Saturday, 17 February 2018


The one-carriage train pulled into Abashiri as night fell. We stepped off of the train pulling our backpacks on and bent forward into the driving snow. Abashiri is a port town on the northern east coast of Hokkaido, Japan, and is well known for two things: drift ice and a prison. We were there to see the ice, but on arrival couldn’t help think about how this hardy frozen town was the perfect place for dangerous criminals.

Abashiri gave off an uneasy feeling. Maybe it was the bleak cold, our closeness to Russia, or just that we were hungry and tired, but this was far from the popularly perceived notions of Japan - this was definitely no Kyoto. We found our hotel opposite the station, next to the warmly lit-up, shiny Toyoko Inn hotel which busy with families from China celebrating their Chinese New Year holidays. We pushed open the creaky door of our corroded concrete old hotel

The lobby was reminiscent of the black lodge in David Lynch's Twin Peaks; red velvet sofas and parlour palms appeared hazy through the smoke of a lit cigarette in an ashtray. We rang the bell at reception and an short old round lady appeared. She was rough and gravely like some old character from an anime—not the sweet kind, but one who would try and trick you out of a magical power. The lady was actually kind enough; she spoke a little English and we spoke a little (very little) Japanese but she chatted to us just the same – happy, we supposed, to see a different type of clientele. As we chatted square shapes of older men came and went in leather jackets, their rough hands clutching cans of beer and 7-11 noodles for dinner as they clambered up to their rooms. I presumed they were truckers and remembered about the protagonist in Mari Akasaka's novel Vibrator, steely and strange.

The men were quite intimidating and the thought went through my head that this is the kind of under-the -adar hotel that they might invite prostitutes back to. This thought made me uneasy. That wasn’t the end of it though: the red lift took us to our room on the third floor, and it was the only time we used the lift, it creaked and croaked as it hauled our weight against gravity and flecks of paint peeled off.

Our room was simply incredible in an 'how can someone actually think its ok to let people stay in this place?' sort of way. I put my bag on the desk, not wanting it or anything I own to touch the stained carpet, ingrained with decades of people’s detritus. The walls were damp and the widow was frozen shut from the inside. It was amazing. This whole hotel hadn't been touched since the 1970s, it was like a set from a murder mystery except we were in it and the big bulky beer-drinking men in leather jackets were staying next door.

As quickly as we got in, we got out. The lady at reception had kindly given us a map with a discount voucher for an Indian restaurant attached. Back out in the permeating cold of the Abashiri night we followed the folding map, past the golden warmth of the shiny new hotel next door. We crunched up the road, past a KFC (who would have thought it?), past a group of young Chinese New Year tourists and across an ominously frozen river. We walked though the deserted streets of this northern city and it began to snow. Why were we doing this to ourselves?

We were hunting down the Indian restaurant for a few reasons: primarily because I was vegetarian who was just really hungry and knew that Indian food usually caters well for vegetarians, so there would be no trouble tucking into something tasty, and secondly simply to see Indian food being served in such a strange and hostile place so far away from the Indian restaurants we know and love and have been brought up with in dear old England. Plus we had a coupon. Through the doors of the restaurant and out of the driving snow, an Indian guy greeted us in Japanese and surprised smiles and guided us to a table. Men came out of the kitchen to get a look at the two white people who suddenly rocked up out of the snowy fog of the night. We were as surprised to see these east Asian guys as they were to see us. The restaurant was empty apart from a table of teenagers who were eating together after a college sporting event.

We ordered our curry like seasoned pros – ‘spicy please!’ The Indian guys turned out to be Nepalese and were truly so wonderful. We spoke to them mainly in English, uncertain if they spoke better English or Japanese. The guy who served us was in his 30s and had moved to Abashiri from Nepal as his uncle had started a restaurant here. We began to suspect that most Indian restaurants in Japan were run by Nepalese men. (We are still trying to understand why this is to this day!) We tucked in to a hearty curry and ate our cheesy naan bread like gluttons; the coupon from the lady at the hotel was for cheesy naan. This was the kind of carb-loaded food we needed to keep us warm and all of it for about £10. We didn’t want to leave the kind men with tasty food and their warmth to go back to the shabby shack of a hotel but the Nepalese guys wanted to close and we needed to go to bed. In the morning we were going to be going out onto the chill of the frozen Sea of Okhotsk for one of the colder things to do in Japan.

We walked to our hotel – stopping off for a can of Chu-Hi from a 7-11 which would hopefully knock us out and help us sleep on our stained sheets – back past the happy faces in the shiny hotel, faces almost pressed against their clean glass in envy. We slept fully clothed on top of the sheets that night.

Morning came and we left as soon as we could brush our teeth and get layered up for the outside. We checked out and stashed our heavy backpacks in the big lockers at Abashiri train station; coin lockers are one of those convenient perks of travelling in Japan.

Grabbing some snacks from a bakery we made our way to the ferry terminal and purchased tickets for the 9am morning ice breaker – bad hotels have a way of getting us up and out in the morning. Alarm bells started to ring when we noticed a disclosure sign for the ice breaker cruise: you might not actually see any ice. So yes, we had travelled all this way to Abashiri specifically to see the sea freeze over – one of the more famous things to do in Hokkaido – and it turned out it wasn’t cold enough to be frozen. Well, it felt cold enough, but no, it wasn’t.

We had our boat tickets now and so by this point were duty bound to board this ship. On the ship we found a place on the top deck to take in the scenes of the sea whilst most people sat below deck keeping warm and taking selfies.

This boat trip is actually on some people’s bucket lists as a once-in-a-lifetime thing to do and even though the ice was not there, the boat trip was unforgettable. The ship took us out of the harbour and into the frigid Russian Sea of Okhotsk, the cold blistering through our many layers, almost suffocating in its dryness. The wind blew against our bodies, the expanse of the sea in front of us reminding us of how small and fragile our bodies are against the forces of nature. To put it simply, we have never been so cold in our lives. It was incredible. And we did see some ice – the harbour was a little frozen over – and we did see some sea eagles chilling out on rocks by the sea. Even if there was very little ice, the immense feeling of being so far away from everything we know on the cold of the Okhotsk was worth the trip.

Back on dry land we had a few hours before catching the train to our next destination and took a walk up the Abashiri shopping street. It turned out that Ababsihi wasn't the strange frozen oddball of a town that we first thought. The shopping street gently pumped out sweet music through its public address system. We were on the hunt for a contact lens case and this was when we were reminded that we were still in the kindhearted country of Japan.

We first tried an opticians thinking that they would have all sorts of optical-related items, but after some miming and saying the word ‘contact lens’ in a Japanese way the kind lady behind the counter said they didn't have any. But she got on the phone, went through the phone book and phoned someone up for us. She instructed us to walk up the road and described another shop. We thanked her so much for her help and made our way to the next shop, like a treasure hunt for contact lenses.

The next place was a pharmacy, it was busy with older members of the town sitting waiting for prescriptions. A youngish guy came out from a back room and we told him that a lady had called up for us, telling him that we were looking for a contact lens case, he had understood however he didn't have any. But then, after some rummaging around he produced two pill pots the size of contact lenses and asked if they would work - yes they would! We thanked him and offered up token money and he shook his head. He didn't want payment. Just another example of omotenashi – the sheer kindness of Japanese people when it comes to accommodating strangers.

We returned to our coin locker, slung our bags over our shoulders and bought tickets for the 3 o'clock train to our next destination, Asahikawa, for the ice festival, leaving Abashiri with warm hearts but the rest of us completely frozen.



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