Monday, February 12, 2007

Abashiri: Home of Sea Ice

Another long weekend, another excursion.

This weekend, instead of following the crowd out to Sapporo for the annual Yuki Matsuri (snow festival) I joined a smaller group headed up to Abashiri for numerous snow and ice festivals on the sea of Ohotsk.

The goal of the weekend was to see the famous drift ice that is supposed to dominate the coast during the coldest months of the year. This year and last, however, it hasn't been much to see. It's just been too warm for good sea ice conditions. Undaunted by naysayers who were convinced there would be no ice worth viewing, our party of three set out early Saturday morning for the coast. We were lucky with the weather (always a concern) and had gorgeous clear skies to see us over the seihoku pass between my place and Kitami.

I wasn't feeling so well, but it was a long weekend. Staying home is just not an option. Besides -- I wouldn't be driving. We started the weekend at the Abashiri-ko Matsuri. They had all sorts of fun things to do. Ice slides, hot air balloon rides, snowmobiles, rubber rafts attached to the back of snowmobiles, snow and ice sculptures just to name a few. We let loose our inner elementary schoolers and took on the ice slides, freaking out more than a few small children. Then it was time for snowmobiles. We took a ride on a raft being pulled behind a snowmobile, and then decided we needed to drive our own. I discovered I am a complete scaredy-cat when it comes to snowmobiles. I was worried I would flip the thing if I went too fast. In spite of this, it was really a lot of fun. But I won't be buying a snowmobile anytime soon.

We stopped in town for some lunch (well, Jude and John von Muroran had lunch. I drank tea and ignored my chills) before our next stop. We ended up too far down the coast from where we wanted to be, so Jude pulled into a random parking lot to turn around. We pulled in and found a helicopter, ready and waiting to go. So Jude and I ponied up the 4800yen (about 50CDN) required, and took a 4 minute ride over the sea ice. It was seriously cool. If I had enough cash on me, I probably would have taken the 15minute ride option for 20,000 yen (roughly 200CDN) to go see Cape Notoro. It's probably a good thing I didn't have the cash.

We had a dinner reservation at five, so we drove the long way back into town and enjoyed some Abashiri sunset. Dinner was at an onsen hotel with the rest of our group. We were early, so there was time for a quick onsen before dinner. And I was finally able to get warm.

Dinner was amazing, and it was a shame I had no appetite. I did my best, but I just had no urge to eat food. Halfway through dinner, I had such a terrible coughing fit, that I lost my voice. You have no idea how difficult it is for me not to be able to talk. Especially when there were so many interesting people to talk to at dinner! Everyone else seemed to get a kick out of it though -- unsympathetic bastards!

That evening we made our way back to the festival on the shore of Lake Abashiri where we had spent the afternoon. They had some night illumination set up and there were supposed to be fireworks. I was more than ready for bed -- I couldn't talk, I was having fever and chills and ached everywhere. But the house we were staying at and the festival were in opposite directions. I went back to the festival and ganbatted through my sickness to watch the fireworks (which where undrwhelming to say the least) until we got back, whereupon I immediately passed out.

The next morning we were up bright and early to catch a boat to go see the sea ice. Unfortunately it was too warm, and the ice had all moved away from the shore. So we opted not to pay for the boat ride. Jude and I gloated that we had seen the ice the day before, from a helicopter no less.

That afternoon, our amazing host James had a snowshoeing excursion planned for us. I spent the afternoon curled up in front of a fire instead of braving the elements, which was what I needed. We then convoyed out to our hotel, with a stop at the most amazing rotenburo (outdoor bath). It was next to a lake populated with wild swans, so you could look out from the bath and see the swans doing what swans do in the lake. The water was hot, the snow was falling, the swans were swimming and the rotenburo was all ours. It was the best part of the weekend. As the sun was setting we returned to our hotel for more onsen action before dinner. I had more of an appetite that night, which was good because we were eating steak. Tender, juicy steak. Mmmmm.

There was time for one more quick dip in the onsen before it was off to the Diamond Dust party in town. Kawayu town hosts an annual Diamond Dust party. They hoist balloons full of dry ice into the air which turns the water vapour coming off the warm waters of the lake (川湯 or Kawayu means "hot water lake") into ice crystals. It was a little too warm and a little too snowy for the effect to work properly, but it was still beautiful. Or maybe it was more beautiful because my brain was a little cooked by one too many dips in the onsen...

The next morning, after (of course) one last soak in the onsen, it was time to head for home. The weather wasn't nearly as pleasant on the way back, and it snowed for much of the way. But was conveniently clear through the pass. So I was safely delivered to my door after a great weekend. Probably not the best way to spend the weekend if you're sick, but fun nonetheless.

And I even got to see the sea ice!

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