I had no worries about getting there.
It actually took a while to catch a ride but eventually a minivan with a younger couple pulled up. They were headed for somewhere past the mountain pass but would be glad to stop for a bit to look around and take me further if needed. With that we took off.
Bihoro mountain pass is a small crease between the mountains located a decent way above sea level and from what I understood famous for being the site of an old television drama. There was a song written about the drama and then performed by a famous singer. That song plays continuously on a loop in the gift shop and blares from a speaker next to the sightseeing marker. I really can’t imagine how the people who work there don’t go crazy. I even asked the staff in the kitchen if they knew the words by heart. They laughed and gave a double meaninged smile.
The couple who had been nice enough to give me a ride, Shuya and Rika, stayed for a little bit but I could see them itching to leave. I checked to make sure I had the three things necessary to camp; a place to get dinner (they said they were open until 6), a place for shelter (a 24 hour heated bathroom in this case), and a way out (a bus that passed through). With that check completed we took a picture, said our goodbyes and I was left to find a spot for my tent.
Alone I finally had to to actually take in the scenery that surrounded me. There was still a quite a bit of light remaining and it lit the countryside in a beautiful glow. The sky was a nice shade of blue with thin wisps of clouds hiding the horizon. Summer was still on its way and snow clung everywhere but with widening patches of green and yellow growing all around. It was quite breathtaking to stand in the V of a mountain pass and look out over the wide stretches of land. I could see my destination for the next day, Kawayu, on the other side of the lake that dominated the valley.
I took my time taking pictures and walking around but as the sun began to set and temperature started to drop I felt it was time to fill my gas tank up with some food. It was only 5:15 but I wanted to go early just in case the restaurant decided to close early for lack of customers.
As I stepped into the main building I had a strange sinking feeling. The machines that dispensed the little meal tickets were dark and a small sign politely stated that the restaurant was closed for the day. I looked over at the kitchen and saw the group of ladies finishing up the last tasks for the day.
‘Excuse me, are you still open?’ I asked the question I already knew the answer to. The lady closest to me looked up,’ No, I’m sorry were closed for the day.’ I took a deep breath,’ Really? I thought you were open until 6 o’clock.’ I let the sentence hang in the air between us. She took a good look at me, studying my desperate looking face, giant backpack and heavy clothes then asked slowly, ‘Are you camping here tonight?’ I smiled weakly, ‘Yes and I was kind of depending on this place to get some food before braving the cold tonight.’
She looked at me again, then back at her coweorkers cleaning the kitchen, then back at me again. ‘Something simple would do? Like curry rice?’ I nodded eagerly overjoyed at my luck, ‘yes, that would be perfect.’ A grin split her face, ‘let’s see what we can do.’
This planet needs more people like her.
The rest of the evening was pretty chill, literally. The temperature dropped rapidly and I was forced from my perch overlooking the darkening valley to my not so warm tent. As the last people pulled out of the parking lot a thick mis descended, or rather blew into the deserted mountain pass.
Pretty soon it was thick enough to swim in and swallowed all sounds. Not a thing but me stirred in the place. The flowing mist was illuminated by the tall orange lights surrounding the parking lot giving it an entirely otherworldly glow. It was still, almost too still, so I retreated once agin to the safety of my tent and wrapped myself in my fluffy sleeping bag.
My eyes were soon overcome with the weights that bore the lids downward and I lay back to accept the inevitable. It was only 9 but once again my alarm was set for unbelievable early, 4am. I was eager to see the sun rise over Bihoro mountain pass and hoped that the weather would improve over the next 7 hours. Sleep felt really good.