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July 5, 2016 - Hokkaido Day 4 - Obihiro Butadon and the Kushiro Norokko Train
On this day, I bade farewell to Sapporo to explore the wilderness of Eastern Hokkaido, making use of the last day of my Hokkaido 3-Day Rail Pass.
My final destination of the day was Shiretoko. But instead of going there directly by the Okhotsk Limited Express service, I thought of making the journey a bit more interesting by taking the southern route, passing by Obihiro for some Butadon and ride the Kushiro Norokko train to check out the Kushiro Marshlands before finishing the long train journey at Shiretoko-Shari.
However, this was not my original plan as I actually wanted to visit Lake Mashu in the first place. The Kushiro Norokko trains messed up the train schedules and there was no way I could make it for one of the two bus services bound for Lake Mashu from Mashu station all the way from Sapporo.
A few days before the trip, I chanced upon a Twinkle tour that includes Lake Mashu, At first, it seemed that the opportunity of visiting one of the clearest lakes in the world had come. But examining the webpage closely there was a disclaimer stating that reservation has to be done at the Twinkle Plaza 3 days or more before the intended trip! I don't understand the rationale behind this policy and why online reservations are not made available!
Sadly, this means that my dream of taking lots of pictures of Lake Mashu has been crushed.
Anyway, it was time to board the Super Tokachi to Obihiro for some Butadon to comfort my wounded soul.
After 2 hours I have finally arrived in Obihiro, not known for any tourist spots in particular but famous among the locals for its B-gourmet dish Butadon, or in plain English, barbecued pork rice bowl. There are several restaurants serving Butadon and my pick was Butahage, a popular stop for passengers dropping by for some porky goodness conveniently located in the shopping mall connected to the station itself. Butahage opens at 10am in the morning, making this a perfect stop for some delicious brunch before boarding the next train to Kushiro at 11.30am.
The Butadon at Butahage was indeed delicious. The pork was well charred, well seasoned with the rich flavor of tare sauce and tender to the point that it almost melted in my mouth. It was a nice change from all that seafood I kept having two days before.
Next it was time to board the 11.30am Super Ozora service to Kushiro.
Another 2-hour train journey has ended and I've finally arrived at my second stop of the day in Kushiro, just in time to board the second and last Kushiro Norokko service.
I have planned to make a stop at Kushiro Shitsugen station to check out the view of the Kushiro Marshlands from the Hosooka Viewing Platform. In order to enjoy the full extent of the Norokko train, I've booked two rides on the train - Kushiro to Toro (where the Norokko train ends) and then Toro to Kushiro Shitsugen.
Now this is how you make good use of the Hokkaido Rail Pass.
There was guided commentary provided on the train. As the train entered the Kushiro Marshlands, the female guide began explaining about the Kushiro Marshlands, the sheer size of it being the largest marshland in Japan, the abundance of animals, the cranes et cetera. At first, I thought the commentary was going to be conducted only in Japanese, but I was surprised when I heard the lady repeating the same commentary in Mandarin (although a bit broken)!
After 40 minutes departing from Kushiro, the Norokko train finally arrived at Toro station, where the train will be parked for 30 minutes before heading back to Kushiro. It seemed that there were plenty of tourists waiting for the Norokko train at Toro station.
Unlike the trip to Toro where the train was empty enough for me and other passengers to move around to take pictures, the train back to Kushiro was almost full. It was at this time that I realized why the Mandarin commentary was provided on board - Chinese tour groups!
I bade the Norokko train goodbye as I got off at Kushiro Shitsugen to check out the view of the marshlands at the Hosooka Viewing Platform. From the station, it took only about 15 minutes to get to the platform and the trail was well marked. There was actually a smaller platform that I mistaken at first as the Hosooka platform but there were arrows nearby pointing me to the correct place.
After killing some time looking at souvenirs and a documentary of Japanese cranes at the Hosooka visitor center on the way back from the platform, I headed back to the station and waited about 15 minutes for the next train bound for Abashiri, where I'll be making my final stop of the day at Shiretoko-Shari.
The ride on the one-man coach plying the quiet Senmo line had to be the most discomforting Japanese train ride I've ever experienced. At most times, the train was almost empty, and the recording of the station announcement was so soft that I had to be careful not to miss my stop.
Fortunately I had found good company with a Japanese traveller from Saitama whom I made friends with while waiting for the train together at Kushiro Shitsugen. This fellow, a rail enthusiast in fact, has been to Hokkaido for more than 50 times and for this trip he only paid 777 yen for a budget airline flight from Narita to Shin Chitose! I learned from him that the Senmo line was voted as one of the top five most beautiful lines in Japan, that the cranes can be seen from Kayanuma station in winter and the train that we were on had a double window system to keep the interior warm not seen anywhere else. However, I also learned that JR Hokkaido has horrible plans to scrap the line due to low ridership. We were later joined by a girl from Tokyo who had been sleeping in the train until she woke up when the train was waiting for the opposite train to pass by at Midori station. Coincidentally, the girl was originally a Saitama native.
Our lively conversation was unfortunately cut short when the train has finally arrived at my stop, Shiretoko-Shari. I bade farewell to my new friends as I got off the train and stepped into the quiet town known only to be a transit point to Utoro and Shiretoko National Park. It is here that I've planned to spend the night at the nearby Daiichi Hotel and in the next morning I'll be boarding the first bus out to Shiretoko National Park.
All in all, it was a fun way to reach Shiretoko by taking the longer route and making some interesting stops in between. I've done enough homework to know that there's not much point going to Shiretoko directly from Sapporo as once you're there there's not much time for any of the cruises and treks. However, I remembered back at the Hosooka Platform, Lake Mashu was mentioned by one of the visitors and it stung me that I had to forgo Lake Mashu on this trip.
It was also disappointing not to see any animals at all at the Kushiro Marshlands as the JR website advertised that deer could be seen right next to the train tracks. I guess that news of the horrible death of their kin being run over by a speeding Super Hokuto train near Noboribetsu on the day before had been disseminated all across the land, advising all deer-folk to stay away from the tracks.
Or perhaps not, because in the hotel I got an email from the Saitama rail enthusiast I've met earlier that the train he was on at that time bound for Kitami collided into a deer as well.
More photos can be found at my Flickr page at