A trip to Wakkanai

I should preface this post by saying that not all my trips necessarily make sense (some of my friends would probably argue that only some of my trips do make sense, but were they to do so, they would promptly cease to be part of that exclusive category, so they don’t). Sometimes I travel because of reasons that other people would think I should be locked up for; some people already think that, for what it’s worth. This trip is sort of one like that, so gather together y’all, for a story.

Sometime in March 2014, a post popped up on FlyerTalk, in which someone said that Crowne Plaza Wakkanai was being sold at a ridiculously low price. Since I am an IHG Royal Ambassador, I need qualifying nights to renew my status; and when I saw that post, I immediately jumped and ran to my computer. My train of thought went along a route something like this:

Departing station: there is a mistake rate!
Station 1: Crowne Plaza is an IHG brand, so nights qualify towards renewing Royal Ambassador.
Station 2. It’s in Japan.Station 3: Japan is a small country.
Station 4: I go to Japan every once in a while anyway, and hey, see previous station.
Station Terminus: HOW FAR CAN WAKKANAI BE, RIGHT?!?

Those are famous last words of many an undertaking – I’m sure Captain Cook said something along those lines before setting off to find the Cook Islands, which only became called the Cook Islands after he wound up there, got eaten, and then the locals had a guilt trip and stuck his name on them.

So I booked almost two months at this hotel for October 2014, and moved on with life. Some time passed before it looked like they weren’t cancelling the bookings, and I started thinking that maybe I should get around to planning a trip there at some point. This is when an unexpected thing happened: I realised that I actually suck at something, and that something, in this particular case, was geography. Because this is where Wakkanai is:

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If that seems a little bit far from, you know, say Tokyo or something… well, that’s because IT IS!!!!!!!!

As it turns out, there’s not much Wakkanai is known for, but one thing that it is known for is being the northernmost point of Japan. This means that getting there isn’t exactly as easy as I thought it would be; a quick check confirmed my suspicions. There were two flights per day into, and out of, Wakkanai: a DH8 (a Bombardier turboprop) from Chitose (Sapporo, Hokkaido). That’s all.

Fortunately, as time went on, it so became that I had a work trip to Japan, so I had to go to Tokyo for work. I managed to book a convoluted trip that took me to Tokyo on Saturday evening, then I booked an award ticket that took me to Wakkanai on Sunday morning on the first flight, I was going to check into the hotel for my two-month stay, and then take the evening flight back to Tokyo and be at work at 9am sharp on Monday morning. The plan was perfect. I saw absolutely nothing that could go wrong with it.

While I was exploring the beauty of the Vancouver Air Canada international lounge (and what I mean by that is hopelessly gouging myself on Guinness, for lack of any other food or beverages), I got an email from AwardWallet. “Your rate has changed,” it helpfully informed me. My $8/night rate suddenly became $80/night, and my total two-month stay was no longer $240, but was $2,400 now. This is literally a day before checkin. “Oh no you don’t,” thought I. “It’s been seven months now. I’m going to show you guys how price protection works with gaijins.”

Anyway, uneventful flight to Japan, etc etc, flight to Sapporo, and we get to the Wakkanai flight. This is where things get somewhat odd. This is what awaited me at the gate:

Never mind the fact that nobody was apparently going to Wakkanai, two gate agents showed up. One proceeded to announce priority boarding for ANA Diamond Members, then waited for non-existent Diamond members to show up. Then she went on to announce priority boarding for business class (which does not exist on a DH8), Star Alliance Gold and other DYKWIA members. It was all great and all, BUT THERE’S NOBODY HERE EXCEPT ME.  It felt very creepy. Like, I understand there’s procedures and all that good stuff, but we don’t need to weird out the passengers before a flight into nowhereland, do we?

Plane was parked in the middle of the field. It’s a Bombardier DH8. Annoying as this is what I flew to Toronto for 6 months. Was hoping for something more unique.

ANA fleet page from fhe inflight magazine. Funny what they compare the planes to. As if whales fly.

The landing should have sent a thousand warning flags in my head that this is not a warm place. I was completely underdressed (because I landed in Osaka first, and it was like +20C there), and this is what I saw coming in:

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Basically, it looked REALLY. FKN. COLD.

