Friday, June 13, 2014

Wakaru Wakkanai: Understanding my journey to the northern tip of Japan

A view from the top: Wakkanai, Japan
I made my decision to go to Wakkanai with little more purpose one has when throwing darts at a globe and watching where they land.

I was using Google Maps to look at Japan. For no real reason I wondered what was at the very most northern part of the country. I zoomed in on Hokkaido, the largest and most northern of Japan’s four main islands. I zoomed in on its peak. Tracing the road lines for signs of civilization, I found the city at its most northern coast.


Through the internet I could see a few imagines of the town, mostly bird’s eye view from above. A small collection of colorful building against a great expanse of ocean. I learned that it was a fishing village. I saw pictures of the Wakkanai Dome, a strange building with Roman columns and an incomplete look to it.

The town derived its name from the  Ainu word "Yam Wakka Nai" which means "swamp of cold drinking water". When said aloud “wakkanai” sounds like “I don’t understand” in Japanese ("wakaru" means "to understand"). This is the source of many puns.  In addition, the kanji selected for the name (稚内) is also totally unrelated to its meaning, with 稚 meaning an archaic character for “youth” and meaning “inside, within.” It seems that these characters were selected for their phonetic sound, rather than meaning. 

The average annual temperature of Wakkanai is about 7 ℃ which is very, very cold.
Wakkanai was founded as a village in 1900, then achieved “town” status in 1901. By 1949, its population had increased and it became a city. However, in the last few decades there has been an exodus of working-aged people from Wakkanai into larger cities in Hokkaido. The population has been decreasing dramatically every year.

As of April 30, 2014, (the day before I arrived), there are 36,670 people currently residing in Wakkanai.

From what I gathered on the internet, it looked like there was nothing to do in Wakkanai.

It looked incredibly cold.

I fell in love.

I immediately began fantasizing about my trip there. I would go alone, of course, because I wanted to internalize the cold and the isolation of the town. Traveling with a companion would have been distracting. If there was nothing to do I would stay in the hotel and write. I would walk to the Dome. I would gaze out at the cold sea. 

I wanted to be able to say that I visited the most northern city in Japan and that I did it alone like a heroine in a sad love song.

Although I had fantasizes of visiting in the winter, when the ground would be covered with snow, I ultimately decided that it would have been very impractical. Not only did I have a hard time getting out of my own village in the winter (due to road closures) but there was a high chance that flights would be delayed, and that many things would not be open during that season. I settled on early May, during Japan’s golden week, when most of the country if off for a week of back-to-back national holidays.

I did very little research before planning my trip, not that there was much research to do. Very little information was available in English, and nearly all of it told me not to go to Wakkanai. Blogs of my fellow English-speaking travelers before me were hardly flattering to Wakkanai. From their accounted, it seemed like a boring and disappointing place.

So I started searching in Japanese, and came across this person’s account
Thanks to the thorough blogging of my predecessor, I created a detailed itinerary and budget for the trip. It would not be cheap. Train tickets form Sapporo station are over $100 USD one-way, and the ride is 5 hours. I also splurged on the Dormy Inn, one of the nicest  hotels in the city.I gave myself a day and a half. I would arrive  Wednesday afternoon by train, and depart Friday morning.

Tickets bought, hotel booked, I was ready for an adventure. 

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