And then we landed in ridiculous crosswinds, though the pilot did a very smooth landing (and oddly, the pilot was a foreigner, as well – that’s very unusual). Props to him. The ANA welcome crew was bowing, seemingly in deference to my idiocy.

The funny thing was that the FA announced, “please be careful when exiting the aircraft. The crosswind is VERY STRONG.” I was like “yeah yeah stop exaggera…….. AOHFLDKJS’SLDKGLDYSJKDHLJSK” and I literally was almost swept away. I don’t think I’ve ever seen wind like this (also, it was COLD).

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I ran to the terminal and came to the baggage belt, where there really weren’t a lot of bags.

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And now, it was time to head to the actual hotel. I was looking forward to it – arguing with Japanese front desk staff in the middle of an empty city where the temperature is minus 12345 degrees, and where my (only) return flight is in 4 hours, was going to be fun! Also pulling teeth.

Anyway, to get to the city, I took the bus (as in, there’s only one bus that goes to the city and it’s synced with the flight, as in, the only flight that comes in).

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The ride in was very long and very grey. There was nothing going on outside. The only exciting thing that happened, is when the bus got to the terminus – it turned out the hotel was about 1.5 kms away from the terminus across completely flat open land. Did I mention I was wearing summer clothing? Gargh.

Arrived at the lobby. Somewhat expectedly, it was totally and completely empty.

The front desk was manned by a single girl looking busy. I mentally prepared myself for a fight, got ready and walked up. “Checking in,” I said. She took my passport and asked me to fill in the guest checkin sheet. I suddenly realised I didn’t think she spoke Japanese. “Hmm, even here they’re hiring Chinese foreign workers,” thought I. I tried English but realised she didn’t really speak it either. While she was photocopying the passport, I filled in the sheet and when she came back, I tried my Japanese again. “I think there’s a problem with my rate,” I said. “I have two reservations – and one had the rate raised, while the other one is fine”. She said, “oh? what do you think the correct rate should be?”, to which I obviously replied, “¥700 ($7)”. She walked away to the back office, and I realised two things: 1) she looked like she might be having a heart attack back there, and 2) she spoke perfectly fine Japanese – but with such a deep Hokkaido accent, that I was literally having trouble understanding her.

After a while, she came back and gave me my own heart attack. “No problem,” she says. “Sorry for the trouble. Indeed, ¥700 is the right rate. We will just ask you to prepay until the end of November if you don’t mind. December can be paid later.” I said okay fine, but I want to pay the whole amount. This did not register. “Why,” she says, “what if your plans change and you must leave early or something? Just pay the November amount.” to which I replied “I don’t think you understand. I need the status nights. I’m not even planning to be here most of the time. Just charge me.”

She looked completely confused but took my money and wrote me a receipt, which is what I was looking for. Woohoo! 45 qualifying nights incoming. Unless they check me out early, which would be pretty hilarious. I guess I will have to keep an eye on my checkout and checkin history.

I got the room keys. Certainly no Platinum treatment here: I booked a smoking double bed room (which is what the mistake rate was on) and that’s EXACTLY what I got: a stinking smoking floor and a smoking room. But hey! $260 gets me 45 qualifying nights (!!!). It’s a little bit hard to argue with that. I decided to at least check out the room.

The view was exactly as bland from the hotel as it was from the city itself. At least it was warmer in the hotel.

Here’s a bed where I won’t be sleeping.

Dat sea. I should go for a swim or something.

So at this point, considering how smooth the entire transaction went, I suddenly found myself with an unexpected four hours or so of nothing-to-doing. I figured I should go for a walk or something, so I left my bag on the desk (this was a very dumb thing to do as you’ll find out later) and went for a walk, snapping pictures of this city that I wound up in for such a random reason, and where I am about as likely to come back as a Martian to Jupiter.

There is very little to actually do in Wakkanai. I think in summer it might not be a bad place, and the hundreds of available rental cars (and three rental companies, and branches both at the airport and downtown) seem to attest to that. But in November? Nope.

First, I went to the post office to grab some cash. That was a successful event as I wasn’t able to do it in Osaka because the ATMs are closed after 5pm. Yeah, that hasn’t changed since 2001, the first time I was here. Then I went around to take random pictures.

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Heh. “Dormy Inn”.

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Economy, I think, depends entirely on Russians exporting cars, and obviously that’s gone down the drain with the Russian economy.

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Mostly the streets are exactly the same as in the rest of Japan, though.

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The ferry / port terminal, where Russians were exporting cars to feed the post-Soviet thirst for vehicles that were shaped as something other than a box.

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How do I know that? Look at all the Russian signage!

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Even store descriptions have Russian on them.

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And you know. I’m sure there are many Russian tourists, so we must make them feel at home with matryoshkas!

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Then I decided to go to the #1 rated restaurant in Wakkanai – “Pechka”.

Sadly, it ended up being closed. I took a taxi to get there, though, and had an interesting chat with my taxi driver. One thing I wanted to see here was the northernmost point of Japan – Soya Misaki (I mean hell, I made it all the way here, right?!). Annoyingly, it turned out to be 35 KMs away, which was an entirely unplanned event. But the friendly taxi driver explained the bus routes and told me to look into buses to see if I can make it there still.

So I went to a random restaurant and placed my order. It was 12:55 and I suddenly realised that a bus was departing from the main train station at 13:20 which would get me to Soya Misaki at 14:10, then I can take the 14:40 bus back to the train station that gets in at 15:40 which connects to the 16:10 bus to the airport for my flight. But remember I left my backpack at the hotel? Smart!!!!!!!! Google said12 minutes from the restaurant to the hotel, which means I had a total of 25 minutes to eat, run to the hotel, and run back to the damn bus stop.

Obviously food became low priority at this point, so I ran. FAST. First to the cash, where I told the guy I have a bus to catch and I want to pay my lunch despite not actually getting anything other than a beer. In a typically Japanese fashion, he refused money for “goods not delivered” and just charged me for the beer. I didn’t have time to argue so I paid and ran. Like I never ran before. I forgot it was windy and cold. I needed to make this stupid damn bus because when the hell is the next time I’ll get here? Wild guess – probably never. Unless they have another mistake rate. Hopefully in summer this time. (oh how prophetic these words were, in retrospect… but that story is for another time).

The shocking thing is I made it. I thought I would simultaneously die and … die, but I stormed into the hotel, ran to the room, packed my junk and made it to the bus with 2 minutes to spare. At this point it wasn’t just windy – it was freaking *snowing*. But I made the bus! I was now on the way to Soya Misaki. I did not know what to expect – what sort of place it would be. More than anything, I hoped it would be more than a rock in the middle of nowhere, or something, and that there would be food and shelter there, because looking outside, it crossed my mind that I didn’t really want to stand outside considering I couldn’t even tell whether it was raining or snowing outside (actually, both).

As I stared out the rainsnow-covered window, I was reflecting on my life (a grey November day in the middle of f’n nowhere does that to you).

“I don’t really know why I do these things. No idea why I go to these bizarre places that nobody really goes to. Why not Monaco or something? Or worst case, Ibiza? Somewhere warm and comfy? Ah well. I enjoy these a lot more since nobody’s been here and it’s a cool story now.” (once again, prophetic words – I thought by now it was a cool story, but do read on…)

So I made it to the northernmost point in Japan. Wikitravel summarises this very succinctly: “Sōya Misaki, about 30 km (19 mi) northeast of Wakkanai across the Soya Bay, is the northernmost point of Hokkaido, and aside from a small inaccessible and uninhabited island it is also the northernmost point of Japan. Naturally the Japanese have gone out of their way to commemorate this fact with the largely uninspiring Northernmost Point Monument, a gray concrete triangle engraved with accomplishments.”

When the bus arrived and opened its doors, I had exactly two options: panic, or run like hell (because the weather was conducive to either reaction). Panicking seemed like a poor choice of action, so I ran instead. The wind, snow and rain hit me right in the face, and the only place I could see that seemed even remotely protective had the comforting words, “LAVATORY”, written on them. This wasn’t the tourist centre I was hoping to find, but this would do while I got my bearings. Also, the only way to get back out of here was to take the same bus – which was coming back in 20 minutes. There were no taxis or other buses. I was alone, in LAVATORY.

I waited for a while and realised the weather wasn’t going to get any better. I decided to check out the nearby shop. That’s a decimal on that thermometer, incidentally.

Yeah, that’s 1 degree, but it felt like -700 because of the rain and snow. The sign says “sorry but we’re closed 6-7-8-9”. But today is the 3rd!!!!!! Argh!!!!!!!

Lacking a place to hide, I rapidly retreated back to the relative comfort of LAVATORY. I was getting used to the place. I discovered it had stained glass ceilings.

I waited another while, but no respite came. So I *ran* to the damn monument and started shooting pictures of everything I could see.

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At this point I lost any hope of doing anything else so I just retreated to LAVATORY to wait for my bus, which was coming in 20 minutes. A tour bus came with a bunch of people who suffered extensively to take a picture of themselves in front of the grey triangle. I feebly asked the driver if they’d take me back to the city, but he grumpily refused.

I don’t think that man on the left will be reusing that umbrella.

I retreated to LAVATORY again and the tour bus people came too. I guess they must have thought it pretty weird that a foreigner was camping in the toilet, but I seriously couldn’t give two shits about what they thought at this point – I bonded with LAVATORY, it was mine, I loved the stained glass ceiling, and also I just wanted to get on my bus.

Eventually the bus came, I ran across all roads to catch it, and off I went back to the train station.

At the train station, I changed buses (the whole thing was supremely illogical, because the bus I was on actually passed the airport, but wouldn’t let me off because those aren’t the rules!) and went to the airport. My adventure in Wakkanai was coming to an end, and it was well damn time, since it was freezing cold, I got my 45 nights and my business was done here.

I got to the airport, checked in and went to wait in the terminal. No lounge anywhere to be found, of course, and there were four optimistic gates to board from, though obviously only one was ever really used.

ANA announced a delay of the inbound flight, which, grew faster than Pinocchio’s nose when talking about extramarital affairs. 20 minutes, 40, an hour, and suddenly bam. “Inbound flight hit by lightning on approach, so they are abandoning the approach and diverting to another airport.” Maybe I shouldn’t have been so damn prophetic on my adventure being “over”.

I chatted about my options with the agent. I could stay the night (in my smoky $7 room) and take next day’s flight; but the earliest I could get to Tokyo would be 3pm, and I was you know, supposed to be at work. The other option? Ready for it? The 23:00 night bus that got into Sapporo at 5am, take a train to the airport, take the 7am flight, in Tokyo by 8.30, get to work by 9.30. This didn’t seem like the ideal option, but I didn’t exactly have any other options, so off I went back to the bus station, with which I was becoming almost as friendly as LAVATORY from before.

Considering it was barely 6pm at this point, and I had a good five hours to waste, I went around taking pictures of the bus/train station/souvenir shop/movie theatre (!), all in one convenient place.

 

 

By 9pm I was desperately out of stuff to do.

By the time 23:00 rolled around, I was going completely batshit insane, since there was absolutely and totally nothing to do anywhere. Everything was closed, nobody was awake back home yet, I ran out of stuff to read and watch, and I was literally counting ceramic tiles on the ceiling at this point. But finally, the bus came.

The last time I used a night bus, from Osaka to Tokyo, was in December 2001 – I remember the date vividly. The seats didn’t recline and we stopped at some road gas station for bathroom breaks. I slept against the window, and when I arrived to Tokyo, I immediately tore up the return – didn’t even bother to try to get a refund – and bought my return on the bullet train.  So I was understandably apprehensive about this bus.

But this was not my experience today. Maybe partially because I was exhausted from all the antics, or maybe because the bus was just not bad – the seats reclined around 160 degrees, far more than Air Canada domestic business class – but I ended up sleeping most of the way. Hell, there were a bunch of old snoring men on the bus (in fact, not a single woman, for some reason), and besides dreaming of shaking all of them to stop snoring, I didn’t even mind all that much.

Here’s my bus at Sapporo at 5:30am:

The JR Hokkaido train station:

Something I’ve never seen: ticket gates are closed until 5:40am!

So that’s pretty much my Wakkanai trip. Since this was quite some time ago, I can tell you that the status nights did post correctly – I did earn 45 nights from it – and I do keep a fond memory of this trip as something wild that I did for status that wasn’t the first (or the last) time I wound up somewhere unusual. It made for a great story, and although I hope to never go back again in November, I hope to get a chance to check out Wakkanai (and more importantly, Rebun and Rishiri – two nearby islands with very unique flora that basically only grows in July, since that’s the only month that the weather does not suck).